On Pools and Divine Promises You Can Trust: A Funeral Sermon

John 14:1-6

On Friday Brian texted me two pictures that had been found as they searched through boxes and albums of photos in preparation for first one intoday.  My generation just scrolls through Facebook–but this was old school.  Searching the mines of history for gems that were hidden, reflecting a life that was too short but well lived.

Anyway, the two photos were pictures of me and my younger brother.  More accurately, one was my senior prom picture (where I sported some great hair, btw) standing with my date who is now my wife.  The other one was of my younger brother Critter-everyone still calls him that-a Freshman football picture, I think.

Attached to the text were these touching words from Brian: “Why do we have these?”

Followed by a sarcastic “…wow”

Well, I know why Scott and Peggy had them.  Have them.  Because they love us.  Plain and simple.  And we love them.  We love Peg.  Plain and simple.

She was one of the many mothers that those of us growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s at Epiphany Lutheran Church were blessed to have.

I remember when we bought the house on Bancroft Street, the corner lot.  White with green shutters.  It needed some work, but it came with an enormous above-ground pool taking up 80% of the back yard.  A pool that desperately needed relining.

And I remember Scott and Peg and so many others coming over one summer to dump sand and smooth out sand into the pool basin, flatting it out by rolling large mason jars (that’s how you do it, right?) relining the whole thing.  Who needed contractors when you had a church, when you had the body of Christ, right?  Hours of work in the hot sun.  All for a pool that we could only use for 3.5 months of a Toledo year…

But then, all of a sudden, the Myers got a pool!  And then the Johnson’s next door to the Myers.  Which meant, of course, that we could now throw things at each other from one pool to another.

And the Hatcher’s had a pool.  And the Davoll’s. And the Schmidt’s. And the Yoder’s. And while the LaVoy’s never got a pool, they got a trampoline…which was cool, too.

And now it didn’t really matter whose home we hung out at, we could all swim (or jump)! Marco-Polo for everyone!

…for 3.5 months out of a Toledo year…

And it really didn’t matter whose house we were at because we all had one another’s parents, too.  24/7. 365.

And there was not a question in our minds that we were–are–their children.  Still. After all these years.

This is why these first words of Jesus in our John reading for today ring a little hallow for me at first hearing.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled, ” Jesus says.

I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that my heart is a little troubled.  That my heart has been troubled since April.  That seeing Peg in between treatments when they’d come through Chicago was beautiful but also tragic and heart breaking.  It troubled me.  She was a mother to many of us.

I presided over the wedding of Steven and Sangeeta Driver last month.  It was the last time I saw Peggy. She was sitting int eh wheelchair that had become her necessary legs, and after the service I bent down to tell her that she looked nice.

I think she thought I was going in for a kiss on the cheek, and our heads turned just so and sure enough about the most scandelous thing Peggy Myers ever did occurred: she kissed a younger man.  On the lips.

And then she smiled-she must have seen the surprise on my face-and she patted my hand that was now on the armrest of her chair.  And that was enough for me to know that she did not want my heart to be troubled…even if it still was. She loved me and knew me.  Even as her memory faded, even as the way forward become more difficult and obscure, there was a presence of mind there that spoke words her mouth could no longer utter very well.

And what says something words can’t contain more than a kiss?

“Trust in God, Trust in me, ” Jesus says today.  Some translations use the word “believe” instead of “trust.”  But the ancient Greek there is better translated as “trust.” Like a pat on the hand. Do not be troubled. Trust. Like the kiss that was “hello,” “goodbye,” and “I love you” all in one.

Trust.

The unfortunate thing about John 14:1-6–about all of modern scripture, really–is that sometimes the chapters and verses that editors put in place to help us read better cuts up whole stories and makes them into mini-stories that lose cohesiveness. But John 13-14 is one whole big scene–we miss that sometimes.  it is John’s version of the Last Supper.  You know the one: Jesus washes the disciples feet and Peter lobbies for a whole sponge bath.  Jesus calls out Judas as a traitor as they’re sharing bread and dipping it in the same bowl…I always imagine Judas as double dipping.  Where Jesus foreshadows his death and tells the disciples that they can’t go where he is going yet, but soon will.  To which foolhardy Peter says, “I will die for you Jesus!

