Sunday, August 09, 2020

Sermon; 10 Pentecost/Proper 14A; Matt. 14:22-33

 

Today's gospel passage immediately follows last week's passage. As a refresher, Jesus had just heard about John being executed by Herod, so he went to spend some time alone; but as always happens, the crowds tracked him down. After spending time healing people, Jesus and the disciples fed 5000 men, plus women and children, and the story closed out by telling us there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

After that exhibition of compassionate generosity and living into a theology of abundance, Jesus sends the disciples to the other side of the lake and dismisses the crows. Now, finally, he gets to spend some much needed time alone following all of these events. We are told that Jesus was alone as evening settled in, and the disciples are in a boat being battered by a storm. That storm lasts all night, driving the boat further and further from land. As the light of dawn began to banish the darkness, the storm still raged around them. And it was in those early morning hours that Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water.

This is such a great story because there are so many interpretations and explanations, and how it has worked its way into popular culture. Here are a few things to think about concerning this passage. Maybe Peter should have stayed in the boat in the first place and worked with his fellow disciples. Was Jesus really walking on water, or was it an optical illusion as Jesus walked along a sandbar? Maybe this is a misplaced post-resurrection story – it happens early in the morning and Jesus uses specifically God-language (It is I). And we reference people either positively or negatively by how they do or don't walk on water. There is also a reference to the creation story, Gideon, and a reverse Jonah. So there is no shortage of material.

All of these topics are well-worth examining, and if you would like to explore them further, I commend Dcn. Sue's Zoom study of Matthew on Tuesday nights at 7:30. But for now, what might this story be telling us today? How do we hear God speaking to us in the 21st Century through ancient text? As I read through this particular story, it occurs to me that, out of all the stories in the Gospels, it is this one that most reflects our life today.

First of all, we, like the disciples in the boat, don't actually have Jesus with us. Yes, we are his disciples. Yes, we believe he is the Son of God (and two chapters later, Peter will make his famous confession about Jesus). Yes, we believe he is really present with us in the Body and Blood of Communion. But he is not physically present with us at this moment, just like he wasn't physically present with the disciples on that boat.

Nevertheless, both we and the disciples have been sent out. It's unclear as to why Jesus sent them, other than maybe he really needed some quiet time. Maybe he sent them to make preparations for his visit across the lake. Maybe they were sent to proclaim the good news, as they were sent earlier. And if that's the case, then we are in the same boat, so to speak. We too have been sent on ahead to prepare his way and announce that the kingdom of God has come near.

But just because we have been selected by Jesus to go on ahead to the other side doesn't mean that it will be easy. It's hard enough in good times to proclaim the message of the good news. But here we are, like the disciples, being sent out ahead to make that very proclamation. And here we are, like the disciples, being battered about by a raging storm. We are being battered by the COVID19 virus that keeps us separated, wary of others, and is the cause of around 161,000 deaths in this country alone. We are being battered by the storm of mental and physical health issues resulting from the pandemic and isolation. We are being battered by the storms of systemic racism, nationalism, and white supremacy. We are being battered by the loss of jobs, income, medical insurance, and the fear that those all generate. At least one commentator says that the boat is being tortured by the waves. We can certainly feel tortured by all that is raging around us.

And with all that is raging around us, it is very tempting to want to find an easy answer to all of this. It is very tempting to want to find some miracle cure, or to snap our fingers and wish racism didn't exist or that all lives really did matter. It is very tempting to want to get out of the boat and try to walk alone with Jesus in the midst of the raging storm.

Hear then the parable of the sower. What was sown among the thorns is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world choke the word and it yields nothing. We hear that parable and Jesus' explanation of it and I think we tend to automatically focus on “the lure of wealth” part. How much is too much, we ask. Jeff Bezos is worth more than a billion dollars. A BILLION. Why isn't he, and those like him, funneling that money into healthcare or education or affordable housing or any number of things that could benefit society? But this isn't about Jeff Bezos or the level of greed our society seems to accept. This is about the cares of the world choking the word.

And Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he began to sink.

That particular part of the parable I referenced, and this part of today's gospel, point to times when external forces are stronger than our internal faith. The cares of the world aren't just frivolous spending habits or trying to keep up with the Jones's. The cares of the world are also those storms that batter us, that cause us to stress and worry, that blow us off course, and that eventually cause us to sink.

We are being battered and tortured by storms we haven't seen the likes of in a very long time. Sometimes we might feel like getting away from it all or going off on our own is our best or only option. But those external forces may be just too much to handle on our own, they may be stronger than our internal faith, and they may cause us to sink. This is something Peter learned firsthand.

Something else that Peter learned firsthand, and that we can learn from Peter, is that it is safer in the boat. In this boat we face those storms together. In this boat we support those who are struggling. In this boat we recognize that failure happens, but so does forgiveness and new beginnings. In this boat we recognize we are stronger together than we are apart. In this boat we know that we are not immune to storms but that Christ will eventually provide calmness and clarity.

