Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/31/14:
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-15:
  • "Here I am." These are three of the bravest words in the Bible, don't you think? And yet, so simple, such easy, uncomplicated words. Will we utter them? Dare to say such simple words to God?
  • "the place on which you are standing is holy ground" - What places in life have you come upon holy ground? What makes it holy? How do you act when you are on Holy Ground?
  • "Who am I that I should go out to Pharaoh?" Moses asks God. So much for his initial brave response ;) - who do you think is better equipped to judge your abilities - you or God? Do you question what God has called you to do? What would it take to convince you?
  • "I AM WHO I AM." Maybe the best name for God - the one God claims for God's self. We like to describe God, paint God into corners, but God into boxes with our theological language - but God says I AM WHO I AM.
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c:
  • This Psalm is appearing for the third time this summer - showing up in some variation three and five weeks ago. It has corresponded to some extent with the Old Testament lesson, though this week, it is less directly related.
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • "whose hearts he then turned to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants." I don't warm to the idea that God makes us hate, or hardens our heart, a theme in the Moses story we'll follow in the Old Testament. Why would God do that?
  •  45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Romans 12:9-21:
  • This is a great passage of little bits of advice that work together separately or together
  •  "Outdo one another in showing honor" - Wouldn't it be great if humans' competitive natures worked for good this way?
  • "do not claim to be wiser than you are" - great advice for pastors, theologians, and church-people in general.
  • "so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" - words for today. And it does depend on us.
  • The heart of this passage - the most words are spent on advising us to love our enemies, even at cost to ourselves.
Matthew 16:21-28:
  • Just before this, Peter had named Jesus as the Messiah. Now Jesus names Peter as Satan. What's happened here?
  • I think Peter has said the right words (earlier), but he doesn't yet understand what that means for Jesus, or doesn't want to believe it.
  • Choices. Jesus tells us we have to make some hard choices, big choices, life and death kind of choices. The way he phrases his questions, the answers should be obvious. But our actions suggest otherwise, don't they?
  • "who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man . . . " Lots of people have theories about this verse. I don't have a good theory. I think - it's not the point of the passage, and if we focus on that verse, it means we're not paying attention to all the meaty stuff before it.  

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Messiah," Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon 8/24/2014
Matthew 16:13-20


            Who do you say Jesus is? Today, we’re continuing on in the gospel of Matthew. Since last week’s text, when Jesus met with the Canaanite woman in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus healed more people, fed a crowd of 4000, plus women and children, again, with a small amount of food, and spent some time debating with Pharisees and Sadducees, who demand “signs” from heaven. Jesus says to them, in essence, “you’re smart enough to know that when the sky turns a certain color, it’s about to storm. How come you can’t read the signs of the times?” In other words, he’s already showing them all they need to know. Jesus also gets frustrated with the disciples when they still don’t seem to understand what’s he’s been doing either. They don’t seem to be able to connect what they’ve been witnessing with who Jesus is, with the significance of their experiences.
            Our text opens today with Jesus and the disciples arriving in the district of Caesarea Philippi. When he gets there, he asks them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” is title Jesus uses for himself in the gospels, and it sort of means “the person of persons.” Who are people saying I am, Jesus wonders? The disciples answer that some say he’s Elijah or John the Baptist, others says Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. Now, this doesn’t mean that they thought he was one of these people come back from the dead. Rather, the names they mention represent more what kind of role Jesus has come to play, to fulfill. Is he like a second Elijah, critiquing the religious leaders of the day? Like a Jeremiah, speaking of suffering to come? Like his cousin John? Some other prophet?
            Then Jesus is more specific, more direct: And you, who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answers “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responds by blessing Peter, and making a play on words with Peter’s name, which means literally, “rock,” naming Peter as a rock on which the future followers of Jesus will eventually be built. He speaks of the authority that Peter and the disciples will have. But, he tells them not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. Not yet, at least.
            Sometimes I think the passages of the scripture that are the trickiest for us to really understand are the ones that seem the easiest up front. I think we can read this passage and ask ourselves, well, Apple Valley, who do we say that Jesus is? And we might respond, “The Messiah, duh!” And then we’ll pat ourselves on the back for our excellent answer, and move on to the next passage. Only… What does that even mean? What does it mean to call Jesus Messiah? To say he’s the Christ? What do those labels mean? It doesn’t do us much good to call Jesus Messiah or to call him Christ, just because we know it’s the right answer, if we don’t know what we’re actually saying when we say it.
            Before we figure out what we mean when we say it, maybe we can figure out what Peter meant. The word messiah appears throughout the scriptures. It means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, anointed ones were those who were named as Kings of Israel or Judah. To be an anointed one, a messiah, meant to be the ruler of Israel, chosen, essentially, by God. You might be most familiar with the story of David’s anointing by the prophet Samuel. Samuel had previously anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. But Saul was no longer following God’s ways, so God told Samuel to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse, a sheepherder. David turns out to be a great military leader though, and eventually, he is able to replace Saul as king. Kings were anointed-ones. Messiahs, with a small m.
            In the gospels, as we’ll hear about again from time to time, we see that many of the crowds do indeed think Jesus is a messiah like this – a potential king, like King David was, who will be a great ruler of the Jews, who will conquer the occupying Romans, who will be a political and military great king. In fact, they want Jesus to be this kind of Messiah so much that they try to force him to become king, and more than once, he has to slip away from the eager crowds to avoid this. Eventually, when Jesus is about to be condemned to death, and he still refuses to take up a sword and fight back, some who wanted this kind of Messiah get pretty angry and turn on Jesus. What kind of Messiah lets himself get crucified?
            But Jesus has made it clear again and again that he’s not here to be this kind of leader. We’ve talked about the kingdom of God – the reign of God on earth that defies expectations and turns upside down the usual notions about power, and being first and best and strongest. Well, Jesus is the anointed one, the messiah, the King of this upside down realm of God: servant of all, humbling himself, putting himself last, washing feet, eating with sinners and the unclean and the people on the fringes, turning the other cheek, submitting to execution as a criminal. Jesus demonstrates real power through pouring his life out as an offering for others, and then, then, inviting us to do the same, as his followers. When Peter says, “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” Peter is agreeing to no less than this – that the true Messiah comes not to conquer and vanquish and beat others into submission, even the hated Romans. Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one, comes to serve, to heal, to love, and to give his life for others. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he’s not just saying Jesus is in charge. He’s embracing the whole kit and caboodle, the whole message. No wonder Jesus reacts with such words of affirmation for Peter. With passage after passage of the disciples missing the point, like we do, they finally seem to get it!
            Do we? I think we don’t have any trouble claiming Jesus as our Messiah. But I wonder exactly what we mean by it. What do we mean when we say Jesus is Christ? Rev. David Lose, a pastor whose sermons and notes I particularly like, suggests that we have to ask ourselves not just what words we say about Jesus as Messiah, but we must also ask ourselves what our lives say about Jesus being messiah. “Who do you say he is?,” Lose asks, “Not just say when repeating the Creed, but say with your lives; that is, with your relationships, your bank account, your time, your energy, and all the rest. Who do you really say Jesus is?”
            His question made me think of the book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? by Charles Monroe Sheldon, written in the late 1800s. You might be familiar with this work because it became very popular for a second time around when, in the 1990s, Sheldon’s great-grandson published a contemporary retelling of the book and “What Would Jesus Do?” became a popular phrase for bracelets and t-shirts. I read the original work when I was in high school, and it’s pretty powerful. In it, a pastor encounters a destitute man who he more or less brushes off. The man disrupts the Sunday worship service, calling the pastor and congregation out on their hypocrisy. He dies a few days later, and the pastor is deeply shaken. He vows, and urges his congregation, to try, as seriously as possible, to only do what they believe Jesus would do in any given situation for the year ahead. The story follows the transformation that occurs in peoples’ lives when they commit themselves fully to doing what they believe Jesus would do.
            I think this is what David Lose is wondering, challenging us to wonder about. We say we believe Jesus is Messiah. What do we mean by that, and how, then, do our very lives show that we believe Jesus is Messiah? It isn’t as easy as we might think, when it comes down to it, to put into words what we mean by this title for Jesus, but here’s what I think, with the benefit of crafting my sermon ahead of time: When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that he is the embodiment of God’s hope in the world, the embodiment of God’s love and grace and vision for the world. When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that I choose to offer my life to serve him, rather than money, or ambition, or status, or being well-liked, or being comfortable, or any number of other things I’m tempted to spend more time thinking about than about Jesus. When I say Jesus is Messiah, I mean that he’s the living in-the-flesh version of God’s reign that flips everything upside down into God’s right-side up, which is always on the side of the least, and most vulnerable, and on the fringes. That’s just a glimpse, an imperfect attempt at what it means for me to say Jesus is Messiah. But I think in that faulty attempt I still have plenty to work on. Does my life say all these things too? I’m working on that.
            Lose says that Jesus wants to know who we say he is not so that we can pass some test and get the answer “right,” but so that we can experience the transforming power of being rooted in the love and possibility that Jesus offers us. Imagine, if we lived in such a way that every part of our life, every bit of the way we lived, was a demonstration of what we believed. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Who do you say Jesus is? The Messiah? What does a life based on that claim look like? What do our lives, centered on that claim, look like? Let’s find out.