To which Jesus responds, “No…the word you’re looking for there is ‘deny’…”

It is after all of this confusing and crushing news, when the disciples have been emotionally beat up and confused and afraid about the future that Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust God. trust me. I go before you to prepare a place for you…”

And here we are emotionally beat up, confused about a death that was all too quick, afraid of what the future holds, mourning our friend before us.  Perhaps Jesus’ words are more timely than we know, disciples…

I remember a time when Peggy went to prepare a place for us kids, going before us.  Literally.

After we had moved to North Carolina–rural North Carolina–Scott, Peg, Brian, Erin, and the LaVoy family all came down one Easter to visit.

Now, I don’t know what you’ve heard about rural North Carolina, but don’t buy the hype: there’s not a lot to do down there.

So we made our own fun.  And that day “our own fun” happened to be rolling things down the steep embankment of our quarter acre lot backyard.

If you started up at the driveway and curved around the house to the back yard, you could really get some good momentum.  And Critter, my little brother, had just gotten a new bike that would be perfect for this.  The only question was: is it safe?

Standing at 5’1 and 1/2 inches (that half inch was important) Peg was the median height of all of us kids. (Side-note: I’d have to think that Peg would smile and appreciate this math reference as a math teacher).

So we loaded onto Peg all the safety equipment we had in our garage: knee pads, elbow pads, helmet, and I even think she inexplicably wore wrist guards.

Starting up at the drive-way, Peggy raced won the hill, banking around the house like an Olympic luge expert–she was always really athletic–and as we all saw the incredible momentum she was gaining I think we all collectively let out an, “O sugar!” (her favorite curse word) as it became clear that this object now in motion was going to stay in motion…

Until it hit our barbed wire fence at the bottom of the lot, that is.

So, now faced with the choice of a barbed-wire sandwich or bailing off of the bike, Peg trusted her safety gear and bailed off of the bike, sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill, splayed out on the ground.

We applauded. She was fine.  Her test was successful.

It was determined that this activity was safe to do as long as we propped an old mattress along the barbed-wire fence and promised to bail out before hitting it…

In the first pool that Peggy ever went in, long before the pools in our backyards, she was dunked with water, buried with Christ in baptism and rose with Christ to a new life.  A life of walking with Christ that she took seriously and practiced daily.

In that Divine dunking, in that holy game of Marco-Polo where God calls us by name and we respond with “Alleluia,” a promise was given to Peggy.  A story was told.

The story was of Jesus, born of Mary, crucified, died, and buried, descending into hell, who on the third day rose again.

And as Peggy descended into those waters, a frail baby who couldn’t even form a word, God gave her a promise she–and all of us–can trust.  St. Paul said it best, “If we have been baptized into a death like his, surely we will be raised in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

And to ensure it, Jesus went before us, trampling death under foot.  And because of that we know that Jesus’ way is the way of self-giving love.  Because of that we know that if we want to know the truth of what God thinks about us, we need only look at Jesus who went to hell and back so that we would know God’s great love for us.  Because of that we know that a life truly lived is one where we hold to the promise that whether we live or we die we are with God.  And therefore we are safe; no knee guards, helmets, or other pads necessary. For neither death nor life nor things above or below–anything–can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And with that–hearing that–it makes it a little easier to not let my heart be troubled.  Just a little.

Because I trust that as frail Peggy went into the hell that is cancer, dipped into the waters of death.  When she could no longer utter any words as cancer had ripped her words from her lungs, God was there to hold her, receive her, and breathe the living word, Jesus, back into her in a resurrected life.  Like his.

In God’s presence there are many dwellings.  One for you, me, Peter, Thomas, and yes, Peggy.

You know, this whole John 14 scene happens as the disciples are seated with Jesus surrounded by bread and wine.

And look here: a table spread with wine and bread.  Remember jesus’ words that as often as we do this we are united again with Christ.  And our theology tells us that here, too, at this table we are united once again with all the saints who have gone before us, including mom, including Peggy.

Scott, Erin, Brian, Wes, Ellie, Addie, Laylie: trust that promise, too.  Trust God that here at this table we eat with Christ and all who’ve died in Christ.  Here you eat again with mom.  Hold that in your hearts.

