Monday, July 25, 2011

Like a Pebble in Your Shoe; Pentecost 6, July 24, 2011

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before them another parable: “The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a 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 realm of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The realm 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 realm 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 realm 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 Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the realm of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Will you pray with me? Loving God, pour out your grace on us today. Open our hearts and spirits to speak and hear your truth and love; all that you would have us know, that we may work more effectively to bring about your realm here on earth. We ask in your own mighty name, amen.

Wow, this reading sounds like some of my sermons—just all over the place, trying several different metaphors trying to explain or even just discuss the realm of God. A mustard seed, the realm of God is like a mustard seed—or no, it’s like some bread dough—wait, it’s more like a treasure, a pearl…or maybe it’s a netful of fish…

Human language cannot really explain the things of God. I think we all understand that. The best we can do is use metaphors, images, ideas of what God’s realm is like. And so Matthew has come up with this array of images—mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure in a field, pearl, a pile of fish. If that’s not a bunch of unconnected images, I don’t know what is! 

And yet…these all do have something in common. Matthew is trying to convey the idea of something seemingly small, hidden, inconsequential at first glance, something that needs discernment and understanding to see and claim. 

That mustard seed—it’s small, but once it’s planted, it grows tall. A little bit of yeast is all you need to make a lot of bread—and don’t forget bread was the main food item in those days. Jesus is indulging in hyperbole here, by the way—there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds and it never grows into an actual tree, and there’s no way that yeast could leaven the whole amount of flour.  But that exaggeration emphasizes the point—minor, insignificant things can in fact be very important.

A hidden treasure—how valuable could it really be if someone has forgotten about it and someone else can just stumble on it in the countryside? And yet it is valuable enough for the finder to buy the whole field in order to get it.

That pearl of great price…a tiny thing, easily crushed or damaged—and yet the merchant sells off everything else she has in order to get it—to put all her resources into this one small pearl. Not good business is it? It speaks of a passion—for the perfect, for the ideal, for a willingness to sacrifice everything for a goal.
Finally, those fish… The fishers were using what’s called a seine net—you pull it through the water and gather up everything that’s too big to get through the meshes. So then they had to sit down on the shore and sort it all out. There were, I am sure, old bottles, and sticks, and a worn-out sandal someone threw away, and turtles and some broken pottery and algae mats and fish that were not good eating and fish that were good eating. But they didn’t try to sort them out until afterwards—until the whole catch had been brought in—and when it comes to us, it’s not human beings who do that sorting but angels. There’s a saying I’ve always disliked, usually associated with the military—“kill them all and let God sort them out.” I’d rather change that to “Bring them all in and let God sort them out.” 

The realm of God is like that, too—gathering all the people together, regardless of whether they are seen as valuable or worthless or somewhere in the middle. God knows their worth. And after all, even the bottles could be used as a flower vase and some turtles make good soup. 

But the truth here is that important things, good things, valuable things, can come from small beginnings or look like they are worthless. A tiny seed, a turtle, an empty field; or a few disciples who were not well-educated, wealthy or important. The smallest things, the most insignificant acts can change the way people look at each other and the relationship they have with God.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon at a fundraiser—a cruise on the River. The majority of attendees were not people whom we will probably ever see here in our service—some are simply not interested in church, others have churches they attend already, some we see from time to time, a few are opposed to churches. But my presence there spoke to them in a different way—even if they weren’t aware of it, even if it was on an unconscious level. A pastor, on the river cruise, dancing to the DJ, friends with many of them, talking, laughing, bantering, and yes, drinking a Mike’s Cranberry Lemonade…I was there, I was present for them, sharing their lives and their experiences. It may have been a mustard seed—or a pebble in their shoes, reminding them of God’s presence there, not so much in me but in each one of them—that tiny pebble that won’t go away, but reminds you of its presence with each step. 

