Sunday, July 31, 2011

Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…

Many thanks to Twitter friend @thedaveone, who pointed me toward the article about Sal Dimiceli, which figures heavily in this sermon. Dr. John Fairless at the Lectionary Lab helped me focus my thoughts on Jesus' grief, as well as his compassion, and "Girardian reflections on the Lectionary" provided the background material for "splagchnizomai."

Genesis 32:22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Romans 9:1-5
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus had just heard horrible news – the kind of news that hits like a slap to the face; gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, incapacitating news. His cousin: a man he’d grown up with and loved, a man whose willingness to baptize changed Jesus’ whole life – was dead. Killed at the hands of the despicable King Herod.

Most, if not all of us, have been in this place. Reeling from shock, confused, unable to think… of course his first thought was that he needed to be alone, to get away from the noise of the crowd, their neediness, the challenges of the scribes and the Pharisees, the pressure of proclaiming the Kingdom, if only for a little while.

So he got in a boat and set off across the lake. I can’t say if the disciples were in the boat with him; I suspect they watched him float away and decided to walk around the lake to meet him. As they trudged off for the long journey to the other side, word spread, and before long thousands of people had dropped what they were doing, tied on their sandals, and joined the trek.

And I imagine Jesus there, alone, in the boat, probably paying very little attention to things like setting the sail properly, or rowing, or whatever it is one needed to do to get that particular watercraft from one side of the lake to another. It was a time to grieve and a time to cry. Yes, I’m sure there was prayer; probably along the lines of asking “why?” as his thoughts turned inward, ever inward…

Jesus was, of course, God-made-flesh. But how easily we forget that God-made-flesh was, well, a human being. Jesus was on a life journey, a journey where he learned and experienced and dealt with everything every other human being has ever had to do – potty training and learning to use a fork and learning to walk and read and talk, and, yes, to feel the crushing grief of losing someone we love to Death.

Who knows how long that boat took to cross the lake? Who knows how deep Jesus fell into that well of loss, of sorrow, of grief? Perhaps, at last, the rocking of the boat coaxed him into a fitful sleep…

…a sleep interrupted by the sound of voices. Lots of them. Thousands. Jesus wiped the sleep from his eyes and peered over the railing toward the slowly approaching shore…

…and something happened. Our New Revised Standard Version translation puts it mildly enough, it says that Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion for them. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I want to suggest this morning that something far deeper, more seminal happened right then. You see, the Greek word for what happened in that moment, splagchnizomai, is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. It’s a much more decisive, even violent word, than what we understand “compassion” to be. Eugene Peterson’s “Message” translation of this Scripture says that Jesus’ heart went out to them, and that’s closer, but it’s much more like Jesus’ love for that crowd – his desire to help them, to heal them – that compassion was so great that it was as if his very heart was torn from him.

And the miracles began. Jesus did what Jesus does – he loved them, he healed their sicknesses. And healed, and healed some more. For hours and hours. As the shadows grew long, his disciples finally came up to Jesus. “Dude, it’s getting late, and these folks need to go find a village and get some dinner.”

Jesus never missed a beat, going from person to person, touching, blessing, healing. “Nah, they don’t need to go anywhere. You give them some supper.”

“Um, Jesus, not to argue with you or anything, but we’re not exactly McDonald’s here. Five loaves, a couple of fish, that’s our inventory.”

And I know that the Gospels don’t record it this way, but I can see Jesus looking up, smiling, and saying, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”

I suppose the disciples could have held back: “What are you, crazy? This is my lunch! Go get your own loaves and fishes, man!” – but they gave them over to Jesus, and the miracles began anew.

Thousands upon thousands of people sat on the cool grass as Jesus blessed and broke the bread and the fish, and passed them over to the disciples to begin handing out.

The disciples must have thought their Rabbi had lost his ever-loving mind. But they dutifully did as they were told, and walked out among the people, passing out food. And passing out food. And passing out food.

There wasn’t too little after all. In fact, there wasn’t just enough. There was an abundance! Way more than they needed!

There are enough lessons in this passage to fill a month of sermons, but I want to focus on just a couple, which given the news reports over the past couple of weeks, may be particularly important.