You know, one of the memories I hold dearest is tat just about every Easter our two families would eat Easter brunch together.  The Holiday Inn French Quarter.  Do you remember that?

We’d eat and then go and hunt Easter eggs at the Myers’ house as grandma and grandpa Myers and grandma and grandpa Foust played intense card games in the garage.  5 eggs were hidden that had money in them, one for each kid.  And if you wanted to see that stern side of Peggy, just try to keep two money eggs.  All 5’1 and 1/2 inches of righteous indignation would come down on you…

But I find it beautiful that here today, we share another Easter meal together, Peg included.  Imperfect us invited to an Easter table of perfected grace.  We disciples who sometimes betray one another and deny one another and have a hard time trusting the promises of God, we here, now, share this Easter meal of grace as we lift up our sister Peg, celebrating the family of Christ that we all are.

And even though we are emotionally beat up and confused about the future and afraid we hear Jesus’ words ring loud and clear through this meal, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…”

And so with Peg and all the saints, we now do something different with our hearts: we lift them up to the Lord to give thanks to the Lord our God.

Thanks for the love of Peggy, thanks for the love of one another, and thanks for age-old promises of Divine love that can still be trusted.

Amen.

Haunting Questions and Places of Power Who Don’t Stand a Chance

Matthew 16:13-20resurrection

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Haunting Questions and Places of Power Who Don’t Stand a Chance

Lord,

we are sometimes confronted with haunting questions;

sometimes they are from you.

Give us the courage to answer

But first, give us the peace to pause and reflect.

Amen.

What is the most haunting question you’ve ever been asked? It’s that question that makes your hair stand up, that begs an answer…but doesn’t have one. At least not a satisfactory one.

Most often the haunting question in my life is one simple word: “Why?” These last few weeks have been saturated with this word, with this question.

Why was an unarmed black man shot dead in the street after apparently surrendering?

Why did a comedic genius fail to see the beauty and laughter in his own existence?

Why is my friend and colleague burying his mother tomorrow after she was just diagnosed in April at the young age of 60? Why was there not more time? Why was there no cure?

Why?

See, the way that we answer the “why” questions of tragedy really does have something to do with the question that Jesus asks the disciples today in this text before us.

“Who do you say that I am?” he asks them after a little bit of back and forth. But he doesn’t just ask them this question. He asks them this question in a really strange place: Caesarea-Philippi. Caesarea-Philippi is about 35 miles north of Galilee, and basically was like a mini Rome for the region. It was the seat of Roman power in this occupied territory.

So Jesus goes to the place of power, drags the disciples to the place of oppression for these people, and asks them in that setting, “What do you say about me?”

Perhaps you’re not getting it. Perhaps you’re not seeing the irony.

See, Jesus goes to Ferguson, Missouri, to the place of conflict and asks in light of all that has happened there, “What do you say about me?”

See, Jesus goes to depths of depression, to the place of the suicide as the police are coming and documentation is being put together and the media swarms outside, and asks, “What do you say about me?”

See, Jesus goes to the hospice bed, to the place of cancer, to the place where a husband kneels at the bedside and son and daughter hold one another in embrace as life slips through the fingers of time and asks, “What do you say about me?”

And Peter’s answer is one to note: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Now, when you’re standing in the capital city of Caesarea-Philippi, and you’re looking around at the various temples and statues of this city, a city that had previously been named for the Greek god Pan, but who now under Roman rule had been named after the ruler himself, Caesar Augustus, you’ll notice that inscriptions and monikers call Caesar certain things.

They call Caesar “lord.” They call Caesar “savior.” They name Caesar the “Son of God” for the great works that Caesar does through power and might.

So all around the disciples were messages, subliminal and overt, that said that Caesar was the savior of the people, had all the answers, was the one with power. Caesar brought peace to the Roman world. They called him the “Prince of Peace” for it. But it was peace through violence…

Jesus hauls the disciples 35 miles out of the way, to the seat of Roman power in the area, and asks them, “What about me?” And Peter, for as dimwitted and backwards as he usually is makes the bold claim that, in the place where it seems like power is in the hands of the most powerful thing in the world, Caesar, he names Jesus as that which holds true power.

He names Jesus with the names usually ascribed to the halls of power, usually ascribed to Caesar.

