July 21, 2014

Not so Fast

Note: This is a copy of the manuscript I preached on July 20. During the sermon, however, I looked more closely at the place of patience in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Whether one sees this as a warning against judging others too quickly and harshly, as an invitation to be fruitful and weedless, or as a description of God's love toward creation, patience, the first word in love, is the key to understanding the parable.

This morning a famous story about weeds, wheat and a cantankerous, jealous, no-good neighbor helps us understand an important characteristic of life in Jesus’ kingdom.

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.’”
Commonly called The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, today’s lesson, like the Parable of the Sower that we read last week, draws on the common experience of the first generation of disciples to make an important point.

The thought that someone would sabotage his neighbor’s wheat harvest wasn’t unheard of in Jesus’ day. It was, in fact, judged to be enough of a problem that the practice was explicitly condemned in Roman law.

Jesus wasn’t talking about someone blowing dandelion spores into the field next door. The weed in the parable is a ryegrass called darnel, and spreading it around was no joke.

Darnel is a nasty little plant. One of its ugly qualities is that in its earliest stages of development, it looks exactly like wheat. You could have a field invested with the stuff and not even know it. Differences between the two plants don’t become obvious until late in the season, but by then their roots have intertwined and it is impossible to remove the weed without inflicting tremendous harm on the wheat. Doing nothing about the darnel, however, is not an option because if you ultimately gather it, grind it, and bake it into bread, it can kill you—or at least make you very sick.

We might call the crime of using darnel seeds to settle old scores germ warfare or terrorism and we can understand why the Romans passed laws against it. We can also understand why victimized farmers had to be very careful about how they handled an infested crop.

Farmers determined that the best way to separate the weed from the wheat was to pick both, then place all the grain in a fine sieve so it could be sifted. Because the grain from the darnel was smaller than wheat grain, it passed through the sieve allowing, at last, for one to be divided from the other. The preserved wheat could then be put to use, but the darnel, because of its harmful properties, was burned up, lest it be baked into someone’s lunch or fall into another unsuspecting farmer’s field.

The people who first heard this parable understood exactly what Jesus was talking about and grasping the lesson’s slice-of-life realism also helps us come to a better understanding of Jesus’ point.

Like so many parables, there are many directions in which we could take our interpretation of The Wheat and the Tares. One possibility is to read it as an allegory, finding symbolic meaning in the story’s parts and players. The second half of the Gospel lesson, verses 34—46, gives us just such an interpretation.

For our purposes, though, I think there’s an important point to be drawn from the text that we can reach without the help of allegory, a point about the nature of discipleship, a point that has everything to do with the farmhands’ impatience.

In their haste, the workers were prepared to walk the rows that very day, pulling up weeds and, in their mind, preserving the garden. Doing so, however, would be disastrous, for even if they could accurately identify which plants were weeds and which were wheat (a sorting that would have been difficult if not impossible), in pulling the one they would destroy the other’s roots.

“Not so fast,” said the master. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

Given what we now know about how this weed worked and what we know about the earliest Christian community, I think it’s fair to say that this aspect of the parable reveals our Gospel lesson’s decidedly inclusive message.

Like any group of people, we can be sure that the first Christians were tempted to divide their gatherings into groups of insiders and outsiders. We know this happened, in fact, because the New Testament—especially Paul’s letters—addresses this conflict on almost every page.

Over and over again in the history of the early church we see incredibly self-righteous and self-serving behavior on display. We see people trusting more in their preconceived notions of the kind of people God loves rather than grace’s wide embrace.

“Well, that person was born over there and grew up doing that so there’s no way God can love them as much as he loves me, right? They’re nothing more than a weed that needs to be plucked.”

In light of this temptation, Jesus instructs his disciples to choose a better way, pointing out that what they think is unwanted growth could actually be the first sign of an abundant harvest.

Jesus seems to be saying that any community in a rush to expel the “unclean”/ “the stranger” / “the unwanted” from its midst is risking its own wellbeing and is likely to undermine its own potential.

Imagine, for a moment, another parable in which the farmhands say something like this to their boss. “The good news, sir, is that we got all the weeds out of the field. The bad news is, just to be sure we got them all, we plowed up all the wheat, too.”

Even city folk know that those are some seriously awful farmhands. But maybe we’re more like them than we’d like to admit.

It should give us pause to consider the number of people who were uprooted from their place in God’s kingdom before they had a chance to reach their full potential because someone acted like the hasty farmhands in the parable and told them that their kind weren’t wanted here anymore.

