Sermon Thoughts: The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…Jesus, Stop Talking

Pearl-of-Great-PriceWe’re knee-deep in parables if you’re following along in church these days.

This week the parables come rapid-fire, one right after the other in Matthew.  At the end of it all Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Have you understood all that I’ve said?” to which the disciples say, “Yes.”

I have to wonder if that “yes” from the disciples was more of an invitation for Jesus to stop talking than an admission of comprehension.

Something to note: if someone asks you if you “understand a parable,” and they’re not just checking to see if you know the words used, the answer isn’t ever “yes.”

That’s like asking “What does purple taste like?”

It’s nonsensical.  We don’t “understand” parables in the traditional sense of understanding.  Parables aren’t to be decoded.  Parables decode us.

Peter Rollins says it best in his book Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, “A parable does not primarily provide information about our world. Rather, if we allow it to do its work within us, it will change our world–breaking it open to ever-new possibilities by refusing to be held by the categories that currently exist in that world.  In this way the parable transforms the way we hold reality, and thus changes reality itself.”

He goes on, “The problem with so much religious communication is that it aims at changing our minds.  The result is that we can hear the message of the preacher without necessarily heeding the message; we can listen to the ‘truth’ and agree with it, yet not change in response to it.”

Rollins picks up on a central theme in this week’s string of parables: they’re all calls to awareness and reflection and action. “The parable facilitates genuine change at the level of action itself.  The message is thus hidden in the very words taht express it, only to be found by the one who is wholly changed by it.”

There is some sort of impetus on our part, then, not to engage the parable like we would a story about Jesus.  The parable isn’t like Jesus healing the lepers (though the story about Jesus telling the parables would be).  But the parables themselves are an altogether different beast.  They are endlessly instructive.

Which, I guess if you’re going to get to the meat of it all, is the real problem with having the disciples say “yes” when they’re asked if they understood it.  Because that “yes” is really just an invitation to stop engaging it.

And I’ve read a few sermons this week on these parables, and so many go into decoding mode instead of allowing the parables to do the decoding, that I just want to shake these pastors and say, “Jesus, shut up!”

The silence is sometimes better than the sermon, because at least then everybody is able to learn from the text.

Parables are our teachers.  We come back to them for new and different wisdom every time.  A sermon that invites a different answer than the one the disciples gave is, perhaps, the best response.

“Do you understand all that has been said?”

“No.”

“Hear again, then, that the kingdom of God is like a weed, the mustard weed, from the smallest seed…”

And slowly, surely, the weed of the parable will vine around your life producing wisdom of such great price that you will throw out the old ways in deference for the new in the net of existence…

 

Ancient Farming

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; wheattares125but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And 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?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let 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.’”
36Then 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.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Ancient Farming

We pray,

Lord let our hearts be good soil.

Lord let our hearts be good soil.

Lord let our hearts be good soil today.

This week I was pointed to an article on social media by Humans of New York that interviewed a drug dealer who spoke about his life. It’s a simple story. He got into selling drugs because everyone else around him was doing it, no one around him was interested in hiring him, and it was easy.

With his drug money he bought food for his children. With his drug money he’d give out loans to some of the older ladies in his neighborhood who had trouble making their rent and mortgage payments. He bought school supplies for the local elementary school.

So, good people of Luther Memorial, is this man an example of a weed or wheat in light of today’s Gospel reading?

This week I was walking down Michigan Avenue, and I saw a man sitting with his young son, probably about 3 or 4 years old, asking for pocket change. On the one hand we look at that and think, “How dare he bring his son out here and display him like that?! Shameful.”

On the other hand, the reality of childcare when you are penniless, let alone hungry…well…

So, good people of Luther Memorial, is this man an example of a weed or wheat in light of today’s Gospel reading?

This week we see Hamas in Palestine and the government of Israel lob bombs back and forth. 1 dead in Israel. Over 200 in Palestine, many of them babies. On the one hand, no nation should have to endure rockets being shot into their homes. On the other hand, no nation should have to endure seizure of land and indiscriminate killing of innocents.

Tell me, good people of Luther Memorial, who is the wheat and who is the weed?

The disturbing thing about this parable, a parable only found in the book of Matthew, is that even with the explanation Jesus offers, and I wonder if it’s reluctantly offered…Jesus didn’t often explain parables, but even with the explanation, the meaning remains murky.

Jesus’ explanation is really tough news for “those who have ears to hear.”

One of the interesting things about this parable is that Jesus never uses the word “weed” in it, at least not in the generic way we use that word. That’s the English translation. Actually Jesus talks here about a very specific kind of weed. The word in Greek is zizania, a particular weed, the darnel.

Now the darnel has this amazing thing about it: it looks a lot like wheat.

So if you see a field of wheat with darnel interspersed, sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference between a wheat stalk and a weed stalk.

Oh sneaky Jesus…you love to make your stories complicated.

In this parable where the evil one plants the darnel and the Son of Man plants the wheat, Jesus points out that it’s really difficult to tell the difference between the two. And all we want are answers, right? All we want is some clarity. And even when Jesus offers it, he doesn’t offer it.