See, we miss that all the time. We’re so used to people flippantly saying “Jesus is Lord” without realizing that, in the ancient days, that phrase was treasonous. Politically scandalous. The ultimate protest chant.   We’re so used to calling Jesus the “Prince of Peace,” but it was first said as a snub at political peace that comes through violence. Today we’ve turned it into a bumper sticker, unfortunately…and of course we don’t know any instance of so-called “peace” by violence today…

And as we all know here on the other side of the Jesus-story, Jesus’ Lordship, Jesus’ power comes not through conquering or improving, like Caesar and all the other people vying for power in this world, not through success or a positive attitude about suffering, but through self-giving love. Through what we in Jesus circles call kenosis, or “self-emptying” love.

God emptied God’s self into Jesus. Jesus emptied himself for humanity on the cross to show that God will do anything to be with humanity. The Holy Spirit is emptied into us by a God who continues to move in this world.

And so, on the streets of Ferguson, will hatred and violence win out? Will the systems of racism and privilege and people talking over one another rule the day? Where will we place our hope? Who do we say that Jesus is?

When faced with the illness of depression, what will we say? Do we blame the victim? Do we buy into the media tendency make a spectacle of the tragedy, or do we stand with Jesus at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and weep and pray for resurrection?

When faced with the hospice bed, with tragedy, what will we say? Will we say that God is testing the faithful, as I’ve heard some say? Will we say that “everything happens for a reason,” as we watch our loved ones fade away knowing in our deepest hearts that any reason for this tragedy couldn’t come from God unless God is a heartless jerk. Will we say “it must be part of God’s plan?”

Is it part of God’s plan that a unarmed black man was killed in Ferguson?

Is it part of God’s plan that an actor of amazing talent would fall ill to depression and take his own life?

If we say “no” to that, then how can we in good conscious say that somehow cancerous growths that overtake a body, a body that God has called “good,” a child of God washed in the waters of baptism, is somehow part of “God’s plan”?

See, how we answer the “why” questions at the place where death or violence seem to be in power says a lot about who we actually think Jesus is…

Because the God shown through Jesus is the God of resurrection. And resurrection does not look like power in this world. Power in this world looks like success and answers and positive thinking and sweeping problems under a rug so that we don’t actually have to deal with anything. See, that’s what’s so tricky about power: it claims that it changes things, but really works for the status quo.

The moments preceding resurrection, though, always look like death, powerlessness. The moments preceding resurrection are moments of death and powerlessness.

And at the threshold of death, where it seems like violence, and depression, and cancer will win the day, we as a faith community, we as a church, don’t put our hope in easy answers or in the power of clichés or in the power of the systems. Instead we put our hope in Jesus who is called the Christ.

We put our hope in the God who doesn’t make sense out of senselessness, doesn’t answer the “why” questions with some cliché or moralism. Those seem wise to the world, but that’s foolishness to God.

God’s wisdom says to the world, “I refuse to make sense out of senselessness. Instead, I make resurrection.” And that, brothers and sisters, is what Hades, what death, what tragedy, what injustice cannot prevail against: resurrection. As Herod said when he heard that Jesus raised Lazarus, “If he can do that, then there is nothing that can stop him.”

No power can stop the one who can breathe life into anything, not even death.

And resurrection is infinitely more powerful in a world where we have a whole lot of supposed answers coming at us that don’t look anything like Gospel resurrection.

And I think this task of going to the places of power and answering the question of who we think Jesus, who we think the God shown through Jesus is, is the primary task of us here at Luther Memorial Church.

Because there are a whole lot of voices here in Chicago, here in the United States, here in the world laying claim to who Jesus is, and often I don’t recognize that Jesus.

That Jesus looks like one with a whole bunch of answers, but without a hint of self-giving love.

And I think we at Luther have a unique voice in this conversation, a voice that can stand at the places where it seems like politics, death, and illness have power and invoke the name of the Christ, invoke the name of the one we follow on this journey of life, invoke the name of resurrection.

This Fall we’re going to be talking intentionally about this, about who we collectively say the God seen through Jesus is here in Chicago, and I know it’s going to be fruitful. It’s going to be transformative for us and for this city.

That is my prayer.