I don't know when these storms will end. What I do know is that storms are a part of discipleship and that facing them together is better than facing them separately. I know that being in this boat together, whether in-person or virtually, is better than trying to walk on stormy waters alone. I know that our unity is our strength. And I know that for a body to function it must have all parts together, not walking apart.

As we continue to face a multitude of storms, as the message of the gospel continues to be challenged and choked off by the cares of the world, I encourage you to remain in the boat. I encourage you to continue to be willing to be sent out to proclaim the good news. I encourage you to remain connected to the body. And I encourage you to sail together rather than walk apart.

For it just may be that the only sense of safety and calm to be found are to be found here in this boat.

Amen.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Sermon; 9 Pentecost/Proper 13A; Matthew 14:13-21

Today's gospel story is a familiar one to us – the feeding of the 5000. There are a couple of things I want to point out before I really get into this passage. First, the lectionary story we just heard gives the impression that it's a stand-alone story. But if you read it in context, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place because he had just heard that Herod had had John the Baptist executed. A second point to know is that this is the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection, of course) to appear in all four gospels; this makes it a really important story. There are other ins and outs of today's gospel passage worth examining, but those are better left to discuss during Dcn. Sue's “Matthew on Zoom” class . . . Tuesday nights at 7:30 if you're wondering.

These things, and more, are all part of this story and what makes examining it in detail fun. But there is something more important than those details that I think we should pay attention and something that makes it a really important story. Those somethings are the attitudes of compassion and generosity versus those of indifference and self-centeredness.

As I pointed out, this story follows immediately on the heels of Jesus learning that John had been executed by Herod. He goes away, probably to mourn and pray, but the crowds track him down (as they always do), bringing with them those who were sick in order to be healed. Jesus, rather than be annoyed at this interruption, has compassion for them. Compassion is made up of tenderness, understanding, and empathy. But it also consists of a desire to alleviate someone's suffering. Jesus does this by healing the sick. A little later on in the story, he will also alleviate their hunger by providing food.

And speaking of food (that's the major focus of this story – feeding 5000 men, plus women and children), there are traditionally two ways to view this story of miraculous feeding. One way is that Jesus, Son of God, used his omnipotent power to miraculously turn five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed those 5000 men, plus women and children, as well as have twelve baskets full of leftovers. This is, without a doubt, a miracle worth remembering, and probably why it appears in all four gospels. This view of the miracle, that it was God's handiwork, shows the generosity of God. It shows that, with God, there is always enough. And it shows us to follow a theology of abundance when considering how we might help provide nourishment – both physical and spiritual – to those around us.

Another way to view this story is that, as people gathered together at the end of the day and knowing that some of them were probably unprepared for a lengthy stay, those who had food with them shared with those who had none. As someone once said, “The miracle wasn't that Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. The miracle was that people looked at other people with a spirit of generosity, sharing what they had, and proving that there is always enough to go around.”

Contrast this attitude of compassion and generosity that both Jesus and the crowd showed with the attitude of the disciples who exhibited attitudes of indifference and self-centeredness.

When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late. Send them away so they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

This may seem like a statement of compassion, but it's really a statement of indifference.

We think we hear compassion when the disciples pretend to care about the crowd's well-being by sending them into the villages to buy food. But it's really indifference. If the crowd stays, the disciples may have to care for them out there in the wilderness. If Jesus sends them away, the crowd is no longer their responsibility. If the people can get food in the villages, great. If they can't, well then it isn't their problem because they told them where to go. The disciples are indifferent to the plight of the crowd and the only effort they make to help them is to get them to go elsewhere.

This is similar to how our society oftentimes treats homeless people: as long as they are out of my neighborhood I don't need to worry or even think about them. There is no compassion, no desire or willingness to alleviate their suffering. There is only indifference and a desire to get them off of my doorstep.

Not only were the disciples indifferent, but they were also self-centered.

Imagine the scene: Jesus had been mingling with the crowd all day. He had taken time to heal all those who were sick. But now it's the end of the day. Now is the traditional time when the disciples would spend quality time with Jesus debriefing the day and gaining insight that only they were privy to.

“Send them away so that we can have our quality time with you,” I can hear them say. It was at this point that they wanted to keep Jesus for themselves. And then Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat.” To which the disciples replied, “We only have five loaves and two fish.”

Translation: We only brought enough food for ourselves; we can't possibly share what we have with these people.

The disciples are operating from a theology of scarcity, which springs from a position of self-centeredness. There is never enough for everyone, so I need to make sure I protect myself first and foremost.

This was the difference between the attitude of Jesus and the crowd versus the attitude of the disciples. However you look at this miracle, a spirit of compassion and generosity ruled the day, whereas the spirit of indifference and self-centeredness lost out. And it's because of all of this, the difference in attitudes between Jesus and the crowd and that of the disciples, that this story carries so much weight for us today. We have a choice – we can choose to live like Jesus and the crowd with a theology of abundance and a spirit of compassion and generosity, or we can choose to live like the disciples with a theology of scarcity and a spirit of indifference and self-centeredness.