But that’s the way it is with parables. As the brooding Irish theologian and metaphysicist Peter Rollins notes, parables don’t offer water to the thirsty soul. Parables give salt to the thirsty soul…making you more thirsty.

Because we hear Jesus’ example of wheat and darnel looking alike and think that Jesus is really just going back to that old cliché that we all know too well, “You can’t judge a book by its cover…” but that’s a shallow interpretation. Look closer. Get thirsty.

Jesus is saying something much more difficult and challenging as an ancient farmer.

Because it’s not just that you can’t tell a book by its cover, that you can’t tell the weed from the wheat, but that when you try to do so in other people, you actually usually become the thing that you hate. You actually become a weed yourself.

We can see this principle played out in Jesus’ other parables. Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee goes up to the temple, lifts his arms and says, “Thank you, God, that I am not like that tax collector…”

The tax collector goes into the temple, bows his head and says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner…”

And then Jesus says, “Which one of these two knows the ways of God?”

It is, of course, the Tax Collector whose humility lifts him closer to the Divine, meanwhile the Pharisee’s pride descends him into the hells of self-righteousness.

The one who tries to distinguish between wheat and weed in a way that passes the judgment of God on others becomes the weed he or she is trying to pluck out…

And this same thought process works throughout the whole of the Gospels. Jesus is constantly turning the tables on our ability to judge rightly. Look at the way he treats people.

He eats with sinners and tax collectors, he chats it up with strange women at wells, he heals lepers who have been plucked out of society and thrown into the trash heaps of leper colonies by the religious righteous, he demands mercy for the woman caught in adultery and condemns the piety of the Pharisees who have broken no laws. By all outside looks, it appears that Jesus has poor judgment, hanging out with the weeds…

In the world of Jesus, the people that we would imagine are weeds are actually the wheat.

And the people we imagine to be wheat? Dare we look in the mirror?

In this parable the weeds of the world are planted by “the evil one.” We might imagine that to mean that there are evil people in this world, evil to the core, and there are good people, and we must know the difference.

But think about this. In a couple chapters after Jesus tells this parable in Matthew, he has this encounter with Simon Peter where Peter tries to tell Jesus that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem because they’ll certainly kill him there.

And what does Jesus say to Peter? “Get behind me Satan…” (Matthew chapter 16)

Peter is a weed in that moment. His motivations aren’t coming from the Divine promise, but from fear.

So does that mean that we should pluck Peter up and throw him into the fires of our judgment?

Well, no. Of course not. Because Peter is both weed and wheat. Or, as Dr. Martin Luther said it, Peter is both “sinner and saint.”

As are we all. See, this parable is trickier than you might think. We all have weeds amongst the wheat of our souls. If you think you’re totally one or the other, or your neighbor is, think again. Those who have ears to hear, listen!

And the grace of God which works over us takes all the weeds in our being and graciously plucks them from us through Divine love and forgiveness, throwing them away, until all that is left is the wheat of righteousness. The wheat that God first planted in the Garden of Eden saying, “this is good…”

And at the end of his story, the religious followers and the imperial rulers take Jesus, label him a weed, and hang him up to dry next to two others identified as the weeds of society, and then throw them into the garbage pit of the tomb.

At which point God starts the work of replanting, and from that empty tomb sprung the wheat of Christ again, not full of judgment, not full of pointing at those that killed him with vengeance, but continuing to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, that God is still harvesting in this world despite our penchant for wanting to pluck up one another and throw each other away into the hells of judgment where we gnash our teeth at one another in angry vitriol and wail at one another because we’re so certain that we’re wheat and the other one is weed…

When Jesus rises from the grave he proclaims God’s love and grace, even on those who put him in the grave. And after having a radical encounter with this grace a well-known supposed weed by the name of Saul suddenly becomes the most well-known supposed stalk of wheat, called the Apostle Paul.

It seems that the weeds inside of us always have a chance to fall away so that our wheat grows forth…

So, here’s an interesting last tidbit. The sower of the seed in this story stops his servants from plucking up the weeds because he claims that it will also uproot the wheat. He encourages the servants to “permit them to abide together” or “grow alongside one another.

This ancient farming technique was used to save the crops. If you just start throwing away all the weeds you eventually also kill all the wheat.

For a real-life example of this, we don’t have to look too far as our bombs meant for strategic targets hit schools, playgrounds, apartments of the innocents. We could use a lesson in ancient farming.

Do you know what the Greek phrase used to describe allowing the weeds and wheat abide together is? The Greek word used for “permit” there is aphete. Aphete literally means something like, “let it be,” or in other places a full on “forgive.”

How are the wheat to respond to the weeds? With forgiveness.

Not by plucking them up and throwing them away. As Jesus says at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Instead we are to respond by forgiving them. And later on in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 18) Jesus claims that what we bind on earth is bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven, encouraging them to forgive as God forgives.

So it makes you wonder that, if the wheat become really good at forgiving the weeds, perhaps then the weeds themselves become wheat for the world in the transforming love of God… and then, at the end of all things, there is just harvest. A just harvest.

