Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Figuring Out the Kingdom" - July 27, 2014

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Thirty summers ago I worked in the store of a restaurant in Seal Harbor, Maine, the Jordan Pond House.  It closed this year after more than a hundred and twenty-five years, during which it became locally famous for its popovers and strawberry jelly.  We sold a lot of that stuff (the jelly, that is) in the gift shop.  It was part of my job to keep the shelves well-stocked, because there were people who would come in during the afternoon tea and buy up six or twelve jars of the stuff at a time.  It was like some people around here have to have their James’s Salt Water Taffy from the shore every year.  “Strawberry Jam Served at Jordan Pond House” the label declared, with a picture of the Bubbles, which were the mountains visible from the restaurant lawn where tea and popovers were served.  Then, about the end of July, I told my manager that our supply was getting low.  The next day she sent two of us over to the warehouse, where we found big boxes of jelly jars freshly labeled and big cans of strawberry jelly.  Smucker’s jelly.  And spoons.  The label said, “Strawberry Jam Served at Jordan Pond House.”  With a name like Jordan Pond it has to be good.

If someone prizes something highly enough, they will pay for it.

So it is with the kingdom of God, but without the deceit.  If it means enough, they will go to whatever lengths they must for its sake.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” [Matthew 13:44-46]
Do people really do that?

            Remember Ann B. Davis?  She played Alice on The Brady Bunch, the maid who went bowling with and eventually married Sam the Plumber.  She had four Emmy nominations and two Emmy Awards before she took that part.  In 1975, she met the Episcopal bishop of Colorado, who invited here to visit at a sort of half convent/half commune that he and his wife had formed from their household.  As Bishop Frey tells the story,

“She came to visit us on Epiphany in 1976 and, after about a month, we realized she wasn’t visiting and she realized the same thing, that she belonged there. She called her agent and said, ‘Don’t call me for a year, I got a better offer.’”[1]
It was a very different life from what she had known.  She was part of the charismatic movement within the Episcopal Church, which is a combination I find hard to picture, but in his obituary of Ann Davis a journalist who knew her wrote that she was

“the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.”[2]
I kind of like that picture of Alice the Maid turned into a real-life Ann-the-Servant.  It happens.  People do put their Emmy Awards on the shelf and go follow Jesus.

            One of the things that made that possible for Ann Davis was that she was single and had no children, which does give some flexibility that not everyone has.   But following Jesus, even in that radical way, does not necessarily mean renouncing your life.  (It’s interesting that right after Jesus called Peter to follow him, Peter takes him home to heal his sick mother-in-law.)  It may be that what happens begins small, and in time comes to fullness in someone’s life, maybe larger than anyone could ever have predicted.

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’” [Matthew 13:31-33]  

Wherever you are in your own life, whatever you put into following Christ will change the rest of your life along with it. 

            T. S. Eliot wrote a poem called “The Journey of the Magi” that describes the Wise Men’s trip to find the child Jesus.  In it, one of them looks back on the experience as an old man.

“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”

Do not expect to meet Jesus and not be changed and challenged.  It’s what he does.  He asks our best and offers his best.  He doesn’t let you settle for glass beads when there are pearls to be found, or false gods when the living God is reaching out for us.

“The Lord’s my shepherd; I lack for nothing.
I’m provided with everything I need.
I rest by pools of cool, clear, quiet water,
And on sweet grass I feed.
In the middle of hate and violence
I feast in peace.  My goblet overflows.
Because the Lord of heaven is our shepherd,
With God we have a home.
We have a home, we have a home.
Forever with God we’ll be at home.”[3]

[3] Sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch theme.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Weeding" - July 20, 2014

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

            Let’s do some weeding this morning.  Let’s separate the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats, the thistles from the wheat, the white hats from the black hats.

            Let’s use, for example, the current refugee crisis or immigrant crisis in Texas.  Now, just by giving it one title or the other, we begin to identify whether someone is coming into this country to escape something at home (whether that’s poverty or the drug wars), in which case they are refugees, or arriving here because they are attracted by opportunity of some sort (whether that is a decent education for their children or the chance to make, if not a fortune, at least a respectable living), in which case they are immigrants.  Even deciding what to call somebody means that we begin sorting them out.  For now I’ll use as neutral words as I can, which would be “arrivals” or “newcomers”.