If we choose the former, we will look for ways to understand those in need while also looking for ways to alleviate their suffering. There is no shortage of ways to help with that – from donating to the church or food banks or other charitable organizations to being willing to stand up and say, “Yes, black lives matter,” and becoming an ally to people of color in a push for equality as a way to alleviate suffering.

If we choose the latter, then we tell people they are on their own. We send them elsewhere so we don't have to deal with them. Or we look at the world through our own exclusive lens and discount/disregard stories of racism or misogyny or other ill treatments because they've never happened to us or we've never seen it happen.

This story of the feeding of the 5000 is in every gospel because it's that important.

As we deal with issues of systemic racism, homelessness, and hunger, education and healthcare and the barriers preventing accessibility to them, and an attitude of rabid individual rights over and above the welfare of our neighbors, this story of the feeding of the 5000 goes well beyond being a miraculous story of feeding. This story continues to be important for us today because it demonstrates which paths are available to us: the path of compassion and generosity as exhibited by Jesus and the crowd, or the path of indifference and self-centeredness as exhibited by the disciples.

Today we have regathered in limited numbers for in-person worship, and it's good to see people in the pews again as we worship together in the beauty of holiness. We also continue our online presence as we worship with those who are not here in person, either because of distance, health concerns, or our reservation list was full.

The state of our worshiping community reminds us that we are living in difficult times

The gospel today reminds us that, no matter the time or place or circumstances, there are people in need and it is our job to show compassion and generosity.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: How can we multiply what we have to share with the world around us?

These are challenging times, but this is also the right time to be paying attention to this story of a miraculous feeding and what it has to teach us. Because as this story shows us, we can either follow the disciples and see only that we don't have enough, or we can follow Jesus and the crowd and see that what we have is more than enough to care for those around us.

Amen.

Sermon; 9 Pentecost/Proper 13A; Matthew 14:13-21

Today's gospel story is a familiar one to us – the feeding of the 5000. There are a couple of things I want to point out before I really get into this passage. First, the lectionary story we just heard gives the impression that it's a stand-alone story. But if you read it in context, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place because he had just heard that Herod had had John the Baptist executed. A second point to know is that this is the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection, of course) to appear in all four gospels; this makes it a really important story. There are other ins and outs of today's gospel passage worth examining, but those are better left to discuss during Dcn. Sue's “Matthew on Zoom” class . . . Tuesday nights at 7:30 if you're wondering.

These things, and more, are all part of this story and what makes examining it in detail fun. But there is something more important than those details that I think we should pay attention and something that makes it a really important story. Those somethings are the attitudes of compassion and generosity versus those of indifference and self-centeredness.

As I pointed out, this story follows immediately on the heels of Jesus learning that John had been executed by Herod. He goes away, probably to mourn and pray, but the crowds track him down (as they always do), bringing with them those who were sick in order to be healed. Jesus, rather than be annoyed at this interruption, has compassion for them. Compassion is made up of tenderness, understanding, and empathy. But it also consists of a desire to alleviate someone's suffering. Jesus does this by healing the sick. A little later on in the story, he will also alleviate their hunger by providing food.

And speaking of food (that's the major focus of this story – feeding 5000 men, plus women and children), there are traditionally two ways to view this story of miraculous feeding. One way is that Jesus, Son of God, used his omnipotent power to miraculously turn five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed those 5000 men, plus women and children, as well as have twelve baskets full of leftovers. This is, without a doubt, a miracle worth remembering, and probably why it appears in all four gospels. This view of the miracle, that it was God's handiwork, shows the generosity of God. It shows that, with God, there is always enough. And it shows us to follow a theology of abundance when considering how we might help provide nourishment – both physical and spiritual – to those around us.

Another way to view this story is that, as people gathered together at the end of the day and knowing that some of them were probably unprepared for a lengthy stay, those who had food with them shared with those who had none. As someone once said, “The miracle wasn't that Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. The miracle was that people looked at other people with a spirit of generosity, sharing what they had, and proving that there is always enough to go around.”

Contrast this attitude of compassion and generosity that both Jesus and the crowd showed with the attitude of the disciples who exhibited attitudes of indifference and self-centeredness.

When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late. Send them away so they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

This may seem like a statement of compassion, but it's really a statement of indifference.

We think we hear compassion when the disciples pretend to care about the crowd's well-being by sending them into the villages to buy food. But it's really indifference. If the crowd stays, the disciples may have to care for them out there in the wilderness. If Jesus sends them away, the crowd is no longer their responsibility. If the people can get food in the villages, great. If they can't, well then it isn't their problem because they told them where to go. The disciples are indifferent to the plight of the crowd and the only effort they make to help them is to get them to go elsewhere.

This is similar to how our society oftentimes treats homeless people: as long as they are out of my neighborhood I don't need to worry or even think about them. There is no compassion, no desire or willingness to alleviate their suffering. There is only indifference and a desire to get them off of my doorstep.

Not only were the disciples indifferent, but they were also self-centered.

Imagine the scene: Jesus had been mingling with the crowd all day. He had taken time to heal all those who were sick. But now it's the end of the day. Now is the traditional time when the disciples would spend quality time with Jesus debriefing the day and gaining insight that only they were privy to.

