Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Poking Through

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 13th Chapter 

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The 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. 

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And 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.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like the tiniest seed, hidden underneath the dirt that covers acres of farmland.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a 4 micron (that’s literally microscopic), single cell, eukaryotic yeast, hidden in amongst a couple of pounds of dough.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure chest, buried and hidden from view, with no “X” to mark the spot.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a perfect pearl, hidden in a shell, hidden by the body of an oyster, hidden on the floor of the sea.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like the fish who swim in the ocean, hidden in the depths.   

Our task over these last few years has not been to create the Kingdom of Heaven.  God’s “been there and done that” long before any of us were around.  Our task has also NOT been to GROW the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like a seed, like yeast, like a pearl in an oyster and like fish in the sea, the Kingdom of Heaven grows on it’s own and doesn’t need our permission or even our cooperation to grow.  God grows it.  

No, our task over these last few years that we’ve been together has been to TRUST that The Kingdom of Heaven is out there, particularly in places many people were sure it wasn’t; to look for it and SEE signs of it and to point to it and tell the world, “LOOK!  LOOK AT THAT!  THAT’S A LITTLE, TINY, BEAUTIFUL CORNER OF THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN BREAKING THROUGH RIGHT HERE AMONG US!”

When I first got to Prince of Peace, I looked out from this pulpit, and I’ve got to tell ya, you looked rode hard and put up wet.  I recognized that look, because for the two years before I came to Prince of Peace, that was the look I saw in my mirror every single day.  Lots of dirt.  No signs of life.  Years of waiting for a seedling to poke through takes a toll.

But, I suspect to everyone's surprise, it did begin to poke through, didn’t it?  And it began to poke through with a program that became known as Mustard Seeds.  I think God is not unskilled in the use of irony!  We pulled families together who weren’t coming Sunday mornings and asked when they could gather for Christian Education and they told us Sundays at 4 p.m. then we asked the area Episcopal churches to join us and soon a Mustard Seed sprouted.  The Kingdom of Heaven, out of nowhere, suddenly poking through all that dirt.  

At the same time we had elbowed our way into the K-5, a group of five area Episcopal churches all churning away like yeast in dough, throwing off a lot of gas (Elmer will back me on that one!), but eventually all that gas ended up with Prince of Peace and St. Mark’s coming together.  I think we’re all, even now, a bit unsure of exactly how it happened but when we looked up one day in January the chairs had been rearranged and we had both doubled in size like a ball of dough rising in a bowl, covered with a tea towel.  The Kingdom of Heaven rising… right there… in the middle of us all.  

With St. Mark’s came the ministries of Addie’s Attic and Everyday Basics.  Prince of Peace had long had a heart for reaching out to our city, but over the years didn’t have their hands in it like before.  St. Mark’s had the same heart but needed a few more hands.  Then the Warming Center needed a home and suddenly there was a treasure of hands and hearts and new resources, buried deep under ground in the basement of St. Mark’s Parish Hall.  Then one day, a little boy and a little girl from Iraq, who spoke no English, came in through 6 inches of snow, wearing pool shoes and women’s flats and we saw it and found them shoes and there it was, suddenly visible!  The Kingdom of Heaven, an amazing treasure buried all along in the basement of St. Mark’s Parish Hall, lifted out for the community to see with great joy.  From that treasure, came a grant from the Diocese.  From that grant grew the Capital Area New Mainer’s Project.  From that grew a project from Tuft’s University and The Kingdom of Heaven keeps pouring out, like treasure from a chest, day after day after day!  

Now those three ministries of Addie’s Attic, Everyday Basics and the Warming Center are building on one another… layer upon layer, like an oyster builds a pearl.  With the long and generous legacy of St. Mark’s Home layering on…  With the talents of a skilled director layering on…  With the support and encouragement of the United Way and the community layering on… With new grants from other sources layering on… With even the mayor’s office layering on in a helpful way (and people say miracles don't happen!)  A pearl of great value called Bridging the Gap is being formed right now.  Now, that oyster has yet to be shucked.  That project is not fully formed.  That corner of the Kingdom of Heaven has yet to be fully revealed.  But with all the other ways God has shown us the Kingdom of Heaven in the past few years, I don’t know about you, but for me, trusting that God IS building the Kingdom of Heaven, layer upon layer even in ways we can’t yet fully see, has become much easier to believe.  

