Monthly Archives: July 2011

07-31-11 A PARABLE ABOUT LOSTNESS

A PARABLE
ABOUT LOSTNESS

Luke
15: 1-32 

As a
child I
remember dumping
out a
can of
Lincoln Logs
and spending
a summer
afternoon building
a small
town; as
a teenager
I enjoyed
taking apart
broken appliances
and figuring
out how
to make
them work
again. As
an adult,
some of
you have
spent a
winter or
summer afternoon
pouring out
a 1000 piece
puzzle and
putting it
back together.
But what
about a
theologian; what
might a
Bible student
do? Today
I invite
you to
join me
in the
Biblical laboratory:
to pour
out a
parable, and
put it
back together.
It is
good to
read our
Bibles; but
for life
lessons that
impact us
best, it
is better
to learn
the back
stories of
passages like
Luke 15.  

First,
these
three
stories
most
certainly
should
be
read
as
a
group.

Second,
each
story
not
only
says
something
about
what
or
who
is
lost,
it
also
says
something
about
the
finder
(
searcher).

And third,
more
than
a
story
about
a
sheep
or
a
coin
can
describe,
the
last
story
talks
about
the
loss
of
what
is
most
precious:
a
child.
Today
we
watch
parental
panic
set
in
before
the
boy
returns.
Lets
begin.

First, these three stories about lostness most certainly
should be read as a group. They are told by Jesus after he is charged
with spending time with sinners; perhaps sinner could be thought of
as “lost ones.” Barbara Reid, in her commentary on this story
reminds us: “What offended other Jews was that Jesus evidently
offers forgiveness to sinners and admission into his community
without making the normal demands of restitution and commitment to
the Law.” [Parables for Preachers, The Gospel of Luke, The
Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 183.] From that dialogue we consider now
that which is “lost.” The Pharisees are “grumbling” at this
point. In the first story read today, the story is told as a
proposition: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing
one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the
one that is lost until he finds it?” And Jesus’ proposition
continues in verse 8: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if
she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and
search diligently until she finds it?’ It is not until third story
in the triad that he changes course and tells the story that has
become so famous. In the first story, a shepherd searches for a
sheep; in the second story a woman searches for a coin; and in the
third story a father searches for his son. Like any good storyteller,
Jesus builds the tension in the stories. Stories, like some jokes,
build descriptive tension by telling examples in threes. For example,
there are many jokes that are told about a minister, a priest, and a
rabbi, and the order is changed to suit the setting. In addition,
many children have grown up with the story of Goldilocks and the
Three Bears, including mama bear, papa bear and baby bear. In the
folk story the bears have a cottage that the young Goldilocks enters.
She tries their porridge, sits in their chairs, and lies down in
their beds. In the story of the Three Little Pigs, each pig finds a
man from whom to buy building equipment to make a small home in which
they each could live. As you probably recall, one built his house out
of straw, one out of wood, and one out of bricks. A big bad wolf
happened to come to each of their houses, (remember, it’s a story!)
and asks permission to come in! The pigs know that if they let
the wolf in he will eat them for dinner! One by one he visits their
houses, blowing down the first two and eating the pigs! Only the
third one was safe.  The first two examples in each story are
comparisons; the last example is the one where the story is leading.
So today, as with the pattern of stories told before and after Jesus’
parables of the lost, we have a story with three sections to bring
tension and resolution to the plot.

Second, each
story not
only says
something about
what or
who is
lost, it
also says
something about
the searcher.
In 1st
century Galilee,
the first
story shows
a shepherd
searching for
a lost
sheep. Shepherds
were often
boys, were
poorly paid
and quite
uneducated. And
sheep, even
one, would
be a
costly loss
to the
shepherd (the
owner might
fire or
punish him)
and certainly
to the
owner. In
the next
story it
is a
coin that
is lost.
The searcher
in this
story is
a woman.
We dont
know any
more about
her except
we, in
all likelihood,
have done
what she
has done:
she lost
something of
importance to
her and
she searched
for it,
feeling relief
and joy
when she
finds it.
And finding
the coin
allows her
to pay
for something
that she
cannot pay
now. In
the last
case, the
father is
the searcher,
not only
running toward
town in
one instance;
he also
wades through
his cropfilled
field toward
his older
son in
the second
instance. Jesus
had three
stories about
lostness that
he tells,
with the
last, as
usual, having
the most
impact.