I think it’s curious how, in times of natural disaster, we reach out to those in need, giving time and money and goods and services, but in times of economic uncertainty live we’ve been seeing lately, what with the debt ceiling debate, we act more like a person who is experiencing grief – we pull inward, circling the wagons, trying desperately to hold on to what we have. We crawl into our boat, pull our shawl over our head, and hope the people in Washington on both sides of the aisle will stop playing fast and loose with our future before it’s too late.

And we look at the need around us, the millions of homeless in America, the ten million people in the horn of Africa facing starvation according to the UN, those still living in tents and FEMA trailers after the tornadoes here in Alabama, and we see our resources and worry that it just isn’t enough, that we can’t even begin to address the overwhelming problems facing our planet.

But Scripture teaches differently, doesn’t it? We try to focus inwardly, but the Holy Spirit pulls us outward, pulling our heart, calling us to Christlike compassion. Jesus sees what there is, says, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”

Kathleen Toner of wrote this week about a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin woman, Jennifer Cervantes, who for years struggled to make ends meet. She worked all she could, but her paycheck never seemed to cover living expenses for her and her five kids. Hard as she tried, she kept falling further behind.

Desperate, Cervantes decided to write a letter to Sal Dimiceli, whose newspaper column might be considered a "Dear Abby" for the down and out.

Within a few weeks, Dimiceli showed up on her doorstep. They talked for a while, and then he offered to pay one month's rent as well as her outstanding gas and electric bills. He also went to the local grocery store and stocked the family's empty refrigerator.

It was just another day's work for Dimiceli, a 60-year-old real estate broker whose weekly column in the Lake Geneva Regional News focuses on people in dire straits. Through his column and his nonprofit, “The Time Is Now To Help,” Dimiceli has provided about 500 people a year with food, rent, utilities and other necessities. All this, despite the fact that the economic downturn hit his real estate business hard. He gives away at least 20% of his income, and relies on donations to his nonprofit, as well as a network of supporters, for the rest.

When Dimiceli began writing his newspaper column eight years ago, he wrote it anonymously, using the initials “W.C.” It stood for “With Christ.”

For Jennifer Cervantes and about 500 people across Wisconsin and Illinois, Dimiceli has been the healing touch of Jesus, moving through the crowds.

Is Sal Dimiceli unique? If so, he certainly doesn’t have to be. Maybe you and I can’t impact 500 people a year, but we can do something, somewhere, for someone, on some level. What sets Sal apart from so many others is that, when Jesus held out his hand for the loaves and fishes, Sal didn’t hold back.

Jesus looks at what we have and says, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…” Will we hold back, mumbling, “This is mine, you get your own,” or will we let go, and see the miracles begin anew?

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Thanks to the work of Dan Clendenin, David Lose, "Starters For Sunday," Mary Hinkle Shore, and Paul S. Berge.

Accounts of modern-day persecution across the world are taken from the website of International Christian Concern,

Genesis 29:15-28
Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country — giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
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."
"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.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Romans 8:26-39
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the Word of the Lord.

No one is really sure how the church in Rome started. Catholic tradition holds that the Apostle Peter started it. Other scholars think that, on the day of Pentecost, some of those who responded to Peter’s message of salvation in Jesus Christ had been pilgrims from the Jewish neighborhoods in Rome. Returning home, they shared the good news of the Messiah, and the church grew.

Whatever the case, life wasn’t easy for these Christians. Already hated for being Jewish, they found themselves more and more distrusted by their friends and family in the synagogues of Rome. What’s more, they lived in the very heart of the Roman Empire, a culture which welcomed the religions of all people, with one stipulation: once a year, every Roman citizen had to offer incense in worship to the god Caesar. And while Julius Caesar himself had exempted the Jewish people from this act of idolatry, as the Christian congregation grew to include people from outside Judaism, these new members found themselves experiencing increasing persecution, increasing pressure to compromise their newfound faith in the one true living God, in favor of this one small act of conformity, the pinch of incense to Caesar.