Because there are haunting questions in this world, and people are chomping at the bit to provide answers to them, answers they say come from God, answers of cliché, answers that don’t testify to God’s self-emptying power, but testify to a power that looks like the powers of this world. Answers give power, or so we think. Those who provide answers are powerful in this world…

But in response to that, God instead gives self-emptying love that leads to resurrection.

And in the face of resurrection, all answers that ring hallow with experience, all supposed powers of this world that promise us one thing but give another don’t stand a chance.

Amen.

A Sermon for Godparent Sunday: God Tricked Me

Matthew 14:13-21The-Godfather-the-godfather-trilogy-9109850-1191-842

Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

God Tricked Me

Gracious God,

You’ve given us to one another

Help us to share what we have

Help us to rely on your grace

Help us to know your ways more and more

 

God tricked me.

Many of you know that I was a content closet atheist for a few years in college.

Content in the way that you’re content after eating a large meal, not content in the way that you’re content after a beautiful sunrise. It would take me years to figure out the difference between those two types of contentment. One was all focused on me and my action and what I was doing.

The other contentment is one given as gift.

Anyway, I was tricked into this Christian life that I currently lead. It’s much different than the one I used to lead.

I used to lead one full of answers. In fact, when I was an atheist I was full of answers, too.

Turns out that in both cases I was just full of it.

Instead I lead a very hungry Christian life. I was tricked into it.

When we baptize people here at Luther, I often look at the God parents and think, “You’re being tricked into this…” By God. By parents. By this baptized person, usually a tiny baby who is so tricky…

Godparents in most mainline churches, Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian…I think more often than not people think it’s an honorary role. A title you bestow on someone, usually a relative, probably a sibling of a parent, whom you really love. It’s almost like it’s a way of showing affection to the Godparent, instead of showing affection to the baptized.

That’s my big critique of it. And I’ve been vocal in that. People ask me who should be a Godparent and my go-to answer is, “Someone of faith who will be in the child’s life their whole life.”

Part of that comes from me not knowing my own Godparents at all. Part of it comes from me, as a pastor, being frustrated by the fact that Godparents make these promises…but don’t know how they’re going to keep them. Or aren’t really expected to.

They’re tricked into it in a lot of ways.

Because that baptized person, whether they’re a child or an adult, is going to be hungry. Hungry to know the world, hungry with questions about God and spirituality and faith-crisis and apathy, and so often we tell the spiritually hungry to go somewhere else.

Like the disciples in today’s gospel reading. “It’s late,” they say. “Send these people away to get some food.” To which Jesus responds, “You feed them.”

And the disciples give this great answer, “But we only have this little bit of food…”

I think another way of saying that is, “We don’t even think we have enough to eat, how can we feed someone else?”

And there.

There is the hinge of action.

Because, see, I think that we all figure that if we’re going to talk with someone else about faith, especially a God child, that somehow we have to have it all figured out. We have to be full of faith answers. And when we find out that we’re not, we figure that, well, we don’t even have enough answers to go around for us! How can we feed this other one…

And what does Jesus do?

He says, “Give me what you have.”

And then he prays, and the disciples distribute…notice that. Jesus doesn’t distribute; the disciples do the work. God’s work, their hands.

And they distribute and all of a sudden it’s not about having enough, but about sharing that thing that you have.

And, boom, it’s so much that even the broken parts of what is shared aren’t lost.

And that last little bit makes me a little teary, actually. Because in that line I retain hope that even the broken parts of my faith, the broken parts of my past, the times when I thought I was full of answers and really was just full of it, are taken up and saved.

Even those parts aren’t lost in the God who invites sharing what we have over having enough.

So there I was, this nice little theology and philosophy major atheist, thinking I was right and full of answers coming to the communion table most weeks because, well, how can you study religion from afar, right? You gotta be in it.

And then all of a sudden that bread was passed to me one Sunday and I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. I think I might actually trust that a God is present, here, in this little act…”

And I was hungry. Hungry for that bread. Not hungry for answers, hungry with questions.

Questions that had to be shared.

So, for all you God parents out there, how many of are here?

How many of you have God parents?

Ok, for all of you out there, here’s the thing: I think you’ve been tricked.