 

Third, more
than a
story about
a sheep
or a
coin can
describe, the
last story
talks about
the loss
of what
is most
precious: a
human being,
yes, but
in Jesus
day that
loss of
a son
was tragic,
and the
panic that
likely filled
the heart
of both
the father
(
the searcher)
and the
son (the
lost) was
the point. 
The last
segment of
Jesusparable
is surely
where he
was leading
his listeners
in Luke
15.
But Jesus
had to
get his
listeners there
first, so
he tells
his earlier
stories. He
starts with
a story
of a
valuable
persona
shepherdand
a valuable
animala
sheep. In
the first
segment, a
shepherdcharged
with guarding
and feeding
sheeppanicked
over his
possible loss
of job,
reputation, and
income when
he lost
a sheep.
Even one
lost sheep
is not
an acceptable
loss to
whoever the
owner is,
so the
shepherd sets
out to
look for
the lost
animal. When
he finds
the panicked
sheep, the
animal is
exhausted, but
the shepherds
mind goes
back to
the flock
he left
behind. So
having compassion,
he picks
up the
lost sheep
and in
a shepherds
carry, brings
the lost
sheep back
to the
fold. We
know a
sheep, unlike
a coin,
is a
living and
breathing animal
that can
feel panic
and loss.
But sheep
are incapable
of making
choices that
are morally
right or
wrong. Sheep
are some
of the
least bright
of creatures
that God
created! They
always need
a shepherd
or they
cant
survive. Thats
why the
Bible often
describes
us as
sheep and
Jesus as
shepherd:
hoping to
instill in
us that
we simply
cant
survive
without a
savior!
But that
is still
not the
crux of
Jesusstory.
After that
first segment
is told,
Jesus inserts
the story
of greater
valuea
woman searching
for a
coin. The
woman in
a family
was something
of the
home manager:
the one
knew the
finances and
ran the
household. If
she was
looking for
a lost
coin, she
was counting
on it
and she
needed it.
How many
of us
know the
panic that
can set
in when
you have
lost your
wallet while
shopping, lost
a paycheck
in your
house when
bills are
due, or
lost your
car keys
when you
are far
away from
home? 
Doesnt
your heart
start to
race, your
head start
to pound,
and your
thoughts start
to get
muddled!? You
might feel
embarrassed and
not call
anyone until
you have
retraced your
steps in
the shopping
center, your
home, or
the parking
lot. But
when you
find what
you lost,
dont
you feel
relieved and
overjoyed? Have
you then
called or
texted another
person to
share your
relief at
finding what
you lost?
Thats
what Jesus
imagines as
a shrewd
observer of
human nature.
But notice
the coin
is of
enough
value to
this woman
that she
searches
until she
finds it.
The first
story involved
a boy
and a
sheep, the
next involved
a woman
and a
coin. We
are finally
at the
point of
seeing what
it is
like to
lose a
person, perhaps
the crux
of Jesus
lesson.

We are
now at
the relationship
of greatest
value: person
to person;
in this
case, a
parent and
child. In
the first
century the
most valuable
family members
were the
father and
his sons
according to
birth order.
The story
shows a
father, who
is patient,
loving, (and
some might
say gullible),
while his
rash son
makes a
request that
in that
time suggested
that he
wished his
father were
dead. But
instead of
condemning the
sons
request as
the town
would certainly
do, he
agrees to
it. The
son leaves
and is
not seen
for some
time. Although
not spoken,
we learn
that the
father has
been concerned,
even panicked,
about his
son while
he is
away. This
father, curiously,
even exhibits
some maternal
qualities of
caring. When
the son
appears,
the
fathera
distant and
stern man
in most
householdsmade
a swift
and certain
move to
protect his
son from
the
neighbors
who would
have stoned
the boy
for
treating
his father
with such
disrespect.
So he
ranran
in his
robes to
embrace the
boy,
implying to
the town
that
restitution
had taken
place when,
in fact,
it hadnt.
Remember the
story? The
father embraced
and kissed
him, signifying
reconciliation, even
before the
boy could
open his
mouth. The
father was
dreadfully upset
over his
child being
lost, with
his whereabouts
and condition
unknown. 
The son
was not
concerned about
his father
at all,
until the
big bad
world emptied
his pockets
and made
him desperate
enough to
eat pig
food. Only
when he
hit his
personal bottom
did he
return to
his father,
not even
expecting to
be treated
as family,
but as
property. (“Treat
me as
one of
your servants”).
And so
by the
end of
the story,
the fathers
grace more
than the
sons
remorse reconciled
the youngest
son to
him and
saved the
son from
the harsh
treatment the
village would
have shown
him. But
the fathers
work wasnt
done yet.
He now
had the
work of
rebuilding a
relationship with
his older
son, a
relationship compromised
by his
gracious, or
some might
say spineless,
response to
his other
son. So
he goes
into the
field, instead
of having
the son
brought into
the house
to him.
He implores
his older
son to
come into
the house.
He wanted
to share
joy of
the reunited
family. But
a reunion,
like with
some family
situations in
our day,
was just
wishful thinking.
In the
end the
father is
left begging
for his
oldest son
to come
in the
house too!
The twist
at the
end of
the story
is ironic:
the lost
son in
the fathers
celebration is
perhaps no
longer the
younger one,
but the
older one.