            So in recent months we’ve seen a suddenly influx of children arriving. There have long been newcomers who have brought their families, but this is different because we are talking about unaccompanied minors.  How, exactly, should we view the parents?  In 1939, the United Kingdom took in about 10,000 children from Jewish families in Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia whose parents saw clearly what was coming and put them on trains headed west to Holland and boats that carried them across the English Channel to safety.  It must have ripped the heart out of those parents.  How do you hand off your children, possibly forever?  But how do you not hand them off when it means knowing the horrors that are approaching?  In Central America, there are parents who have to make similar choices.  They can allow their children to remain in what is essentially a war zone, with rival drug lords killing and brutalizing whole towns and villages, or they can put their children in the hands of other dangerous people who (for a price) promise to get them to safety in the north.

            Let’s do some weeding out here.  What’s driving the problem may be the parents’ fears.  Those fears may be well-founded.  Drug cartels have created an economic collapse that puts people in a position where they see few options, if any, to survive apart from the drug trade.  One reporter wrote last week,

“Drug gangs have gained control of major chunks of Central America, making honest economic activity perilous. Teenagers especially have few options if they are not willing to work for the drug lords.” [1]

That was from somebody who works at the Cato Institute, which is not exactly a haven for bleeding-heart liberals.  A parent who wants a child to escape becoming part of a criminal network at home may send them in the hands of criminals to commit an act of illegal entry here, in the hope that they’ll grow up to live honestly.  How do you or I make sense of that?

            I find some comfort in the parable of the wheat and tares, that shows me how Jesus advised his disciples that there are some situations so complicated that it takes God himself to sort it all out, and assures me that God will do exactly that.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” [Matthew 13:24-35]

At the same time, there is the warning that God takes very seriously the way that we let our lives harm someone else’s, like a weed infesting a field.  Consider again the problem of these transient children whose lives have been endangered, stay or go, by the drug trade.  What drives the drug business is profit.  If there were no money in it, nobody would be selling, and the market wouldn’t be worth fighting (and that means with guns and knives) to control.  Beyond the sellers are the buyers who create the demand, and no one ever seems to mention them, because of who they are.  Maybe you work with them.  Maybe you live with them.  Maybe you are them.

The casual or recreational drug user is the source of the problem.  It’s that person’s money that pays for bullets in Guatemala and bribes judges in Honduras and orders assassinations in Mexico leaves children as orphans in Costa Rica and leads teenagers who see no other options to join up with the gangs who prey on their own people.  Every time a comedian on late-night television trivializes smoking a joint, they trivialize the suffering involved in its production and distribution.  Whether it is or is not the same as the use of any other drug is beside the point.

There are times when obeying a law causes harm, as when the law orders segregation or allows domestic abuse.  Those are laws that deserve to be broken and opposed.  Obeying a law against drug abuse does no one any harm, and does many people a lot of good, while breaking it encourages criminal activity, even to the point of murder.  So until there is a change in the law, arguments that marijuana is no different than alcohol are totally irrelevant.  The point is that nobody should knowingly do anything that leads to the harm of another human being, which paying money to a dealer does.

If we are to begin weeding anywhere, it has to be with our own hearts and our own lives.  Jesus spoke especially strongly about doing nothing that would hurt a child, even if it would mean forgoing things that we may hold dear, even parts of ourselves.  He said,

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.”  [Mark 9:42-47]
So if you think you may be part of the problem, please get some help. If you don’t know where to turn to do that, give me a call or drop me an e-mail.  I’m not going to slam anyone who’s trying to pull things together.  That wasn’t Jesus’ way of doing things; it shouldn’t be ours. 

“The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’” [Luke 15:2-7]

[1] Ted Galen Carpenter, “Drug Cartels Are Causing a Refugee Crisis” in CNN World, July 8, 2014.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Zucchini" - July 13, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

            I planted a plot of vegetables in the community garden out back of the church this year.  It’s doing alright, and I’m not complaining, but Tom and Kirtus and Connie and AnnJoyce have done better.  Not that it’s a competition.  I barely notice how a certain person’s beans have grown full and leafy or how someone else has done a great job staking up their vine crops.  Okay, I admit that it can be a little embarrassing at times.  But – hey, there’s always zucchini.

