Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Walls Are Corn and the Door Says Pull!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 4th Chapter
Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

A couple with their three month old baby were terrified, lost and stuck.  There seemed to be no way out.  They frantically dialed 911 and the police sent a K-9 unit to find them and rescue them.  They were lost!  LOST... in a corn maze.  Now, it turns out they were only 25 feet from the edge of the maze but they didn’t know it.  They couldn’t find the exit and then it got dark, the mosquitos were swarming and they had a new baby.  In their fear, panic and hysteria, they simply couldn’t imagine that there might be another way out.  They saw the lights of the farm, but in the cloud of panic... in their fear... they couldn’t think of a way out except by working their way through the paths cut in the corn and they had been trying to do that for over an hour!  
They simply couldn’t calm down and think long enough to ask the question, “Is this a real wall, or is it just corn?”  From our perspective, sitting here in padded chairs, with beautiful new, clear windows, free from panic, without fear, without mosquitos and without a crying newborn, we can say, “DUDE!  Just walk through the corn toward the light!”  
It’s easy to laugh at this family, and some amount of chuckling is pretty much unavoidable... at least it was for me... but we should probably not laugh so much that we fail to learn the lesson that they have so graciously taught us.  We too get stuck, after all.  We too, in fear or out of habit or in our panic can’t imagine another way out or a different path forward.  Like the student in that old Far Side cartoon trying to enter the Midvale School for the Gifted, by PUSHING on the door clearly labeled with a sign that says PULL, we too can get stuck and lost in despair, even with the answer plastered RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF OUR FACES.  
In the two parables Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson, he is trying to get the disciples then (and us disciples now) to stop for just a minute and actually SEE!  Jesus, with these parables, is showing us that the sign on the door we’ve been PUSHING on with all our might until we’re ready to pop a vein in our temples, actually says PULL and the walls we are loosing our minds over are actually all just made of corn.  
In both of the parables, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God happens mysteriously, surprisingly and overwhelmingly and it all happens IN SPITE OF US!  In both parables, the Kingdom is like a seed.  In the first parable the seed isn’t planted or sown, but THROWN is the best translation.  It’s THROWN with abandon... everywhere in the EARTH.... and NOT in the dirt or the soil or the ground, but in the EARTH... the EARTH is the best translation, because Jesus used a word with that same double meaning.  God’s Kingdom is not just growing in one small patch of holy ground in one particular spot, but God’s Kingdom is in all the EARTH... in the whole planet... all of creation is holy ground!  And it grows all around us while you and I do the highly technical work of simply falling asleep and waking up again.  The Kingdom of God is growing and building and flourishing all around us... IN, WITH AND UNDER all of creation and we don’t have any part in it’s growth.  Jesus’s parables don’t ask us to GROW it... the Kingdom GROWS in spite of us... Jesus’s parables ask us, “DO WE SEE IT?”
Here in New England we’re on the cutting edge!  Unfortunately the cutting edge doesn’t always cut in a pleasant way, and this is one of those times.  We’re on the cutting edge of our culture and country becoming less religious, less connected with churches and other institutions of faith.  We’ve seen it here with the five Episcopal and one Lutheran church we’ve come to call the K-6... the Kennebeck Valley Six.  None of the six could afford full time clergy on their own.  They were struggling with membership, giving, mission and money... and yet, these parables tell us that the Kingdom of God, like seeds planted in every bit of the earth, is growing... not from what WE do or don’t do, but because that is simply what God’s Kingdom does... all on it’s own.  The question for us is NOT how we grow it, but CAN WE SEE IT?  Can we see that the walls barring our way to a joy-filled future... the walls we have been fearing aren’t actually solid?  Can we see that the answer is simply to walk toward the light through the corn?  Can we see that the door we’ve been pushing on, and doubling down by pushing harder and harder actually says, “PULL”?  Can we stop, take a deep breath and PULL instead of PUSH? 
We can.  Actually, I think we are!  The Kingdom of God is a mysterious thing.  It doesn’t work the way the world works.  The world makes winners and losers.  God’s Kingdom makes only winners.  The world says there is never enough.  God’s Kingdom provides abundantly to overflowing... a place for every bird.  The world says we are stuck behind an impenetrable, unchangeable wall and an immovable door... the Kingdom of God says the walls are corn and the door says pull. 
You know, the Kingdom of God isn’t done growing, right?  Last Sunday when our K6 kid's program called Mustard Seeds gathered for the end of year celebration we read the parable of the Mustard Seed and the kids gathered up front here in the sanctuary and we talked about all the birds that had a place in the shade.  There were red ones, yellow ones... ones that could soar like eagles and penguins that couldn’t even fly.  There were young birds and older birds, whole birds and broken birds... there was even a place for Angry Birds... and even all those maddening, snickering pigs too!  
The kids all bunched together here in the front of the church, all packed tightly together in a little ball... like a Mustard Seed... and then they grew.  Holding hands they grew out around the sanctuary, but there weren’t enough kids to encircle the whole congregation.  I asked what would God do with a tree that wasn’t big enough to include everyone?  The kids told us that God would make it bigger!  And it got bigger as the parents and grandparents joined in making the tree bigger until all the sanctuary was surrounded by this growing tree of the Kingdom of God.  We looked around and all the chairs were empty.  God had grown the Kingdom so large... kids holding hands with friends and adults and parents and grandparents... all surrounding the sanctuary.  God had grown the Kingdom so large there was suddenly room for more birds to come and find the shade they are so desperately seeking.  