A rich man could have bought his way out. After all, one simply needed a certificate signed by a priest of Caesar, saying the act of worship had been completed. But the Good News attracted those needing hope. Slaves. Women. The desperately poor.

What’s more, by the time Paul wrote his epistle to the Roman church, the Emperor Nero had assumed power, and it was obvious to anyone with a pulse that this Nero was a raving lunatic. Things could only get worse. Though these Christians didn’t know it, the horrible persecutions which would follow the burning of Rome were less than a decade away.

Imagine not knowing what to do. Quietly sneak out to the nearest temple of Caesar, make the offering, get the certificate, and hope no one in the congregation noticed? Or stand firm and wait for their master or some Roman soldier to take note of the lack of certificate, and face the terror of the Roman judicial system? Leave your family, already malnourished and scraping by day by day, without any means of support? How do you pray about such a thing? How does hope function in that place where it’s no longer an intellectual pursuit, but a matter of life and death?

It’s hard for Western Christians to comprehend, this idea of our faith being a matter of life and death. Believing in God is still socially acceptable, and, for many of us, the idea of attending church, the idea of being a Christian, is the expected norm. We tend to look at people of other religions, or no religion at all, in the same way that the average Roman looked upon the Christian during the first three hundred years of the Church’s existence – with suspicion, distrust, occasional hostility, and perhaps a tinge of fear.

Yet for many, many modern-day followers of Christ, many here-and-now residents of the Kingdom of God, worshiping Jesus Christ means risking exile, imprisonment, torture, and even death.

In Vietnam, the government continues to pursue “Plan 184,” a systematic process to persecute Christians. Montagnard Christians, particularly, continue to endure torture, imprisonment, beatings, and even forced renunciations of their faith and death at the hands of the Vietnamese government.

In Pakistan, some one hundred and fifty Christians are currently in prison for breaking harsh anti-blasphemy laws. Even Muslims who disagree with the law are in danger. The governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down after denouncing the law. His killer was cheered and showered with rose petals as he was led into court.

In Iran, the Supreme Court has upheld a ruling which forces Evangelical pastor Yosef Nadarkhani to choose between renouncing his Christian faith or be put to death by hanging. His attorney, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, faces nine years in prison and a ten year ban from practicing law for his efforts on Yosef Nadarkhani’s behalf.

On July 10, the All Christian Fellowship Mission church in Suleja, Nigeria was bombed by extremists as members were leaving Sunday service. Three people died in the blast.

It is to this that our Epistle reading this morning speaks three great words of enduring, eternal hope.

The first hope is the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is always present even in our sorrows because the Holy Spirit prays with us and for us to God. What’s more, the Spirit is active when we don’t know what we need… and even when we do not know we have a need! God knows, even when we do not!

The second hope is the hope of God’s providence. The idea of being predestined here is not about some being “in” and others being “out” – too many theologians have spent far too much time on this idea, coming up with convoluted explanations of things like “double predestination,” where those who are doomed to Hell go there no matter what, and the Elect are chosen whether they like it or not. Rather, the Word assures us that God is present in all the matters of this life. Our past, present and future are arenas of God’s action on our behalf.

The third hope is the reminder that God’s providential history is shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ. In the gift of the Son we realize that God is always and absolutely for us. The text does not deny that there are principalities and powers, forces that seem strong and sometimes destructive as well. People have been getting arrested, imprisoned, hated, beaten, and killed for the sake of Christ since Day One. But these powers can never separate us from God’s love.

You may have noticed that I am using the words “we” and “us” a lot, and in light of how I painted we who are Western, American Christians at the outset, it may seem odd. If this word is primarily for those being persecuted, or having to make difficult life decisions for or against belief in Christ, why not use “they” and “them?”

Hear the Word of God from our Epistle reading this morning: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”

“…the firstborn within a large family.”

The message of the Kingdom of God is not one of a replacement of empire, not a new kind of governance or a different way of thinking. We are a family, all of us, and – even more than that – a body, bonded together in the deep and abiding love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. In this context of the Kingdom of God, we cannot, no matter how much we try, no matter how our denominations or creeds or doctrines or theologies differ, no matter how many miles are between us, no matter how many oceans separate us, ever be “us” and “them.”