Our years together, our struggle to see and point to the Kingdom of Heaven, has not been without difficulty.  We’ve had our risen loaf punched down a time or two.  Our seedling has weathered some very cold frosts.  Our foot’s been cut on oyster shells looking for pearls.  We’ve dropped the treasure chest on our toes a few times and some of our most beloved fish swam out of the net before it could be pulled up on shore.  But here is the lesson of this parable… here is the lesson for you and for me from these few, amazing years we’ve been together… 

There really IS a seed out there in the field!  There really IS a treasure buried and waiting to be uncovered!  There really IS yeast growing in the dough!  There really IS a pearl of great value growing layer upon layer!  There really is an ocean full of fish!  Often hard to see.  Hardly ever where we expect it to be and not always in a form we’d pick, but you and I… we know it’s there now!  You and I… we might have forgotten that for a while… but we’ve reminded each other of that truth!  The Kingdom of Heaven really is poking through!  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you have shown me that truth again.    

So now, my fellow scribes, trained once more for the Kingdom of Heaven, promise me you will use all the tools you’ve learned… the ones you knew before and the ones you’ve newly learned and I promise to use everything you have so generously given me.  Because even though we will be apart in miles, remember, we’ll always be together… always pointing out to friends and strangers in the street, the tiny corners of the Kingdom of Heaven that we can see, poking into the world around us every day.  Thank you all... not only for showing me the Kingdom of Heaven poking through, but also for BEING a beautiful, tiny corner of the Kingdom of Heaven that poked into my world at exactly the moment I needed it most.  Thank you for reminding me that God’s treasures are always right under our feet, whether we can see them or not, no matter where we might be standing.  Amen. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Parable Impossipuzzle!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 13th Chapter
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 
Let anyone with ears listen!” “Hear then the parable of the sower. When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet 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. As 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. But 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.”

Parables are hard because they’re tricksy.  They teach things we need to hear but often don’t want to hear.  To create his tricksy parables, Jesus used pieces of what seemed like a harmless story, and then, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, he shuffled them around in front of the crowd.  The crowds expected the pieces to form happy little farming or fishing pictures.  But then, as Jesus brought them together in his unique way, the picture became something quite challenging.  That’s why parables are hard.  

So here we have the pieces of a puzzle called The Sower.  Sounds harmless.  Let’s see how it comes together.  So, who’s the Sower?  At first shuffle you might expect the Sower to be Jesus, but as it comes together the Sower clearly is God and what God is sowing is the Word… the Word made flesh… Jesus.  The first thing that makes this hard is that it looks like God isn’t being at all careful with where Jesus gets spread!  It looks like a foolish waste of Jesus to spread him on hard paths, rocky soil and in weedy-thorny people.  But that’s exactly what this parable is insisting!  God has sent Jesus to all of creation and not one corner of creation is left out!  Where they live, who they are, what they’ve done, how mean they are, what they believe, how they vote, who they love… God just rains down Jesus all over the place sowing Jesus into everyone’s lives whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, whether they believe it or not!  The Sower is more extravagant than Oprah!  You’ve got Jesus and You’ve got Jesus and You’ve got Jesus!  Everybody’s got Jesus!  And “everybody” sounds good at first, until you remember that “everybody” also includes THAT guy and THOSE people.  That’s when God’s radically extravagant, all inclusive Grace gets hard.  That’s part of the reason parables are hard.  

But that’s not the only hard piece of this Parable Impossipuzzle.  There’s the mystery of it all.  God, for whatever reason, has chosen to act in this world like a seed.  Not like a proper, all powerful God should be expected to act, with a volcano, earthquake or a giant rock squishing bad people from outer space, but like a little, tiny, insignificant seed.  In our bigger is better world, seeds don’t seem powerful at all!  Why does God choose to work in this crazy mystery, sending his Son to die and rise in some remote, Podunk corner of the world?  God has chosen to enter into creation with as much fanfare as a seed hitting the ground.  We often think God should fix the world with God’s mighty, omnipotent power, but as the Parable Puzzle comes together it looks like God works in quiet and mystery instead.  Another part of why parables are hard.  

