Monday, July 25, 2011

Sermon for 6th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon 7/24/11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
               This month, we’ve been looking at some of Jesus’ parables and today, as we wrap up our focus on these parables, we’re hit with a string of mini-parables, a set of four that are just a couple of verses each. Again, we start out with seeds – this time mustard seeds – and then move on to yeast, treasure in a field, fine pearls, a net catching fish. In all of these parables, Jesus begins in the same way: “The kingdom of heaven is like:” Jesus wants us to get a clear message about God’s kingdom – it is so important that we understand about the kingdom of God that Jesus will tell literally story after story after story, same structure, different examples. The kingdom of heaven is like this. The kingdom of heaven is like this. The kingdom of heaven is like this.
            So what is the kingdom of God? What is it like? Why is Jesus so concerned that we get this? After reading all these parables, do we know? Indeed, Jesus wondered if his disciples were getting the message too. At the close of our text today, Jesus asks them, “Have you understood all this?” They reply, simply, “Yes.” So short a response that you have to wonder if they got it or just thought they should have gotten it, or said yes, but still had blank looks on their faces! So we have to ask ourselves too: Do we get what Jesus is saying here about the kingdom, or do we just think we should get it? Remember that I told you that Jesus’ first hearers had a bit of an advantage over us in listening to Jesus’ teaching. They were people who were connected to the land for their livelihoods in a way that we aren’t any longer, at least not most of us. Jesus’ parables would resonate deeply with them, surprise them in just the right places, cause them to ask questions as he expected his words would. Jesus used what was very ordinary to talk to them about the kingdom of God. Think about what Jesus uses in his parables: seeds, wheat which makes common foods, weeds, tiny mustard seeds, yeast, fish. Maybe the parables about the treasure in a field or the merchant seeking pearls are a little less typical, but mostly, Jesus is talking about everyday stuff, ordinary stuff in these parables, ordinary to 1st century listeners.
            Why does Jesus use such ordinary illustrations? Why not a more dramatic illustration to make his points? Well, I think the ordinary nature of the examples is the point. It is that the kingdom of God is present in the everyday of our lives that Jesus is trying to make us understand at the core. Right now, in these summer months, we’re in the liturgical season that, as I may have mentioned in the past, used to be called “Ordinary Time,” because it was named after the ordinals – 1st Sunday, 2nd Sunday, 3rd Sunday, and so on after Pentecost Day. Now, we just call this “the season after Pentecost.” But I like “Ordinary Time.” What’s wrong with having some ordinary time? Maybe it is easy for us to see God at work in our midst in the special times of the church year – at Christmas and Advent, during Lent and Easter, or even on days when we celebrate special things – Anniversary Sunday, or Graduations, or baptisms. But what I think Jesus gets at in his parables is that the kingdom of God happens, arrives, lives and exists for us in ordinary time – right in the everyday stuff of life. It is in our work, in our eating, in our business, in our growing – in the everyday things, we find the kingdom of God. If we can only see God at work at the holidays, we’re missing a lot of activity in the kingdom of God. We are missing the point. Real life, the abundant life Jesus offers, isn’t about the special events that occasionally mark our time. Real life is in the time in between. It’s in the relationships that sustain us daily. It’s in the love we share and show to one another for no other reason than because we are all God’s children. These parables first and foremost remind us that the kingdom of God is in us, and around us, so pervasive that it is in everything we do – if we look for it. If we let it in. For some people, looking for God means looking for a miracle, or a supernatural event, or an event beyond our explanation. But I think perhaps God is best revealed when we understand that God is in the things that make up our everyday lives. That’s where we need to start looking for the kingdom. The kingdom of God is extraordinary because it is in the ordinary. It’s here among us, not so special that it is beyond our reach.
This last week I had the pleasure of working as the chaplain for Music Camp at Sky Lake, one of our conference camp and retreat centers. We talked a lot about watching for God during the week, looking out for God at work in the world. We celebrated communion every day together, and each day I would try to teach something about what communion means. But the first day, I explained this: what God does with everything, not just in communion, but with everything, is take the ordinary – the seemingly mundane or usual or common everyday things of our lives, and make them into holy things. God makes the ordinary holy. And God can do this with anything, with the stuff that is all around us, with the stuff that seems like nothing important at all – even with us – even with ordinary people. What God does in communion is take extremely ordinary things – bread and drink, staples of the average meal – and make them into something holy – Jesus broken and poured out for us, symbols of the body of Christ. And because God uses these ordinary things, everyday foods for communion, rather than special delicacies , we can be reminded every time we eat food, something essential to live, of God's presence, Jesus' gift to us, God's grace.
            God makes the ordinary holy. And so Jesus, again and again in these parables, is saying something like this: You want to know where God is? You want to experience heaven? You want to know about the kingdom of God? Well, I will tell you how to get there. Find some bread, and you have found the kingdom. In fact, find just the ingredients, and God is there too. Find some seeds – even the smallest seeds – and there is something holy. You know the fish you eat every day? That too is a sign of the kingdom, something ordinary God makes holy.