The world has tricked you into thinking you have to have all the answers. That’s a devious lie.

But God is tricky, too. God is tricky in the way a person in the kitchen hides yeast in 3 measures of flower. God is tricky like a sower throwing seed all over the place, planting in places you’d never expect something to grow. God is tricky like one who plants a mustard seed in a garden, like one who buries treasure in a field, like one who searches for pearls and finds one and buys it right away even though it’s really expensive.

God is tricky in the way that the world is not: with a mischievous grin, planting a seed of trust into our hearts that grows slowly, achingly, painfully, and gets more complex as it grows. And you think it’s never going to produce fruit until someone comes to you who is hungry for some sort of faith discussion.

And maybe you’re too smart for all of that, or all of this even. Your intellectualism has caused you to come this far, but you won’t go farther. Your doubt has brought you this far, but this is it…nothing to share here. I’ll show up for the show, but I won’t drink the Kool-aid.

Well, we don’t have any Kool-aid. Only wine and bread.

And you look at your little vine of faith and all of a sudden there is this small piece of fruit on there and you think to yourself, “Surely this is not enough for anyone to share. I don’t have a faith story. My faith isn’t very big; it can’t really feed anyone.”

And in that moment you may find that God tricks you into sharing it. And the moment you do you’ll find that there’s plenty there…even if the vine is small and shriveled, even if the fruit is tiny.

Because faith is not about answers, it’s about questions. The questions in this life connect us. Answers tend to divide.

So you God parents and God children, when you make a promise to uphold this person in faith, do so knowing that one day you’re going to be tricked into sharing what you have.

And, by God, you just might find out that by sharing what you have you’ll have baskets full of return, more than you’d ever dream of. And even those broken pieces of yourself, those times when you didn’t live into your faith, those times when you were full of it, even those times will be redeemed in the sharing.

It’s funny, AA has picked up on this. In the sharing you find that it is enough.

Most of the church, though, shares answers…and then they wonder why people are turned off, turned away, or tuned out of life.

When the disciples come to Jesus and essentially say, “We don’t have enough,” Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes you do!” No assurances. Jesus just prays and encourages them to share.

No answers there. Just acting on trust. Acting on faith. Jesus supports our hands. There is enough.

Kind of like watching a 160lb Jewish guy on a cross and thinking, “God…this is not enough for salvation. There must be more.” And God responds with, “Just share the story. Act on trust.”

And it is enough. Thank God for that.

Sermon Thoughts: Beyond the Miracle (and the Post-Modern Miracle)

No one is familiar with this week’s Gospel lesson.Mosaic fish bread Tabgha DSCN0014

Sure, everyone has heard it, but I don’t think anyone is familiar with it.  Not even me.

Loaves and fishes.  In Matthew, in Luke, in Mark.  Is this the feeding of the 4,000 or the 5,000?  Is this the one where Jesus splits people up into groups or just has them sit down?  Does a little boy have the loaves and fishes this week, or do the disciples?  What kind of prayer does Jesus say?  Is this community organizing?

Kind of like the Christmas story (magi or shepherds?), this story is one where people are a little too familiar for comfort, I think, and merge all the different descriptions together.

And by now post-modern renditions of this story have flown from academic circles to the pulpit to the pew.  Yeah, we get it: they passed around the bread and as they did so everyone shared a bit of what they had and soon they realized that the *true* miracle was sharing their resources and realizing they had enough…

My biggest problem here is that it’s a very liberal, post-modern way of trying to explain an event that really doesn’t beg an explanation.

How is there enough to feed the 5,000?  Miracle? Sharing? How?

Again, I wonder if this is the wrong question.

Think of this as a parable.

Think of the situation on the macro-level.  We’re sitting down at the banquet of the world.

So-called Disciples: “Send the people to their own places to eat.”

Jesus: “You feed them.”

So-called Disciples: “But we only have enough for us.”

Jesus: “Uhm…check again?”

So-called Disciples: “Yup. Just enough for us.”

Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like two loaves and a few fishes that, when freed from ownership and offered to all who hunger, becomes food enough so that even the broken pieces are saved.”

How does that change how we view what is “ours”?  How does that change how we view the broken pieces and places of humanity that we imagine aren’t worth saving or able to be saved?

