Sunday, July 23, 2017

It's as clear as mud

Matthew 13: 44-52

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Before we begin, I want to warn those of you who follow the lectionary and anyone who maybe already heard one sermon today, that because of some scheduling weirdnesses I have switched the readings for this week and next week.  So come back next week for the parable of the seeds.   And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  

I have a question for the teachers.  And the parents, who are also teachers, after all.  Does it ever happen that you explain a fairly complex concept to your students (or your child), ask them if they understood, and get lots of head nodding to go with the glazed over expressions on their faces?   I know I do that sometimes, mostly to get the explanation over with.  Like when one of my geek friends starts speaking computerese in great detail.  I can sort of follow, but not well enough to really get what they are saying.  So I nod sagely and hope they will be finished soon.  If I know them really well I might confess that I understand all the words they are using, but can’t follow the order in which they are arranged.  

So, Jesus tells some parables and asks his audience, “Have you understood this?”  And they all say “Yes.”  As I read through them I wondered what Jesus’ reaction would be if I put my hand up and said, “Um, no, not really.”   I mean, I can guess at what they mean and speak to meanings that sound right to me.  But what Jesus meant by them is not necessarily something I can say “yes” to without doing some serious study.  What they would have meant to a person living 20 centuries ago may not be anything like what we understand them to mean.  So, I turn to theologians to see what on earth Jesus was talking about.  (Specifically, I will be referring to Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3, edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, pp 284-288) 

Because Jesus was absolutely talking about earthly stuff.  The kingdom of heaven is a phrase Jesus used to describe living in God’s will here and now, not a place where we hope to end up later.  

Both the parables of the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great price are about merchants. The first thing we need to know is that in Jesus’ time merchants were regarded with about as much respect as we traditionally give to used car salesmen.  The first one found a treasure in a field, and sold off all his other possessions in order to buy that one field.   We do have to ask ourselves what he was doing digging around in someone else’s field . . .and why he kept the finding of the treasure a secret from the person whose field it was.  Not especially honest, but definitely in keeping with the 1st century opinion of merchants in general.   The second merchant sold off all he owned in order to possess one, perfect pearl.  His actions were not dishonest, but certainly not at all merchant-like, as he now has nothing to sell, so he is effectively out of business.   As is the first merchant, who has sold everything he had in order to obtain the treasure he found.  These two merchants have behaved in a manner contrary to the ways of the world, in which profit is more important than anything.  To them, the treasure they have found is worth more than everything else they might possess, so they have given up everything, even their means of making a living, possibly even their homes and families, in order to possess that thing.  

To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live differently than what is expected of people living in the Roman empire.  It is to break with convention, as these two merchants have done.  

Another parable.  The kingdom of heaven is like a net cast wide, which catches everything.  Today’s net fishermen do the very same thing the ancient fishermen did - they separate what they can sell from everything else.  Some of what is left they use for bait, some they take home for their families to eat, some they just toss out of the boat so other fish can eat it.   Jesus says that at the end of days, this separation of good and bad will be done by the angels, with the evil being thrown into the fire.  The prophets speak of the end times as a time when a fire like that of a refiner will cleanse the evil from God’s people, as does the Book of Revelation.  (Both of which are subjects for another time.)  The point Jesus makes in this parable, according to the theologians I read, is that judgment is not our job, but the job of those angels appointed by God to make those decisions at the end of days.   This is a concept familiar to us from Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  Hard to do, not judging.  Another thing that is opposite of what society expects.  Pretty much everything Jesus directs us to do is the opposite of what society expects.