But Jesus said, “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

Now, before closing, I should mention that there’s also a big difference between being inclusive (which I think this parable is) and being indifferent to virtue and holiness (which it is not). The impulse to remove the darnel from the field was not foolish. It was bad stuff, without a doubt. It just had to be dealt with in a proper way. The same goes for the attitudes and practices of religious people that are at odds with the Gospel of mercy and grace entrusted to us by Jesus.

Hatred, greed, self-righteousness, bigotry—the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is not telling us to make peace with these because we’re going to be stuck with them for awhile. Rather, the parable is saying that God is dealing with sin, and that we have a part to play in that process.

Our part is to recognize that, unlike weeds and wheat, we can change. The corners of our hearts and spirits that are being choked by life-sucking tares can be made fertile ground, and strangers and enemies who seem destined for destruction can become brothers and sisters in the family of God “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

Our part is to be a people animated and sustained by the Good News of Jesus Christ—the words he spoke, the death he died, and the life in lives in and among us.

So then, let us be slow to exclude and quick to welcome.

Let us take up the ministry of love that lifts up Christ and builds up the weak and fallen.

Let us forgo the works of malice and guile that tear down and divide.

Let us cultivate the fruit of Spirit in our hearts and in this place.

And let us, this day and always, give thanks to the God of life’s harvest, the One from Whom All Blessings Flow.

Thanks be to God for the Good News today. Amen.

July 14, 2014

The Parable of the Sower

This morning’s Gospel Lesson brings us one of the most well-known parables Jesus told to the crowds who gathered to hear him preach, The Parable of the Sower.
‘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!’
For the disciples, listening to the parable was one thing. Understanding Jesus’ point, however, was something else. That’s why they had to come back for an explanation after the crowds had gone home. They had to ask Jesus just what exactly was he talking about.
‘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.’
There’s little doubt that the way in which Jesus used something as simple and common place as soil—as dirt—to say something about our relationship with God is the reason this parable remains so popular. Sun scorched earth, rocky ground, a thorny bramble, good rich soil—Jesus evocatively draws a parallel between these natural conditions and the condition of his listeners’ hearts in a way that even city folks like us can understand.

Some hearts, he says, seem impenetrable. Others lack the depth to withstand life’s struggles or are so covered with materialism and greed that they’re incapable of producing anything but pride and covetousness. But some are ready for something better. Some are open to God’s Word and call. Some hearts, Jesus says, are ready for the work of his kingdom. Like the disciples, though, we also miss Jesus’ point if, upon first hearing, we think that we need to identity what kind of soil we are.

Jesus’ agenda in telling the Parable of the Sower wasn’t to spark a debate among his disciples about what kind of soil they were or were not. He wasn’t interested in sending people on their way convinced that their spirits were too cluttered with worry or life’s trouble to do any good for God. He wasn’t saying that some people are just too screwed up for God to do anything with.

Jesus didn’t want to send anyone away thinking that their life was just too full of rocks to do any good for God for his message was that through God’s grace, the thorns, stones, and sun parched areas in each of our lives—in any life—can be reclaimed and renewed.

His point was that the most important thing his followers could do was bear spiritual fruit that builds up the kingdom and lifts up one’s neighbors, and that that is possible through the transformation that he makes possible.

It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. It’s of no relevance that you feel like a burned over brush of briers and weeds. What matters is your willingness to accept the grace God offers you to do something beautiful through the power of faith working through love—to be good soil, to be ready to work for Christ’s kingdom.

Today, we come together as a community dedicated to the work of Christ’s kingdom. To that end, and carrying on with imagery from the Parable of the Sower, the scripture leads us to identify three steps for cultivating faithful and responsive hearts.

First, if we’re to see our hearts become good and fertile soil for God we need to begin by removing the weeds and dead vines left over from the previous season in order to prepare for the next period of growth.

Every autumn on my grandfather’s farm, when the picking was done and the canning of vegetables had begun, my brothers, uncle, and I would be sent into the field to pull up and clean up whatever was left so that the field would be ready for planting in the spring. The fact that our efforts usually degenerated into a rotten tomato fight notwithstanding, we were doing important work, work that would allow the land to rejuvenate during the winter and feed the family again next year.

In matters of the spirit, we call the process of cleaning up and pulling up old growth in preparation for something new, repentance or turning away from futility and sin to embrace God’s new day, and it’s a theme that threads its way throughout the Bible.

Happy are those

who do not follow the advice of the wicked [says the first Psalm],

or take the path that sinners tread,

or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees

planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.

If we want to produce spiritual fruit, we must first pull up the weeds and dead vines of our old and troubled habits and attitudes. We must be a penitent people.

The second step we’ll need to take in our effort to cultivate faithful and responsive hearts is to test our soil and bring it back into balance.