“Send them away so that we can have our quality time with you,” I can hear them say. It was at this point that they wanted to keep Jesus for themselves. And then Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat.” To which the disciples replied, “We only have five loaves and two fish.”

Translation: We only brought enough food for ourselves; we can't possibly share what we have with these people.

The disciples are operating from a theology of scarcity, which springs from a position of self-centeredness. There is never enough for everyone, so I need to make sure I protect myself first and foremost.

This was the difference between the attitude of Jesus and the crowd versus the attitude of the disciples. However you look at this miracle, a spirit of compassion and generosity ruled the day, whereas the spirit of indifference and self-centeredness lost out. And it's because of all of this, the difference in attitudes between Jesus and the crowd and that of the disciples, that this story carries so much weight for us today. We have a choice – we can choose to live like Jesus and the crowd with a theology of abundance and a spirit of compassion and generosity, or we can choose to live like the disciples with a theology of scarcity and a spirit of indifference and self-centeredness.

If we choose the former, we will look for ways to understand those in need while also looking for ways to alleviate their suffering. There is no shortage of ways to help with that – from donating to the church or food banks or other charitable organizations to being willing to stand up and say, “Yes, black lives matter,” and becoming an ally to people of color in a push for equality as a way to alleviate suffering.

If we choose the latter, then we tell people they are on their own. We send them elsewhere so we don't have to deal with them. Or we look at the world through our own exclusive lens and discount/disregard stories of racism or misogyny or other ill treatments because they've never happened to us or we've never seen it happen.

This story of the feeding of the 5000 is in every gospel because it's that important.

As we deal with issues of systemic racism, homelessness, and hunger, education and healthcare and the barriers preventing accessibility to them, and an attitude of rabid individual rights over and above the welfare of our neighbors, this story of the feeding of the 5000 goes well beyond being a miraculous story of feeding. This story continues to be important for us today because it demonstrates which paths are available to us: the path of compassion and generosity as exhibited by Jesus and the crowd, or the path of indifference and self-centeredness as exhibited by the disciples.

Today we have regathered in limited numbers for in-person worship, and it's good to see people in the pews again as we worship together in the beauty of holiness. We also continue our online presence as we worship with those who are not here in person, either because of distance, health concerns, or our reservation list was full.

The state of our worshiping community reminds us that we are living in difficult times

The gospel today reminds us that, no matter the time or place or circumstances, there are people in need and it is our job to show compassion and generosity.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: How can we multiply what we have to share with the world around us? Or maybe the question is this: With all of the problems and obstacles in the world today, are we willing to take a risk and exhibit compassion and generosity over and above indifference and self-centeredness?

These are challenging times, but this is also the right time to be paying attention to this story of a miraculous feeding and what it has to teach us.

Amen.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Sermon; 8 Pentecost/Proper12A; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

For the past three Sundays we have been in Matthew 13 hearing what are known as kingdom parables. There are seven such parables in this chapter – the two longer ones from the previous two Sundays and the five shorter ones today. Whereas the longer parables have a story line and explanations tied to them, the five parables today come one right after another without explanations. The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like.

How does one describe the kingdom of heaven? How does one describe that holy place in a way that can be understood by mere mortals? John and Ezekiel both tried it and we often accuse them of smoking something funny. But seriously . . . how do you describe the otherworldly in worldly language?

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Well . . . it's like a noxious weed that takes over the land and it's like yeast that affects a whole batch of wheat. It's like an unexpected surprise. It's like the most valuable item you can find. It's like a dragnet looking to pull in people of every kind.

These short parables do a couple of things. First, they underscore the here and now. They don't proclaim what the kingdom will be like in its final form. They don't look ahead to a new, golden age of sugar and spice and everything nice. What they do is to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like right here, right now. They tell us that the kingdom of heaven is invading the world and is changing the landscape. They tell us that not only is the kingdom of heaven imminent, but that it is here now.

The second thing these parables do is show us how subversive the kingdom of heaven is. They are subversive in the fact that the kingdom of heaven takes what we see as traditional roles, or proper behavior, or traditional values, or correct order, and subverts it and turns our idea of propriety on its head. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is not like a perfectly manicured lawn, or a church where only the men are in charge and only the right kinds of people are allowed in. The kingdom of heaven is much more expansive, inclusive, and penetrating than that.

Let me focus on the first two of these five kingdom parables from today. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sows. Jesus says it is the smallest of seeds yet grows up to be the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree where all the birds come and nest. In point of fact, the mustard seed is neither the smallest of seeds, nor does it grow into a tree. So this parable may not be “factual,” but the truth of this parable is that, even though people see the kingdom as small and insignificant, it will grow into something so large that all people will come and make their homes in it.

If I were to retell this parable today, I might say that the kingdom of heaven is like a bamboo plant in that one stalk has the ability to take over a whole field, and become a large forest that offers shelter to animals of all kinds.