When one of us is persecuted, be it in Pakistan or Turkey or Egypt or Mexico, we all are persecuted. When one of us is not free, be it in Saudi Arabia or China or Vietnam, none of us are free. When one of us is beaten, be it in Mexico or Nairobi, all of us feel the blows.

So when one of us is silenced, the rest must speak. When one of us is restricted, the rest must move on their behalf. Speaking the truth to power, acting in ways which enhance the lives of the downtrodden, forgotten, neglected and marginalized, these are all Kingdom actions! Suffering is not some kind of Stoic exercise in endurance, hoping that someday things will be better. No, that suffering is a call to action. After all, we are, as a body, as a cohesive unit, as a Kingdom, not simply called to be “more than conquerors,” we already are more than conquerors! This idea that Paul has talked about elsewhere in the Book of Romans, this concept of sharing in the sufferings of Christ, has a point to it! “To preach the Message of good news to the poor, …to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, ‘This is God's year to act!’” (Luke 4:18-19, Message)

But let’s be honest: maybe we don’t endure persecution. Maybe the closest thing to hate we experience is someone disagreeing with us over infant baptism. But we do suffer. Sometimes quietly, and sometimes everyone knows, but we hurt. And I know I cannot speak for you, but there have been times in my life where I have wondered if God still loved me.

If you take nothing else away from this sermon today, take this: the answer to that question, for me and for you and for everyone is a resounding, emphatic, enthusiastic “yes!” Nothing can ever separate us from God’s abundant, extravagant, effusive, ebullient, exuberant, overflowing, unconstrained, and unreserved love! Not death, not life, not angels, not presidents or kings or bosses or juntas, nothing in the present or in the future, not powerful people or things or thoughts or movements, not height, not depth, nothing anywhere ever no matter what, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Take that joyful Good News, and live in it… and give it out, all the time, out there, beyond these walls and that door, to everyone, everywhere.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

It's "Horticulturist," not "Horticulturalist."

Not that the title has anything to do with the sermon.

I have a friend who, because of an accumulation of things, including open abuse by Christians, has left the faith. And while, yes, people are responsible for their own decisions, the fact that other Christians drove this person away from faith in Christ is galling, embarrassing, tragic, and inexcusable.

Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19aHe called that place Bethel;

Romans 8:12-25
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: “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.’”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I wouldn’t even begin to call myself an expert horticulturist, but I’ve done a little gardening in my time. Well, more precisely, I’ve helped out with gardening on occasion. One of the very few things I know about gardening is that, occasionally, there is weeding that has to be done. So I have to confess a bit of confusion over the panic that the household slaves get in over the weeds in this week’s Gospel reading. I mean, it’s just weeds. What’s the big deal about a few weeds? You have to get in there, look for anything that isn’t wheat, pull it up, and get on with life, right?

Not so much, as it turns out. The weeds Jesus refers to are called “darnel,” and they are both poisonous and indistinguishable from wheat until they reach maturity. It was a crime in the Roman empire to do to this householder what his enemy did – sow darnel among the wheat. It is so pervasive that its roots intertwine with the wheat’s roots, making it impossible to get rid of the bad without destroying the good! No wonder the householder was content just to let everything grow together – there would be ample time for the experts to take care of the problem at harvest time.

And can I tell you this morning, that I think many of us in the Church Universal have forgotten that important key point – that it’s the experts at the harvest time who will do the work of deciding what is, and what is not, fit to eat?

I think it’s a natural reaction for us humans that, whenever we read about separating the wheat from the weeds, we automatically think of people – either groups or individuals – who we think of as weeds, “children of the evil one,” as Jesus puts it. Perhaps, deep down, we feel a twinge of fear that we, ourselves, are weeds, and instead of shining like the sun, we’re destined to go up in smoke.

So we get busy making lists, tabulating what is right and what is wrong, and more than that, who is right and who is wrong, when it comes to Christian faith and practice. We want to make sure we are the “right” ones, the wheat, so we codify in minute detail exactly what it means to be fit for the Kingdom, and we specify the kinds of people who are fit only for the furnace. Churches write constitutions, statements of faith, doctrinal statements… some even require members to sign a contract before they join!