As an example of the difference between what is expected or normal in our society and what is not. . . The TV show Survivor puts people in difficult environments, in usually very primitive conditions, in which they will compete with each other to win a large amount of money.  Unlike a race or sporting event where skill is a major determining factor in winning, this competition typically rewards the most devious and underhanded of the contestants.   This program and its predecessor Big Brother have spawned a plethora of other “reality” shows, which show humanity at its worst.  Another “reality” type program, which sadly didn’t last long, was “Who wants to be a Superhero?”.  Stan Lee, publisher of Marvel Comics, produced this program which expected people to be the very best people they could be.  In one episode the contestants were told they must complete a task in a certain amount of time in order to stay in the competition.  On their way to the finish line each of them passed a crying child.  Anyone who continued past that child without stopping to help was dropped, because according to Stan Lee, no superhero would ever put winning a contest ahead of helping a crying child.   You cannot imagine the shock on the faces of those who finished the race in time, but passed by that child.  This is so opposite to what society expects that I can’t help but see it as an example - a parable, if you will - of the kingdom of heaven.   The fact that Survivor has lasted 34 seasons to date (17 years!) and Who Wants To Be A Superhero lasted only 2 seasons is, I think, a rather sad commentary.  

And Jesus says, “Do you understand?”  Receiving a yes - and maybe now I can also say yes - he goes on to say that those who are scribes (students) trained for the kingdom of heaven are like those who value both their old and their new treasures.  The old is the Law and the Prophets, and the new is the teaching Jesus brings, which builds upon the old.   There are those who believe that only the New Testament is necessary for Christians to study, but seriously, doing that is like trying to understand calculus without first mastering basic arithmetic and algebra.  

You know, I used to think that these parables were all about the treasure and the pearl - that it was their value that was being likened to the kingdom of God. That was easy.  Faith is like a pearl or a treasure - it is something more precious than anything else we might have!  That would be easy to preach.  It wouldn’t have  occurred to me that it was what the merchants did to obtain those things - behaving in a way completely contrary to social expectation - that was the kingdom.   I used to think that the description of what the angels were doing was about heaven and hell.  I didn't realize that this parable is really Jesus warning us against a very common behavior - judging others - that we are to avoid.   And frankly, the discussion of old and new treasures simply confused me, until I learned that Jesus was speaking of old and new knowledge.  

Behaving in a manner opposite to the expectation of the society in which we live is incredibly difficult.  Doing the right thing may seem counter-intuitive, like stopping to comfort a crying child in the middle of a timed race.   

Another example is something I experienced just this past week.  I spent part of the week at Camp Tamarack, which is staffed entirely by volunteers.  So in a modern parable, the kingdom of heaven is a young married man who had no vacation time and took a week off work anyway to sleep in a tents and shower in an unheated bathroom and work with the children he’d never met, some of whom have developmental challenges.  And spend his own money to design and buy materials for a solar oven so he could teach them science-y stuff.  That just doesn’t make sense to most people.  Likewise, the kingdom of heaven is the 50+ woman who walked away from her one-woman business for two weeks to work without pay, standing on her feet from 6 am until past 8 pm, cooking for 30 or more people.   May we all find ways to live in the kingdom of heaven, to behave in a way society doesn't understand.

We have some people going to Camp Tamarack this week.  Jessica and Michael are going as counselors - they will have left yesterday.  Several of our youth are going as campers.  Could you come forward please, so we can bless you on your way?  

Commissioning of Campers
WE of the congregation want those of you going to camp to grow in your faith as Jesus grew in his faith.
We hope that you will grow in the spirit of God and bear fruit that reflects the kingdom of heaven.
We want you to learn the lessons of nature that Jesus taught.
We remember the contributions of the individuals who make the camp and conference program possible; the time, the imagination and the money that comes from people in this and other congregations. 
We hope your experience at camp will go well.  Hold us in your prayers as we will hold you in our prayers.
May your time at camp be fruitful and fun and spirit filled, from the first day until the last.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Romans 6:12-18, 20-25
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Message begins with video of Richie Havens singing "Freedom/Motherless Child"

I spent the summer after high school graduation in a town on the Jersey Shore.   I had seen posters around town for a 3-day music and arts festival, and I would have liked to go but I didn’t have the $12 admission fee, or any way to get to upstate New York where the event was being held.   By the evening of the first day of the event, the tv news was beginning to tell the story of an unprecedented event - a folk rock festival that had attracted so many people the traffic closed the New York State Thruway!  On August 13, 1969, 400,000 people descended on Max Yazgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York and created an event that has never been successfully repeated.  The music was supposed to start at a certain time, but the artists were being held up by the traffic jams.  Richie Havens was finally convinced to go on stage without his back up band, just him and his guitar.  The band members joined him on stage as they arrived.  Almost 3 hours later, he had run out of things to play but the crowd wouldn’t let him leave the stage.  So he improvised, and wrote a new song on the spot, building it around the well known spiritual, “Motherless Child”.   That song, “Freedom”, became an anthem to the Woodstock generation  - which is not an actual thing with dates and such.  It’s more like a cultural sub-group of the Baby Boomers.  