Because, I’ll wager a guess that most of the places that we have globally decided “aren’t worth saving” are places full of the hungry.

We waste time thinking about how this could have happened.  We need to spend some time planting the mustard seed of God’s kingdom into the hearts of humanity so that they imagine how this can happen.

No one is familiar with this text.  Sure, everyone knows it.  But when I turn on the news it’s abundantly clear that no one is familiar.

 

Returning Students

Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it isparables 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.”
33He 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.”
44The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51Have you understood all this? They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Returning Students

We pray,

Weave through our hearts Lord,

Like a mustard weed, vineing through our beings

That we might know we are of great price

That we might be caught in the net of your kingdom

That we might be students of your love yet again today.

 

I cook at home. Subsequently I’ve also sliced pieces off every one of my fingers. I haven’t mastered the knife skills…though I’m not sure any chef really has. They all slice themselves sometimes.

I had a seminary professor who could fluently speak five languages. When I questioned him on this I said, “Really?! Five languages? You’ve mastered five languages?” He answered, “No. I only speak one well. And it isn’t English.” He didn’t consider himself a master of languages, though he certainly had skill.

Most all of our life is geared toward mastery. We go to college. We get a Master’s degree (which is funny because mine say that I’ve “Mastered Education” and “Mastered Divinity”…yeah, right). Some go on to get other certifications, licensures, skills. Some to doctorates, double doctorates, or…the one I’m pining for…honorary doctorates.

Most all of our life is geared toward mastery in one form or another. We must master how to use the new kitchen appliances, the band saw, the new computer software, the GRE, SAT, and a million other acronyms. We need to master acronyms just to figure out all that we need to master!

And then in steps Jesus to eject us from that mindset, the mindset of mastery, into the realm of spiritual wisdom…which has nothing to do with mastering anything, but rather perception, attunement, openness, awareness.

You know, those sorts of amorphous things.

It’s frustrating, you know? I almost wish that Jesus could center our spiritual lives around some sort of technical skill like needlepoint or woodworking. Something that we could gain proficiency at.

Instead we have to work on things like “love” and “forgiveness” and you wonder, at each moment, if you’re becoming more proficient at love and forgiveness or less proficient…

Because sometimes it’s difficult to tell. I had someone last week ask me how I know if I’ve really forgiven someone. The only answer that I could come up with, an answer deep within me, is that sometimes I just have to remind myself that I’ve forgiven someone…or even forgiven myself. That’s as close to mastery as I’ve been able to come…

We also think we have to master wisdom in this world. “Stupid is as stupid does,” we proudly quote. Forrest Gump, the supposed poster-child for not being blessed with intelligence, rightly becomes the mouthpiece of wisdom for a generation of Americans who find themselves more often than not on the losing end of that saying. We all find ourselves there sometimes.

Confucius notes in Analects (which you should read if you haven’t) that wisdom is “knowing what you do know, and knowing what you do not know.”

That’s a far cry from the definition of wisdom touted in the Western world. Wisdom here more often than not is distilled down into having the right answer to anything.

Which is why it’s good that we have these parables before us because these parables, if they do anything, point us to a great spiritual truth and it is this: we are not to master the ways of God. We are perpetual students of God.

It’s why we must gather weekly at the foot of the cross in this place, students sitting at the foot of God.

It’s why Jesus continually claims that infants and children are better at holding the ways of God than adults. Children are in learning mode. They have what that desert-dwelling mystic Father Richard Rohr calls, “beginner’s mind. They are aware of what they know and what they don’t know.

Perhaps Jesus uses the terms “infants” and “children” and purposefully avoids the term “teenagers.” It seems in our teenage years we become less wise. Hence the word “sophomore;” wise-fool. So many adults are sophomores, this one included…

I think some are under the impression that we go to church to master religion. Or master Jesus. Or master the path to heaven. Or learn to master life somehow.

And then Jesus tells us this little story about a person who finds a pearl of great price, and sells everything they have to buy it.

And at the end of that parable, what is the person left with? They didn’t master anything, but rather gave up everything.

Or a person who finds treasure in a field, sells all that they have, and buys the field with the treasure hidden therein.

Or the planter who plants a small weed, a mustard weed, a small seed into a fresh garden knowing it will overtake everything. They haven’t mastered anything…they’ve given up their crops.