            I started my own bean plants inside in April.  They did really well; too well.  Some of them were six to nine inches high and we were still getting frost some nights.  The first day that it looked good to do it, I went outside and dug the ground and put them in.  Two days later we had heavy rain and three days later they were gone, washed out.  Fortunately, I had planned ahead.  I had a second flat of bean plants that were two weeks behind, along with some zucchini seedlings.  I waited for the ground to dry out a little bit and the following week I stuck those in.   Two days later the rabbits had eaten the new set of beans.  At least they left the zucchini.

            I realized that could happen again.  I have heard that if you plant onions around the edge of a garden, it helps keep the rabbits out.  I also noticed that there was a lot of onion grass growing there already, so I figured the soil would be good for the real thing.  I knew it was late in the season to plant onions.  Onions go in on St. Patrick’s Day.  All the same, I dug all the way around the garden and put in white and red onions (for variety) and gave it another two weeks. 

Then, since the United Methodist Women had their plant sale going on, I took my coupons up to the nursery and bought some healthy bean plants, which planted, surrounded by onions.  Not long after that I discovered that maybe rabbits hate onions, but squirrels or some other creature around here loves them.  I also learned that the folks who mow the lawn don’t know the difference between onion grass and onions.  So no beans this year, and only a few onions.  On the other hand, nothing has touched the zucchini.

            Since then I’ve added a lot of other vegetables, but right about the time I did that, things got a little bit crazy.  It rained a lot in May, generally on the days when I would have had time to weed a lot more.  On the days when it was beautiful, I was tied up.  Eventually came the day when I got out there and found myself pushing undergrowth aside and muttering, “I know there are peppers here somewhere.”

            So this morning I hear the words of Jesus, and my heart goes out to the farmer in his story.  Poor guy!  If my eggplant shrivels up and my cucumbers do nothing and the sweet potatoes just grow leaves aboveground and no roots below, I’ll live.  Hey, there’s always plenty of zucchini.  The man in the parable is someone who lives on what he plants.  It matters greatly to him.  It matters to him that

“as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.[Matthew 13:4]

It makes a big difference to him that

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” [Matthew 13:5-6]

He would have been worried because

“Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” [Matthew 13:7]

He would have been incredibly relieved, even joyful, that

“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” [Matthew 13:8]

It would have meant everything to him.  Therein lies the heart-wrenching aspect of this parable.

            In practical terms, we all know what happens to people’s spiritual lives, and the parable is descriptive.

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” [Matthew 13:19-23]

We all have seen people whose lives fit each of those descriptions.  Maybe we’ve seen them in the mirror.  But what about the One who gives life in the first place, and who watches what happens not just to one person or to a family or a local church or a people as life unfolds and as time rolls onward?  What about the gardener who does not have the heart to shrug and to be content with the zucchini (which we all know can yield a hundredfold or sixty or thirty)?  What about God?

            Somehow, the sower goes on planting, and never gives up the way that we do.  Somehow, God goes on, scattering seeds of faith in all kinds of soil.  Somehow, God continually reaches out to people in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of personalities and with all sorts of lives, because it is his nature never, ever to give up on us.  Does that make sense?  No.  That’s why I’m so thankful about it.  Isaiah said,

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”  [Isaiah 56:6-13]

Meanwhile, thank the Lord of all for zucchini.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"You Wouldn't Want to Live There" - July 6, 2014

Matthew 11:16-24

            If there were ever a chance to give a genuine fire-and-brimstone sermon, this text would provide it. 

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.” [Matthew 11:21-23]

Do we know what made these towns places of special immorality?  No.  We know very little about them at all.  We don’t know if there were especially brutal slave markets in Chorazin.  We don’t know if the people of Bethsaida were callous to the poor.  We don’t have any idea whether there was a lot of gambling or drunkenness in Capernaum or if any of these places were centers of prostitution or the training of gladiators.  We don’t know if their political life was any more corrupt than the next town’s or if the people were any more cynical than anybody else.  What we do know is that Jesus did some miracles among them, and it didn’t make a bit of difference to the population as a whole. 

            There were some people, certainly, who were affected for the best.  Mark gives us a report of Jesus’ miracles in Capernaum, for example.  It was on the Sea of Galilee, the home of James and John and Andrew and Peter.  Those are familiar names, so certainly somebody there heard Jesus’ message pretty clearly. 

