Monday, August 31, 2015

Weeds, Wheat and Yeast

Matthew 13:24-32
There have been several books out within the past couple of years telling of near death experiences.  These are experiences where a person dies for a few seconds and then revives for one reason or another to come back to life.  It’s within those split seconds of death, that little sliver of the afterlife, is what they write about.  Mostly those experiences have always been one of heaven.

They go on to describe it as beautiful, peaceful, reassuring, warm, loving, light filled.  The Rev. Peter Panagore has had an experience such as this and it changed his life. After that experience he embarked on an intense spiritual journey that continues today.  He will be here later in October to promote his book.  More information will follow the closer we get. 

But for now, heaven seems like it is quite a pleasant place, somewhere that I think I’d like to end up someday.  But in the meantime, and I hope it’s a long meantime I’ve got to deal with the here and now and try to make this place a better place, maybe even a bit of heaven here on earth.

Our passage for reflection this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew the 13th chapter.  Jesus tells three parables in a row all beginning with the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’….

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.’”

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.”

Bing, bang, boom, three parables in a row.  Actually, in it’s entirety, there are four parables with a interlude of explanation of these parables and then three more.  One following on the heels of another as if Jesus were in some big hurry.   His point must be really important because they all deal with relatively the same message, the kingdom of heaven is like a sower sowing his field, a mustard seed, weeds and wheat, yeast, a treasure, a merchant, a net thrown into the sea. 

In fact there are 32 references to the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s a dominant theme in this Gospel.  Quite simply put, the kingdom of heaven is the concept of the universe as one divine kingdom where God is sovereign.  It is the unification of the human race prompted by love, divine love and universal love.  It is social order brought to perfection.  I think that Lung-chu Chen has it right in the preface to his book, “An Introduction to Contemporary International  Law“ , he says,  “Citizens of the world must be taught to think globally, to think contextually, and to think creatively for the common interest.  The ultimate goal should be the establishment of a world community of human dignity.” [i]  This sure sounds to me like the kingdom of heaven.  I think, ‘if I can take a moment to think like God’, that would make God very happy diety. 

Of course it’s just not that easy, never is.  It gets much more complicated than just that.  These parables set off a scholarly debate that has ensued ever since.  They argue, is this kingdom, this fullness of grace and beauty in the future or is it in the here and now.   Does Christ have to come again to bring in the kingdom or is he the kingdom fulfilled in our hearts?  So we could go on and on till those proverbial cows come home but we would waste so much of our precious time and still may not agree or come up with an answer.  All we know is that human life is finite and the only moment we have is now. 

Essentially these parables teach us that there is good and there is bad in the world; we cannot change that, the weeds grow among the vital, hardy plants.  That evil is hard to distinguish and it is best left up to God to handle.  God will be the one to judge in the end what is good and what is bad.  Perhaps that’s why we utter each week the phrase, “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s prayer.  We want God’s hand in our lives, in the beautiful, sublime kingdom here on earth.  We want God to rule in our hearts and in our minds and to make this world a better place to inhabit.   We want good to win, Thy kingdom come.  Please God – can’t your kingdom come now rather than later?

But that doesn’t mean that our hands should stay folded and our heads are bowed.  It means that our hands should be wide open and actively seeking ways to bring the kingdom into your present reality, that your heads should be held high and your eyes wide open to what needs to be done.  Why wait when now you have the opportunity and the wherewithal to make a difference, to advance the kingdom of heaven.   Just to make this place a better place – a little slice of heaven here on earth.

There is a phrase in Judaism, ‘tikkum olam’ which means simply repair the world.  We know that this world has so much to offer and it has so much that sorely needs our help.  You can name any number of maladies that our world suffers from.  Working to alleviate hunger, homelessness, violence, nuclear warfare, resettling refugees, becoming an ally to someone who has been bullied all are fine and worthy causes and there are so many more, that you can spend your precious life’s hours on to repair this world.

How might you begin?  Where is your niche?  ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life’ as the poet Mary Oliver asks in her poem, ‘The Summer Day’.

The kingdom of heaven really does have to begin within you.  A heart that is open to having Christ as it’s guide is a heart that is willing to advance that glorious kingdom.  If you take Christ seriously, if you understand one measly lesson in all of the teachings then you’ll know what to do.

What you do matters whether its on a micro level or macro level.  When you, in what you do, declare truth it matters.  Your work, whether it’s in our out of the home or in retirement is a divine called from God if you choose to frame it that way.  And living into that call will make all of the difference in God’s world and in your life.

I want to leave you with Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”, that I referenced earlier because it’s descriptive and appropriated for a late August day but, more importantly, it motivates me to strive for the kingdom.