When Joelene and I were on vacation we walked by a house with a small bamboo grove. At the same time we both said, “Ooh, those poor people.” Because we once lived in a house with bamboo and that stuff went EVERYWHERE. It's like a noxious weed that grows really tall. This is the kingdom of heaven. It starts small and cute, but spreads wherever it gets a foothold, messing up our perfectly manicured yards. But the kingdom of heaven isn't a perfectly manicured yard with signs that say, “Keep Off the Grass.” The kingdom of heaven is a rich, dense forest offering food and shelter to all kinds of animals.

And then there's the parable of the yeast. 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. In today's world, we hear this parable and think, “Ooh, the kingdom of heaven is like a nice, warm loaf of newly baked bread. What could be better than that?”

But we fail to see how subversive this statement really is. First, let's take a look at the three measures. One source says that three measures comes to about fifty pounds of flour. And if I've read my table of dry measures correctly, three measures comes out to be almost ten bushels. That's a lot of flour. Not only is it a lot of flour, but this amount hearkens back to when Abraham met the three visitors by the oaks of Mamre and instructed Sarah to make cakes using three measures. The implication here is that this amount is suitable for a large party, maybe even a heavenly banquet.

So it's not simply a few loaves of bread, but a banquet where all are invited.

Another aspect about this parable is that yeast, or leaven, was often used in a negative light. Remember when Jesus said, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees?” Jesus is using a bad example in a good way.

Yeast in Jesus' day was like our bad apple. And even today Orthodox Jews will clean out their houses of all yeast at Passover time. That practice also carries over into our tradition of Shrove Tuesday, where we (supposedly) empty the house of all yeast, sugar, etc. Add to this that the holy bread, the bread of the temple and the bread of the Passover (not to mention our own Communion bread), was/is unleavened bread. So what Jesus is saying here is that the kingdom of heaven takes that which is bad and unholy, that which we consider wicked, and makes it a vital part of the kingdom of heaven.

Another aspect of this parable is that it is a woman who does the mixing. Women, remember, were ritually unclean members of society most of the the time. Women weren't considered second-class citizens, they were considered the property of men. That's not to say that they didn't carry a certain amount of power around the home, but when we are talking about the greater society in general, and the religious society in particular, to allow a woman to be a part of it is simply unheard of.

And yet, the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who mixes yeast with three measures of flour.

This is no sweet parable of mom baking fresh bread for the family. This is a parable that turns things upside down and inside out by saying that the kingdom of heaven welcomes those we consider outsiders, those we consider unclean, and those we consider sinners to a great heavenly banquet where there is food enough for all. The kingdom of heaven offers radical and inclusive hospitality to those we deem unworthy.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? The kingdom of heaven is more radical, more welcoming, and more inclusive than we can imagine. The kingdom of heaven will toss all our ideas of rightness and holiness and normalcy out the window. The kingdom of heaven will get into everything and transform everything in the here and now if we are willing to give up our preconceived notions of what the kingdom should look like in the first place.

The kingdom of heaven is here. Let us not try to contain it, but let us be open to its subversive growth. And maybe, just maybe, being open to the subversiveness of the kingdom of heaven will allow us to think about how we can do things in new and different ways.

Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sermon; 6 Pentecost/Proper 10A; Matt. 13:1-11, 18-23


In last week's gospel we heard Jesus tell the story about children calling to each other, “We played the flute, but you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” In my sermon I pointed out that this was an allegory for Jesus and John the Baptist – Jesus is the bridegroom at the festive wedding, but nobody dances; and John is the prophet crying out in the wilderness for repentance, but nobody listens. This theme of dismissiveness or non-acceptance of the gospel message is woven throughout Chapters 11 and 12. In the overall arc of Matthew's gospel, it is this negative tone that sets us up for Chapter 13, a chapter populated with kingdom parables. These parables not only provide insight into Jesus' view of the kingdom, but also provide us with a guideline of judgment. And for the next three weeks, we will be spending time with these kingdom parables of judgment.

We start this series of kingdom parables with the parable of the sower. A sower went out to his field and began to sow. Some seed fell on the path, other seed fell on the rocky ground, other seed fell amongst thorns, and other seed fell on good soil. Jesus explains the parable by saying that in the first, the seed represents those who do not understand the message of the kingdom and are snatched up by the evil one. The second batch of seed has no depth, and when persecution arises or times become difficult, they wither away. The third batch of seed takes root and grows but is overcome by worldly cares and desires. The fourth batch falls on good soil, they take root, mature, and grow, producing a greater yield.

Where do you see yourself in this story? Most of us, if we are honest, see ourselves as the seed in that last group. We tend to see ourselves as understanding the message of the kingdom, growing deep roots, and producing much for the kingdom of God. And while that is probably a comforting image for us, it's also probably not totally accurate. The reality is that we, at one time or another, fall into each group of seed.

There are times when we hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand it. In these times we are vulnerable to being snatched away by the evil one. That could be because what is being said is really deep, complicated, and opaque. Such as whatever is going on in Revelation. Just how is it that locusts and scorpions are given authority over the earth? Or how exactly could we survive any star falling to earth from the sky? And given what we know about astronomy, how is that even possible?