            I think Jesus wants us to stop waiting around – stop waiting for some special sign, stop waiting for some just right holy moment, some perfect holy setting – and start realizing God and God's kingdom are already right here, in our midst, making everything holy in order to reach us, move us, shape us.
            These parables also tell us that being part of the kingdom of God is worth everything single thing we have. Nothing we have is more important than being part of God’s kingdom. The two parables about the field with treasure and the merchant seeking pearls aren’t about wealthy collectors buying another item to add to what they already have. Take note – in both parables, the person sells everything they have just to get the one single item – the treasure, the pearl. Everything for the one thing. What would you give everything you had in order to have? If you really ask yourself that question, I think and hope you’ll find that your answer isn’t a tangible item. You wouldn’t give up all you had for something you could buy in a store. But would you give up everything for a loved one? For a relationship? A family member? God? To give up everything, to “have to have” something, this something has to have extreme value – to be worth everything we have. That’s what Jesus wants to know, wants us to know for ourselves: is your relationship with God – is the kingdom of God and being part of it – worth everything that you have?
            The kingdom of heaven is like a seed, sown in good soil, yielding 100 fold harvest. It’s like wheat, waiting for the harvest. It’s like a mustard seed – so tiny, and yet so huge. It’s like yeast, spreading in a way no one quite understands. It’s like a treasure you stumbled upon without being prepared for how it would change you. It’s like a net that draws you in. It’s like a pearl, so precious, that it’s worth everything for you to have it. It is as close as the food that we eat, the cup that we drink. It is right here, in the most ordinary of things, just waiting to be noticed; part of us already, and waiting to be made more fully part of us. That’s what the kingdom of God is like. “Have you understood all this?” With God’s help, may we catch glimpses of the kingdom, alive within us, swirling around us, growing through us.  May we answer yes, and mean it. Amen. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Sermon 7/10/11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

            This year, finally, after saying I was going to for the last many years, I finally actually planted a vegetable garden. I have been meaning to pretty much every year that I have been in my own home, and one thing or other always comes up. One year I actually made it as far as planting marigolds in the front yard, only to have the lawn crew mow over them just before they started to bloom.
            When I was growing up, my grandfather had a sizable garden, and he always let me have part of it to try growing things on my own – well, under his supervision. But I chose what to plant, a mix of flowers and vegetables. I was the kid whose bean in a Dixie cup in school never grew – the one kid with the dud seed that left the teacher trying to come up with something nice to say about how I could share in caring for someone else's plant or something. But somehow, under my grandfather's care, my garden always bloomed. He taught me tricks of the trade – how to hang empty pie tins up to scare away birds, how to plant corn: "One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the soil and one to grow," as the rhyme goes. How to space my seeds and pull weeds, and use chicken wire fences for tendrils of pea plants to curl around.
            This year, I finally decided I would try to remember what I could, read up on what I couldn’t, and plant my own garden. It hasn’t been 100% smooth – Todd and I had a hard time getting the proper soil mixture in our beds – so one box has a perfect soil mix, and the other has never seemed to be quite right. I started seedlings inside which did really well right up until I transplanted them, where the only things that survived were one spinach and one pepper plant. Some animal has been eating my tomato plants, carrots, and bean plants, although the tomatoes and beans have proved hardy and bounced back. So far, I have harvested a tiny bit of spinach. But I think I might actually end up with a decent harvest of corn, peas, beans, and onions by the end of the season. Not bad, I suppose, for my first attempt in many years.
            Anyway, my experiences this summer with soil and seed and birds and how things grow or don’t have helped me think about this week's gospel lesson. After all, if we, who are mostly part-time hobby gardeners can spend so much time thinking about our small plots, imagine what time went into cultivating the land in Jesus' day, where survival was determined in large part by how successfully one could produce crops. Today we have to pay close attention to Jesus' parables that use images of farm life, to make sure we truly understand what we are hearing, but Jesus' first hearers would have felt right at home with his stories.
            So, we have this parable – known as the parable of the sower. And it seems clear – the story and the explanation right there for us, and we are supposed to be the good seed that hears and understands the word. Right? But a couple of things catch my attention when l look at this parable more closely.
For example: A two-fold harvest for a farmer like this would have been a pretty good return. A five-fold harvest would have been remarkable, a miraculous blessing. But Jesus says the farmer reaps 30, 60, even 100 fold from these seeds that the farmer sowed so haphazardly. What kind of seeds would produce such a harvest, especially if so few of them seem to make it into good soil? Jesus is clearly exaggerating to make a point. Jesus is making an over-the-top statement about this seed and how it grows. These parables from Jesus usually tell us something about what the kingdom of God is like. So what’s Jesus trying to tell us through this super high yield seed?  