The reflection
on the
last story,
the crux
story, might
be unexpected
from what
you have
heard for
years. Could
it be
that instead
of the
Father being
the God
figure, and
us finding
ourselves as
one of
the children,
that every
one of
these characters
is quite
broken and
quite human?
Fathers in
the first
century were
distant, stern,
and principled.
No father
would have
stood still
for a
son to
say to
his face
that he
wished he
were dead
now so
that he
could have
his money.
Sometimes we
lift up
the fathers
response as
wonderfully gracious,
but at
times grace
is subversive
instead. It
certainly was
for the
older son
who thought
things should
follow the
expected and
appropriate course
of events.
Sometimes in
trying to
be a
friendto
our children
we fail
to be
the parent
we are
called to
be. Could
this story,
in part,
be about
parental failure?
And arent
there times
when every
parent wishes
he or
she had
done things
differently? The
younger son
is broken;
he seems
to be
spoiled in
part by
parental leniency.
This story
involved boundary
issues and
things could
have gotten
ugly. Even
the towns
people would
have wanted
toteach
that boy
a lesson
since the
father had
not done
so. Have
you been
theapple
of someones
eye”; the
child that
tried things
on his
or her
own; or
the one
that, like
many teenagers,
was impatient
with the
age and
testing requirements
it took
to gain
adult maturity?
And what
about the
older brother?
He is
often painted
as having
a bad
attitude, and
perhaps he
does. But
is he
the only
one in
the family
trying to
live by
the agreed
upon rewards
and consequences?
Is he
the one,
perhaps the
only one,
who knows
what should
be done
in a
wellrun
household and
is reacting
to the
mess his
father and
brother have
created? And
was there
ever a
time when
you felt
that way:
when parental,
or scholarly,
or athletic
rules got
trampled for
one person
who failed
to play
by them?
This is
not only
a story
of every
man and
woman; it
is a
reminder from
the lips
of Jesus
that we
are all
sinners, and
that we
are all
flawed. Even
demonstrated grace
can cause
a ripple
that affects
others in,
what Dr.
Edwin Friedman
called, “family
systems.” Is
it different
to think
of someone
other than
the young
son as
broken in
this family?
To which
one do
you most
easily relate?

So we
return to
the context
of the
story: Jesus
is welcoming
sinners; in
the parable,
grace upsets
a family
system. Grace
may be
amazing to
the recipient,
but to
the farm
workers, or
the brother,
who is
left out,
grace can
clench the
fist of
another or
create a
rage. Do
you most
identify with
that older
brother; or
isnt
there a
time when
your rashness
was met
with a
harsh response?
Would grace
have changed
the direction
of your
life? And
what parent
doesnt
balance grace
and consequences?
Take time
now to
consider THROUGH
PARABOLIC EYES.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 31, 2011

07-24-11 Prayers

07-24-11 Prayers

Prayers. They are far more complicated than most of us like to admit, aren’t they? If you ask a room full of Christians who would like to give grace, most of them will shy away from the task. They are afraid they might do it “wrong.”

We understand that prayer is talking to God. What we can have trouble with is how to be involved in that relationship. After all, prayer is more than offering a list to God. It is praying for the will of God in our lives and those we pray for. While we tell God of our trials and troubles, we are also saying, what would you have of us? But what we believe to be divine will is often what we think is best in a given situation, isn’t it? We want God’s will to be done, but when it is the same as our own. Praying ‘thy will be done’ is easy on Sunday morning in worship but difficult when it involves someone we are directly concerned about.

After all, suffering can take its toll on our relationships, including our relationship to God. While there are those that say that doubting, questioning, and being angry towards God is bad and unfaithful, it is a natural part of the relationship. Like any relationship we have with our spouses, parents, friends, or children, we will get angry, we will doubt, we will question. It is what it means to be in relationship, the good and they bad. When we have suffered pain, turmoil, and conflict, often times it will impact how we relate to God. We may yell, we may write letters, we may become silent. Sometimes there just aren’t the words necessary to adequately talk to God. And sometimes, we just don’t want to communicate.

It is in the times where the ability to communicate with God come up short, when we are just too angry, too sad, too confused to find the words, prayer seems the most impossible. It is in those moments where we feel we must lean on others to have faith for us, as ours comes up short. We may believe in God, yet our emotions overrun our ability to speak and relate.

In those moments, we can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us. Paul states “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Sighs too deep for words.

As we bring our desires to God, we find the Spirit takes our prayers to Jesus who makes them his own. Our feeble, clumsy, inarticulate prayers are cleansed, and in a “wonderful exchange,” Christ makes his prayers our prayers and presents us to the Father as his children. Our prayers are his prayers; his prayers are our prayers. This is why we pray in “Jesus’” name.

This Trinitarian prayer is happening right now. The only one who has the power to condemn us is the very one who is praying for us, Christ. This is why Paul’s wisdom is a true and trustworthy statement: “nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” When we feel alienated, separated and estranged, maybe by others or maybe by ourselves, when it feels like everyone and everything is against us, it’s easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us.

In the middle of our trials and our suffering, when it feels too hard to pray, God is still with us. Nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love.