Denominations are created in much the same way as amoeba reproduce, this one splitting off from that one over issues of Scriptural interpretation, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, who can and cannot preach or serve in leadership, which translation of the Bible is the “correct” one, and on and on. Arguments and even outright violence break out and get publicized, lawsuits get filed, and it’s been going on this way for centuries!

The result is that the Body of Christ appears fractured – thirty-five thousand separate Protestant denominations, Catholicism in Roman form, as well as Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and all of this to say nothing about Coptic churches, unaffiliated churches, churches in coffee shops and living rooms and bars, Emergent cohorts… all saying different things about the same God. All deciding, in one way or another, who is a weed and who is wheat.

As a direct result of all of the infighting and all the outcasting, more and more people every day are deciding that Christianity isn’t for them. And this is not simply people who have never been to church, looking on from the outside, and saying “no, thank you.” According to Barna Research, in the United States, some fifty-three thousand people – people who are in church, who perhaps grew up there, who have heard the preaching and sung the songs and prayed the prayers – leave church every week… and never come back.

We are, in effect – no, that’s not right, it isn’t “in effect,” it’s exactly that we are ripping out the wheat along with the weeds, and doing it with wild and joyful abandon! In our passion to construct the perfect vehicle with which to express our freedom in Christ, we’ve fenced ourselves in – thirty-five thousand separate plots of theological ground. In our dedication to perfecting our walk, purifying our prayer, sanctifying our thought, we have shut out anything and everyone who does not conform to our precise expectations.

We have forgotten that doctrine does not save. And while our theology defines what we believe about God, it also divides, because not everyone speaks of God with the same words, or from the same perspective. We have forgotten that what unites us – the only thing which can truly make us one in Christ – isn’t our orthodoxy (right thinking) or orthopraxy (right practice)… it’s love.

The lesson of the wheat and the weeds isn’t that there are “children of the evil one” among us. We know this already, it’s not news. The lesson is that we can’t tell. And, further, that it isn’t our job to tell who is a weed and who is wheat. We mess it up when we try to do it.

We are not God’s instruments of judgment. We are instruments of God’s love. We are not designed by our Creator, infused with God’s Holy Spirit, in order to be exclusive, but to reach out, in love, to all of creation – to be inclusive.

We are meant to pray, with Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred,
Let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, Joy.

O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
To be understood,as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jesus Didn't Drive No John Deere...

I owe much of this sermon to Elisabeth Johnson and Scott Hoezee. I hope you enjoy it.

Genesis 25:19-34
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Romans 8:1-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading this morning is one of the most widely known and understood of Jesus’ parables. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot left to say about it, since Jesus takes the time to explain, carefully and specifically, precisely what he means by the story.

The challenge with this parable, then, isn’t what the allegory means, but what we humans – we Christians – tend to do with it.

Christ says, “Let anyone with ears listen!” And at its most basic, it’s a parable about hearing, really hearing, the Good News.

What do you think of when you hear about the ground that the seed was cast upon? For far too many people, images come to mind of other people – individuals or groups – who either do not follow Christ, or don’t follow Christ as well as they do.

They interpret the parable to mean that when they cast their seed – meaning when they speak their doctrinal position, share their theological worldview, or make a Gospel witness – some people will hear their message or their worldview, be reasonable, and see it their way (the good soil). The ones who dare to disagree, or not care, have only themselves to blame for being bad soil.

Some of those people have built pathways, even roads in the soil of hearts, hard-packed from the busyness of life, by the claims of science, and by the cynicism and arrogance of the age. They sneer at the very idea of God, religion, faith. The seed of the gospel can just bounce off such a hard heart. Maybe a bird of the air will eat it. But by golly, it won’t grow.

Other folks’ hearts aren’t as hard-packed, but the soil is shallow – made so by a get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They’ve been trained by the media to always be on the lookout for the next big thing – the newest, the nicest, the fastest. Sometimes the seed of the gospel shoots up like kudzu in people’s hearts… but withers when the next reality-show comes on television.