Every Green Thumb knows that there are certain soil conditions that cannot sustain new growth. Is the soil too acidic or not acidic enough? Are there enough nutrients? What about water? The contemporary sower of seeds knows that these questions must be answered and a correct and healthy balance must be restored.

Our spirits need balance, too.

In the last thirty years, few persons have advocated for the preeminence of spiritual balance in Christian living as eloquently as Richard Foster. Foster, whose book Celebration of Discipline: A Path to Spiritual Growth is already a classic, argues that we naturally tend to live out our faith in ways that we find comfortable or easy at the expense of a fuller and deeper experience of God.

This person reads the Bible every day, but can’t remember the last time they lifted a hand to help their neighbor.

This person works at the soup kitchen every week, but hasn’t been in a church since their Confirmation.

And this person will always give God on hour on Sunday, as long as God minds his own business the rest of the week.

While each of these might be doing something well, none embody the wholeness or holiness that God desires from each of us.

That kind of life strives for balance by lifting up inward disciplines like prayer, study, and meditation; outward disciplines like service and accountability; and corporate disciplines like worship and the sacraments.

“To be spiritually healthy,” Foster notes, “we need balance in our spiritual lives” like a skilled gardener checking and testing their soil.

To truly understand Jesus’ parable, therefore, we must take the opportunity grace gives us to restore balance to the ways in which we’re seeking God and the ways in which we’re living our faith.

If we want to produce spiritual fruit, we must be a balanced people. This is the second step for cultivating faithful and responsive hearts.

And then, at last, confronted with the truth of Jesus’ teaching, we must remember that the growth he makes possible in our lives is meant to be shared with others as we celebrate the abundance of God’s blessings given to all.

Those of you who have ever lived in an area of small farms and back yard gardens know that sharing what you have is a way of life. Growing up, I knew that if my neighbor had tomatoes in his garden that he would show up at our door with a basket full for us. Likewise, if we had corn, or cabbage, or something like that in our garden that my dad would take it next door to share with him.

It was what you did. What would be the point of having a garden if you couldn’t share what you grew with your neighbors?

What would be the point of being blessed by God, if you couldn’t use that gift to bless somebody else?

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit [Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians]; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
For the common good, for sharing, for building up each other, so that together we can all celebrate God’s bounty.

If we want to produce spiritual fruit, we’ll be a sharing people.

The Parable of the Sower reveals a great deal about Jesus’ hopes each one of us. He wants our lives to be vibrant, full and complete, not held back or choked down by worry or fear. It’s a parable that’s so rich and ripe with meaning that even today, we’ve only just touched it, but we’ve looked at three essential steps to prepare our hearts for the transformation grace makes possible; repentance, restoring balance, sharing.

Let’s begin with these.

Let’s listen to Jesus’ words.

And let’s give thanks for this Good News.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

July 6, 2014

Rest for Reluctant Hearts

Reflecting on the human capacity to reduce God’s life-giving Word to a lifeless religious system, C.S. Lewis said this,
When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don't know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God's eyes; as the priests said, 'All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.' and as this pride increases, the 'subject' or study which confers such privilege will grow more and more complicated, the list of things forbidden will increase, till to get through a single day without supposed sin becomes like an elaborate step-dance, and this horrible network breeds self-righteousness in some and haunting anxiety in others.
The Book of Jonah in the Old Testament is one of my go-to sources for gaining insights into how to better guard my heart and mind against the sin of self-righteousnes Lewis describes. Although the book’s most famous scene is Jonah’s miraculous deliverance via a big fish’s belly from death at sea, the book’s main point is mundane and commonplace. It’s prejudice. Specifically, Jonah was a reluctant and prejudiced prophet who didn’t want to acknowledge that God loved the people he hated.

It all started with Jonah’s commissioning. God called the prophet to go to Nineveh and to preach repentance to the people living there, but Jonah didn’t want to go.

Nineveh, you see, was a great city in Assyria, the military superpower that had conquered Jonah’s homeland, Israel, and he hated them for it. He hated Nineveh so much that when God told him to go there, he got on a ship headed as far from there as possible.

The Bible says Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish, which some scholars think was in modern day Spain. This would be like God telling a New Yorker to go to Boston and that person buying a ticket on a red-eye to Los Angeles.

Anyway, a storm swamped the ship, the crew threw Jonah overboard, and yada, yada, yada, three days later a fish spit him out on the beach—alive and well.

Then, God called Jonah again.

“Go to Nineveh,” God said, “and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

So Jonah went to his enemies, he preached God’s message, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the people of Nineveh had the nerve to believe him.