More birds are coming.  So when they come and we think that there are problems that can’t be solved and we begin to fear and panic and lose our ability to see.... let’s help each other remember, the walls are just corn and the door says pull.  Amen.    

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It Takes One to Know One!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 3rd Chapter
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. When Jesus’s family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 
And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Back in 1847 Dr. Semmelweis was in charge of two clinics in Vienna.  One was a teaching hospital where students learned everything from birthing babies, to autopsies and everything in between.  The other was a maternity clinic for... you know... the regular folks.  The “regular folks” clinic didn’t have any doctors or medical students.  It had midwives.  The thing was, in the fancy, high priced, teaching hospital, women and babies died from fever... A LOT!  But over at the low-rent clinic with the midwives, things were MUCH better.  Women BEGGED to go to the low-rent hospital, no matter what their social status.  
After studying the situation, Dr. Semmelweis figured out that if the doctors coming to deliver a baby from dissecting a diseased cadaver would WASH THEIR HANDS... infant mortality dropped... from 20% to less than 1 %!  Now, you would think this discovery would have made him a hero, but the opposite turns out to be what happened.  His colleagues were angry... insulted even, that their tried and true methods were being questioned that they could even kill people!  Even the doctors who had been washing their hands, stopped washing in protest!  The death rate tripled, but the scorn and the ridicule kept coming and eventually it got to be too much.  Everyone thought Dr. Semmelweis was crazy!  He fought for years, but eventually he just gave up... and he began to drink... A LOT.  He lashed out at his family and they had him committed to an insane asylum where he was beaten, left in a dark cell and died of... you guessed it... a fever.  Twenty years later, a man named Louis Pasteur proposed his “germ theory” and the idea of washing hands to keep people from getting sick took off around the world. 
The Scribes and Pharisees thought Jesus was insane too.  THEY thought he was the “criminally dangerous” kind of insane.  Jesus’s family thought he was the “sad/to be pitied and quietly spirited away” kind of insane.  Different translations of the Bible say it in different ways, but to those who were looking in from outside, Jesus had gone out of his mind.  One translation says he must be mad.  Another that he was crazy.  Another says he had the Devil and another that Jesus was beside himself.  
The thing is... from their rational, logical, well thought out, experienced point of view... he was!  Jesus was bonkers!  Jesus wasn’t AT ALL normal.  Jesus did things and said things that went against what everyone KNEW was true.  Who in their right mind would TOUCH a leper?  WHO?  What sort of rational human being would, with only twelve, fairly dim witted followers, take on the entire Roman Empire?  Who would do that?  Who would suggest if someone asks you for a coat, you give them the rest of your clothes too, so you were left naked in the street?  Blessed are the poor?  Really?  Have you BEEN poor?  It’s not that much of a blessing!  That sort of thinking was... WELL... it’s CRAZY!  
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and author, wrote, “A Christian is one who is on The Way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”  So add “dim” and “half-baked” to the labels of crazy, mad, out of your mind and beside yourself and you’ll be getting closer to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Because, you see, FOLLOWING Jesus isn’t simply an exercise in looking back in time and saying from the safety of 1700 years of Western, Christian, cultural dominance that Jesus was right and the Scribes, Pharisees and his family where wrong.
No, faithful following is not well researched, thoughtful analysis done with a cool, refreshing beverage in hand, from the safety of a sofa located sometime in the distant future!  Faithful following is doing our half-baked best, to walk “The Way” RIGHT NOW.  Faithful following is living the “Jesus Way”... living that odd, different sort of life of radical compassion, inclusion, generosity and self-sacrificial love the best we can, all the way, full out, right to the point where the world says we’re suckers!  To the point our family and friends look at us and think to themselves or even say out loud, “Those folks have a screw loose!  They’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal!  They’re bent, berserk, and batty... crazy, cracked and certifiable.  They’re daffy, disturbed and delirious, eccentric, flaky, goofy and haywire.  Insane, kooky, looney and nuts!  Those Lutherans and Episcopalians meeting over there on Eastern Avenue are just plain ODD, peculiar, screwy, tilted, unhinged, wacky, and zany!"  
Much too much of Christianity today has decided to look at the challenges, troubles and struggles we face with a changing culture and declining membership, and simply double down on what we’ve always done.  They’ve decided to do Church today the way it worked back in the glory days, only now with added furry and indignation!  Unfortunately, I believe that will work for the Church just as well as Dr. Semmelweis’s colleagues refusing to wash their hands with furry and indignation worked for the mothers and infants of Vienna back in 1847!  
Faithful following means taking a different path and I believe you are I are on that sort of path.  It’s a road that is admittedly unfamiliar and much less traveled, but I think those tend to be the paths of faithful following.  I know not everyone sees it that way, but if this lesson and the story of Dr. Semmelweis teach us anything, it’s that the world is never changed and the Kingdom of God is never brought further into being by choosing the road the world would call sane, rational or normal!  Robert Frost put it this way:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What we’re doing here is nuts.  It is.  We’re taking that Road Not Taken!  It’s a poet’s road, a prophet’s road, an artist’s and a dreamer’s road.  It’s different.  It makes no sense, like being born from above and the cross, an instrument of torture and death, being the source of life it makes no sense!  But even with none of it making any rational sense, I believe what we are doing here is the faithful following of The Jesus Way to which we have been called and I believe it will make all the difference... not just for us, but for those who are out there, right now, who are longing and searching for just this sort of road.  Thank God for the privilege of allowing us to be the quirky, kooky, nutty ones called to shine the light of Christ for them, so they might join us along The Way.  Amen.