If you have ears to hear, listen. And then you might begin to understand why following Jesus was so difficult for those in ancient Palestine. You might begin to understand that following Jesus today is still difficult.

It’s difficult because we must understand the ways of ancient farming, the way of radical forgiveness like this, the way of giving up radical judgment in deference for God’s grace.

And at the end of the age, when the wheat have been so active and adept at channeling the grace of Christ in this world as Christ offers us forgiveness, weeding out our inner-selves, perhaps there won’t be any weeds left…

So, tell me good people, who is the weed and who is the wheat?

 

Thoughts on the Gospel this Week: There are Two Types of People in the World…and Jesus is a Weed

Humorist Robert Benchley once wisely said, “There are two types of people in the world: those who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t!”Modica-Weeds-in-the-Wheat-Field-e1342882288127

It seems Jesus is one of those people in light of this week’s Gospel lesson

I’m working on this week’s sermon.It’s interesting to note that we only find this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, and that in the Gospel of Matthew we find really stark distinctions between good and evil.

Matthew’s worldview is one of good guys and bad guys.

Only, the good guys are never who you’d imagine they’d be, and the bad guys are the folks you’d pick out as the natural heroes.

In this world where we’ve domesticated Jesus and the Bible it’s hard to see that. We always imagine Jesus to think the bad guys are the same people we think are the bad guys.  But imagine this little example:

“The Pope and a pimp went up to the temple to pray. The Pope looks to heaven and says, ‘I thank you Lord that I am not like that pimp over there…’ The pimp, all the while, looks to the ground and says, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner…’”

Theologian John Dominic Crossan provides this tale (The Power of Parable), a modern telling of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. To ancient ears you’d expect the Pharisee, the teacher of the law, the holy one, to have the humility to know how to pray.

Instead it’s the street worker who knows the truth of God.

Jesus does this all the time in the Gospels, presenting the hero as the bad guy and the villain as the savior. It’d be like making a Western where the guy in black is actually the good guy, and the guy in white robs the bank.

The creators of Zorro seemed to have picked up on this. Robin Hood follows suit. Jesus started a trend…

Which is dangerous. Because whenever something becomes trendy its impact can’t be felt the same way.

Because we hear this parable of the wheat and the weeds and we automatically start assigning people as either a wheat stalk or a weed…and I’m here to remind you that Jesus is telling this story, which means that the person you think is a weed is probably wheat.

And if you dare to look in the mirror, well…be careful.

See, here’s the thing about parables that we need to fully understand if we’re going to get the radical nature of Jesus’ words: parables don’t just have one interpretation.

Parables don’t lead you to one conclusion.

Even when Jesus offers an explanation of the parable to the disciples in Matthew, you must realize that, if you read the end of the Gospel, he lives out this parable in a way that might lead you to a different conclusion than the one you assume.

I mean, imagine you are a disciple following Jesus, and you’re trying to figure out if Jesus is weed or wheat or what.

And at the end of Jesus’ story, or what appears to be the end, the wheat of the world, the religious people, pluck Jesus out, put him on a cross, and then bury him in the compost pile with two other weeds that were plucked out of the soil of society.

Well, there’s your answer, right? Jesus is a weed.

If some people are the weed and some are the wheat and religion is supposed to help you distinguish between the two, then Jesus’ life parable comes to a startling conclusion when you look through the lens of this weed/wheat deal.

Jesus is a weed.

But we know now on the other side of it all that this can’t be the case, right? Because we believe Jesus is the wheat. The resurrection shows that, right?

There are two types of people in the world, those who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.

It appears that Jesus is the type of person who does this, right? But is he really?

Because here’s the thing about parables, especially this type of parable, what we call a “parable of warning”: the ending is open-ended.

Weeds and wheat…both are in the same soil. The soil might be the Earth, this world, and surely evil has moved in my heart in some moment or another toward another person and the world and suddenly I find myself more weed than wheat.

In those moments I ask for forgiveness. Repentance. Prayer. Contrition to the neighbor, friend, family member I’ve hurt.

And surely goodness and Christ’s image, the Divine within me has moved in moments as I help my neighbor, love my friend through crisis, participate wholly in my family. And I can step back and say, “You’ve done well today.” Wheat moments.

And the soil could be me, too. I could be the soil here, because inside of me grows both weed and wheat; I know this is true.

A colleague of mine noted that sometimes people will do really awful things and they’ll come to him and say, “I’m not the kind of person who would do something like that…”

But, actually, they are. We all are. It’s not our truest self, but let’s not discount that these hands can be just as evil as they can be good. Such a recognition of our frailty as mortal allows us to be reverent and humble in this world.  I think the rise in attendance and curiosity surrounding Ash Wednesday speaks to this truth being re-awakened in many after the selfish 80′s.

Weed and wheat grows inside of all of us. And it is not such an insane thought to believe that, in time, God indeed does take the weeds of our soul and gets rid of them. Perhaps this is why heaven is described as a place that shines in this text, because all that is left of us is the wheat, our imago Dei, our truest selves. Or to say it differently, Martin Luther notes that we are all sinner and saint. All of us.  And once the sinner and saint is redeemed fully, all that is left is Christ.