It’s telling that I am often told by members of the community that I am their pastor, or this is their church, when they have no formal ties to the church.  What they do have are ties of affection, of understanding that here they are welcome and loved and wanted, even if they choose not to come, or not to come regularly. They know that if they decide to come, they have a place to come to worship. From such little things, seemingly insignificant, great things can grow. 

And you know, this is not simply a denominational thing. When I served two small country churches as a Methodist pastor, many people had the same sense about those churches. There was no town cemetery, so every one was buried in Waterside UMC on one side of the ridge or Countryside UMC on the other side. Most of the families didn’t belong to either church, but they still felt as if they were “their” church—there for them when they needed a church. Those small churches were pebbles, too—reminding people of God’s presence, always.

My sisters and brothers, consider this. Are you a pebble in someone’s shoe? Is this church a pebble? 

Are we intentional about being those seeds, that pearl, the fish in the net? Are we reminding the people around us of God’s presence with them—always?
There are so many ways to do that, many of them very simple. Just by behaving in ways that are Christian—caring for others by not gossiping or tearing down, showing respect for our sisters and brothers and ourselves in our actions, lifting others up who are in need—that sets an example, a counter-example to those who claim the name Christian and yet act in very un-Christlike ways. When the topic of spirituality arises in conversation with friends, strangers, family--mention church—that you go, that you go to church,  your role at church is—you usher, you serve communion, you were once on the board. 

That simple knowledge of you—someone who has a face to them—as a Christian who attends church means more than all the sermons, than all the glitzy campaigns or fancy buildings. It’s a mustard seed, a pearl—a hidden treasure.

In all God’s many names, amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Watching What We Weed"

Pentecost 5

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!” 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 labour 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.

Matt 13:24-30, 36-43
Jesus put before them another parable: “The realm of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in a 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 servants of the householder came and said, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ The householder answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants 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 Jesus 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 Human One; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of God’s realm; 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 Human One will send his angels, and they will collect out of his realm 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 God’s realm. Let anyone with ears listen!

Will you pray with me? Loving God, teach us to be loving and forgiving, to understand that we do not see as you see and that your ways are wiser than ours. You do not see what the world sees, what humans see—you see the truth, you understand our hidden ways and you know when a weed is really wheat. In all your names, amen.

We seem to be on a farming streak in our readings! Last week the reading was about seeds and planting lots of them so they would grow. This week we’re talking about weeds!

One thing we should know about this parable of Jesus—tares, the word translated “weeds” in the reading, are a plant that looks a lot like wheat until it’s very close to harvest time. And they are poisonous, so you can’t just bring them in with the rest of the crop. What a predicament—poisonous, but they look just like the plants you want to keep; you have to keep away from the poison, but they are mixed in with the good. Does that sound like anything in your life?

I think the world is a lot like that wheat field—weeds and wheat all mixed together, and only God and the angels can tell the difference before harvest-time.

I am a huge fan of JRR Tolkien and his trilogy The Lord of the Rings. One of the main characters, Aragorn, is a hidden king who appears when his people’s need is the greatest—a familiar theme in legends. In the book The Fellowship of the Ring, four of the main characters, traveling in great danger and trying to avoid a fearful enemy,  meet Aragorn at an inn, and when he attempts to befriend them, are suspicious because he doesn’t seem to be the sort of person who would be on their side. Tolkien, who was not a bad poet, included this poem about Aragorn.

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost 

In other words, Aragorn may appear quite foul—weatherbeaten, ragged, grim, even threatening—but this is the king who is to be, and he will help them in their time of need—and indeed, he saves their lives that very night. He looks like a weed, but is in fact the finest wheat. 

Now, Jesus says the “realm of God” is like that wheat field—the good and the bad, the healthy and the dangerous, we’re all mixed up together, and only God can sort us out. The realm of God is a place Jesus clearly feels everyone should want to be—and yet it doesn’t seem to be as much like paradise as one might expect. This parable also suggests that things are not as clear-cut as some people would like them to be—life is not an either-or proposition, up or down, good or bad, yes or no. It’s mixed, not only in general, but—in fact—within ourselves.