(David Lose’s comments can be found here: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/08/pentecost-11-a-who-do-you-say-i-am/)  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lectionary Notes for 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 16, Ordinary 21)

Readings for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 8/24/11:
Exodus 1:8-2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

Exodus 1:8-2:10:
  • "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph . . ." This is a great opening to explain how people once joined to Egypt under Joseph's protection because slaves of those same people - history was forgotten. We forget history, even today, even with all of our technology and archiving and ways to preserve - we forget what has happened, and act in ignorance.
  • Could you be like the midwives? I admire their bravery. Perhaps we think it would be easy to refuse to kill these newborns, but commanded by the King? They were disobeying orders from the highest level - that takes courage. 
Psalm 124:
  • "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side" - whose side is God on? Is God always on our side? Is God always on the winning side? We want God to be on our side, but we'd do better to seek to be on God's side of things...
  • this psalm is in thanks to God for escape from enemies. I've never had to literally flee from enemies, but I can relate, figuratively, to what the psalmist is feeling. From what dangerous persons/situations have you escaped by God's grace?
Romans 12:1-8:
  • "Do not be conformed to this world" - so many ways to take that, aren't there? We're called to be somehow different than others who have not known and embraced the grace that God offers all of us. What difference has God's grace made in your life? If your life is no different than anyone else's, what does that say?
  • Many gifts, one body of Christ. What is your gift? Are you using your gifts? How are you helping others find and use their gifts? Do you let others know how valuable their gifts are?
  • Not only are we members of the body of Christ, but we are "members one of another" - I've never noticed that phrase before. In Christ's body, I'm a member of you, and you are a member of me. Do we live like we believe that?
Matthew 16:13-20:
  • "Who do you say that I am?" When all is said and done, Jesus cares more about how each of us answers that question individually than he does about how others answer that question from our viewpoint. Who is he to you? What is your answer?
  • In a way, answering this question is the sign of mature faith. We can't let others answer for us, let others' answers stand as our own answers. We have to decide, we have to say it and claim it and live who Jesus is. It's powerful, answering for ourselves.
  • Jesus shows us the power of knowing in the power he gives to Peter. Why not tell others he was the Messiah? Perhaps it is because we all have to come to that answer on our own - we can't be told - we have to find our own answers. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Case in Point," Matthew 15:10-28