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver


[i] Chen, Lung-chu.  And Introduction to Contemporary International Law    2015.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Ever Present Sacred

Luke 15: 11-32
The Monday evening book group has been reading Anne Lamott’s book, ‘Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace’.  She makes a brief analogy to the prodigal son when she introduces her essay, ‘Brotherman’.  After giving a vivid description about their despondent childhood, and John, the oldest and the ‘star’ of the family who moved three hours away, you can see that for many years she harbored resentment towards him.  She and her other brother Stevo took care of their parents as they were dying.  She and Stevo were the ones to never have left the area.  She and Stevo were always around to clean up the messes of her family’s life, not John.

But she writes this about his return after many years, “John found refuge among the people he had hurt and neglected.  I still had some little grudgelets and feared he would leave us again, but the three of us were slowly growing up.  That, grace, and exhaustion with myself allowed me to forgive. I did not want to keep score anymore.” [i]

It’s not hard to figure out that John was analogous to the younger brother who went off to seek his fortune in today’s parable of the prodigal son and Anne and Stevo identified with the older brother who stayed back at the ranch.

We continue the sermon series the ‘The Genius or Way of Jesus’ reflecting upon the character of Jesus and the ways it shows us a deeper and fuller life.  Jesus as encourager, balancer of power, resister of violence.  Last week Beth showed us the part of Jesus’ character as seer of soul.  This week Jesus shows us that God is ever present in our lives, no matter how we choose to live or to act.    
The Prodigal Son
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!

I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

This is an extremely complicated parable.  So much of it rings true about human nature. Greed.  Loss.  Loneliness.  Hunger.  Realization.  Jealousy.  Anger.  It’s all there, the worst of human nature; neither one of the sons will win the humanitarian award for outstanding behavior.
Yet we are also privy to see, and understand if we can, the best of divine nature.  Love.  Acceptance.  Generosity.  Mercy.  Forgiveness. Grace.

Jesus tells this story.  A man had two sons.  The younger son wanted, and was given his share of his inheritance.  At that time the older son too was given his portion of the inheritance but we don’t hear much about that.  Being the “respectable” son he probably socked it away somewhere to increase in value.  Maybe an early Palestine venture capital fund or something like that, who knows?

The younger son, the party animal, left home to seek his fortune, or rather engaged in ‘riotous living’ as the King James Version of the Bible puts it.  Now his father was a rich man, which meant that the son was the recipient of a good hunk of change.  However, as people who engage in riotous living do, he goes through it all pretty quickly.  Wine, women and song perhaps and then, the famine hit.  Does that sound familiar?  It reminds me of the extravagance of the 80’s and 90’s that was suddenly quashed by the recession of 2007.  Or the stock market’s correction this week.  The party’s over….for a while.

The son had nothing.  Not a morsel of food or dignity at that point.  He hired himself out, a good Jewish boy, to work with the pigs.  TREF!  So NOT kosher!  He was at his lowest even though he was instrumental in getting himself there.  But then the Bible says, ‘he came to himself’ (v. 17) rather, he figured it out, he got it, the light-bulb went on, he had an a-ha moment.  He did some introspective work, some soul searching on his situation and his heart.  He thinks, “I’ll go back to my father.”  He rehearsed what he was going to say and then went home.

While he was still in the distance, his father sees him.  Runs to him.  Greets him.  Kisses him.  Accepts him.  And makes a big party for him.  For what was lost, now was found.  He that left, returned.  Let’s face it, we’ve all been that younger son.

But that’s only part of the story.  The oldest son was jealous and angry when he heard the music and laughter.  And, why shouldn’t he be?  After all he was the son who stayed at home, who invested wisely, who was at his father’s side.  It’s only natural to get your nose out of joint and hold ‘some little grudgelets’ much like Anne Lamott and her brother Stevo in ‘Small Victories’.  Let’s face it again, we’ve all been that older son too.  Human nature at it’s worst.

But rather than focus on the actions of the sons, or our actions for that matter, let us focus on the extravagant and compassionate love that the father offers.  I believe that’s what Jesus would like us to focus on as well; the extravagant and compassionate outpouring of love from God and seeing the sacred that is presented to us in all of our life situations.

Both of the sons are broken.  And yet God met them where they were, warts and all and in their brokenness.  Being broken is not such a good thing, it doesn’t feel like a good place to be in but I do believe that there is value that can be gained in that brokenness because that is where God chooses to meet us head on, and takes care of us giving us what we need to survive.

Stuff happens in life to all of us, but what sets us apart as Christ followers is that we know that God is with us and for us.  That is something you can always count on.  The sacred, divine and holy wiggles into those places with you all you need do is know and recognize that’ healing can begin.

There is a wideness in God’s mercy as the hymn proclaims.  There is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.  God’s mercy and love is incomprehensible, it knows no limits or boundaries or colors of skin.  God’s ability to receive and forgive is beyond what we can even imagine.  Thank goodness and thank God for that.    