Or it could be because what is being said makes us uncomfortable and we'd really rather not have to deal with it. For instance, how do we justify an economic system that punishes the poor and underprivileged when time and time again God speaks up for the immigrants, refugees, the poor, the widow, and the orphan? Or why do we defend a system that privileges whites over people of color when Jesus and God are working to break down barriers, not build up walls? Not understanding these basic biblical justice issues leaves us vulnerable to being snatched away by the evil one. Let anyone with ears listen.

There are times when we hear the word but have not developed strong roots and therefore lack depth and strength. How many times do we start off being passionate about the gospel but have not taken the time to, as the Collect says, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest?” How many times have we laid aside, or fallen away from, the gospel because of persecutions (real or imagined) or because it was “just too hard?” This is us on the rocky soil.

There are times when we hear the word and we commit to doing something or serving in some way, but the world gets in the way. We would rather spend our money on things we can touch, see, and derive pleasure from than on the mission and ministry of the kingdom. We would rather take on a new car payment or renovation project, there are times we would rather upgrade our wardrobe or get involved in a new hobby than use that money and/or gifts to increase our pledge or involvement in the mission and ministry of the kingdom. In that instance, God, our faith, and our community take a backseat to our personal desires and we're okay with giving God the few leftovers we may have.

And then there are times we get it. There are times when the message of the kingdom hits us right when and where it needs to, and we respond in a way that produces much fruit. Whether that is an increase in our time, talent, and treasure, or whether it's how we reach out in love to those around us, or whether it's how we proclaim God's love for all people, there are times when our roots are deep and we do wonderful things for the kingdom of God. All these and more are ways we hear and act on the word of God.

So none of us are the seeds in the good soil all the time. Recognizing that fact, though, can allow us to be aware of when and where we may have fallen into the wrong section. Recognizing that we are sometimes in a difficult or dangerous place can allow us to evaluate where we are and how we might work to deepen our roots and grow, doing wonderful things for the kingdom of God.

But there's another part of this parable we need to consider, and that is the part of the sower. People have a tendency to view the sower as God or Jesus – the one who proclaims the good news of the kingdom, and the seed as those who respond to that message. That is certainly one way to read this parable. But note this: In his explanation of this parable, Jesus never identifies the sower.

The sower is the one who proclaims the message of the kingdom to the world, and that message is the seed. We are in Chapter 13 of Matthew. Remember it was back in Chapter 10 when Jesus sent out the twelve to proclaim the good news, to cure, cleanse, and to cast out. Those twelve were sowers spreading the message of the kingdom. After his resurrection, Jesus will again send out the disciples to sow the seed of the kingdom “to the ends of the earth.”

Yes, sometimes we are the seeds in this parable. Sometimes we don't understand and are snatched up. Sometimes we give up because it's too difficult. Sometimes we get distracted by wealth, power, fame, greed, or whatever the world throws at us. And sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we are the seeds in this parable; but all the time we are the sower.

If the message of the kingdom is the seed, that seed won't have a chance to grow unless we actively work to spread it. The kingdom of God won't grow unless we actively work to promote it. And it is that fact that makes us the sower all the time.

“But, oh,” we might complain, “I don't know the right people,” or, “The people I know won't come or listen,” or any number of excuses we use to avoid sowing the seed of the good news of the kingdom of God.

But look at that parable again. Some seed fell on the path, some on the rocky ground, some amongst the weeds, and some in good soil. Notice that the sower didn't spend his time carefully planting the seed in good soil. Notice that he just went out and tossed the seed around willy nilly, not caring whether seed landed in good soil or elsewhere.

Have you ever been out walking on a sidewalk or down a road and noticed a plant coming up through a crack? Apparently even a seed in a less-than-ideal spot can grow. So who are we to predetermine who is the “right person” to proclaim the good news to or not? And if we can be all versions of where the seed falls (sometimes even at the same time), then so can others. But the seed will never grow if it is never spread. The seed is the good news of the kingdom of God and it needs a sower to get planted. It needs you and I to do that work.

Sometimes we are the seed; but all the time we are the sower.

And here's the secret of the kingdom of God: the only way the message of the kingdom and the message of the gospel will take root and grow is through our willingness to go and sow it – even in places we think it won't work.

Sometimes we are the seed that has fallen in any number of difficult or good places, but all the time we are the sower.

Let anyone with ears listen.

Amen.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Sermon; 5 Pentecost/Proper 9A; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Today's gospel passage gives us two distinct stories separated by a commentary on the refusal to repent and corporate responsibility to do the right thing. Today I want to look at the first story we are given.

This generation is like children sitting in the marketplace 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 drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

There are, as you would expect, a lot of interpretations to this parable. After all, a good parable is open to multiple interpretations. But the one I'm drawn to is that this isn't a parable at all, but an allegory regarding John the Baptist and Jesus.