Jonah’s ministry among his enemies was a success and he was furious about it.

It’s true. In a moment that displays so clearly how hatred of one’s enemies twists the human heart into a knot of futility and anger, Jonah actually tells God that he would rather die than confront the truth about God’s forgiveness and grace.

Jonah prayed,

I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing [Nineveh]. And now, O Lord, please take my life for it is better for me to die than to live.
Even though God refused to give Jonah what he asked for—God chose to bless and comfort him instead—the book still ends where it began, with God talking to a man who just can’t wrap his heart around the unsettling truth that God simply insists on loving the people he despises.

It seems clear to me that Jonah’s story earned its place in the Bible because of the timelessness of its message for there’s never been a time in which faithful yet flawed believers did not need to be reminded that God’s love and mercy are not subject to our approval. Our desire to divide and erect barriers around one another cannot curtail God’s reconciling and redeeming grace.

As the often-quotable Anne Lamott puts it, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Lessons learned from Jonah provide some useful context for the passage we’ve read this morning from Matthew’s Gospel because in Matthew, chapter 11, Jesus describes the corrosive effect prejudice has upon those who are, in fact, prejudice, not merely upon the persons they would exclude.

The Big Picture here is repentance, a theme at the core of Jesus’ preaching and that of his immediate forerunner, John the Baptist. Such preaching, however, met stiff resistance in the places and among the people who should have been most receptive to it—among the places and people whose lives were most obviously focused on God’s Word through the Law of Moses.

It turns out that their singular focus had blinded them to what God was doing right before their eyes. Jesus said,

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!’
The people, according to Jesus, regarded their expectations as the same thing as God’s capacity to act, and ended up in a position not at all unlike Jonah’s.

“Wisdom,” said Jesus, "is vindicated by [Wisdom’s] deeds.”

Jesus then goes off on a bit of a tangent, calling out several cities for their hardheartedness and praising others for their attentiveness.

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Would you be surprised if I told you that Jesus grew up near Chorazin and Bethsaida, while Tyre and Sidon were far off Roman cities whose citizens Jesus’ hometown neighbors and childhood friends looked down upon?

One might run off in the other direction or rage against God, one can look down upon Nineveh, Tyre, and Sidon, but Divine love and mercy are not subject to our approval.

“Look,” Jesus seems to say, “you’re so convinced that those people over there are outside the fold, but you’re the ones who have wandered far away from home. You’re so concerned about what you told yourself God couldn’t do in their lives, that you forgot to take care of your own life with God and, now, look at the mess you’ve made of it.”

Maybe these words hit close to your heart today and are undermining some of the wall you’ve built up there.

Maybe you relate to Jonah’s motives, to Anne Lamott’s warning, or Lewis’ insight into “elaborate step-dance” religion.

Maybe, like Saint Paul, you’ve simply realized that you often leave the good that you wanted to do undone, but always seem to find time for the hurtful think you wanted to avoid.

Whatever it is that holds you down or binds you up, hear this Good News.

“Come to me,” says Jesus, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Rest from your running…

Rest from your raging…

Rest when walls of self-righteousness come down through the grace of Jesus, the Risen Christ, the Lover of All Souls.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

June 22, 2014

Seen and Heard

God made a promise to a man named Abram.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This moment, the calling of Abram who is also known as Abraham, is simply one of the most important in all of Scripture for here, in a mere three verses, we learn so much about the nature of God and faithful discipleship in God’s name.

Here we learn that God—the One we worship—is an invitation-sending God, a promise-making God, a blessing-giving God.

And Abram, who blazed a trail we still follow; here we discover that he is a pilgrim on the go, defined neither by his past nor by his present circumstances, but only by the One who guides and shapes his life’s journey.

Abram is blessed by God to be a blessing to others.

“In you, [Abram], all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” so says the Lord.
The Call of Abram is a rich and beautiful episode in the long story of God’s relationship with God’s people. However, this wondrous moment is directly related to one of our story’s most shameful moments.

You see, there was something odd about the promise God made to Abram—the promise “to make of him a great nation.” At that time, Abram and his wife Sarai weren’t event the parents of a single child, much less the patriarch and matriarch of a large family from which generations of descendants would arise.

Stranger still, in the wake of God’s promise, Abram and Sarai still didn’t conceive. In fact, several years past without as much as a positive pregnancy test, despite God’s continued insistence that this was going to happen.

Tired and desperate, the family ultimately conceived a plan of their own making. Sarai sent her slave, a young woman from Egypt named Hagar, to Abram’s bed.

The cruel and dehumanizing customs of the day would treat Sarai, not Hagar, as the mother of any child produced by this union.