And I’ve known people, and it’s even been me myself, who have tried to do some internal weeding. Conventionally we call that a “sin management system,” (a lovely phrase made popular by Nadia Bolz-Weber, but I don’t believe she invented the phrase…regardless, it’s a great phrase).  This is where we try to stop the weeds from growing in our lives by being extra vigilant.

And this works, to a point…until we realize that weeds sometimes grow no matter how furiously we try to weed them out.

And then we start to see weeds in other people’s being because it’s all that is on our mind, and we try to pluck them out, or at least point them out. And before long we’re standing in the temple in our holy hats saying, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that weed…”

And sure enough, we’re back to being a weed.

This is why Jesus notes that you can’t pluck a weed up while it’s still amongst the wheat: the roots of everything will be pulled up and then all you have is something that looks very alive but is spiritually dead.  The one pointing at another and thanking God they are not like them is spiritually dead, despite the fact that they appear to be in prayer.

Jesus uses this phrase “the end of the age” here quite a bit, and we should note that. In the ancient world, and specifically in Jesus’ context as a first Century Judean, “the end of the age” meant the time when God’s good purpose is fulfilled on the earth.

The funny thing about this phrase, and about God’s good purpose, is that the Messiah was to be the sign of the end of the ages. The Messiah was to bring to fruition God’s good purpose.

So is now the end of the age?

In Jesus time, through the lens of Jesus, you would have to answer that both with a “yes” and with a “no.”  Because Jesus is the Messiah, and although many think the “end of the age” meant the “end of all things,” when looked at through the life of Jesus it is actually a grand beginning.

In light of this, we could say, “Thank God now is not the time of harvest.” Because we’re all still so full of weeds.

In light this, we could say, “Thank God now is the time of harvest.” Because we’re also all full of wheat.

There are two types of people in this world, one who splits the world into two types of people, and one who doesn’t.

At first it appears like Jesus is one of those people…until you view the parable through the lens of his life, death, and resurrection.

And then you realize that Jesus isn’t one of those people after all.

A Different Interpretation and Good Enough Love

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat SONY DSCand sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
18Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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. 22As 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. 23But 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.”

A Different Interpretation and Good Enough Love

Join me in prayer,

You’ve sown the seed of your word and love in our hearts, Lord.

We thank you for the times we grow and flourish,

And live into your word.

And we invite your grace in times when we’re choked and silent.

In your love, teach us to love our world, one another, and you better. Amen.

 

50 years. 50 years is 20 more years than I’ve been alive.

50 years ago the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

50 years ago The Beatles occupied slots 1-5 on the Billboards Top 40. The headline of Billboard Magazine read, “Everyone is just about tired of the Beatles…” and yet just this past weekend Sir Paul McCartney played to a sold-out crowd at the United Center for 2 hours and 45 minutes.

I guess we’re not that tired.

Sometimes it seems like life passes quickly. Sometimes it inches by, like a slow-growing plant pushing and straining through the dirt toward the sun.

If you think about it, 50 years ago we were talking about civil rights. Today we’re still talking about civil rights.

50 years ago The Beatles were rocking. And although two of the original four have died, one in tragic violence and one to illness, their music continues. In fact, John Buckvold, who sits just back there at the second service, made a CD of music for Finn, my son, when he was born, and three of those tracks are Beatles tracks.

Ever since they debuted 50 years ago, it’s kind of been common thought that no childhood should be bereft of “All you need is love; all you need is love. All you need is love, love, love is all you need…”

And, of course, 50 years ago love was on the lips of two young-uns, him just over 20, her not quite, as they kissed and sealed their vows of love with one another in this place.

Sometimes it seems like life passes quickly. Sometimes it inches by…

And I’m sure that’s true for you two, Dieter and Diane, as it is for all of us whether we’re married or single. Whether we’re 50 plus, or just over 20.

I think that one of the reasons Jesus uses so many agrarian metaphors, and that planting and sowing and nature show up so often in his parables, is precisely because time is this strange thing that requires endurance and patience, and yet the thing we’d like to apply the brakes to sometimes…

Few things are like that, you know. Few things in reality are so paradoxical.

Today Jesus talks about sowing in a field and the various fates of different seeds depending on the soil they’re sown in. The Gospel writer Matthew follows this parable up with an explanation of the parable…something that we don’t find in many of the other parables in the Gospels.

Jokes are no good if you have to explain them, right? Parables aren’t jokes in the formal sense, but they are in that their twisty-turny way plays a joke on your logic and reasoning. Parables are meant to be pondered and held, not explained.

That makes us Bible scholars kind of suspicious about the interpretation and whether or not Jesus actually offered one. Maybe an editor put words in Jesus’ mouth. Jesus was good at telling parables and stories, but the interpretation of those things he often left to those around him…God doesn’t give easy answers.

That’s the way of God: more cloud than sunlight, more mystery than revelation, both near and far. A relationship with God, like time, is full wonderful paradox. That’s what makes it dynamic. Like a marriage between two people who, after 50 years, know the habits and preferences of the other, and yet still manage some surprises here and there…

But this sower goes out to sow the field and starts scattering seed around and we find that some seed gets scorched by the sun, some choked by weeds, some eaten by birds.