Sermon 8/17/2014
Matthew 15:10-28

Case in Point

          In our time together, as I’ve mentioned, you will no doubt hear a lot about my 7 year old nephew Sam (and my on-the-way niece, due next month!). Sam’s one of the great joys of my life, for sure. Sam is getting to be quite grown up. He and I have “fun day” outings together pretty regularly, and we often head to Destiny USA. We see a movie, or go mini-golfing there, or play in the arcade, and eat at Johnny Rockets, but we always hit the Carousel. Sam’s a little guy for his age, so I help him onto the horse of his choice, and then stand next to him while he rides the Carousel. At least, that’s what we did. The last time I took him to the Carousel, he let me ride with him the first time, but for the second time, he said to me, so sweetly, “Aunt Beth, why don’t you go stand down there so you can wave to me when I go by.” Sweet kid was trying to gently say, “Aunt Beth, I don’t need you to stand next to me anymore!” I actually felt myself tearing up a little bit, to hit this “milestone” of sorts. But as requested, I went and watched and waved from the sidelines. It made me nervous, though, to have him even that far away from me in a busy mall. I had to count for myself the number of seconds he was out of my sight on every go-around of the carousel. Six seconds. I could handle that, right?
I know I’m overprotective of Sam. I know my brother and sister-in-law want me to take good care of him, but they probably don’t realize the poor kid only gets to be out of my sight once I put him to bed when I babysit. I want to protect him from everything. I know, though, that since what I really want is for him to be happy and to enjoy life, I can’t protect him from everything, or I’ll still be standing next to him on the carousel when he’s sixteen. Somehow I don’t think that will go over so well. I know I’m not alone, though. Many of us remember childhoods where we were more free to go off and play by ourselves outside for hours on end, with our parents perhaps only vaguely knowing that we were in the neighborhood somewhere.
Are things really so much worse now, so much less safe? Are we smarter now than we were then? Safer? Or just more protective? It’s an interesting question, actually, that some of my pastors friends and I were discussing a few weeks ago. My friend Richelle read a news story about a playground in Wales called The Land. (1) It looks kind of like a junk yard. It’s meant to. There’s a lot of broken things there, dirty things, even a fire burning. There are some adult staff who hang out at The Land. But they only intervene in children’s play if absolutely necessary. So far, children have gotten some scraped knees, but otherwise fare pretty well. The author of the article had a hard time watching his five-year old son try some crazy things on this unique playground, but he was just fine. In the author’s research, he’s discovered that conditions in the world aren’t really more dangerous for children. Abductions, for example – our attention was captured by the abduction and return of two Amish girls this week. The number of abductions by strangers has stayed pretty stable over the years, actually. The only increase has been in abductions by family members, likely a result of increased custody issues when parental relationships end. And we’re more litigious. If a child gets hurt on a playground, someone will probably sue. But is the world more dangerous for children? It doesn’t seem so.
Believe it or not, I had all this on my mind as a read our gospel lesson for this week. Our reading from Matthew continues on a bit after our passage from last week. Last week we saw Jesus walk on water to meet the disciples as they crossed the sea of Galilee. And I mentioned that when they landed on shore, people came from all around to be healed by Jesus. Just before today’s passage opens Jesus is being questioned by some scribes and Pharisees. Scribes and Pharisees tend to get a bad rap as the bad guys of the Bible, because they spend so much time arguing with Jesus, and because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for them. But at their best, the scribes and Pharisees were those who tried to interpret the writings of the law of Moses and figure out how best to uphold the commandments handed down from generation to generation. They were the religious leaders of the day. In a church context, they would be the regular attenders, people who were on committees or teaching Sunday School or always showing up to help at events. Kind of like most of us. They had confronted Jesus, asking why he and his disciples didn’t uphold some of the rituals of cleanliness practices by the religious elders. Jesus responds to them saying, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake or your tradition? … For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God!” And then, finally, in that context, we get to today’s text:
Jesus calls the crowd together and says, “Listen: It isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes someone unclean, but what comes out of the mouth.” When the disciples are confused by this, he further clarifies: What goes in – like foods that would have been considered unclean, or things eaten without the benefit of special hand-washings or other cleanliness rituals – all that ends up in the sewer eventually, Jesus says bluntly. But what comes out of the mouth – what comes from our hearts – when evil intentions are in our hearts – that is what can truly make us unclean.
Immediately after this, Jesus travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon where he meets a Canaanite woman. This isn’t surprising – the region Jesus travels to – for no specific reason named in the scripture – would be where many Gentiles – non-Jews – lived. He could only expect to run into Canaanites and others that Jews would normally avoid. There was great animosity between different religious and ethnic groups, and Jesus’ actions could make him ritually unclean. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tortured by the presence of a demon in her life. Jesus says, “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” But she persists, “Lord, help me.” He says, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” And she persists even still, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” Jesus tells her her faith is great, and he’ll do as she wishes. And her daughter is healed instantly!
This passage is often hard to read. No matter how we twist it, it seems like Jesus compares this woman to a dog begging at a table, and like he’s really reluctant to extend healing to her child. But context, and what comes before and after a passage, is always so important in our understanding of the scripture. Jesus was just telling us that it is what is in our hearts, not the external stuff, that makes us clean or unclean, defiled or set right before God. And then he immediately goes to a place where he’s likely to encounter someone who every faithful Jew would consider unclean, defiled, outside of the limits of God’s grace and promises. And with a quick exchange, he extends grace and healing to her and says that her faith, the faith of a Canaanite woman, is great. What’s more, if you search the gospels for times where Jesus tells someone that their faith is great or their faith has made them well, the majority of these encounters are with a person who would be considered unclean in some way by the law. It’s a pattern. And it’s a pattern, and a specific scenario here that illustrates the case in the point: It’s the stuff inside, in our hearts, that makes us clean or unclean, not the stuff outside.
So what does that all mean for us? Believe it or not, all this is why I was thinking about playgrounds. The article I read said something like: if statistics show that things aren’t really anymore unsafe than they used to be for our children, we must conclude that we’ve let our fears conquer us. Between the 24-hour instant news cycle and viral sharing on social media and our litigious culture, we’ve become afraid, and we’ve let our fears overtake us. And so we make protection and safety major priorities. It’s really even part of our national ethos, isn’t it? Desiring safety above almost everything else.  
Sometimes, I think this is how we operate in the world as Christians, too. We’ve gotten confused about our purpose in the world, and we’ve somehow concluded that the best way to be “Good Christians” is to protect ourselves from bad influences, from the awful, crazy world around us. And so we spend our time trying to eliminate bad influences around us – especially the influence of people that might be bad influences – or we end up withdrawing from the world altogether. We isolate ourselves. We spend time with other Christians – which isn’t all bad, for sure – but when we only want to hang around with people who think like us and dress like us and behave like us and believe like us because it makes us feel safe and comfortable, we’re in a bit of trouble.
Jesus says our efforts are futile! It isn’t that external stuff that corrupts our souls! It’s what’s inside of us that has that potential! It’s what inside of us that needs tending and nurturing. And if Jesus says that loving God and loving one another is the best way to tend our souls, to make sure that what comes out from hearts is good, then protecting ourselves from the messiness of interacting with people who are different from us, who we don’t understand, who don’t live like we live – that’s the exact opposite of what Jesus wants for us. Jesus isn’t particularly interested in us playing it safe. That’s sure not the example he sets for us. Instead, he’s crossing boundaries and bending rules and breaking down walls and talking to the people on the fringes and reaching across cultures and traditions and religions and practices and saying: here, in the place you’ve least expected, is where I’ve found great faith. Ultimately, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so threatened by Jesus’ boundary-crossing, rule-breaking ways that they sought to put him to death. He threatened the safe, comfortable way of life they were trying to substitute for deep faith.  
This week, I encourage you to think about how much of your time each day you spend with people who are basically just like you. And how much of your time do you spend worrying about being safe and comfortable? How many people will you have conversations with in a typical week that are from a different faith tradition than you are? Or have a different color skin than you do? Or are from a different economic class? How many boundaries do you cross in a typical week? How safe is your playground? Jesus says we can work to surround ourselves with the most perfect, sterling, pristine conditions – and it will all just still be what’s on the outside. What’s in your heart? That’s what Jesus is interested in. Where have you found great faith? That’s what Jesus wants to know. Enough playing it safe. What’s in your heart?

(1) http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 15, Ordinary 20)

Readings for 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/17/14: 
Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Genesis 45:1-15:
  • This is a great story of forgiveness. Is it a story of redemption too? After all, though Joseph is quite moved to see his brothers, the only word we get about how they feel is "dismayed." OK, he did trick them over Benjamin and stealing, but they sold him into slavery and said he was dead! Overall, Joseph's forgiveness seems quite impressive, and it is never asked for by his brothers.
  • Anyway, I think that forgiving those we love the most, or we had expected the most form, is the hardest kind of forgiveness to give. But the most needed. What enables you to be ready to forgive, even when those you must forgive aren't ready to repent?
Psalm 133:
  • Short and sweet?! Check out Chris Haslam's notes on this Psalm. The image of Aaron's beard dripping with oil signifies total consecration to God.
  • Haslam also notes the connection between this Psalm and our Genesis text in that verse 1 here declares, "how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity."
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32:
  • "for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." That is a powerful verse. irrevocable=irreversible, can't be taken back, or taken away. That means that God does not un-gift us or un-call us. We are gifted, and we are called. We can wish we were not connected to God in this way. We can reject our gifts, ignore our call, but we can't get rid of them.
  • "so that [God] may be merciful to all." Paul's logic here is ... interesting. He suggests that God 'imprisons' us in disobedience so that God can show us mercy. I'm not sure I agree with Paul on his take of God's motivations. But I like his inclusive vision of God's mercy - it is for all.
  • Paul is interested in showing God's continued special relationship with Israel (the irrevocable relationship) at the same time as he wants to convince his Gentile audience that they can have a special relationship with God too.
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28:
  • What comes out of our mouths and not what goes in that defiles. We forget this one, even today. We may not follow kosher food laws today, but we are worried in different ways. Sometimes Christians want to shelter themselves from the 'evils' of the world, and especially from others judged unclean, instead of examining themselves for right hearts.
  • The second part of this text is one we have a harder time dealing with. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," and "he did not answer her at all." - These are hard sentences to construct in a way flattering to Jesus. I don't have good answers. I don't want to explain away Jesus' words by trying to translate the Greek differently. Was Jesus just joking with the woman? I don't see it. What I see is a woman who is as persistent as the widow Jesus tells a parable about elsewhere in the gospels, and she receives her reward. And what I see is a Jesus who is focused on the mission he sees: to the Jews - who lets his own vision be expanded. The woman shows him a way to spread more grace. 
  • Even with his resistance, we can be comforted that Jesus heard her out, despite his apparent skepticism: the disciples wanted to send her away, but Jesus heard her, and really listened, until he recognized great faith in one whom he did not expect to find it.


Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "If I Keep My Eyes on Jesus," Matthew 14:22-33

Sermon 8/10/14
Matthew 14:22-33

If I Keep My Eyes on Jesus…

            Have you ever heard the expression, “Whatever you do, don’t look down?” This is a picture of my brother Todd and his girlfriend Andrea on the Skydeck of the Willis Tower – once known as the Sears Tower – in Chicago. The view is pretty impressive, isn’t it? But if you’re afraid of heights, it might be a little much. Not long before their visit to the Skydeck, some other folks were visiting this attraction and standing on the Skydeck when they heard a loud cracking noise. Needless to say, they scurried off rather quickly. It turned out the cracking noise was from a crack in the protective plastic over the actual glass – the glass was never in danger of giving way. But I can imagine how unsettling it would be to hear the cracking as you are standing so far above the ground. “Whatever you do, don’t look down.” I hear this phrase often enough in movies, and of course, as soon as those words are uttered, the person to whom they’re said – looks down! They may have been doing just fine – conquering their fears, traversing some great height – but somehow, as soon as they look down – they’re paralyzed in fear. They aren’t any higher or more unsafe than they were before they looked – but somehow looking, realizing, makes it so much worse.
            I had this phrase in mind this week as I thought about our gospel text and about Peter, trying to walk on the water, stepping out of the boat and heading toward Jesus. Our gospel lesson from Matthew is a story that appears in some variation in all of the gospels – Jesus either calming the storm after having fallen asleep in the boat with the disciples, or Jesus walking on the water and inviting Peter to walk on the water as well, or a combination of similar events. Walking on water, calming the winds. In Matthew’s gospel, this story appears right after the story we know as the feeding of the five thousand. We read that immediately after the meal is finished, Jesus gets his disciples into a boat and sends them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he remains to dismiss the crowd, and to spend some time in prayer by himself. Immediately is always a word to pay attention to in the gospels. It tells us that things are connected. It’s important that these events unfold immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. They’re related in some way.
            After praying, Jesus looks out onto the lake and sees that the disciples are having a hard time navigating the windy weather. He begins to walk out onto the water towards them. The disciples see Jesus, and they think it is a ghost walking towards them. I’m not sure if this is because the storm makes it hard to see Jesus, or they are so thrown by his walking on water that they assume he must be a ghost, or what. But they see him, and are not calmed by his presence, but terrified. Note, it isn’t the wind that causes them to cry out in fear – after all, several of the disciples are fishermen, who are familiar with the sea. It isn’t the storm that causes them fear, but the sight of Jesus walking on the water that fills them with terror.
            Immediately, we read again, Jesus speaks to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Those are words we hear frequently in the scriptures – upwards of 80 times, more than a dozen of which are spoken by Jesus. Do not be afraid. Peter says to Jesus, boldly, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says to him simply, “Come.” And Peter does – he gets out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus. But then, it’s as if one of the disciples yells out to him, “Whatever you do Peter, don’t look down! Don’t pay attention to the fact that you are walking on the water in the middle of a huge storm!” Peter looks around him, and terror seizes him, and he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls. Immediately, Jesus reaches out and rescues Peter. He doesn’t praise Peter’s courage, but instead says, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” When they get into the boat, the storm stops, apparently an act of Jesus which causes those in the boat to worship him, saying, “Truly you are God’s son.” Just after this, after the passage we read today, the disciples and Jesus finish crossing the sea. People recognize Jesus right away, and people come from all around to be healed by his touch.
            I don’t know about you, but I’m always a little surprised, reading this text, by Jesus’ reaction to Peter. Ok, Peter got scared, and starting sinking. But he got out of the boat, right? I think that’s more than I’d be ready to do. Why is Jesus so hard on him? What does Jesus expect of us? So let’s zero in on what Peter says and does for a minute. He’s in the boat. He sees Jesus walking toward him. He thinks it might be a ghost, and is afraid, whether Jesus is too far away to see clearly, or the image of him on the water is just too shocking, we don’t know. But Jesus tells them, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” And Peter says, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you.” And Jesus says, “Come.” But here’s the thing. Peter and the other had just come from watching Jesus feed 5000 men plus women and children. And beyond that, so far, in Peter’s time with Jesus, he’s witnessed him cleanse a leper, heal people’s paralysis, cast out demons, still a storm – before this storm, restore the sight of the blind, restore speech to a mute person, and even raise a child from the dead. Peter has seen a lot. And his words here suggests he knows very well that this “ghost” is Jesus. He says to him, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out to you.” Every word that Peter says is infused with the knowledge that who he’s seeing is Jesus, and Jesus, his Lord and master, a person whose commands he will follow since he is a disciple, a student of this teacher, this Jesus is calling him to get out of the boat, to step out in faith. Peter knows already, as do the other disciples, that this is Jesus, son of God, the Christ, who he’s been following, and who he’s certainly talking to now, amazing as it is.
            Peter knows this. And yet, he sinks. And I think that’s what causes Jesus to say, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” Because Peter and the disciples know who Jesus is – and that is what fills them with fear – not the storm. It is knowing that the person they are following is exactly who they think he is – the messiah – that fills them with terror. And so, like the religious leaders of the day who are constantly asking Jesus to answer questions and prove himself to them, Jesus’ very own disciples are doing the same thing, in their own way. They’re seeking proof after proof, sign after sign that Jesus is the One. And then, then, when they’re convinced, they pledge, they’ll be all in. They’ll follow without hesitation. But they’ve had sign after sign after sign. How many more do they need?
            Here’s what I think: the disciples don’t need more signs. The signs are an excuse for inaction. The confirmation they seek that Jesus is really Jesus is an expression of fear. They’re not afraid that Jesus isn’t the right one to follow. They’re afraid that he is the one to follow. Because if they have to admit that they’re 100% sure that Jesus is the messiah, then they’ll have to be 100% committed to following him. And as much as they’ve seen Jesus’s miracles, they’ve also heard Jesus’ teachings. And so they know that committing to following Jesus doesn’t mean Jesus lets up on you. Goes easy on you. Focuses on getting others to commit instead. No, committing to following Jesus means that Jesus just keeps expecting more. Jesus wants it all. I think the disciples know that if they let go of their fear and just follow Jesus, he’ll keep asking more of them. To the point where Jesus says things like, “take up the cross and follow me.” And “if you want save your life you have to lose it.” And “the road is narrow.” And so if they admit they believe already, totally, they’ll have to move beyond looking for signs, and on to following the one they know to be God’s son. And so Peter tries ask for another proof: Lord, if it’s you… Who else would it be?! No wonder Jesus seems so exasperated that Peter sinks!
            Friends, we may be telling ourselves that we’re waiting to be more sure, to be more confident in our faith. We might say we need a sign, a proof, a burning bush, a storm to be stilled in our sight, and then, then, we’ll put our whole selves in to this discipleship thing. We’ll really follow Jesus 100%, when we’re 100% sure. But Jesus called Peter’s bluff. And eventually, though certainly after many more attempts at playing the, “if it’s you, Lord,” card, Peter committed his whole life. And I think Jesus is ready to call us out too. If you already know it’s me, then what are you waiting for? Step out of the boat already! What will it be? Do we need another sign to tell us what we already know? Or are we ready to step out on to the water? Whatever you do, keep your eyes on Jesus.