It gets even harder than that though.  This seed, sown willy nilly all over the place does it’s work all on it’s own without needing any help from you or me or anybody!  No matter what soil the seed is sown in, Jesus is active and working!  With me, without me... doesn't matter!  The soil doesn’t do the work.  The seed does the work!  The seed just does it’s “seedy” thing.  It sprouts on it’s own, it grows on it’s own, it feeds the birds on it’s own, it composts into rocky ground on it’s own.  The Word of God… The Word made flesh… Jesus, God’s only begotten son… it turns out, according to this parable, is active and working and accomplishing all that God intends, all on it’s own and there is nothing we can do to stop it and I think maybe more frustratingly to us humans who like to pretend we’re in control… there’s nothing we can do to help it either!  Being reminded we’re not in charge is a BIG part of why parables are hard!

As this Parable Puzzle picture takes shape then, it looks like we can’t "find" Jesus or "bring anyone" to Jesus, because God has already sown Jesus into everyone.  We can’t save ourselves or anyone else, because Jesus, the seed, does that work on his own and he’s at work in good soil, rocky soil and even on no soil. About the best we can do is tell people what God, the Sower has done, what the seed is doing and what God plans for all of creation.  We might want to share how good it feels to be loved that much by God and we could show our thanks by taking a cue from the Sower by caring for people of every type of soil who live around us.  But past that, this is the Sower’s show… not ours.  

And that REALLY makes Parables hard.  God’s grace is spread and working in everyone, even in people we’d probably never choose to include.  God works quietly and mysteriously even though we’d probably choose lighting bolts and smiting rocks from outer space.  And God is the one who does the work of salvation.  All of that is why parables are hard.  Parables are hard because they remind us of a truth we need to hear but don’t like to hear… We’re not in control! 

Back in Jesus’ day lots of folks didn’t like the puzzle picture Jesus put together for them.  They didn’t want a God of radical, all inclusive Grace.  They didn’t want a God that included “those people,” whoever “those people” might be.  They didn’t want a God that worked in still, small, voices and mystery.  They didn’t want a God that didn’t leave them in control.  They didn’t want that sort of God back then and truth be told, a lot of people who hear this parable today don’t like it either.  And if even more truth be told, somedays, sinner that I am, I don’t want that God either!  Some days I too want a God that will only love the people I love.  Some days I don’t want to be challenged to love all the people God loves and their mean, hard hearts and rocky heads!  Even more truth be told, parables are STILL REALLY hard!  

But in the end, both on the days I like the way God works and especially on the days I don’t, God remains the Sower, sowing the extravagant, loving, seed of the Word made flesh into EVERY hard heart, rocky noggin and good soil throughout all of creation.  And in each of us, Christ, the seed is at work, turning darkness into light, pain into healing and death into life... in me and in you and in all of creation.  So let us give thanks to the Sower for giving us what we need even if it's not always what we want.  Amen.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Sticky Words

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 11th Chapter

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the 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.”

At 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; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All 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. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Yo mama’s so ugly, she threw a boomerang and it refused to come back!  Yo mama’s so stupid, she yelled into the mailbox to leave a voicemail!  Yo mama’s so fat the only letters from the alphabet she knows are K.F.C.  Ugly… Stupid… Fat… these are Sticky Words.  

Sticky Words aren’t just Yo Mama jokes, of course.  Words become Sticky when they land on a particularly tender part of who you are and can’t easily be shaken loose.  Sticky words are those words that, once they glom on, demand more of our focus and attention, even as we more and more desperately try to shake them loose.  Sticky Words are those words that people say to us that we know we should just brush off, but like a piece of fly paper, the more we try to brush them off, the more we’re stuck.  First our finger, then our hand, and then our shirt, and our hair and anything else that dares come near.  Sticky words are the words that drive us deep into the dark, unhelpful corners of our minds where we stew and struggle to fight back.  Sticky Words get us to churn and churn and churn away in our minds, until our brains are up to their axles in mud.  Sticky words immobilize us, bog us down and stop us from moving toward the things and people that matter most to us.   