Or how about this – what kind of sower would throw seeds around on a path, and on rocks, and among thorns? Most gardeners plants seeds carefully in rows, certainly paying attention to get all the seed into good soil. I know I didn’t plant my garden by just throwing seed out into the backyard and hoping for the best. I keep trying to make sure my seed and plants are protected and cared for. Seed isn’t perhaps the most expensive thing in the world, but it is a commodity, and certainly would have been in Jesus’ day, and in any day, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to waste resources needlessly. So why this haphazard sewing of seed? If God is meant to be the Sower in this parable, why isn’t God a little more discriminating in throwing the seed? Wouldn’t that solve the whole problem? Why would God sow seed where it’s bound not to grow? If all the seed was put in the good soil, not on rocks or among thorns, wouldn’t that make so much more sense?
We usually think of ourselves as the seed in this story – that isn’t quite right. But really, the seed the sower is sowing in each place is the word. The word must mean the good news – which for Jesus, was the news that the kingdom of God was at hand. We might also think of it as the good news that God loves us unconditionally, the grace is a gift offered to us without price. Jesus' point is that because God's kingdom is here, God's love is here, ready for us to receive and give. That’s the good news we talk about, for example, in our communion liturgy. The good news is love.
So, if the seed that the sower sows is meant to be God sowing the good news, then in the parable, Jesus tells us that God sows the good news everywhere. On everyone. Even if we are not sure where we fit in this parable, we can know one thing: we are definitely not the sower. We don’t choose where the seed is sown – God does. How does God sow? Not carefully, but extravagantly, not holding back, but being a little wild and carefree about it. That’s how God sows good news, how God sows blessings, and grace, and love: freely. God isn’t concerned about whether or not the people on whom the blessings of grace fall are worthy enough or good enough to receive it. God will sow God’s love on everyone. That’s the kind of sower God is. If we were sowing, no doubt we would be obsessed with not sowing seed where we didn’t think it was deserved, and worrying that our seed would run out. God sows as if the seed isn’t a scarce commodity that’s about to run out – because it isn’t! And God sows with irrepressible hope – if you have ever seem plants pushing up through concrete, you know that things, including God's love, can grow in the most unlikely of places. God’s love, God’s grace, God’s good news comes in a limitless, endless supply. That in itself is good news for us. Our job is to work on being good soil, making our lives the good environment where God's love can flourish and take root.
            Then we can turn back to Jesus’ saying that the seed sown by the sower would bear 100 fold harvest. We don’t have to be in the midst of a struggling economy to know that any investment you make that brings you back 100 times what you put in is a very good investment indeed. It’s astonishing – a deal not to be passed up for any reason. If the sower is God, and the seed is good news, and God’s love, and it can be sown everywhere, on anyone, Jesus is also telling us that we can expect awesome, outrageous, unexpected results: when you share unconditional love, extravagant love, limitless love, crazy, outrageous things will happen as a result. Not-to-be-missed things, shouldn’t-pass-up-the-chance things will happen as a result of the way God sows good news in our world.
            So, God the sower has limitless seed to spread, seed which brings a shockingly outrageous harvest. God has limitless love to share, which affects the world in shocking ways. But where do we come in? Do we have a bigger role to play than learning to be good soil, receptive to God's word, God's love? Here’s the thing – I know we talked about the sower being God. But actually, the parable doesn’t explicitly say the sower is God. I think that is our best place to start – what would God do as the sower? But to push ourselves, to really get this parable, I think we also have to see ourselves as the sowers. If we are Christ’s disciples, meant to be like him, then we, too, are called to sow and seek good fruit, a good harvest. We can help in God’s work of planting and harvesting.
The trouble, as I mentioned before, is that it seems harder for us to be extravagant with our seed as God is. We’re meant to share the good news too, share God’s love, tell of God’s grace. But perhaps, unlike God shaking seed out everywhere, we’re more discriminate. We look around us at others and decide that their soil is too rocky, or that their lives have too many thorns to bother sowing seed there. One pastor writes, “There's sometimes a sense that the good things God has for us are in such limited supply that the only kind of good and responsible stewardship is to guard it very carefully, give it only to those we're sure are worthy, protect it like the last egg of the rarest endangered bird.” (1) God wants us to be sowers too – but if we take up this task, we have to sow as God does – with reckless abandon, confident that the grace we’re sharing never runs out. And if we are sowers too, we have to be ready for the harvest God will return to us – 100 times more than we’re expecting.
            We are called to be good soil – to cultivate the lives that God gives us and try to be open to receiving the blessings that God wants to sow in our lives. In some ways, this parable is that simple, even though being good soil can be quite hard! But this parable asks us for even more – to understand God and how free God’s love is. When it comes to God’s grace, it’s ok to be a little wild and crazy. It’s ok to share God’s love even where you think it might not thrive. Because God’s love is a gift without end. And the harvest is 100 times better than you were thinking. Thanks be to God. Amen.

(1) This quote and basis for sermon are by Sarah Dylan Breuer,