Monday, August 04, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 14, Ordinary 19)

Readings for 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/10/14:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28:
  • I have to say, I'm not surprised the brothers resented Joseph. Jacob clearly had favorites, even as he was his mother's favorite. Even in my own family, we tease and joke about all of us being my mother's favorite. But here the favoritism is real - how would you act knowing that your parent loved your sibling more than you?
  • "here comes this dreamer" - what a nickname, eh? They mean it as criticism, but it is actually what makes and saves and guides Joseph, isn't it? What if we had and embraced more dreamers in our church?
  • We get just bits of Joseph's whole story in the next two weeks, but it is a great story. If you've seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you've seen how fun it can be brought to life. Can you bring it to life somehow for your congregation?
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b:
  • Part of this selection is the same as from two weeks ago. I can never figure out what qualifies the repetition of one psalm over another in the RCL. Oh well...
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • Verses 16-22 tie back to the Old Testament lesson about Joseph. OK, I guess having this part today makes sense ;)!
  • 45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Romans 10:5-15:
  • "...confess with your lips", "believe in your heart" "you will be saved." This is an interesting passage, certainly one that supports the doctrine of sola fide, the idea that we are saved by faith alone (without works required.) It makes it sounds so simplistic - all we need to do to be 'saved' (read in Greek as: safety/health/safe) is say that Jesus is Lord. Simple, right? "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Is there depth in that faith? Indeed, this belief seems to be frequently uttered in more conservative denominations/non-denominational churches - a great emphasis on declaring Jesus as Lord and Savior. I'm not sure Paul is trying to give us anything so simplistic here...
  • ...because the rest of Paul's writings lead me to believe that Paul would not have advocated some 'magic words' we can say that bring us God's salvation. Paul knew better than that, and if that's all we hear in this passage, we've missed some important verses at the end. "For there is NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN JEW AND GREEK; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him." Paul is insisting here that believers don't need to be part of the Jewish faith or complete Jewish rituals to be part of the plan of salvation - they just need to connect with Christ, find belief in Christ. This passage speaks of the open and inclusive nature of salvation. Indeed, GOOD NEWS!
  • I love the closing of this passage - "how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" Good news to share? Share it!
Matthew 14:22-33:
  • Peter is the only one who risks walking on water, and yet he is the one Jesus declares has "little faith." Is that fair? It reminds me of the parable of the talents - the one who has the most is given the most. Perhaps in this case, the one who can give the most has the most demanded of them? Or perhaps Peter, who has been so close to Jesus, should have been most able to have faith. What do you think?
  • Being on a boat in a storm is scary enough today, with all our safety measures. I can't imagine it was much fun in Jesus' day. But read the passage carefully - what is it that the disciples react to in fear? Is it the weather? 
  • Why do you think the disciples didn't recognize Jesus? Sure, he was walking on water. Hadn't he done other unbelievable things before? How does God show up in your life in unbelievable ways?
  • This experience, combined with the miraculous feeding from last week's text, creates a moment of theophany for the disciples. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 13, Ordinary 18)

Readings for 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/3/14:
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 15, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22-31:
  • This is just a fantastic passage. We all wrestle with God, but there are lots of ways to go about it. Jacob's approach is great - Jacob wrestles, holds his own, and demands a blessing. OK, so it is God's messenger - but good enough. How do you wrestle with God?
  • What are your names? What do they mean? Who named you? 
  • Are you willing and able to ask God to bless you? Demand it even?
  • "I have seen God face to face." Have you? When? Where? How?
Psalm 17:1-7, 15:
  • This psalm fits well with our passage from Genesis, because the psalmist is bold and demanding. The psalmist declares himself to be free from deceit, able to withstand testing, feet not slipping from God's path.
  • Sometimes we need to be bold with God - not for God's sake, but for our sake. Fear of God's justice has its place, but confidence in our status as God's beloved children with whom God seeks relationship also has its place.
  • Read the in-between verse too. For once, they are not totally, just partially, about God smiting enemies. They do also include the phrase "apple of the eye" - did you know that was from the Bible?
Romans 9:1-5:
  • This is an odd little snippet of scripture. What is here? Paul's passion that his people, the Israelites, would hear God's message. He has "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" for them as he worries about their salvation. Who do you worry about? Whose walk with God are you anguished over, hoping for them that they find the hope you have found?
Matthew 14:13-21:
  • Did you know that the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels?
  • Food holds such a critical place in the scriptures. Jesus talks about being spiritually fed lots of times. But he doesn't overlook the importance of alleviating literal hunger!
  • Some look at this as a literal miracle. Others read this passage as a miracle of sharing and abundance in a more figurative sense. I say: either way, it is a miracle indeed. People were hungry, then were fed. People were enabled to stay and hear Jesus preach.
  • Abundance - there was more than enough to go around. This is a great statement for today - we live in a world of abundance, but perceive ourselves to be in a world of scarcity. Jesus tries to show us our abundance. Can you see it? Live it? 

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "The Kingdom of Heaven is Like...," Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Sermon 7/27/14
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Kingdom is Like…