And Hagar became pregnant.

But Sarai regretted the plan. Well, she didn’t exactly regret it. She was just jealous of Hagar. The Bible says Sarai “dealt harshly” or “oppressed” Hagar, and Hagar ran away.

And there, with Hagar on the run, the story takes another fascinating turn.

The angel of the Lord goes after the slave girl and finds her in the wilderness, calling her by name.

“Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?”
Hagar explains what has happened to her.
“Go back,” said the angel of the Lord, “[for] I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude…You shall bear a son…[and] call him Ishmael [which means “God hears”].”
The angel also promised Hagar that Ishmael will be free and a warrior.

Ishmael and Hagar would be survivors.

Like Abram, then, Hagar goes where God sends her. She goes back and gives birth to her son.

But Abram and Sarai remained childless.

Ishmael was 14 years old when Sarai finally gave birth to his half-brother, Issac.

That’s where the passage we’ve heard today picks up the story.

Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

Wickedness raised its hand, again, against Hagar, but the God who heard her cry in the wilderness remained true to the promise.

Cast out, rejected, alone again, and convinced that death was at hand, Hagar “lifted up her voice and wept.”

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up...He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Despite the customs and the decisions that tried to strip Hagar of her child, her life, and her humanity, with God’s help, she left slavery behind and became the mother of a great nation.

Theologian Delores Williams summarizes Hagar’s ascent like this.

[The Bible suggests that] Hagar and Ishmael fared well, because God was with the child as he grew. Both the [the story of her pregnancy and Genesis 21] reveal the faith, hope and struggle with which an African slave woman worked through issues of survival, surrogacy, motherhood, rape, homelessness and economic and sexual oppression. (Williams, p. 33)
It also seems important to note, as does biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, that “Hagar is the only person in the Bible to whom is attributed the power of naming God.” (Williams, p. 23)

The first time she was in the wilderness, back when God came to her when all others rejected her, when she was pregnant, alone, and on the run—at the end of that encounter, God didn’t reveal God’s name to her—like God would later do for Moses at the burning bush. In this case, it was Hagar who gave God a name which means “The God of Seeing” or “The God who Sees.”

In the end, you see, Hagar’s story isn’t shameful, after all.

Yes, Abraham and Sarah treated her shamefully.

Yes, it’s shameful when anyone uses her story to justify their own bigotry or wickedness.

But that’s their shame, not Hagar’s because she lived free, she died free, she knew that God heard her cry, saw her distress, and walked with her through the path of suffering on the way to her deliverance.

Hagar embodies the Biblical truth that Joseph—who was, ironically enough, Abraham’s great grandson—articulates so clearly.

Confronted by the people (his own brothers) who had done him wrong, Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me,” even though you “thought evil against me,” “God intended it for good.”

Like Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham’s family, like Jesus’ cross, no weapon formed against us shall prosper for we are seen and heard by the invitation-sending, promise-making, blessing-giving God.

This week the BBC reported on the challenges faced by the Nassar family who keep a small farm outside Bethlehem—yes, that Bethlehem. Having held the deed to their land since 1924, this family of Christians has been fighting a battle in Israel’s judicial system for over two decades—finding the strength and wherewithal to meet the court’s increasingly absurd demands. In the meantime, just last month, bulldozers rolled over the Nassar family apple orchard to make way for a new Israeli settlement.

“[The government is] trying to push us to violence or push us to leave,” said Amal Nassar, “[but] nobody can force us to hate. We refuse to be enemies."

"My father always said, 'We will never achieve peace in Palestine and Israel just by shaking hands - we need to work on people, to start with the grassroots'," [she said]. "So what we do now, as a family, is fulfilling the dream of my father that people can build bridges, for hope, for understanding, reconciliation, dialogue, to achieve peace. This is the idea."
"We refuse to be enemies."

“Nobody can force us to hate.”

These are the words of one defined neither by her past nor by her present circumstances, but only by the One who guides and shapes her life’s journey.

Like Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham’s family, like Jesus’ cross, like bulldozed apple trees outside Bethlehem, no weapon formed against us shall prosper for we are seen and heard and loved by the invitation-sending, promise-making, blessing-giving God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 15, 2014

Tri-Unity, Try Unity (For Trinity Sunday)

A few weeks ago in my sermon for Ascension Sunday I pointed to the conclusion of Dante’s Divine Comedy in order to make a point about the connection between the God we worship and the mission God calls and empowers us to accomplish in the name of Jesus Christ.

On that occasion I noted that when the pilgrim Dante reaches his journey’s end, he catches, just for a moment, a glimpse into the very Nature of God.