John, a prophet in the Hebrew tradition, issues warnings about the coming judgment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?” And then there was that whole bit about preaching against Herod and his abuses which eventually got him arrested and executed. John was the voice of one crying (wailing) out in the wilderness. In this allegory, the accusation here is that John wailed but nobody mourned. John called us to repent, but nobody performed penance.

In this allegory, Jesus the one playing the flute. He is the bridegroom. He is the one coming to celebrate new life and a new relationship between God and his people. He is the one for whom the feast is given. Jesus called us to dance, but nobody did.

This calls to mind that no matter who you are, people will find ways to discount you. No matter who you are, people will find ways to discount your message. You weren't stern enough. You weren't playful enough. You were too political. You weren't political enough. You focused too much on history. You only focused on us. And on and on and on.

We have this allegory from Jesus about children playing particular games – funeral and wedding to be specific – in which there are specific roles. But as he points out, the people around John and Jesus are not willing to play the game, so to speak. They are not willing to listen to what each of them has to say. Instead, they are dismissed for a variety of reason.

It's easy to look back and condemn people for being dismissive of what we see as important, or for not understanding what we think is obvious. But how does this story affect us now? Where are the times and places we are being dismissive? Where are the times and places we do not repent or do not dance?

John is asking us to repent of our past sins and make a new start. We have much of which we need to repent. Everything from personal actions or inactions to corporate greed and theft to our abuse of the environment to our participation in systems designed to keep the marginalized on the margins. But too often our response is to dismiss John's call to repentance. Too often we justify our sinful actions by saying it's not such a big deal or claiming everyone does it or telling people they are being too sensitive.

How long will we keep dismissing John? How long will we keep avoiding difficult conversations or actions that could lead us to repentance and healing? If you haven't been paying attention or have forgotten, the answer is, “A very long time.” It seems we would just rather forget the whole thing and move on. But those whom we have harmed can't forget. And dismissing an honest call to repentance, dismissing our complicity in favor of just moving on or getting over it, is a form of cheap grace that avoids the hard work of healing and restoration.

Jesus is inviting us to dance and celebrate. He is calling us to a new relationship with God and God's people (hint: that's everyone). He is calling us to recognize the joy in the kingdom of heaven.

But here again we dismiss Jesus like we dismissed John. One of the things Jesus, and God for that matter, does is to continually expand the circle. God said, “No Moabites until the tenth generation.” And then there was David. God said, “No eunuchs.” And then Philip baptized one. Jesus at first said, “Israel only.” And then it was Israel, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. God said, “Nothing unclean.” And then Peter had a vision describing everything being clean. God is continually expanding the circle.

This would seem like a good thing. It would seem like the more people we invite in the better it would be. But we tend to not want more people, we tend to want more people like us. Jesus, however, is asking us to open up, welcome, and celebrate with people specifically not like us – tax collectors and sinners. But here again we are dismissive of what we are being called to do, only this time it's not out of denial, it's out of fear.

We dismiss John because we think our sins can't be that bad, or are not as bad as some of those other people. We dismiss Jesus because we are afraid to include others. We dismiss Jesus' call for inclusion because we wrongly believe our piece of the pie will shrink, or we claim that those people are dangerous and scary.

But here's the thing: John is not asking us to compare our sins to the sins of others, he is asking us to repent of our sins because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. If we can't or won't do that, then we'll probably spend all our time focusing on the flaws of others while trying to convince everyone around us how great we are. And that is some serious lack of self-awareness.

And Jesus is asking us to dance with him. He is asking us, like he asked the older son over in Luke, to join the party of inclusion. He is asking us to expand the circle. He is asking us to find the joy in God and in others.

So let us not look for excuses to dismiss either John or Jesus, but let us look for reasons to participate. Let us be honest in our reflections so that we may repent and restore. Let us be joyful in our proclamation of Christ so that we may welcome and dance with the unexpected.

For it will only be in our honest acceptance of both of these that we will be able to move forward.

Amen.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sermon; 4 Pentecost/Proper 8A; Genesis 22:1-14

As I previously mentioned, our gospel passages for the past three weeks have come from Chapter 10 of Matthew. This chapter is essentially the missionary chapter of the gospel: Go and proclaim, cure, cleanse, cast out, do not fear, and know that whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus and also welcomes the one who sent him. These passages are rich with material that ground us in gospel justice the world needs to hear.

But there's another passage from today that we need to look at, and that's the passage from Genesis. This passage has been called, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (although incorrectly, because Isaac isn't really sacrificed), but is more properly known as, “The Binding of Isaac.” This is one of the best know, most problematic, and most theologically argued passages in all of scripture. And here at Saint John's, the apex of the story is carved into the left panel of the High Altar – that moment when an angel of the Lord intervenes and stops the sacrifice.

There are plenty of questions about this passage. Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Is this a story about moving from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice? Did Abraham really hear God's voice? What kind of God commands such a thing? And a little farther down the passage (which we don't get today), Why doesn't the story say that Isaac returned with Abraham from the mountain? These questions and more have been asked for thousands of years as Israelites/Jews and Christians have contended with this story.