“And immediately, they left their nets and followed him.” [Mark 1:18] 

In Capernaum, Jesus healed a man who was captive to some sort of demon [Mark 1:23-26] and healed Peter’s mother-in-law when she had a dangerous fever [Mark 1:29-31] and at one point so many people were coming to be healed that no one could get close to him and somebody came up with the idea of ripping the roof off the house so that they could lower the bed of a paralyzed man down through the opening. [Mark 2:1-4]

            When it was all said and done, though, people missed the point of all the wonders, which was not that Jesus was some kind of miracle-worker, but that his coming was and is a sign that the Kingdom of God is among us, and that it’s time to start living as people of the kingdom.  What got to Jesus was that no matter how God tried to get through, the people of these places – and let’s admit that they aren’t too different from us – just wouldn’t get with the program.  Whether God sent them a messenger utterly straight-laced, like John the Baptist, or one like Jesus, full of the joy of life, nobody could get them to budge.
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” [Matthew 11:16-19]

What Jesus was saying in that situation was, “Come on, folks!  How can you see that God is alive and active and think that doesn’t make a difference?  God is alive, and it’s time that you were, too!  Things don’t always have to be the same.  People can turn their lives around, even communities can turn around.  At least give it a try!”

            Since it’s Fourth of July weekend, I’ll get a little bit patriotic here.  One of the good things about this country (and there are other countries that share the trait) is the belief that when things get bad, we can in fact turn them around with God’s help.  “America the Beautiful” has that great verse:

“O beautiful, for patriot dream
That sees, beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America, America!  God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.”

For all the disagreement and nastiness that is our current political situation, let’s at least be thankful that our major disagreements are not about if change and improvement are possible, but about what change is needed and how to go about it.  For all our problems, we also have generally rejected the idea that any political agenda is to be imposed by force or violence, at least domestically.  (You might argue that hasn’t been applied beyond our borders.)  Our imperfect system relies on persuasion.  Maybe it’s a miracle that we trust the process even when we don’t always trust one another.  And if we are open, at least theoretically, to one another, as a democracy demands, then surely we can be open to God, which is the opportunity of faith.

            What got Jesus riled up was the failure of people to see the possibilities that faith brings.  What got to him with the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum was the way that they could see God acting right in their midst, and then think that business-as-usual is acceptable. 

“For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” [Matthew 11:21]

There’s an urgency to Jesus’ message that should not be missed.  If you don’t want to live in a city, a community, a world that is less than it should be, you don’t have to. 

“The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:15]

When the Kingdom of God has come near, why not see that as the opportunity that it is?  Why not enter into a way of life that those miracles he did were just a part of?

When he came to us in power, with miracles all around him, he brought a life that is more than the brokenness that we so often live with.  We can continue to live in the kingdom of the world, accepting its rules and practices, where there is no belief that we have a purpose beyond self-interest and no goal beyond our own comfort.  However, if we want to live in that better place, we can.  Jesus invites us to do that here and now, and to be part of that transformation of the world around us until we see God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  

            We neither work without God nor expect God to work without us.  When we allow God to work within us and through us, that is when the turn-around begins.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

“Moral victory will come as God fills us and we open our lives by faith to God, even as the gulf opens to the overflowing waters of the river.  Racial justice, a genuine possibility in our nation and in the world, will come neither by our frail and often misguided efforts nor by God imposing the divine will on wayward human beings, but when enough people open their lives to God and allow God to pour the triumphant, divine energy into their souls.  Our age-old and noble dream of a world of peace may yet become a reality, but it will come neither by people working alone nor by God destroying the wicked schemes of humanity, but when persons so open their lives to God that they may be filled with love, mutual respect, understanding, and goodwill.”[1]
            I wish I could give you a good, old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, if that’s what you really want, but I cannot, and it’s because I believe God is holding out something far better than destruction and condemnation.  I believe that God holds out salvation and hope and love, and the challenge to make this world better.  I believe that God does not hold out a hand that points into the abyss, or a finger that flashes lightning, but a hand that lifts his children up, and a palm that has the scars on it to prove just how far he would go to do that.  I believe that if God points, it is not to scold, but to show us the right direction, and to lead us to a place where we would, in fact, really and truly want to live, and to live forever.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Answer to a Perplexing Question” in Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 125.  In what I trust is Dr. King’s spirit, the language has been updated to be more inclusive.