Dante describes three circles, there, that seem to dance with one another in perfect, holy, light and color. It’s a mesmerizing vision of the Trinity—the great mystery of God’s nature.

Then, even more amazing still, as Dante stares deeply into God, into the circles of light, he sees the face of man. He sees the face of Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us.

“Like a wheel in perfect balance turning,” Dante recalls, “I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

And that’s the end of Dante’s story.

The whole premise of the Divine Comedy, however, is that Dante receives this mystical vision not only for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

The lessons of humility and repentance he learns, Dante’s experience of reconciliation and Divine Love, the poet must now lean into the grace he is experiencing to employ the blessings given him and bless others in Christ’s name.

Mystery has given him a mission.

Worship—an awe-inspiring encounter with the Living God—has called Dante to service—to write his epic poem, to call out hypocrisy, to call for repentance, and, ultimately, to bear witness of the reconciling love of God.

Today, I’d like to visit the Divine Comedy again, looking this time to how Dante lost his way in life in the first place, how that error is related to his experience of God’s Holy Presence, and how all of this helps us to understand our God-given ministry of reconciliation, the ministry Saint Paul says we are to seal “with a holy kiss.”

The specifics of Dante’s sin are one of his poem’s great mysteries, but it’s quite clear that a fractured and partisan worldview in which he divided persons into “his people” and “his enemies” ultimately caused the pilgrim to stumble.

In addition to being a poet, you see, Dante was a politician. In fact, he was a good politician who, thanks to the dominance of his political party—the Guelfs—over their rivals—the Ghibellines—came to hold one of the most powerful positions in Florence, Italy, his hometown. Less than a year after reaching this high office, however, Dante’s political party split in two, and this time, he was on the losing side.

The winners sent Dante and his like into exile, and the poet never saw his beloved Florence again.

Dante wrote the Divine Comedy several years after his expulsion, but he set his masterpiece on the eve of his political fall from grace. In other words, the poem is the artist’s way of saying, “If I would’ve known then, what I know now, I could’ve made some better choices.”

I think it’s clear that one of the things exile taught Dante was the error of valuing “his people” more than others. He had confused the will of God with doing what made the people who agreed with him happy. He had sought power only to do good for himself. He had lost any sense of, what the scripture calls, “the common good.”

“It will be to your honor,” one of the saints he met on his journey said, “to have become a party of your own.”—a warning that has less to do with radical individualism than with this sage advice.

When you run with the herd, you and your good sense just might get trampled.

Led by grace to confess that sectarianism—that is the sin of pride in partisan form—had taken hold of his heart, should it come as a surprise that the divine characteristic that most impressed Dante is God’s unity in diversity, the harmony of the Three-in-One God, the eternal communion at the core of the Trinitarian Mystery.

“Like a wheel in perfect balance turning, I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

To behold the unity of God is to behold the unity of humanity.

The imbalance that pride and hypocrisy brought to his life had been corrected; for Dante had learned to love those whom God loves in the way that God loves them—humbly, selflessly, impartially, and without regard to their station in life.

This brings us, at last, to the passage we’ve heard today from Second Corinthians.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
This lovely and affirming benediction belies the struggle to build a Christ-like community in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul’s letters to the Christians living there describe a diverse group of people who often succumbed to the same sectarian spirit that plagued Dante.

Some Corinthians saw themselves as Super Christians who couldn’t be bothered with the concerns of their lesser brethren.

Some felt that wealth set them apart.

Some even believed that the identity of the person who baptized them, and not the Savior in whose name they were baptized, made all the difference.

Can you image that?

“Well, I’m happy for you and all that, but Saint Peter baptized me so, who know, shut up and do what I say.”

These were immense challenges to Paul’s ministry, but I think these led him to do some of his best work. For example, he memorably told the Corinthians that the church was like a body in which all diverse parts play a role in the functioning and betterment of the whole.

Remember that great passage about the Body of Christ.

The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body…
This same line of thinking led Paul to conclude that all the issues the Corinthians wanted to fight and divide over meant nothing, but loving one another as Jesus loved them meant everything.

“[If I do not have love,]” he said, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

And then, in the same letter from which we’ve read this morning—the same letter that ends with the call to live peaceably with one another, and to greet one another with a holy kiss—Paul puts it all together in one of the most eloquent, prophetic, and powerful descriptions of what the Church is supposed to be about, the mission God calls and empowers us to accomplish together.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ…
The God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is Unity.

The God revealed in the Incarnation—in the living, dying, rising body of Jesus Christ—is reconciling all things to God—calling all things to come back home again.

The God who loves us commissions us to love others in God’s stead, to be “ambassadors for Christ.”