            If I was to ask you what the “Good News” of the Bible was, I might get a variety of responses, but I think a common one, perhaps the most common response, might be this: The good news is that Jesus Christ died for our sins to save us and give us eternal life. There’s certainly scriptural support for that. And our United Methodist heritage echoes that – in our official communion liturgy, for example, the celebrants says, “Hear the good news. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And indeed, that is good news.
            The interesting thing, though, is that Jesus talked about good news himself. And when he talked about good news, he wasn’t talking about the fact he would die for our sins. Of course, that hadn’t happened yet, for one. And also, Jesus usually only talked about his imminent death with the twelve, his closest disciples. But he did talk about “good news” with the crowds. So, what did Jesus mean by good news?
            When Jesus spoke of good news, his good news was that the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, used in the same way in the gospels – the kingdom of God was “at hand.” “At hand” is a phrase that means both “arrived” and “arriving,” both “near” and “just here.” So for Jesus, the good news that he wanted to share was that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, was at hand – both near and here. Our next questions, then, are: what does that mean exactly – that God’s kingdom is near or here? And why is that good news exactly?
            Remember a couple of weeks ago, on my first Sunday, when I told you about my favorite Bible passage? I told you it was John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. I told you that one of the reasons I loved this passage so much was that as a teenager, and still as an adult, but especially when I first noticed it as a teenager, the idea that what Jesus wants for us, what God wants for us is abundant, full, overflowing with joy lives was so appealing to me. Sure, God wants us to follow commandments – but they’re all centered around the joyful act of love – loving God and loving one another. God wants us to experience abundant life! Well, that’s a little bit, for me, of a way to glimpse what Jesus means by the kingdom of God being here, or near already. I think Jesus really, really wanted people to know that to experience the fullness and joyfulness of life and love and wholeness wasn’t something for later, wasn’t something for only a few, the wealthy and powerful, the healthy, the learned, the scholarly, the religious elite. No, God’s promises of joy and love and abundant life were for all and for now! Because the kingdom is here and ready for us to reach and touch and draw in and pour out and share! When Jesus taught and healed and preached, he was speaking to Israelites who lived under foreign occupation. They lived under the control of the Roman Empire. Conditions were harsh. People were oppressed and facing injustice all around. And yet, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven was theirs – already!
            And that’s good news, isn’t it! Because even if we’re looking eagerly forward to however we understand heaven and eternal life someday, hopefully after good long lives here – I think Jesus knew that the promises of something that you can’t actually have any time in the near future could only be so appealing. Think of telling a 13 year old about how much they’ll love driving – in 3 years! That’s an eternity. An older sibling telling a younger sibling that they can come along for the fun event – when they’re older. Telling a hungry person who has no food that they’ll get enough money to feed themselves – in four weeks. Sure – all that stuff coming later is great. But what about now? Eternity someday. But what about now?
            And so the good news that Jesus tells us is this: If we want to be workers following our master Jesus, his students, helping with kingdom-work, then we don’t have to wait. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven – it’s already right here! And in this kingdom things are flipped upside down from the oppressive culture that says might is right, that says money and possessions and status are everything, that says if you’re poor and uneducated you’re nothing, that says if you don’t have the ideal body shape or skin color or lifestyle or birthplace you’re nothing. This kingdom flips that all upside down and inside out and says the last shall be first and the first shall be last and the humbled shall be exalted and the exalted shall be humbled and it is very good news indeed.
            All this finally gets us to our text for the day at last. Like last week, we’ve heard again some parables of Jesus. Several short parables right in a row. I listened to a commentary about this passage, and the speaker aptly said that it is as if either Jesus, or the gospel-writer Matthew, felt like they were running out of time and so frantically started listing kingdom parables as quickly as possible. “The kingdom is like, the kingdom is like, the kingdom is like.”  
These parables though, seem almost unrelated. The imagery is so different, and the point of each parable seems so different. The kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows into a bush large enough for birds to nest in. Of course, that’s not actually true – they don’t grow that large – but as I mentioned last Sunday, Jesus puts details into his parables that make ears perk up. So Jesus is telling them that in the kingdom, what you think is a little faith – when you actually put it into action – can go much, much farther than you’d imagine. The parable of the yeast is the same – a little bit of yeast wouldn’t go quite so far – but the kingdom is pervasive. God’s goodness will fill up every nook and cranny and multiply faster than you can imagine. The kingdom is like someone seeking and seeking and seeking until they find that precious pearl – and they sell everything else to have it. Who does that, really? But the kingdom is so valuable, so worth our lives – Jesus wants our everything. And the kingdom casts a much wider net than you think it does. Everyone is drawn in, invited, included. If there’s sorting to do, it’s God’s task, later. And the kingdom is meant to be shared. We who know it, get it, like the disciples say they do – although their one word “yes” makes me think they think that’s what they’re supposed to say – but we who start to get or at least glimpse the kingdom that’s near and here – we’re meant to share it – bringing our treasure out to be seen, not hidden, locked away, buried. What is the kingdom of heaven like then? Well, not like any one thing. No one definition will suffice. Because the kingdom is God’s life and love and dream for us and hope and faith in us and invitation to us, and home for us, and more, all at once.
And Jesus will keep telling us about it until we realize that. The kingdom is like the kingdom is like, the kingdom is like. Because the most important things in our world don’t usually have just one answer, but many. If you child or spouse or dear one asked why you loved them, you’d probably have not just one answer, one reason, but 1000. Because our love would be too big to be contained by one response. And so it is with God’s realm, God’s kingdom. Too much to be contained by one small definition.
            This week on Facebook, I encouraged people to respond to my fill-in-the-blank sentence. “The kingdom of God/the kingdom of heaven is like ______________.” Here’s some of the responses I got. The kingdom of God/the kingdom of heaven is:
Like being embraced with love.
Like love that cannot be contained, joy that banishes trouble, and peace beyond reasoning
Like Purest love
Like the playground
Like a wish/dream come true
Like perfect peace
Like the Unity of God's People truly celebrating our imperfections and realizing we are an interwoven tapestry of God's perfection.
Like our backyard on a summer day
Like the best of a Volunteers in Mission journey
Like being welcomed into a family on a mission trip, like knowing you are loved and cared for immediately and everyone crying when you have to leave but knowing you will be loved forever.
Like how complicated and complex relationships feel reconciled. Where I can live generously without fear of exploitation. When the search for meaning has culminated. It's laughter where the refugees live.
Healing, beauty, rest, music, poetry, storytelling, feasting, fun, wisdom, and love.
Where Eternity begins. What we do with that is what makes it heaven or hell.
Like the time/space/place where wholeness and holiness are real for all people.
Like a box of chocolates
Like wonderland!
Like love.
Like a series of colorful threads, humming and vibrating as the Source of all being connected together...
Like Gandhi's satyagraha, and MLK's beloved community, full of people who have dared to be vulnerable, facing a perceived enemy with openness and love.
Like a song we can all sing--and a perfect meal with plenty to go around.
            I love the variety of responses, the imagination, the creativity, the ways the images speak to the individuals. And that’s what I want to hear from you too. So I’m giving you a homework assignment this week. I should warn you, I like to give homework. You’ll find an insert in your bulletin with this same fill-in-the-blank prompt. And I’m hoping you – maybe not right this second – but before next Sunday – I’m hoping you’ll think about your vision of the kingdom of God. How do you describe the good news that God’s promises are for us now? How do you put into words that God’s love for us is immeasurable and we don’t have to wait a second longer to experience it in all fullness? How will you let someone know the good news about what the kingdom is like? What would you say? You tell me. What is the kingdom of heaven like?
            The kingdom is like, the kingdom is like, the kingdom is like….


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 12, Ordinary 17)

Readings for 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/27/14:
Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45b, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Genesis 29:15-28:
  • Leah's eyes are here described as "lovely" - I like this NRSV translation better than some earlier ones which call her eyes "weak" - I guess over time we've felt a little sorry for second-best Leah!
  • "Jacob loved Rachel." I'd love to do a study of the number of times the Bible says one person loves another - it is not as often as you'd think, which makes me always notice passages like this where it is so matter-of-factly stated.
  • a seven years engagement period seems speedy for Jacob because of his love for Rachel - we tend to like things a little faster in our society. What would you wait seven years for?
  • Typical man? I hate to be cynical and stereotypical, but honestly, how could Jacob not realize he was having sex with wrong woman! I guess all the wedding-night feasting before hand had impaired his faculties.
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b:
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • "[God] is mindful of his covenant forever, of the word that [God] commanded, for a thousand generations." God initiates covenant with us. And God always holds up God's part of the covenant. We are less good at our part. A lot less good. The psalmist reminds us that God's covenant is always eternal, everlasting.
  • 45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Romans 8:26-39:
  • A great passage from Romans. "all things work together for good for those who love God." Do you believe that? In the midst of some terrible sufferings humans experience, God's goodness and God's goodness given for us are maybe hard to believe. But we are promised.
  • OK, but when Paul moves on to 'predestined' (vs. 30), my Methodist heart doesn't follow very far.
  • "If God is for us, who is against us?" Check out some other texts to get your mind spinning: Matt 12:30; Luke 11:23. Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50. What do you think? Not necessarily contradictory, but requiring us to use our brains and interpret meaning, examine context, etc.
  • NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING can separate us from God's love. Paul makes that pretty clear. We doubt God's love for us, and for others, as they doubt God's love for themselves and for us. But we need not!
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52:
  • This is a challenging bunch of little parables, all about God's kingdom (God's reign, God's rule).
  • What do you know about mustard seeds when they grow larger? According to Chris Haslam, we should watch for Jesus' words here, which we wouldn't think much of not being from Ancient Israel. Mustard seeds don't grow into trees! Jesus is exaggerating. The yeast into 3 measures of flour? An exaggeration - that much would feed 100 people! Jesus' point? God's kingdom is, in Haslam's words, quite "pervasive" - a little bit will spread through a long way and have huge impacts.
  • The other parables signify the value of the kingdom: priceless. The kingdom is very near, at hand. What would you give for it?
  • Jesus asks if the disciples understand. They say, "yes." I love that one word response. Do you think they really get it, or are just nodding agreement? A mystery...