The repeating descriptors here in all of these parables: small, hiding, the element of secret-keeping, do you have ears to hear?

These are not stories to master or of mastery. These are stories that master you. They ask you the tough questions like, what is of worth to you? What would you risk everything to have? What might it mean for God to seek you, find you of great price, and sell everything to be with you forever?

What does it mean to imagine God, in her kitchen, has hidden the kingdom of God within the world, within you, like a yeast to infect you?

How is the kingdom of God a weed like the mustard weed, creeping its way through the world inviting you to make a home there?

These are not stories to master. These are parables; they master you. You are the student here. We are always students when it comes to God…

And, perhaps, it might be best to think of your life, our life together, as a parable. Life not as something to master, but as something to learn from. To sit at the feet of life and learn. After all, in the Gospel of John Jesus claims to be the “way, truth, and life.” To sit at the feet of life, to look at all that is to come, all that has been, and to learn from it is to take the parables of Jesus seriously.

That, of course, does not mean that “everything happens for a reason,” or that there is some particular message we are to be learning from this experience or that. Again, that goes back to this idea of mastery…you don’t have to master the meaning. Perhaps there’s not meaning to be mastered, but only meaning to be made.

We’ve even been taught to master ourselves, our own bodies. But the more I practice meditation, the more I realize that I never master my breath, I just learn from each inhale and exhale. That pearl of wisdom, a pearl of great price, is one that I’ve sold all my other mastering attempts for to allow it to live in me. I no longer try to master my preaching, my relationships, my work…I learn from them.

The need and desire for mastery bleeds into all forms of life, causing anxiety. We get anxious when we don’t feel we’ve mastered something, and sometimes this is warranted. A nurse must master putting in an IV. A welder must master the bead of metal and a smooth finish.

But we mistake those tasks for the task of life and the ask of a spiritual life. They are categorically different tasks…and yet so many of us are anxious not over the skills of work, but over life. Spirituality. Faith.

Following Christ in this world does not mean that you seek to master morality, that you seek to master religion, that you seek to master wisdom, master salvation, master God.

The idea that we must master everything is a distinctly Western understanding of what it means to live. Christ was more Eastern than he was Western. And, as the poet Christian Wiman notes, “Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.”

And that, precisely that, is what the parables teach us. They take us on this absurd little trail through a story that seems simple but is more complex than anything we’ve ever heard before, asking us to question what we’d sell everything for; what small pieces of our life are we underestimating, what we’re throwing away and what we’re keeping about this existence.

And they put us to the point of action. Can we truly hope that the kingdom of God is at work like yeast in flour, like a mustard weed in a garden especially when we look around and see violence on our streets, trouble in our marriage, and cancer in our bodies, dare we still look around and cling to the hope that the kingdom of God is still present through it all?  As we watch Gaza burn, dare we believe that God’s kingdom is somehow hidden like buried treasure in that sacred soil, working still?

Can we look at our lives, as students of our lives, and not judge whether we’re good fish or bad fish, but whether what we’re learning is worth keeping or tossing back? Whether we’re seeking just to master this parable we call life, or whether we’re willing to sit at the feet of the Way, the Truth, and the Life to learn from it?

God welcomes us back as returning students. It is good that we’ve come back to the foot of life again. Jesus has a story for us. Don’t tell me what it means, for it doesn’t mean just one thing. Let the story of Jesus sit inside you like a pearl of great wisdom which you’re willing to sell all your attempts at mastery to just hold.

Let the story of Jesus be buried in the field of your life, where you secretly know it’s there even when disaster and tragedy strike. That field is worth keeping with the treasure buried there.

Let the story of Jesus be the seed planted in the garden of your existence, weaving its way through everything so that you feel God’s presence like a shade tree inviting you to come and rest in it.

Let the story of Jesus be the sorter of your life, throwing out the bad and keeping the good.

And at the end of it all, perhaps we’ll know that our lives, too, are living parables. Parables of such great worth that God was willing to sell all divinity to walk with us even unto the cross. And once buried in the ground, hidden like yeast, like a mustard weed, like a treasure of great price, wound up a vine of resurrection that we all take comfort in.

 

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 that 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?

 

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