The first of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos is called Rain. In it, Rob takes his three year old son for a hike and it the middle of the hike it starts pouring rain. Now for his son, all he knows is the rain and how horrible and cold and wet and awful it is. But Rob knows that they are almost home, and he knows that he would do anything for his son. So he takes his boy and holds him close, telling him over and over again, how much he is loved.

We get so caught up in the storms of our lives, we can’t see beyond them. We can’t grasp the love of the God who is walking through those storms with us, every step of the way. The storm is so fierce that the deep realities of divine love are obscured by outward appearances. In the gospel for this week Jesus describes the subtleties of God’s kingdom that require a discerning heart.

He says that the presence of God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed — something insignificant rather than extravagant, fragile and not mighty, unlikely rather than obvious. His kingdom can also be imperceptible, like yeast leavening a batch of dough. It’s difficult to detect unless you look carefully. It’s not apparent, even though you know it’s there somewhere. God’s reign is also like a fishnet containing the good and the bad together, or a field of wheat infested with weeds. The ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that his perfect love is unconditional. Everything else comes after that fact. And nothing can separate us from his love.

Even when we are in the midst of trial and can’t even begin to think of prayer, God is with us, loving us. It is the link with the Spirit that helps us communicate with that love. The Spirit is God’s love within us.

We Presbyterians are not always comfortable in the realm of the spirit, are we? We prefer words. We often live more in our heads than in our hearts. Talking about the Holy Spirit is just something that comes across as too mystical. Too strange.

But Presbyterians, like everyone else, sometimes experience a spiritual thirst. People search in all sorts of places for things to quench that thirst, to fill up the empty spaces in our souls. “My soul thirsts for God,” the Psalmist says.

Similarly, as summer wears on, the earth and its plants thirst for rain in all this heat. I once heard a farmer say that even if he uses a hose to give his garden an inch of water, it doesn’t seem to do as much good as one-tenth of an inch of rain. Now, I’m not sure why that’s true, but it certainly seems to be the case. Sprinklers don’t make up for good, soaking rain.

Just as nothing substitutes for rain, nothing truly quenches our spiritual thirst but the Spirit. As hours are filled with everything from school to work to shopping to just watching TV, we seem to crowd out spiritual void by filling up with other things. That’s easier than sitting still and listening for the quiet voice of God.

But it doesn’t work, does it? It’s not enough on its own to stay busy or get in shape or to live right. We need the Spirit so that we can pray. We need the Spirit to be connected to the God who loves us no matter what else is going on in the world.

The theologian Paul Tillich remarks upon this passage, saying, “Out of this insight Paul gives a mysterious solution to the question of the right prayer: It is God Himself who prayers through us, when we pray to Him. God Himself in us: that is what Spirit means. Spirit is another word for “God present,” with shaking, inspiring, transforming power. Something in us, which is not we ourselves, intercedes before God for us. We cannot bridge the gap between God and ourselves even though the most intensive and frequent prayers; the gap between God and ourselves can be bridged only by God. And so Paul gives us the surprising picture of God interceding for us before Himself.

This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul “sighing.” Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

The Spirit is the Spirit which will intercede, speaking on our behalf. It is the Spirit that will overwhelm us like the wind, bringing us comfort and peace in the midst of chaos. It is the Spirit that wh
en we feel most abandoned and alone is indwelling within each of us. It is the Spirit that has been with us since the beginning and will never leave.

Yes, that makes us uncomfortable sometimes. We can’t quantify the Spirit. We can’t point and say that is the Spirit right there. We don’t have a good concept of the Spirit. But that doesn’t make the Spirit any less important.

When those times of complete weakness, physically, emotionally, spiritually, come around, the Spirit will breathe those sighs. They are the sighs that can speak beyond our mere vocabulary to communicate our deepest pangs of grief. They are the sighs that will communicate all our suffering, all our grief, all our anger. The sighs are the ones that will echo the truth of every bruise, scar, and crack that are engrained on our hands and on our heart. They are the sighs that will communicate our hope and are longing for healing.

When words aren’t enough or when there are no words, when our own spirits are parched, that is just the time when God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words when we are unable to voice our own emptiness

And nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from that Spirit, God’s loving presence within us. So as we go through life’s storms, know that even when you cannot find the words for God, the Spirit is there. Sighing along with you, too deep for words.

Rev. Cara Gee

July 25, 2011

07-17-11 THE WHEAT AND THE WEEDS

– audio to be added at a later date – 

THE
WHEAT AND THE WEEDS

Matthew
13: 24-30

In
1880,
a
very
slim
novel
was
published
that
has
been
an
intriguing
delight
to
readers
ever
since.
The
work
is
called
FLATLAND,
and
the
authors
memorable
name
is
Edwin
Abbott
Abbott.
Listen
to
what
one
reviewer
said
about
FLATLAND:

Flatland
is one of the very few novels about math and philosophy that can
appeal to almost any layperson. This short fantasy takes us to a
completely flat world of two physical dimensions where all the
inhabitants are geometric shapes, and who think the planar world of
length and width that they know is all there is. But one inhabitant
discovers the existence of a third physical dimension, enabling him
to finally grasp the concept of a fourth dimension. Watching our
Flatland narrator, we begin to get an idea of the limitations of our
own assumptions about reality, and we start to learn how to think
about the confusing problem of higher dimensions. The book is also
quite a funny satire on society and class distinctions of Victorian
England.”