And some of it grows to amazing harvest.

And today, on top of this text, we have other texts that are speaking to us.

Like the people lying dead in Chicago over the violence of the streets. Over 1000 people this year. 1000.

Like the hostilities in Palestine and Israel rising higher and higher over these poor dead teenagers, a situation that is not at all clear to me. Death begets death. As Jesus says, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” How are we to live?

Like the babies coming across our southern border in droves as they escape the threat of death and mafia and gang warfare and starvation. Say what you want about laws; these are babies. California. Arizona. Texas.

And all the while you have sports-loving us waiting with baited breath as athletes announce where they’ll be playing next year for salaries equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of small nations…

And see those texts through the lens of Jesus’ parable.

The seeds of life being snatched away by violence that has such a grip on our lives that we can’t seem to break free.

The seeds of life not given the chance to grow because the roots of peace aren’t deep enough in an ancient land.

The seeds of life enduring the scorching sun as they look for growth through the desert.

The seeds of public awareness getting choked out as we pay teachers little and athletes much, and don’t bat an eye at it because we’re too glued to our TV screens to think about it all because LeBron or Carmello or Toews may announce today with the fanfare of a royal birth just where they’ll be…

I know that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus offers an interpretation of this text, but with parables there are always other interpretations; as there are meant to be. And if I’m honest with myself, the word of God that is sown in the soil of my being should sprout a response to all of these situations, but I too often find it is choked out by a silence that tends to love the status quo too much.

We love profits more than prophets, as someone recently noted on social media.

So all these texts are swirling around in our lives today.

But there is one more. A text that has been 50 years in the composition for you, Dieter and Diane. And for Sis and Charlie, unable to be with us today but still very present in our hearts and minds, 64 years in the making.

And that is a text of love. That is a seed sown in good soil.

A good soil that says that we have way too many deaths here in Chicago, but look here at beauty springing up from the soil of the city: a couple who have been sowing the word of God here at LMC for 50 years, sowing love with one another for 50 years, who have been sown into the soil of this city to grow beauty through their work with the children and adults of the city these years!

See, a religious person like myself sees these texts all on top of one another, including this last one, and I can say that God in the Christ has done some amazing things here, is doing amazing things, despite all these other texts, because this text of love is an amazing harvest, so amazing that it yields enough hopeful fruit for even to deal with all these other texts.

As the Psalmist writes, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be forsaken.” In the midst of Chicago. In the midst of Jerusalem. In the midst of Tucson. Even in the midst of the cities awaiting to hear if their favored sports star will sign with them again….

…looking at you, Cleveland…

Sometimes one act of love is enough, just enough, to bring about a different interpretation from those things we see around us.

Sometimes a little green shoot is enough to believe once again that the sower is still sowing seeds of love in this world, and that we get to participate in that growth, and that it will grow despite the thorns and scorching sun and birds around it.

For 50 years. For 64 years. For however long it’s able to.

And, it’s true: sometimes the image of God inside of me is choked out due to the thorns of money, fame and fortune. Sometimes the word of God doesn’t escape my lips because the heat of anger scorches it; the roots of peace aren’t deep enough.

But even then I live in the confidence that the sower of all good things doesn’t plant on a whim, but plants in love.

I truly believe God is in love with this city. Is in love with Jerusalem; Israel and Palestine. Is in love with babies who have nowhere else to go but over the border, and parents who have no other choice but to bless them and send them with a kiss and the hope that they’ll grow in new soil.

And part of the reason I truly believe all those things is because of the Divine love reflected here over 50 years. The Divine love reflected in a small room in a nursing home in Norridge where sits Sis and Charlie; where he’ll crack a joke and she’ll still smile after 64 years.

And things begun in love are never wasted; will never be wasted. As Jesus himself was sown into the earth of the tomb, only to spring up to life three days later despite the thorns of death and the birds of hate that tried to snatch him away, we live in the constant hope that resurrection, even for the seeds choked by affluence, even for the seeds snatched by violence, even for the seeds scorched in the heat of the sun of wandering through the Arizona desert in search of new life, will be the final ending of the parable of the sower and the seeds.

And the final ending for those seeds of love sprouted to life these past years…

No love shared by humans is perfect. Our tendency to choke the life out of one another is evidence of this, and evidenced all around us.

But in the beginning of all things the God who created all things said, “This is good.”

And that goodness, when mixed with God’s perfect love, is indeed good enough.

Good enough to give hope that life, despite all the times it seems things never grow, is not wasted in the soil of God’s love, and that our love is good enough to remind one another, and the world, that God is still in love with all of us.

After all these years.

Thoughts on Preaching This Week: Lots and Lots of Seeds to Sort Through

There are lots of seeds to sort through this Sunday.sower

The Biblical text, at least the Gospel, is the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13.

Funny thing about this parable: the Gospel of Matthew also includes a story of Jesus interpreting it later on.

That’s unhelpful.