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Wheat and Weeds," Matthew 13:24-30

Sermon 7/20/14
Matthew 13:24-30

Wheat and Weeds

            This week is enjoyed spending a little time helping out at the Matthew 25 Farm in Tully. The weather this spring and summer has helped to create a plentiful harvest, and the peas are ready to be picked faster than they can manage with their volunteers, so they were enlisting extra, emergency help this week. When I got there, one of the farmers spent a bit of time showing me the difference between peas that were not yet ready to be picked, peas that were a bit past their prime, and peas that were just right, Goldilocks-style. He also showed me that some younger, more eager volunteers weren’t gentle enough with the peas when they were picking them, and would accidentally uproot the whole plant in the process. As tall and winding as the plants are, their roots aren’t very deep or anchored into the ground. So they’re pretty fragile when you go to snap a pod off. Of course, once a plant is uprooted, that’s it for harvesting from that particular plant. He also pointed out that they don’t really spend much time weeding the field. There were rows of pea plants that were easy enough to see. But there were lots and lots of weeds. He said the plants were healthy enough – yielding more than they could keep up with already – and the weeds didn’t seem to be a problem. I guess if you have limited volunteer hours, you better focus on getting the food harvested that will go to feed hungry people. I also suspect, given the fragile nature of the plants and the eagerness of volunteers, weeding might just end up doing more harm than good.
            I had all of this on my mind this week as I prepared my sermon. This summer, we’ll be journeying through the gospel of Matthew, and today we come to what is known as the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, or the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Jesus has been teaching the crowds in a series of parables, first sitting outside the house where he is staying by the lake, and then eventually, because the crowds are so great, teaching from a boat to give him a little space while the crowds listen from the beach.
            Now parables are a particular kind of teaching that Jesus uses. Parable is from a Greek word – a verb actually – that means literally to bring something alongside another thing. To set something beside another thing. To bring something parallel with something else. To compare one thing with another. You’ll notice that Jesus, in his parables, is always telling a story that he sets alongside something in particular: “The kingdom of heaven is like” or “The kingdom of God is like.” Whenever Jesus tells us a parable, he’s bringing his story, his illustration, and setting it alongside what he knows about what God’s kingdom, God’s realm, is like. So, he’s trying to get us to learn about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, by telling us these vivid stories that are maybe easier for us to understand than if we just went straight for trying to understand God’s kingdom.
            So, this time, what does Jesus say the kingdom is like? Well, it’s like a this: Someone sows good seed – wheat – in his field. But while everyone is asleep, an enemy comes and sows weeds with the wheat. When the plants start growing, and the weeds are discovered with the grain, the slaves of the sower seem shocked, and go to the sower saying, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed here? Why then are their weeds? Where did they come from?” The master replies that an enemy sowed the weeds. So the slaves offer to pull the weeds up. “No,” the master replies, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” Both wheat and weeds have to grow together until harvest time, when the wheat will be harvested at least, gathered into the barn, and the weeds will be bundled and burned.     
            Jesus’ parables would cause a mixed reaction in the crowds. On the one hand, the parables would use imagery that was familiar to them. They knew about planting crops and working the land. But on the other hand, some things would stick out to the crowds and cause them to ask questions. This is just what Jesus wants. The crowd knows how to find the point of the parable by noticing the details that Jesus presents as commonplace, but they know are quite unusual actually.
            You might wonder how you can figure out the things in the parable that would make the crowds’ ears perk up, worried that our twenty-first century ears won’t understand what sounded strange to first century ears. But if you think carefully, any of us with basic gardening knowledge might have some questions about this parable. Jesus says the sower sows good seed. Who would sow anything else? And why would the slaves think the master sowed weed? Or why would an enemy need to sow weed? We all know that weeds do just fine planting themselves. I was telling someone (Mary?) yesterday about a bag of potting soil that’s sitting in my backyard. I had it open to pot some plants, and left it outside. Now, there’s a big plant – a weed, really, pretty though it is – growing right in the open bag of potting soil. Weeds will grow anywhere, without our effort in planting them.
            So what does this parable tell us? What is Jesus trying to get us to know? First, in any parable, I think it is important to figure out where we are in the story, and where we are not. In this story, as in most of Jesus’ parables – we’re not the master! We’re the slaves! We’re not the sower of the seeds. And that means, as the master tells the slaves, that it is not our responsibility in this world to decide which are wheat and which are weeds. I repeat – it is not our responsibility to decide which are wheat and which are weeds. That responsibility belongs to the sower. And the sower is not us. I’ve found that we’re all pretty sure that we know how to tell wheat and weeds apart. But even if we’re right, our attempts to weed seem to end up like the over eager harvesters whose work I witnessed at the Matthew 25 Farm. In our attempt to pull out weeds, we uproot healthy plants, and find delicate blossoms that could have become good plants to harvest withering without root. It is not our responsibility to decide which are wheat and which are weeds. God has that covered, and God has not asked for our help with this task, as eager to help as we are. We need to do some soul searching, and ask ourselves when and where in our quest to point out the weeds of the world to God, our actions and attitudes have actually resulted in hurting, uprooting, destroying good plants.
            Second, we need to wonder about the parable telling us an enemy has sown the weeds in the field. It seems strange to us, to me at least, to picture some villain sneaking into a garden under cover of night to plant weeds in the field. It’s absurd. There’s enough weed without anyone planting anything intentionally. Who would do that? So, if it sounds so silly to us – planting weeds on purpose – we need to ask ourselves – when have our actions in the world been like planting weeds? What have we done, or failed to do, that has resulted in planting in someone else’s life some extra weeds for them to deal with? Where have you sown division, or bitterness, or envy, or mistrust, or judging attitudes, or unkindness, or even hatred, in the life of another beloved child of God? If sowing weeds sounds so silly, so useless, we all have to remind ourselves to stop doing it!
Finally, we need to wonder about what it says when you can’t tell wheat from weeds anyway. Sometimes good plants and weeds look so similar that you can’t tell one from another. And they grow so closely together, as Jesus’ parable indicates, that it is hard to tell which is which, where one begins and the other ends. What does it say if we can’t tell wheat from weed? If we’re sure we’re wheat, but there’s nothing about our lives, our treatment of one another, our relationship with God, our actions in the world that says we’ve been planted by God as good seed? We don’t only want to be careful not to do harm by taking on God’s role and pulling up what we think are weeds – we need to realize that sometimes others might see the way we’re living our lives and feel like they know that we’re weeds!
I can tell you for sure that everything God created God called good. Go back and read Genesis 1. “And God saw that it was good” is the theme of creation. We are good seed. So let’s live like it! And live like we see that goodness at the core of everyone we meet. It’s there. So let’s claim the goodness with which God created each one of us by living out the love God has poured into us. The kingdom of heaven is like this: God sows good seed with love everywhere, all around. And despite the weeds, God’s good seed can’t be stopped. The wheat can thrive in abundance, undeterred, until the Lord of the harvest gathers us in again. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 11, Ordinary 16)

Readings for 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/20/14:
Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Genesis 28:10-19a:
  • God continues the promise, the covenant, with Jacob, that has been with his forebears. Do you feel bound into your family's religious heritage? Or your denomination's heritage? How do you feel tied in to God's continuing story?
  • Jacob's ladder - a great Sunday School song, but the vision Jacob has is strange. What do you make of it? I guess I can see it showing how present God is with us today - that God's messengers are constantly showing up on the scene, revealing God and God's work to us.
  • "Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!" When have you realized God's presence in a place or situation only after-the-fact? 
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
  • I love this Psalm - Ok, all except for the last section before verse 23 and 24 where the psalmist declare to "hate who God hates". I do like verses 13-19 very much, but they appear in our lectionary at a different point. 
  • It is both comforting to know that we can't go where God is not, but it is also a challenge, in a way. We're reminded that God, in a sense, chases us. We are "hem[med] in" behind and before. God is strategically cornering us. An aggressive God, who insists, perhaps, on having a relationship with us.
Romans 8:12-25:
  • "not a spirit of slavery, but a spirit of adoption." I'm always torn by Paul's language of adoption. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to think that we're not born into God's family, God's children. I shudder to think that God only adopts some as children, and not others, which is an unfortunate and often drawn conclusion of such theology. But on the other hand, there is a special-ness about God going the 'extra mile', as it were, to make us God's own. Out of God's deep desire to have us as children. I guess I just want to make sure God has no limits or qualifications for who is adopted! That we can all become heirs with Christ...
  • "for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." I like this - "creation" waiting with "eager longing" - I envision the whole earth and all the creatures just waiting for God's continued work to be revealed in humankind.
Matthew 13:24-39, 36-43
  • take note - the wheat and the weeds grow so closely together, and are so hard to distinguish from one another, that they can't be separated until they are fully grown. Remember that when you are looking at yourself and your neighbor!
  • take another note - it isn't the wheat that up and decides to pick out and destroy the wheat - that is left to God's realm. We're not assigned the task of labeling each other as weeds.
  • Sometimes we have both wheat and weeds in our own individual lives - we can take care of the garden of our own lives, and try to cultivate more wheat than weed by our choices.
  • notice the blame shifting in this text - blame it on the devil, blame it on the sower (God) for letting weeds show up where 'good seed' was sown. 