The
author playfully calls the book a memoir of one of the citizens of
Flatland, and that resident is named A. Square. Like those in the
time of Christopher Columbus who presumed the world was flat,
sometimes our senses and even our scholarship can keep our minds
boxed in. When a child plays “Heart and Soul” on the piano, a
simple melody is all that the right hand plays. But add the harmonies
and contrasting line of the left hand and the song gets much more
interesting, that is, unless you used to torment your family by
playing it continuously! The great composer Ravel had a sense of
“I’ll show you!” as he defied musical conventions by creating a
symphonic piece that simply repeats the melody over and over, adding
instrumentation and crescendo to make it a most interesting and
engaging piece; again, unless it is played over, and over, and over!
Before Disney and Pixar came out with computer animation that
appeared three dimensional, cartoons were two dimensional figures of
people and drawings of landscape, sometimes colored in rich detail,
but still clearly two dimensional. The news Winnie the Pooh film is a
classic two dimensional delight, while the last Harry Potter film has
ventured into the land of 3-D. And except for a few experimental
attempts, watching science fiction films thirty years ago at a
theatre was a grainy, often poor quality experience of sight and
sound compared to the state-of-the-art theatre where I saw James
Cameron’s “Avatar” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception, ”
with digital projection, 3-D, and digital sound made seeing those
movies a game-changer.

Today
let’s look at this parable, how it functions, and what it might
mean apart from the allegorical interpretation found six verses
later. First, a parable like this– the wheat and the tares in King
James language, the wheat and the weeds in modern language– brings
words of judgment from God like those proclaimed by prophets in the
Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New. But instead of the
prophets throwing fastballs toward each crowd they faced, building
resistance of will and deafness of hearing, Jesus chose another
device: parables; Biblical curveballs. Far from being charming
stories, they had multilayered and sometimes ambiguous ways of acting
out a story. By contrast in my childhood, westerns had “black
hatted” and “white hatted” characters to differentiate the good
guys from the bad guys! Professor Stan Saunders of Columbia Seminary
adds: “In response to growing division and rejection [that Jesus
faced], Jesus begins speaking in parables, a form of teaching that at
once reveals and conceals. Israel’s prophets had used dramatic
sign-acts—signs
that perform what they signify—to convey their messages forcefully.
Jesus’ parables are also sign-acts, in that they both describe and
intensify the growing division in Jesus’ audience. His parables
beget crisis, forcing the hearers to embrace, or turn away from God’s
empire.” [PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, Westminster John Knox
Press, 2010, p. 120.]

Next,
let’s think about the purpose for Jesus telling this parable,–and
the one about the sower before it, and the one about the mustard
seed, and the one about the hidden leaven—it was to raise the
awareness of the times in which they were living: There was”
goodness” metaphorically speaking, and “evil.” But who is who?
Evil was lurking, mixed in with good. Matthew loves to bring good and
evil into the same sentence, in much the same way that good and evil
exist side by side in the world. Listen to these words from the
parable as we react to them: “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Some have
said that sounds like a quaint land of fairytales when really the
faithful were looking for a new and just empire, a Godly empire, to
rule in place of the current oppressive “Roman Empire.” They were
looking for a new and just empire in which God was honored. But
God’s empire is not brought in by force; it is brought in by
justice, and witness, and transformation. “Someone sowed good seed
in a field.” Some say that the sower stands for Jesus; but could it
have been another person in his day instead? Could it have even been
someone living under the oppressive Roman regime who nevertheless was
trying to do the right thing? Could the seed have been called good in
the eyes of Israel and the new message Jesus was bringing be labeled
as “bad seed” because of his revolutionary new ideas? If you are
like me, you’re not fond of ambiguous stories; I like to know who
the redemptive characters are in a story. But our point of
view—whether it is as an insider, outsider, Christian,
non-Christian, management, or laborer—affects our perspective. The
parable then continues about an enemy sowing weeds among the wheat.
Now we wonder if the enemy is the devil, or in the eyes of the Chief
Priest or of Rome, could the enemy be Jesus? We keep listening and
remembering that the crowd was made up of people in many walks of
life. “When the plants grew up, the weeds appeared as well.”
Notice then that the workers, or servants, certainly don’t want the
blame on this one, so they bring their discovery to the master’s
attention, deflecting blame. “Didn’t you give us good seed to
sow? Why are there weeds there?” And the master, not willing to
take the blame either, said “An enemy did it.” So then the
workers ask if he wants them to go and pull out the weeds. The weeds
in the case are, by almost all accounts, “darnel” or in Greek
“Zidzania,” a wheat looking weed that also can carry a poisonous
contaminate, potentially ruining an entire harvest. Agriculturally,
pulling the weeds, or killing the weeds, is the right thing to do.
Apocalyptically, that is, in the description of the refiner’s fire
of the final judgment as Old Testament prophesies described, both the
bad and the good in the world grow together, and will be separated at
harvest and the weeds (or tares) are then burned. The imagery of the
hymn we sang today first, “Sing to the Lord or Harvest” and the
next hymn often sung at Thanksgiving, “Come Ye Thankful People
Come” are not just about an agricultural harvest.
The
metaphor turns crops into people and the harvest into a final
judgment.