For Christians, there are certainly parallels here between the binding of Isaac and the Passion of Christ. Isaac, the only son, carries the instrument of his death on his back. Jesus, the only Son, carries the instrument of his death on his back. The event with Isaac – from certain death to life – happened on the third day. On the third day, Jesus moved from death to life. When bound for sacrifice, Isaac said not a word. When faced with his own execution, Jesus was also silent.

But co-opting Hebrew texts to make them fit into a christian perspective does violence to the original text. It steals from that tradition in an effort to show that Christianity is superior. But we can't co-opt Hebrew texts in that way – or in any way for that matter. But we can use it to search for how God might be speaking to us today through those ancient texts.

Yes, there are a lot of questions produced by this text. Yes, it can be compared to the Passion story. But at its heart, this is a story of testing and promise. It is a story of God testing Abraham and the fulfillment of God's promise. It is also a story of God being tested by Abraham and Abraham fulfilling his promise. Wrapped up in all of this is a sense of unknowing.

Years ago I said that, although Abraham believed in God, he wasn't necessarily committed to God. Could the same be said for God – that God believed Abraham was the right person, but that God may not have been committed to him? Hence the test for both parties. And could the same be said of us? Are we in a period of testing?

God gave the ultimate test by commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. Whether or not you believe God actually did that, or that Abraham was hearing voices, what becomes clear in the story is that neither God nor Abraham knew how this would turn out. Would Abraham follow through with this awful deed? Would God have to deal with the aftermath of a human sacrifice?

Likewise, Abraham may have been testing God to see how far he would go. Would God have Abraham go through with this act? Would God be willing to start the promise over, with Abraham and Sarah that much older?

This is like a game of spiritual chicken – wondering who will follow through to the end and who will back down. But this is also a part of faith we rarely delve into. As I said earlier, there's a difference between belief in God and being committed to God.

And there's always the question hanging over us – what does this ancient story have to do with us today in the here and now? I think that right now we are being tested. We are being asked to figure out if we simply believe in God, or if we are fully committed to God.

If we simply believe in God, we don't have to think about the consequences because we can fall back on the, “God said it, I believe it” defense. God told us to drive out the occupants of this land from before us (Josh. 3:10). God told us to exterminate those who were not like us (Josh. 6:24). God told us to kill the leaders of different religions (1 Kings 18:40). Belief in God has led to stealing land, enslaving people, and any number of abuses and atrocities. But simply believing what God says and blindly following him doesn't necessarily translate to commitment.

Commitment requires us to open our ears to a deeper relationship. Commitment requires us to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong, or that our understanding of what God is asking us to do might be wrong. Are we willing to hear God say, “Stop!” Are we willing to hear God say, “Stop driving people from their homes. Stop killing people who are different from you. Stop killing people in my name.”

Abraham believed in God, but he became committed to God when he listened to the angel say, “Stop!” and learned of another way to honor God.

Commitment requires us to open our eyes to seeing God in a new light. Abraham had seen God work in a particular way, which led him to unquestionably follow the instructions to sacrifice Isaac. Seeing God work in a particular way probably made Abraham comfortable. Because he had always seen it done that way, he missed seeing the ram caught in the thicket until it was almost too late. And it was in seeing what hadn't been seen before that the promise was able to be fulfilled.

If we are committed to God, we need to open our eyes. We need to be willing to see God providing other options. Just because we've always done things a certain way doesn't mean they always have to be that way.

The promise of God is that all people should have life. But like Abraham initially missed how that promise would be fulfilled, we also miss how that promise will be fulfilled if we only focus on how things have always been.

Abraham believed in God, but he became committed when he opened his eyes and saw another, less violent way to worship. We also believe in God, but how much more will we be committed when we are able to see God in a new way?

So this is, I think, where we are right now – somewhere between the testing and the promise. We are certainly being tested right now. We can either fight to keep things the way they have always been, or we can keep our ears and eyes open to hear and see how the promise of God might be fulfilled in a new way. And this new way isn't really new at all. Through Abraham, God said all nations of the earth would be blessed. Through Christ, God provided the means of life for all. Paul wrote that Christ has broken down the wall between us so that there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Peter had a dream where he heard God's voice declaring all animals clean and realized no person should be called unclean or profane. And our country, supposedly, is founded on the principle that all people are created equal.

It seems, though, that we just have a hard time hearing and seeing these things.

This is our test. We say we believe these things, but are we really committed to making these things a reality in our society and in our lives?

This is our test. Are we able to hear God crying out for us to stop sacrificing our most vulnerable on the altar of the economy? Are we able to hear God crying out for us to stop sacrificing people of color on the altar of white privilege?

This is our test. Are we able to see God giving us an alternative? Are we able to see those we have bound up as our sacrificial victims? Are we willing to release them from those bonds and treat them as equals?

This is our test.

As in this story from Genesis, there is always the possibility we will fail that test. And as in this story from Genesis, even God doesn't know if we will pass or if we will fail.

It will only be in our response to this test, it will only be in our commitment to our fellow human, it will only be in our commitment to loving God and neighbor that will determine whether we pass or fail.

This is our test.

Amen.