None of us are pure wheat or pure weeds. And sometimes it’s hard to pull the weeds—those parts of us we don’t like to think about—without destroying the wheat—the parts of us we are proud of, at least in this world. I can be very stubborn and mulish—which is a weed. On the other hand, that very stubbornness keeps me working when others would have given up or not even begun, and often leads me to find a solution when I thought it was impossible. Sometimes a person is very outspoken—which can be difficult if she’s too blunt and hurts feelings or angers people. But that same person can also challenge people who need to face issues or to realize that their way is not the only way. What we see as a weed God may see as wheat—and vice versa. It sometimes takes a while and more maturity to see what is truly wheat and weed—it sometimes isn’t until the harvest that we can see the truth.

So—wheat and weed. But the point of the parable is not so much about the fact that we are a mixture of weed and wheat, and the world, too, is both healthy and dangerous. I think it’s more about the servants who wanted to try to pull those weeds too early, before they could really tell which was which.

Isn’t that a temptation for us? Are we like those servants, thinking we know exactly who is weed and who is wheat? Do we look at someone and think there’s no way that person is wheat? The Fred Phelpses, the Jerry Falwells, the opposition leaders, the homophobes and the white supremacists, the fundamentalists of any religion and none, anyone who promotes hate of others, who hurts other people—whether physically emotionally, or politically—those are the ones we think must be weeds. 

It’s so hard to remember that even those—even the ones who want to hurt us, and do hurt us—they too are children of God and in God’s eyes, their wheat-ness may outweigh their weed-ness. We do not know until that final harvest day which it is—and we do not know that about ourselves, either. If we pray and hope and have confidence that God will see our wheat-ness—all the good intentions, the holy acts, the loving relationships, the reconciliations, the mutual support—if we think God will see past our errors and mistakes, then we have to think God will do no less for others, even those who hurt us. For if God is a God who sees to the heart, then God sees not just to our heart, but to the heart of every person—and pulls out the weeds, but cherishes the wheat in every human heart, even the ones we humans believe cannot possibly have any wheat in their hearts.

I am not saying so much that we should forgive people who treat us badly—although Jesus does say that. The focus here, I think, is on realizing that we don’t know—we simply cannot know—who is wheat and who is weed in God’s eyes. So the Realm of God is not so much that only wheat is found there but that we all are aware that we are both wheat and weed, and content to allow God to be God and wait for God to pull out those weeds—in our hearts and in other peoples’—when the time is right. 

It’s about judging—or, more accurately, about NOT judging, not deciding we know who is godly and who is not. We are not the ones who will be doing the weeding!
Our call is to cultivate the wheat in our own lives and in the world—to starve those weeds, but also recognize that they have power and may in fact be wheat someday—God knows, we cannot. 

Trust God to know the difference—trust God to heal the weeds until they are wheat, and to harvest all together in God’s good time. 

In all God’s names, amen.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Catching Up For the Umpteenth Time...

Having briefly moved away from River City, I am now back where I feel I belong. I've found a lovely nest of an apartment (only word for it; a small one-bedroom perched on the top floor, airy and tree-shaded), and am settling in.

While my reasons for moving away were complicated, my reason for moving back is much simpler--this is where I need to be. For my calling, for the church I serve, for my mental and physical health, I need to be here. And so, with some difficulty, here I am!

And I must thank some folks for helping me to take this step--I made the decision, they gave me the assistance to do it. I was given a place to stay--safe, comfortable, caring, a haven in every sense of the word--when I was in desperate need. Physical labour in moving my belongings under circumstances both physically and emotionally difficult. Shelter for my things, which, while they are only things, nonetheless are meaningful and necessary (bed, chair, books...). Sacrifice of time and energy, and a sharing of expertise. I am blessed in my friends!

This blog was one of the things I have missed. I am committed to regular blogging--and on all topics, so look out below!

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...