Finally,
we do have the allegorical words that Matthew says were Jesus’
words of explanation in verses 36-43. Certainly at that time Jesus
had left the crowds and had gone with his disciples into a house. It
was inner circle time. I am glad he gave an explanation to his
disciples. Jesus’ gave them the message about final judgment, that
there will be one, even as evil and good grow together. In spite of
hoping to understand new concepts or new technologies the first time
you hear them, aren’t there times when you’ve said to your
teacher “Would you run that buy me again and explain it to me?”
The disciples, in that way, are just like us! They almost never
understand Jesus the first time they hear him! Sometimes they ask
him, as they did in Matthew 13:36. But other times they are left
silent and wondering.

The
parables: they deceptively powerful tools for prophetic change and
for describing our human condition and brokenness. But our Lord chose
to use them with purpose: together, we can learn to hear them from
fresh perspectives. In your bulletin you should see a sheet with nine
dots on it. Perhaps you have done this exercise before: you are to
connect all the dots with four straight lines and don’t lift your
pencil. This is what I’m calling this
week’s
THROUGH PARABOLIC EYES experience!
The
answer is on the bulletin board in the narthex and another copy on
the fellowship hall bulletin board. Or perhaps a child can show you
how it’s done! Like wanting to color outside the lines in a
coloring book, sometimes lines, or boxes, or dots can be
self-restraining. FLATLAND taught the world that. What are the new
possibilities for understanding our world when we can see it in
Technicolor, and not just black and white? How is the experience
different when you watch INCEPTION in 3-D instead of 2-D? And what
might we learn about God’s Kingdom—or Empire—if we think
outside of the box of expectations and conventions, with the tools of
wonder, of possibility, and of God’s infinite love?

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
July 17, 2011   

07-10-11 SOWING

How many of you
have ever gardened? Grown flowers or vegetables? If you’ve worked
with growing things at all, it’s easy to tell that Jesus is a lousy
farmer. Any good farmer will tell you that you only put seeds
directly in the soil. And you put them only into the very best soil
and you place them neatly in pre-dug rows. Then you carefully water
and fertilize them, and carefully weed around the edges. You don’t
go scattering them every which way across the countryside. But Jesus
does. Jesus scatters the seeds on the good soil and the bad soil and
the rocky soil and the places where there is no soil at all.

In
this parable it does not tell us that he went out and plowed the
field, made nice neat and fertile furrows, and then painstakingly
planted the individual seeds in order to produce the most plants.
Nope, this guy is simply slinging seeds anywhere and everywhere and
hoping that some of them grow into something.

Why does Jesus
tell this parable when he knows all the stories of his people’s
struggle during famine and exile? Why tell a story of such wasteful
methods of planting? Jesus knew the story of his people living the
desert and living off of the manna from heaven. They weren’t taught
to waste but take only what they need. What does this obviously
wasteful story tell us about God and God’s personality?

Well,
it tells us that Jesus is not a farmer. But he wasn’t trying to be.
Jesus was a teacher. He was trying to sow the Word of God on the
unpredictable soil of the human heart. Not only is it unpredictable,
it is invisible, which means that you can’t tell, just by looking,
what kind of heart someone has. Jesus didn’t censor who he preached
to. He didn’t make sure to only teach to those who were the most
likely to receive the word. No, Jesus preached the prostitutes and
the priests alike. Tax collectors, sinners and good honest Jews. Even
the Samaritans heard his teaching. He scattered the Word of God far
and wide. Never knowing what kind of soil it might find.

In
following Christ, we are called to do that same scattering of the
Word. Giving the grace of God a chance to grow. Because we never know
what kind of soil it might land in. So you begin to sow seed
everywhere and in every way imaginable. Some people talk to their
friends and neighbors quite openly about their faith in God. Others
try to show their Christian faith by example. Some leave flyers in
public phone booths, and others perform random acts of kindness. All
of these can be ways of sowing seeds. A lot of it will fall in places
where it never takes root. Some of it will fall in places where it
gets a good start but doesn’t last. Some of it will fall in places
where it gets choked out by competing interests.

That’s just
how it is with ministry. Jesus himself could have told you that. But
he could have also told you this: that sometimes the scattered seed
of the Word finds good soil and grows and produces a bumper crop. And
since you can’t predict just how or where the seed is going to fall,
or when or if it is going to produce, you just scatter it wherever
you can and hope for the best.