Sermon for 7/13/14, John 10:1-10

Sermon 7/13/14
John 10:1-10

Perhaps all of you feel a little bit like I do today. A mixture of things. Excited and anxious. Anticipating and wondering. Ready for change, but thinking about things that have been left behind. Heart full of good-byes and hellos. The time between when you found out Pastor Clair would be leaving here, and when Penny and I found out we would be leaving our last congregations and coming here to you has flown by, and here we are, at the beginning of this new stage in our faith journey. This is an extremely significant time of transition for all of us, and we are all wondering what the future will hold. It’s a lot to take in! I know you all are no strangers to change and transition, and as United Methodist pastors, Penny and I aren’t either. The question is: where do we find God calling to us in the midst of the constant of change?
            Pastor Penny and I are so excited to be here with you today, to be joining you, as we seek, together, to hear God’s call and respond in faithful action. We have been and will be planning and preparing, and we are ready to get started! Penny and I have the benefit of having served together already – we both spent time in ministry at Liverpool First United Methodist Church. We’ve both served large congregations and smaller congregations. I’ve served churches that are congregations born of the combination of previous congregations, too. So some things are familiar to us. But many things are new. Penny and I have never served together in quite this exact way before. I've never served “part-time” before, and have to figure out what that looks like. You’ve never had two pastors at once before. And, we’ve never been in ministry together before. We don’t know exactly what this will look like yet. We plan to watch and listen and get to know you as we figure out how best to use our time and gifts and talents here.
            Today we wanted to introduce ourselves to you, and tell you a bit about what has brought us to this place and this time, about who we are, and what we’re excited about. I grew up in Westernville, a little country town between Rome and Boonville, and then moved to Rome, NY. I have a large extended family, almost all of whom live in Central New York, which is such a blessing to me. My younger brother Tim lives in Rome still. My oldest brother Jim and his wife Jennifer and seven year old son Sam, who you will hear a lot about, live in Minoa. They also have a little girl on the way, due to arrive in September, so I will get to add stories about my niece to my repertoire very soon. My youngest brother Todd is a professional actor who is currently working on his MFA at Purdue in Indiana. You’ll probably get to meet him on Christmas Eve, as I usually enlist him to perform some dramatic monologues in worship.
            I think God was always luring me towards being a pastor. I come from a family of pastors – two uncles, and two great uncles were United Methodist pastors, including my uncle Bill Mudge, who is District Superintendent of the Adirondack District in our conference, and my great uncle Baden Mudge, who served several churches in the Syracuse area. And I grew up attending a small country church in Westernville that had a lot of female pastors – I never knew some people found female pastors unusual – it was just how it was in my young experience! Actually, in my short acquaintance with Apple Valley so far, this place reminds me so much of my childhood church in powerful ways. My mother instilled in my brothers and me a deep sense that we are all called by God for some purpose – and it is our life’s work to figure out what that call is and how we can respond to it. So I was in the practice of listening for God’s voice, God’s direction, at a young age. I grew up attending one of our church camps, Camp Aldersgate, every summer, and for a while, I believed I was called into camping ministry, because that was where I felt closest to God. At camp is still a place I feel especially close to God.
But I have always needed to feel “settled” with decisions, at peace with them, to know that I heard God as accurately as I can. And I knew I hadn’t found the right spot yet. I started to become involved with youth ministry. Of course, I was a youth myself at the time, but I loved planning and preparing youth events, and I felt like maybe I had found my calling this time. But still, God was nudging me. Somewhere between applying for and beginning college, I realized God was calling me to pastoral ministry. I can’t pinpoint a specific date or time when I knew for sure, just God’s persistent tugging at me until I got the picture.
            I attended Ohio Wesleyan for my undergraduate work in pre-theology, and then went to seminary at Drew Theological School in New Jersey. I was commissioned in 2003 and ordained in 2006. I’ve remained passionate about my early loves – I still stay involved with camping ministries, and have spent eleven years now working with our Conference Council on Youth Ministries, CCYM. I love theatre and music, and have been grateful for how God has allowed me to use these gifts in my ministry. I have a love for social justice ministry – mission and outreach and service to those in the greatest need, those on the fringes, those who Jesus was always bringing to the center. In May, I completed my Doctor of Ministry at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio in the area of Leadership for Transformational Change, and in particular, I focused my writing on how a congregation’s outreach ministry can move from being charity-focused to justice-focused. God is still calling, always calling, and I continue to listen for God’s voice. I’ve served congregations in Oneida, in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, East Syracuse, Liverpool, and now, God has called us together in this place. That’s a bit about my path. As some of you know, I’m here quarter time with Pastor Penny because I’ve been feeling again God’s call on my life, and I’m looking at what ministry paths I can take in addition to this local church ministry that will especially allow me to build on the social justice work I focused on in my doctoral program. It’s another transition in my life, and I’ll admit to you that I find the uncertainty a bit scary. But I’m determined to listen and follow as best as I can for God’s voice, leading me.
            In the weeks and months ahead, we will want to hear about your path – your personal journey, your family, the path this congregation has taken. Your District Superintendent speaks very highly of you as a congregation, especially of how well you have handled transitions, and your reputation for being a warm and welcoming congregation where all people are welcome to come and learn about our God of love and grace. That makes me so excited to be your pastor, and I’m excited to see where God will lead all of us together.
            Today, I chose John 10:1-10, one of my favorite passages of scripture, to share with you. I love this whole chapter of scripture, but my favorite verse is John 10:10: Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This verse caught my eye when I was in tenth grade, and reading the scriptures, and it just stuck with me. In a world that often paints Christianity as a list of thou-shalt-nots, when we Christians often let ourselves be boiled down to things you shouldn’t be doing, I was just fascinated that what Jesus said he wanted for us was abundant life. Abundance! Life that is full and rich and meaningful and complete, not a life where we feel restricted and limited and deprived. What God has in mind for us is that we find that our lives are overflowing with goodness and promise, that we have so much that we can’t begin to run out of ways to use and serve and love with the gifts we’ve been given. God wants us to have it all! Abundant life.
In challenging times, it is so easy for us to focus on what we don’t have, what we think we don’t have enough of. And it is so easy to try to fill up our lives with our own efforts, trying to fill an emptiness with a lot of stuff that has nothing much to do with God. We don’t need to. Jesus promises us all the abundance we could desire. God wants us to have it all. The catch? Of course, God wants us to give it all too. We get abundant life. God always gives us more. And as much as we have been following God, on the various paths we have taken to arrive here today, God is always going to call us further down the path. God is always read to give more and ask more.   
Friends, my hope is that we will learn to look in our hands, look in our lives, look in this congregation and community and recognize all the abundant life God has poured out on us. And then, I hope we will listen. God is calling us still, farther on. Let’s go together, and find out what God has in store.