Still other hearts are just plain crowded. It isn’t that these folks are callous or shallow; in fact, the soil of their hearts is deep. Lots of stuff grows there... too much, in fact. The seed of the gospel sprouts just fine, but it’s in competition with the plants of commerce and business, the shrubberies of the 401k fund, the Roth IRA weeds, the stock market portfolio vines, and all the stuff sucks all the nutrients out of the soil, and there’s nothing left.

But the story that Jesus tells here is not a measuring-stick for the faith of others, or a guideline for who is saved and who isn’t (although that seems to be a preoccupation of many of us today). Charles Cousar says it well: “As hearers, the disciples are not allowed the luxury of armchair quarterbacking, of deliberating over someone else's positive or negative response as to who gets the credit or blame. The text bluntly asks, How do you hear? What type of soil are you? Does your hearing lead to understanding?”

It’s a tough question. I mean, I’d like to think I’m good soil… but I can be cynical. I can be self-centered. I get distracted from prayer and meditation and study way too easily. What if I’m not good soil at all? What if there’s really no hope for me?

Well, if we’re honest, we can all find evidence of all kinds of soil in our hearts at once, can’t we? Depending on the day we’re having, the time of day, what time of year, and who knows what-all, we can have hardscrabble paths worn into places where we’ve made up our minds and no one can tell us different, shallow patches where we’ve been jealous about someone else’s car or smart phone, choked-up sections where we’ve exhausted ourselves over worrying about paying bills, and, yes, deep, rich, fertile spots where God’s joyous Good News thrives.

It’s interesting to note that, nowhere in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation of the parable are we commanded to be good soil. Soil can’t make itself good or bad. Dirt doesn’t choose to take up residence amongst rocks, or decide to be home to weeds. It’s dirt, it’s soil, it lives where it is. This analogy can’t go too far, because we humans do have the responsibility to be open to God’s work in our lives, but we can say this: in exactly the same way that soil can only be changed by the work of an outside agent – someone to dig out the rocks, pull out the weeds, work in the fertilizer – our hearts change only through the working of the Holy Spirit. And in the same way that a farmer can’t wave his hands and make a rocky patch into a fertile, tilled field ready for a garden, the change that God brings to our hearts is a long-term – lifelong – process.

When you get down to it, this parable is known far and wide, and as far as I know always has been known far and wide, as the Parable of the Sower, and for good reason. If this were real life, and the sower a modern-day farmer, we would think he had lost his mind! The sheer extravagance of flinging all that seed everywhere at once! It is as if the sower got on his John Deere, hooked up the Model SS10B Broadcast Spreader, and before he even drove out of the barn, pushed the PTO button that started the hopper spinning. As he drives to the field, seed is slinging everywhere! On the driveway, in the grass, bouncing off of passing cars, whizzing into the weeds on the side of the road, and finally – finally – as he drives into the field, the seed flies where it’s actually supposed to go!

It makes no sense… if you’re a farmer.

If you’re God, it makes perfect sense. God is, after all, extravagant, ebullient, fervent in his love for all of us, for all of creation. It makes perfect sense that the word of the kingdom, the Good News of eternal life and reconciliation with our creator through Jesus Christ, would be scattered with wild abandon, with no prequalification or exclusion or second-guessing.

Jesus never played it safe. He invested his time and effort into a ragtag cluster of a dozen fishermen and malcontents, ate his meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, showed mercy to the Roman oppressor and the pagan foreigner, touched the leper, even demanded that the grave give up its dead, and gave his life for the loftiest and the lowliest of sinners.

And Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”

We who inhabit the Body of Christ are entrusted with Jesus’ ongoing mission in this world. Instead of being egregiously generous with the love, forgiveness, and acceptance that we, ourselves, have enjoyed in Christ Jesus, we too often play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to do us some good in return. In the name of good stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We stifle creativity and energy, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work -- as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs.

Jesus gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. Though we may wonder about the wisdom or efficiency of his methods, Jesus promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.

The coming of the seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of the Holy One who won’t stop.