So then let us love and live with the confidence of a Church that knows that the One whose love unites us is greater than anything that might divide us.

Let us serve with the humility of a Church that knows that having things our way is not the same thing as doing things God’s way.

And be it with a holy kiss, a hug, a handshake, or a pat on the back, let us always greet one another in the manner of the grace with which we believe Jesus greets us.

The Church in which pilgrims, strangers—even enemies—become friends, is the Church “impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Let it be so in our hearts.

Let it be so on John Street.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 1, 2014

Wide-Eyed and Slack-Jawed

A good friend and I attended a concert at The Garden last year by the English rock band Muse. We’d become fans of the group after seeing them play a set as an opening act a few years earlier so we knew that they put on a great show and were eager to see what they would do on their own stage, playing for an arena filled with their own crowd.

Good Lord, it was a fantastic night!

The visuals were amazing, the lighting precise, and the songs were loud, bombastic, over-the-top—everything that I ask of my rock-and-roll heroes.

Actually, there was a moment during the first song of the concert that told me we were going to have a good time that night. As a said, my friend and I had high expectations as we took our seats, but five minutes into the show we turned to each other—our ears already ringing, our mouths hanging open, each with this amazed look in our eyes.

Was this really happening?

Did the band really sound this good?

As high as our expectations were, had Muse, in the grand tradition of Spinal Tap, stormed the stage with their instruments turned all the way up to eleven?

Yes. Yes they had.

Have you ever had an experience like this, an experience of something that exceeded even your highest expectations so wonderfully that you were left speechless to bask in a moment of pure enjoyment? I hope that you have.

I’m not talking only of music here—although experiencing a great work of art has probably brought many of us to such a place.

Perhaps you’re thinking of the time your favorite team won the championship, or some defining moment in your career, or a great day with your family, or coming home from the date when you realized you were falling in love.

Given the variety of personalities and personal stories gathered together in this church, I suspect we could compile quite a list of the experiences that exceeded our highest expectations and left us wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

Gathered together as the church, we also remember today the moment that left the apostles wide-eyes and slack-jawed, Jesus’s Ascension, for in that moment, with expectations fueled by the new reality of resurrection and anticipating the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, the disciples experienced the powerful and mystical connection between worshipping Christ and fulfilling their mission in his name.

Saint Luke describes the Ascension for us most vividly. Actually, Luke describes the Ascension for us twice. It’s the last scene in his Gospel and the first scene in his Book of Acts.

The setting is a small place east of Jerusalem called Bethany, the hometown of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Forty days have passed since Resurrection Sunday, forty days in which Jesus has repeatedly, and mysteriously showed up to instruct his disciples in the new ways in which they will relate to one another, to him, and to the world.

Acts, chapter 1 picks up the story.

So when [the disciples] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven…
Can’t you imagine the looks on their faces—“gazing upward”?

As many amazing things as he had showed them, as many miracles as they had witnessed, the disciples still found themselves awe-struck, and justifiably so, by God’s power and grace revealed in Jesus.

…suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then the disciples went back to Jerusalem because they had work to do.
In another time, we can imagine the disciples lingering in that place—remembering what they saw there, remembering what Jesus did there.

Peter, you’ll recall, wanted to build tabernacles on the Mount of Transfiguration in a well-intentioned, if misguided, effort to hold on to that moment with Jesus just a little bit longer. Now Peter and the rest of the disciples were growing in faith, and hope, and love.

Now they were convinced—assured—that Jesus would abide with them, and that nothing could separate them.

Now encounters with and lessons taught to them by the Risen Christ had showed them that, in Jesus, their worship and mission had become inextricably bound to one another.

In essence, the disciples’ actions on Ascension Day show us that the most appropriate response to a powerful and mystical moment of worship with Jesus is going humbly into the world to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to proclaim Good News in his name.

A Byzantine Hymn of Ascension says it like this,

Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God, granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise on the Holy Spirit.

Through the blessing they were assured that Thou are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world!

Assured that the world’s Redeemer has come, the Church goes into the world to share—by what we say and what we do—the sweet sound of redemption and release, to bless the world and its people through the grace of the One whose blessings we receive.
See! He lifts His hands above…

See! He shows the prints of love…

Hark! His gracious lips bestow…

Blessings on His church below…

The disciples’ actions on Ascension Day show us that the most appropriate response to a powerful and mystical moment of worship with Jesus is going humbly into the world to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to proclaim Good News in his name.

Last week the Wednesday Night Round Table discussed the final lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This was the culmination of the journey through the epic poem that the group began in January—travelling with the Pilgrim into the dark and stinking pit of Hell, climbing with increasing strength the mountain of Purgatory, and, ultimately, ascending the spheres to the highest heaven.