It doesn’t happen in the other Gospel accounts.  The mindful preacher might recognize that it sounds a little fishy.  Perhaps Matthew was too eager to have this parable fit his own context (as the interpretation does), and edited Jesus a bit…

Who knows; I’m not sure it matters much.

It doesn’t matter much because parables have a number of angles anyway, not just one.  Parables are homes with many entrances and many hallways and many exits.  They’re easy to get lost in, which make them the prime teaching tools when one is attempting to approach the wisdom of God.

But along with this Biblical text, there are other texts.  And I’m not just talking about the Old Testament, New Testament, or Psalm for the day.  I’m not talking about alternative texts or semi-continuous texts.

I’m talking about the texts of life.

For instance, over 1000 people have died to violence here in Chicago this year so far.  It was reported on the news this morning.  What are you, preacher, going to do with that text?

Israel and Palestine are, again, lining up for war because the roots of peace are not deep enough.

Children continue to flock over the border states of the south.  Church officials from my denomination are going down there to be with them while others are preparing to arm themselves and meet them with the barrel of a gun.

What are you, preacher, going to do with that text?  What are you, parishioner, going to do with it?

Lot’s of seeds to sort through…

On top of all that we have Toews and Kane re-signing with the Blackhawks, Carmello staying with the Knicks, and we’re all waiting with baited breath as LeBron decides if Cleveland does indeed rock…all for salaries that are similar to the GDPs of small countries.

Another seed in the mix.

Hear now the parable one more time:

A sower begins scattering seed to plant.  Some seeds are snatched away by birds.  Some are rootless and are scorched in heat.  Some are chocked by thorns.

I wonder if these other texts, when laid upon the Gospel, speak to the seeds of life being snatched away in violence, rootless in a land that doesn’t seem to have enough soil to go around, scorched in the summer heat as they’re trying to put down roots in a different land, choked by the thorns of affluence and material wealth and such shiny distractions because we’d rather hear about famous athletes playing for our team then about these other texts, the Biblical one included…

The Word is being sown lots of ways this week, or could be.

Anyway, lots of texts this week.  Lots of seeds.

Lots of interpretations.

Love and the Things that Make Us Ill

images

1st Corinthians 13:1-8a, 13

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not

have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Love and the Things That Make Us Ill

“Love is our best friend, our helper, and the healer of ills that prevent us from being happy…”

That’s a great line from Plato’s Symposium.

I kind of like it because it talks about things that are ill, and you Sangeeta Patel, M.D. and you Steven Driver, M.D. specialize in things that are ill, yes?

Perhaps today, though, on your wedding day, both of you are a little ill. “Love-sick” is what we call that. Or some people use the delicate, non-medical term, “crazy.”

And, although you weren’t dating at the time, and maybe you weren’t even in love at the time, but your years apart probably drove you a bit crazy.

Which may have made you wonder if perhaps you loved the other person…maybe, just maybe, even though you both like to be right about things and, well, you can’t always both be right. Maybe, just maybe, even though politically you don’t see eye to eye, and one likes to talk on end, and one likes to cut to the chase…I’ll let you self-identify on that one…

Maybe, just maybe. Love. At the tip top of Machu Pichu, it was love. But it started long before then.

Love is a strange word.

Greek has four words for love. Sandskrit has ninety-six! Ancient Persian has eighty!

English, sadly, only one. When it comes to love, we are not so wise…

This 1 Corinthians passage is full of beauty and poetry and lifts this word “love” high up to the sky, putting it on a pedestal for all to see and admire and pine for…but English’s limited vocabulary doesn’t help us when we’re trying to figure out what to make of love. We mistake different sorts of love for one another all the time.

And sometimes here we mistake the object, Love, for the subject that we ascribe love to. Sometimes we think that the person next to us will somehow be the thing that cures all our ills. Sometimes we think the person next to us will be the thing that never fails us, who always trusts, hopes, and perseveres.

We sometimes begin to think that the person we wed ourselves to is, or must be, the perfect embodiment of this abstract, powerful force that we call love. But listen again to the passage from St. Paul: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Now, here’s the thing: I know that right now you’re a bit ill, you’re a bit love sick with one another, but if we take off those crazy glasses for a second, I’ll invite you to look at one another. Really look at one another.

And realize that the person you’re looking at is the one you love. They are not Love embodied. And for as much as you’re sick-crazy in love with them, they’re not perfect; they don’t have to be. You share your love, your perfect love, with them…even though they are not perfect.

Which means that sometimes this person will boast a little bit and that will be annoying. Will be impatient. May be a little too proud for your temperament at one moment or another. And they might, one day after a long shift, come home and be hot on the handle and easily angered. And they might make a mental check-list of wrongs, and that list might come up at your next argument.

And sometimes you might fail one another. Yes, they don’t tell you that when you’re going to buy your wedding dress or buy your tux, but as a ten year veteran of the marriage mobile, let me assure you that sometimes we fail one another.

And in those moments, I don’t want you for one second to think that somehow because that person you love, because your relationship, has moments of imperfect anger, of impatience, of envy, and even of doubt, that you’re not in love. You are. Love is not about butterflies. It’s about sticking around after the butterflies have all flown away for the winter. Because they will come back…love is about enduring it until they come back.