You see, that’s the other
part of the story that proves how much of a farmer Jesus is not. He
talks about his crops yielding a hundred fold. That’s like saying,
well, I planted 4 tomato seeds. Three of them never fruited because
they were planted in bad soil. The fourth gave me 100 tomatoes that
year! Or 60! or 30! It isn’t until Jesus gets to the last number
that is analogy becomes at all realistic. And that’s kind of what
Jesus is getting at. When the Word grows it isn’t a small amount.
It isn’t a realistic reaction. It’s an over the top, beyond
anyone’s expectations reaction!

He who has ears to hear, let
him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The coming of the
seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s
why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of
targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long
odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by
grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of
the Holy One who won’t stop. Ever.

Which brings me to the
other thing I want to look at in this passage. We tend to listen to
it and try to figure out what kind of soil we are, don’t we?
Whether we are rocky or thorny or, hopefully, that good fruit
producing soil. Sometimes we listen to it and try to think about what
kinds of soil other people are. Is he rocky? Will the birds eat her
seed?

That becomes dangerous because we only want to share
with those we think are “good soil.” We only want to talk about
God with those we think will listen and respond favorably to us. I
mean, everyone wants to be able to say “I brought her to God,”
but no one wants to be laughed at, right?

But that’s not what
Jesus calls us to do, is it? Scatter the seeds about. Grace for all,
whether the seed takes root or not.

I think the trouble we
have here is that we see ourselves and others as just soil, when
really, we are gardens. I know I embody the four types of planting
myself. We all do. Our lives are rock-strewed and “flinty”
pathed, choked with thorns, and wide open for winged robber birds.
There are days when all we are is hard. And no matter what someone
tells us, we won’t accept it. And there are days when so many other
things are crowding in around us that we couldn’t possibly hear one
little Word amidst the roar. And there are days that are so awful, so
horrible, that our roots feel non existent and we rail against the
injustice of it all.

But we all have patches of good soil here
and there accept the seed the Sower scatters. There are days when we
listen and hear. There are days when our heart warms to the sun and
we reach out. And maybe that’s enough.

In Thomas Merton’s
book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton writes: “Every moment and
every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her
or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds,
so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come
to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most
of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as
these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom,
spontaneity and love.”

Merton is inviting us to see that
Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when
God or a human evangelist sows a seed about God. Rather, everything
at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed suffused with
life-giving spiritual import. This claim is not to say that
everything that happens is good or controlled by God; instead it is
to say that the sort of soil that we are — good or bad, rock-filled
or thorn-infested — in each arising present moment effects how we
receive the seeds of experience that are always being sown around us
and within us.

We are always receiving seeds. The Word is
always present and active in our lives. We just need to be aware of
the sort of soil it is falling on. We have to tend our gardens. By
breaking up the hard places in ourselves, we give the seeds a chance
to find the soil before the birds take it away. By clearing away some
of the weeds in our lives, by finding moments of stillness, we give
the seeds room to grow. And by deepening our faith, we give room for
those seeds to put down deep roots. Deep enough to handle even the
worst days.

And that’s why we are called to scatter the
seeds to the wind. We never know when it might fall in good soil,
even when it all seems like rocky ground. Have you ever seen a plant
growing in the most improbable place? Like a crack in the pavement or
on the side of a cliff? I once saw a seed growing in the crook of a
tree where a bird must have dropped it. Living our lives as an
example of Christ, sends seeds far and wide.

What soil—what
earth—is the Word finding in our own lives these days? Where are we
scattering the Word in the world? How do we seek out the Word—in
the scriptures and in the person of Christ—in the rhythm of our
days? How willing are we to go deep into the layers and complexities
it offers to us? How do we take the Word into ourselves and let it
take root across the span of seasons and years? What fruit are we
called to let the Word bear in and through us?

As Christians,
we are called to be both the sower and the soil. The teacher and the
listener. No matter who you are, there is always room to grow in your
faith, always soil to tend. And no matter who you are, you have a
seed to share with others.

Go forth today to scatter your
seeds and tend your soil. And may your efforts reap a hundredfold.
Amen.