The freedom of the Woodstock generation was not the kind of freedom that Paul speaks of in his letter to the churches in Rome.   We saw it as freedom from rules, freedom from doing things the way our parents and their parents and their parents all the way back to the Dark Ages had done things.  We saw it as freedom from the restrictions of social mores and freedom to do things the way we wanted to.  There were new art forms and new musical forms and new fashions and new attitudes.   “If it feels good, do it!” we said.  We wanted to tear down the establishment and make something entirely new.  We didn’t know what we wanted to replace the establishment with, but we knew we wanted to be rid of it.   We rejected religion as we knew it and went seeking spirituality in different ways.  We were Jesus Freaks and Hari Krishnas and New Agers and Spiritual Not Religious.  We thought everything old was bad, and everything new was good.   And this, Freedom, was our song.  It resonated so strongly because we really did feel like motherless children, like rudderless boats, alone, a long way from home.   We embraced our freedom to be ourselves, and our freedom imprisoned us.  

In a way, the freedom of the Woodstock generation was one of the kinds of freedom Paul speaks of - freedom from righteousness, which is to say, slavery to sin.   Some of us grew out of it rather quickly.  Some of us took longer, like 20 years or so.  Some haven’t yet.   But for those of us who did, eventually, find our way back into the light, as it were, we have discovered true freedom, the freedom that comes with God’s grace, and obedience to God’s desires. 

Paul’s question was deadly serious.  If we are no longer under the Law, does that mean we are free to sin?  To do anything we want to do?  No.  When adherence to the Law of Moses ceased to be a requirement for new Christians, this became an important conversation.  Just because you are not required to obey all the rules about diet and sacrifice and circumcision, to name a few, that  does not mean that you get to do whatever you like.  You may eat whatever you like, yes.  But you must share your food with those who have none, because that is how to love your neighbor.  You don’t have to make all the sacrifices listed in Torah, or go through all the cleansing rituals required after childbirth and after you are healed of skin ailments and so on, but you also don’t get to go participate in the rituals at pagan temples, no matter how much fun they might be.  You aren’t held to the rules about marriage and concubinage and divorce and such, but you are expected to behave with sexual morality, being faithful to your spouse, and not just sleeping around with whomever.   Just because the old laws are no longer binding on you, that doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you like.  Because now you must be obedient to God, and not to your own desires.   Now you must dedicate yourself to loving your neighbor, and that is a whole lot harder than just saying, “I love everybody!” and handing them a flower.  

Paul said, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.”  We did not understand what that meant, that the wages of sin is death.  We thought it meant literal death, and frankly, we liked what James Dean had said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.”    Some of us, like me, eventually learned that the death Paul speaks of is not death of the body, but death of the soul.  On the day that I realized there was nothing inside me anymore, that I was filled with emptiness, that my freedom had enslaved me to a life of pain and torment and emptiness, that is the day I decided to change my life.  Sometime later, after I had begun making the changes, I began to welcome God back into my life.  I became willing to submit my will to God’s will.  And that is when I began to be truly free, in the way Paul speaks of freedom.   I still love this “Freedom/Motherless Child” song, but today i understand freedom in a totally different way, and I no longer feel like a motherless child. 

On this Freedom and Democracy Sunday, when we are encouraged to mediate on the freedoms we have as persons living in the United States, let us also meditate on the freedoms we have as Christians, as people obedient to the will of God.  Let us celebrate God’s unfailing goodness, and forgiveness, and God’s great and awesome power.  Let us go out from this place celebrating our freedoms, both as citizens of this mighty nation, and as citizens of God’s kingdom on earth, loving all our neighbors as God loves us.