You love this person you’re holding hands with today not because they are the perfect embodiment of Love, but because the love you share finds its perfection in being shared.

That is why, I think, the Apostle Paul notes that faith, hope, and love remain after all things, but that the greatest one is love.

Because you can have faith all by yourself. You can hope all by yourself. But to love…

Love requires something to love. Someone to love.  It’s why Christians hold that Christ is God’s love letter to the world. He’s love with skin on. A physical someone embodying God’s love.

But this person, for as much as you’re in love with them, is not the perfect embodiment of love…and you don’t need them to be. They never have been, and yet you found yourself in love, anyway.

The call is not for them to be perfectly patient, but for the love that you share to be patient…even when you’re not. Patient enough to last through the moment of impatience.

The call is not for them to be unfailing, but for the love that you share to be unfailing even when you fail one another. Unfailing enough to last through those moments when you let each other down.

The call is not for them to be perpetually calm, but for your love to be the calm that makes it through the storms of relationship woes. For your love to be the silent binder that holds you together in those moments when you fear you’re drifting apart.

Or, as Plato notes, the call is not for the person to be perpetually well, but for the love you share to heal one another when you are ill.

That is love.

So, Sangeeta and Steven, it is clear you both are quite ill. That’s my diagnosis. Ill without the other person.

And today we begin a life-long process of healing.

May the love you share be perfect as God is perfect, may it be unfailing, and may you know that the saying is true: though you may have faith alone, and hope alone, the greatest of all the virtues is love, because love requires two. And with love you get kisses.

Now let’s get you two together and seal it with a kiss.

 

A Goldilocks Existence and Yokes that Suck Life

portal-graphics-20_1159212a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A Goldilocks Existence and Yokes that Suck Life

Lord of life,

You provide for humanity a path

A yoke

Light to carry

Not because it is

But because you carry it with us.

Yoke us again to yourself.

I spend a lot of my time talking to people about balance. It seems that we’re all seeking some sort of balance between our personal and professional lives, and we’re unsure how to do it.

I’m just going to go ahead and make that claim: we don’t know how to live in balance. Or at the very least, it’s not instinctive anymore…if it ever was.

Christianity has always been about where the mortal and Divine meet and intertwine, about that balance. In fact early depictions of the cross had Jesus hanging on an equilateral cross, one of balance. Interesting to think of the fully human yet fully divine Jesus hanging on an equilateral cross.

That is balance: the balance of salvation, the balance of Divine love willing to hang itself for what it loves.

Today’s passage, another “tough Jesus saying,” is actually a bit about balance, though you may not have caught it.

Jesus begins this section by talking about a favorite childhood game, a call and response game. You know the type. When I say “Marco” you say “Polo.”

In the ancient marketplaces children also played games, games that mirrored the life around them. Games like “wedding” and “funeral.”

To play “wedding,” everyone had a role. And when the person who was the flute player started pretending to play the flute, you were supposed to dance.

To play “funeral,” everyone also had a role. And when the person who was the professional mourner started to pretend cry, everyone was supposed to cry.

Jesus says, “You people are like children playing wedding and funeral games. You want me to dance when you play the flute, and cry when command.” Jesus doesn’t play our games…

He goes further and points out that John the Baptist came talking of God with fire and brimstone, and people hated him for it. “Too fiery and brimstone-y,” they said.

And then when Jesus comes along proclaiming that you love your enemies and live for justice and peace, the people hated him for it. “Too love and peace-like,” they said.

One was too hot, one was too cold. The people wanted God at a temperature that was “just right.”

The archetypical story for desiring the “just right” in life is, of course, Goldilocks. The house of the Three Bears was a tempting respite for her walk through the woods. And she ravages through the house desiring the porridge whose temperature was just right, the chair whose size was just right, and the bed whose comfortability was just right.

But what does she do with all of these “just right” situations? She devours all the porridge, breaks the chair, and occupies a bed that’s not hers and almost gets her devoured because it is a little too comfortable. She destroys the just right situations. It seems things never stay “just right.”

We always desire life to be “juuust right,” but we desire it to be “just right” from the outset, from the get-go, delivered in a nice package just to our liking. When we play the flute, we want to the universe to dance. When we begin to wail, we want the world to mourn with us.

We want God to be juuuust right. According to what “just right” means to me. We want to be God.

Jesus notes in this passage that God has hidden wisdom from the wise and revealed it to infants. The infants or children in scripture aren’t necessarily those of a young age, but are those who have “lost their lives to gain it,” as Jesus says in Matthew 16. It’s the same principle as when Jesus says that those who claim to see are truly blind in the Gospel of John. These paradoxical passages highlight that the way to the Divine is not through effort, but through letting go of effort and allowing grace to seep into the cracks of our lives. The children see things differently.

J. Phllip Newell, a Celtic Christian priest and story-weaver, talks of the child-like mind this way, “William Blake, the English poet, remembers as a boy seeing a tree filled with angels of light. He rushed home with excitement to share his vision with his father. And his father responded that if he ever told a lie like that again, he would get a good thrashing. There are ways of perceiving that have been beaten out of us…” (in Christ of the Celts)

To understand the Kingdom of God, to live in the way of Christ, we must understand the nature of grace, a grace that allows us to see things through the eyes of a child, the eyes of faith. And the nature of grace, as Jesus shows us, is one where we receive the gifts and love of God like a child receives care: not by force or manipulation or control, but as gift.