When the religious and political leaders saw John the Baptist out in the wilderness, not living like “normal” people and not eating like “normal” people but still drawing crowds to hear what he had to say, they loaded up their Word Canon and fired a volley of Sticky Words in his direction.  “He has a demon!”  Wow!  Those were Sticky Words!  When Jesus commissioned his disciples and they started working their way through the towns and countryside telling people and showing people that God’s love, grace and compassion was for everyone, the political and religious leaders loaded up their Word Canons and fired off some Sticky Words.  “He’s a glutton!”  Wow!  That one’s maple syrup sticky!  “He’s a drunk!”  Whoa, that’s bubble gum-in-the-hair Sticky!  “He’s friends with Tax Collectors!”  Dang!  That’s cocklebur-in-your-wool-socks sticky!  He’s friends with SINNERS!  Holy Moly!  That’s superglued your hand to your face Sticky!  

Sticky Words go in through our ears and head straight for our reptilian brains, never bothering to check in with our higher, human brains to see if they really deserve our attention.  Our reptilian brains have only two tools in their lizard-brain-box.  Fight or flight.  Run from it or bite it.  What Sticky Words do is to drive us out of our minds and down into a place where we don’t think… we simply react.  It drives us to be much less than the human beings God created us to be.  

When Jesus asks, “To what will I compare this generation?”  He says this generation is acting like a bunch of kids in the market or on the playground.  Both want to play with the other, but all they seem able to do is to fire Sticky Words back and forth at each other.  Each volley is absorbed and stews and then the next volley is bigger and stickier when it gets launched back in the other direction.  

Todd W. rode my bus in elementary school.  He was younger, smaller and slower than me, but that sucker was a Sticky Word Ninja!  He would launch Sticky Words at me from a few seats away on the bus and they would land hard and stick fast!  I’d stew on one Sticky Word and while I was stewing on that one, he’d launch another.  When the bus dropped us off and finally pulled away from our stop, his lizard brain made him RUN and my lizard brain gave him the best reaction it could muster… right in the nose! 

Jesus calls us out of our lizard brains and offers us a way to return to the fully human, abundant lives that God created us to live.  Standing on either side of the marketplace, bus stop, churchyard, Twitter-verse or political aisle hurling Stickier and Stickier Words back and forth at one another is a never-ending, soul-sucking, wearisome, burdensome way of living that in no way leads us toward the abundant life God created us to live! 

Forty years or so after my lizard brain got the best of me at that bus stop, I know now that Todd’s sticky words were launched out of his brokenness and my reaction came right out of mine.  After all, hurt people, hurt people as they say.  But in Christ’s death and resurrection we have been given the power to rise out of that endless cycle of Sticky Words and broken people passing on their pain to others.  When we’ve had enough... when we’re tired of always being stuck in a mire of sticky words and weary of endlessly throwing them back and forth at one another, Jesus shows us there is a more restful, peaceful, less burdensome way to live. 

“Take my yoke upon you” Jesus says.  In other words, allow Jesus to steer your life.  Allow Jesus to steer you toward compassion, understanding, gentleness, humility and peace.  That way no matter what gets thrown at you so you can choose your words, like Jesus chose his words… words of welcome, words of inclusion, words of healing, forgiveness and new life.  When you’re finally weary of retaliation, retribution and revenge; when the stickiness, weariness and burden of always needing to hit back ten times harder has finally weighed you down so you just can’t do it anymore, Jesus says, take MY yoke upon you… the yoke of repentance, redemption and reconciliation.  That yoke, Jesus promises, shines life giving light into the deepest darkness, calms the roughest storms of our most horrible demons and even takes death and transforms it into new and everlasting life.

We will never be able to stop Sticky Words from coming and because those Sticky Words automatically trigger our lizard brains, we’ll never be able to simply brush them off, so as St. Paul observed we will always find ourselves NOT doing what we want and instead we’ll find ourselves doing the things we hate!  But in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we’ve been given the power to absorb those Sticky words, and learning from Jesus, we’ll be able to reply with words of gentleness and humility… words that shine light into darkness, words that heal and forgive and words that open never-before-seen possibilities.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Amen.