God extends mercy and grace to each and every one of us even if we’ve squandered away our inheritance, even if we’ve left home in search for something better - even if we have been faithful servants of the word.   In our brokenness we find wholeness.
The reassuring message for today is that God loves!


[i] Lamott, Anne.  Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Riverhead Books, NY, 2014

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Peace of a Different Sort

Matthew 26: 48-54
When you hear the scripture today it will be familiar one to you but it will seem just a bit out of place. You see the context for this scripture is the Passion of Christ and it would be one of the stories that you would hear on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.  The beauty of hearing it now out of context is that we can focus on other insights that this piece provides for us.  Let’s get to it….

Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

The usual spin on this passage is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the indicting kiss that lets the arresting officers of the Roman army know just who their man was.  The theological spin we put on it is that Jesus is complacent because he has to do what he has to do.  He’s on this earth for a specific reason and it will, by whatever means, be accomplished.  And the whole cutting of the ear part sure adds a bit of drama to the situation.  One of those with him acts out his anger.  And Jesus doesn’t like it.

But since we are now heading into the third week of the sermon series, The Genius or Way of Jesus, we are going to focus on the character of Jesus.  We’ve already looked at Jesus as encourager of Peter to fish deeper into the waters of life to seek abundance, and then last week we saw Jesus lay out a very strong message, that is to make wise choices in life keeping power in balance. The part of Jesus character that we will look at today is how he resists the human tendency for violence and shows us another way to live that promotes peace.

I think that Jesus, as embodiment of the human spirit, would have, just like one of us, wanted to lash out.  Let’s face it, he would have wanted to get angry and maybe he even did, but what sets him apart is that he doesn’t act as humans act. We know that he got angry, he wept, he felt emotions, which is what makes him very real. 

But in this scene he does not act like we might have acted, he shows the way of non-violence and acts as peacemaker for those around him.  Yes he was still arrested but through his actions he diffused his very angry followers from endangering those around him and inciting even more violence and rioting.  Violent behavior only fuels hatred and recrimination, it’s a foil for the fear that lurks within. You can’t fight violence with violence and expect peaceful, peace filled outcomes, it just doesn’t work that way.

Nagasaki Mary*

You may know that the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima was on August 6, just a few days ago.  As you remember the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan and then only three days later we dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki.  It was not one of our finest moments in time.  More than 100,000 people were killed and another 150,000 were affected by related radiation illness and injuries.[i]  Sure, the Allies won the war, but are we, as a world, any safer because of their deaths? Can we say that this brought us any closer to world peace and security?  

No.  I don’t think so.  We still live in the face and fear of violence and in particular nuclear violence as evidenced by the recent Iran nuclear deal.  If we were free now of nuclear threat then perhaps Hiroshima would not have been in vain.  But that isn’t the case.  Now I know that there are many more complicating factors today with the very real threat of terrorism but fighting violence with violence is not the answer to everlasting peace.   Well thought out intentional non-violent resistance is.  So what does that look like?

I want to share with you a bit about my niece.  She is an extraordinary woman who has, in her lifetime accomplished much in the non-profit world.  I am so proud of her.  Today she works for an organization call Ploughshares Fund.  Ploughshares works to reduce nuclear stockpiles, prevent nuclear states and increase global security.  She actively works towards world peace with Ploughshares.  And how do they do it?  They advocate peace by supporting experts and advocates who implement strategies to secure a peaceful world without nuclear weapons. 

They work towards global, read me GLOBAL security.  A world where all people - me, you, and the people around the world will be safe and secure from nuclear threat which, as we know can destroy communities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki and worse yet, the soul and spirit of our fellow human beings. We all have the right to live without the threat of deadly nuclear warfare.

Thank goodness for Ploughshares and organizations like them because non-violent resistance is how Jesus responds in the text today.  We see how his active love responds to violence.  He shows us the way, it is the way of love, the way of the kingdom of God. It is the way of non-violent resistance.  It is the way of Nelson Mandela, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Mahatma Gandhi.  It is the baseline for ethical and decent living.

It is not doing nothing.  It is not sitting in a field of poppies with our arms raised and our fingers formed in the international sign of peace.  It is working towards cultural and intellectual transformation that defy the ‘industry standard’, the status quo.  It is seeking new horizons, thinking outside the box, dreaming of a world that is beyond human belief.  It is believing in  Jesus’ way because it is our way too. 

This, my friends, is what Jesus shows us in this text today.  “All who live by the sword will perish by the sword” so you can bet your booty that there are other ways to behave and to live abundantly and with dignity.  And we need to find those ways.

 I want to close with the often quoted prayer of St 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 doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; 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; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”


[i] Information gathered from an article by Elizabeth Warner Rogers of Ploughshares Fund.
*Nagasaki Mary is what is leftover from the Urakami Catholic Church from the bombing of 1945. The church has been rebuilt and the bust of a statue of Mary has been preserved.