And I would say that a bi-product of grace is, indeed, balance. Balance for the Christian is not where everything is in equilibrium. Balance for the Christian is the knowledge that, no matter how much things are out of whack, God holds all things together. And thus our response to life can always be one of peace and love and non-anxiety because the author of all things holds all things.

Even us.

No need to force it. When we try to force balance in our lives we end up consuming everything around us like Goldilocks, breaking relationships and peace and all sorts of things because we want balance on our terms. We give up on our prayer life because we’re not getting the things we ask for. We give up on our faith because we don’t see the results we want. Everything is too hot, or too cold, nothing is “just right.” We try to force it to be “just right.”

No need to force it.

To live in balance is not to be able to call the shots of life, but is to be able to respond to life in the confidence that God in Jesus holds things in balance.

To explain this all further, Jesus uses this farming metaphor of yoked animals.

When we are yoked to Christ we are in balance, and for the Christian we are all yoked to Christ in our baptism. We just fail to live into that reality most days.

At many funerals we hear the last portion of this verse read. Jesus’ yoke is “easy” and burden is “light.”

The Greek here is better understood not as “easy”; the yoke is not “easy.” Rather, the yoke is “well-suited.” That is, if you think about two animals yoked together to do work, you need two animals that can work well together. The yoke as an instrument, and the yoke as a pair, have to be able to work in tandem. It’s balanced.

Jesus’ yoke is not easy for life, it is well-suited for life. When walking with Jesus, the burden of life is not so insurmountable. Or, as the Scriptures say, in Jesus we have “abundant life” or “eternal life.”

And, look, I know a lot of people…even myself at times…who are yoked in ways that are life-sucking rather than life-giving. We want everything “just right” in our lives, we try to force it, and it just can’t happen.

This last week I was in Denver on what I call “mancation,” an annual trip with all my college roommates. And as my college roommates and I were brewery hopping, we found ourselves at The Great Divide, a wonderful brewery.   We were sitting outside trying some of their offerings when a young guy walks out to smoke.

He looks over at me and says, “Nice sunglasses,” and, because he was correct, I do have awesome sunglasses, we started to chat. He pulls up a chair and before long we learn his name is Wit. Wit’s a visitor in Denver, too, it turns out. He’s from North Carolina…another good thing about him.

“What brought you here?” I ask. He takes a long drag off of his cigarette. “Treatment,” he says.

And I realized at that point that, every once in a while Wit would scratch himself just below his belt line. Every time he did that you’d catch a glimpse of his stomach, and these nice little cut marks all along his pelvis. And when he said “treatment,” I looked over at his left arm. Nice little cut marks all the way up it.

He looked at me and said, “Tell me Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I sat for a moment. What to say? It all became clear: the bony elbows, the ribs showing through his baggy shirt if he shifted just right, his collarbone showing clearly through pale skin.

“Do you think you are?” I asked? He smiled, his pierced lip breaking a little at the edge.

We chatted a little while longer and after a bit my friends and I decided to head to a different brewery. We all bid Wit farewell, and I got up last to leave. And I looked at him before going, and somehow the pastor in me, the Christian in me, the human in me couldn’t just leave. And I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “I don’t want you to give up on treatment, OK?”

He took out a cigarette, put it in his mouth, lit it and said, “Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I said, “Wit, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t want you to worry about that question anymore. Don’t give up on treatment.”

And this guy, who was probably in his early twenties who I’d never met before, grabbed my hand and pulled me down into one of the tightest hugs I’ve ever had in my life. His cigarette fell to ground, and he just squeezed me. And he started crying.

Jesus says, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light.”

Wit was yoked badly. It was sucking his life away. He thinks he needs a lighter body, but he needs a lighter yoke. He needs a yoke that doesn’t cut into him, like those red lines on his arms reveal the one he carries does.

He’s trying to force a balance on his life, a balance of weight loss to counter-balance his pain, but he’s breaking himself in the process. He’s being devoured.

And it’s not just him, of course. We all are in some ways, at some points, being devoured, gobbling up resources in the pursuit of the elusive “just right.”

And all the time there stands Jesus, reminding us that death is balanced by an empty tomb, that our egos are balanced by Divine love for us; that we need not force life to work for us, but rather know that all life is in the hands of a gracious God, and that we are yoked to Christ in our baptisms.

That the gracious God shown through the fully human/fully divine one has balanced all things out for humanity and the grace that flows out of such a universal balancing act is for a humanity desperately seeking it and trying to force it. It can’t be forced.

Grace is best received by letting go. Letting go of control, of the games we play, of the need for having everything “just right.”

With God, all is just right, even if it isn’t. And seeing that clearly, through the eyes of Jesus, can help us live into life that is not “just right,” but life that is abundant, eternal, gracious.

Well suited for us.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,720 other followers