Rev. Cara Gee

July 10, 2011

07-03-11 TRADING IN SINS FOR SALVATION

TRADING IN
SINS FOR SALVATION

Matthew
11:25-30

Presbyterian
worship can often by identified by both the trained and casual eye.
Other denominations include a sermon or a message as we do; others
include hymns or praise songs as well; and still others include
intercessory prayers as we do. But a service in the Reformed
tradition almost always starts with a call to worship, moves to a
hymn of praise, and then puts on the brakes with a prayer of
confession. Why does this order matter to Presbyterians? Others just
have a prayer of invocation, or of praise, or of thanksgiving. People
have said “Why throw the wet blanket of sin over the glad and
joyful hymn of praise?” The response is that it parallels the
Biblical witness of creation; it is what human beings did to the
beauty of God’s creation. First, before human beings, there was
God. God created them to offer back to God their love and thanks and
adoration in response to God’s gift of life, and a home, and all
that is here. But like many children, we, and they, acted
ungratefully; some offered no thank you note of prayer; and there was
little demonstration of a good learning curve when sin and its
consequences were pointed out. Likewise in worship we are called to
praise God, then we sing a hymn of praise, or in the case of today, a
gathering hymn to ask for the Lord’s blessing. It implies that God
is good, God is holy, and to God we offer our devotion. It reminds us
of the proper order of approaching God, especially as we then
acknowledge our sinfulness before God: it is because, as in the
beginning, as in the history of Biblical characters and beyond to
this day, we sin and stray from the way God created us to go. We eat
forbidden fruit, we make forbidden gestures, we tell forbidden lies,
and we take forbidden actions. And so we confess it. We confess it on
behalf of the world and we confess it because we do it too. There
are times that denial keeps us from seeing our own sins, but a
confession of sin makes us face our sinfulness. Our prayer of
confession is not just about our personal sins, although it includes
that; it also takes the continuous and inexcusable actions of the
world and lays them at the judgment seat of God. For most people in
ancient times, coming before a deity was nerve-wracking at best and
terrifying at worst. It would be like hoping that a medieval king was
in a good mood when you were brought before him with a crime. Would
you be beheaded mercifully, or would you be drawn and quartered
publicly as a witness to your crimes? In days of yore it could be
terrifying to come before one’s own father with the guilt of a
crime you committed. Such emotional or physical consequences could be
great. So how do we bring our sins before God? Should it not be with
at least as much fear as that famous scene in the Wizard of Oz when
Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion approach
the wizard to ask for his help? Dorothy and the Scarecrow quiver, the
Tim Woodman shakes, and the Lion flees and jumps over a wall to get
away. The wizard asks for an extremely dangerous and deadly deed in
order for him to consider granting their requests: to bring him the
broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. They realize she will not
give it up unless she’s dead. What a cost to grant a request.

But
back to our order of service: we now come to what theologians say is
the most important and amazing part of the service:
the
declaration that if we repent of, (that is, turn away from) our
sinful ways, God will welcome and forgive us because the price of our
sins was paid by the lamb of God.
That
symbolism comes from our religious ancestors, Jews, who only got to
have full forgiveness once a year on the Day of Atonement called Yom
Kippur. Can you imagine; holding your sins for months; living with
the burden of them for months; and having the consequences of sin
start to work their poison everywhere? Jews in the time of the Temple
brought two goats to the temple: one for the sins of the nations that
was sacrificed, and one that a priest took and put his hands on,
symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto the goat and
sending it off into the woods. This was known as the “scapegoat.”
Later, in their most important meal called “Passover,” Jews in
thankfulness to God they took their most costly animal, an
unblemished lamb, and sacrificed it as a way to remember God’s
salvation and to give thanks. In our day, because of Jesus, who we
call the Lamb of God because of the symbolism just mentioned, we are
forgiven because of his sacrifice, and like the scapegoat, the sins
of the world have been transferred onto his head and taken away from
us as far as the east is from the west, and the north is from the
south. But it is still up to us to show and give thanks!

A
minister friend of mine once told me that one thing about his
services that disturbed him was the distracting activity that went on
among his congregation while he proclaimed their forgiveness. “It
so disturbs me” he said, “that while I am telling them the best
news a human being can hear, they are perusing the announcements,
looking toward the next hymn, or checking out what other people are
wearing. All the while I am telling them the earth-shattering news
that, by God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, that they are
forgiven.” I suggested that he step out of the pulpit and move
closer to them to take the actions out the realm of “same old, same
old” to people who might hear it and receive it in a new way. It is
extraordinary that Jesus give us the chance to declare and celebrate
that weekly! Forgiveness; paid for by someone else; the consequence
of our sins are still ours; but the price is paid.

Jesus
was giving many sermons and making invitations in Matthew chapter 11.
His most famous words are often shared at the beginning of Holy
Communion as they were shared in today’s solo: “Come; I will give
you rest. Take my yoke upon you.” By grace we get to come to God
through Christ. And today we get to partake of a meal prepared for
us. Like the declaration of forgiveness, preparing your soul to
receive communion takes quiet reflection rather than distracted
activity. Each week, perhaps you can anticipate the pinnacle event of
worship, not the sermon, but the assurance of your forgiveness. Each
month, perhaps you can, as our forebears have done and was required
of them, do a rugged self-examination of one’s sins, name them,
repent of them, and do what is necessary to mend those relationships.
As recently as 50 years ago, Presbyterians would send out reminders a
week before Holy Communion that it was time to prepare one’s heart
for the meal with the Lord. People would bring a small chip that they
would turn in as they received communion, assuring their ministers
that they had prepared their souls sufficiently. Sometimes we take
forgiveness lightly, grace lightly, and communion lightly. Perhaps
today we can give them all the weight, and the profound thanksgiving,
that they all deserve.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
July 3, 2011