Since the poem is 700 hundred years old, I hope I’m not giving anything away by telling you that it ends when, thanks to the guidance and intercession of the saints, Dante sees God face-to-face.

Well, in Dante’s story, God isn’t exactly the bearded, grandfather figure type of popular myth. Rather, Dante describes three circles that seem to dance with one another in perfect, holy, light and color. It’s a mesmerizing vision of the Trinity—the great mystery of God’s nature. Then, even more amazing still, as Dante stares deeply into God, into the circles of light, he sees the face of man. He sees the face of Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us.

“Like a wheel in perfect balance turning,” Dante rhapsodizes, “I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

And that’s the end of Dante’s story, but in the end is its beginning.

The whole premise of the Divine Comedy is that Dante receives this mystical vision not only for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

The lessons of humility and repentance he learns, Dante’s experience of reconciliation and Divine Love, the poet must now lean into the grace he is experiencing to employ the blessings given him and bless others in Christ’s name.

Mystery has given him a mission.

Worship has called him to service, and it does the same for you and me.

The disciples’ actions on Ascension Day, and God’s saints in every age, show us that the most appropriate response to a powerful and mystical moment of worship with Jesus is going humbly into the world to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to proclaim Good News in his name.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Image: Raphael's Ascension

Note: And here's the opening number from that Muse concert.

May 25, 2014

On This Strange Altar

When God called Paul to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Greece it seemed inevitable that the apostle would eventually make his way to Athens—the ancient city, the epicenter of Hellenistic ideas and culture, and the setting for a famous sermon recorded in Acts 17.

Paul came to Athens alone, which was a departure from the missionary’s routine. While he usually traveled with at least one other person, resistance to Paul’s preaching in another city required an itinerary change and Paul left his companions Silas and Timothy behind.

That’s were our story begins.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.”….So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus [also known as Mars Hill] and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
The philosophers’ invitation for Paul to explain himself set up one of the iconic scenes in the preacher’s career.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
It seems that altars bearing this inscription were not uncommon in the ancient Mediterranean world and I think the consensus of opinion is that—in the polytheistic worldview—these functioned like insurance policies against divine fury. It’s as if the people were saying, “Just in case there’s a god out there that we haven’t given a proper temple, we meant no disrespect. We’re thinking about you, too.”

Since appeals to Jewish Law and Prophets would be useless in his new setting, Paul decided to build his case for the Lordship of Jesus on this strange altar and the Athenian philosophical tradition.

He continued.

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
It’s worth noting that in his message Paul used non-biblical sources to reveal some biblical truths—specifically he used philosophical sources to affirm the existence of a Creator god and the belief that humankind is one large extended family. Establishing some common ground with his audience, Paul then turned his attention to the most pressing matter.
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Well, talk of resurrection was a bit much for many people in the crowd that day and Paul had to make another hasty exit from another Greek city, but, in his wake, some people believed, the Gospel spread, and Paul’s sermon in Athens entered the Church’s story.

To this day, scholars examine this message as an example of natural theology—of theology that’s accessible by reason and observation, not bound to revelation or a sacred text. That’s how John Wesley understood Acts 17. His notes on the text compliment the apostle’s “admirable wisdom, acuteness, fullness, and courtesy.” In our own day, this text is also a favorite among Christian students of the liberal arts who find in Paul’s knowledge of classical philosophy a refreshing display of intellectual prowess and a useful hedge against the misguided, albeit understandable, claims of Christian anti-intellectualism that students often face.

I think Paul’s mission to Athens is a fascinating bit of scripture, too, and it deserves to be included in out study of Acts. My focus this morning, however, is neither Paul’s knowledge of the classics nor the place and value of natural theology in our faith. What intrigues me most about Paul’s time in Athens is what he did before he preached.

“As I went through the city,” said Paul, “[I] looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”

Before he preached, Paul took the time to learn something about the place and the people to whom he would bring Good News. Even though he could have easily started preaching as soon as he came to town, Paul walked around, met some locals, and learned something about the place.

In this case, what he learned disturbed him greatly, but, nevertheless, Paul’s efforts were not in vain.

“Walking around town,” Paul said, “I noticed that you’re so religious that you even worship at an altar for an unknown God. Well, I think I know something that you might find interesting.”

In Athens, the apostle inquired of the city and its people, he learned something about the things that were important to them, and he found a touchstone that joined their experience to his. In this way, Paul shows us that being inquisitive (asking questions, pursuing truth, getting to know the world God loves and the people Jesus embraces) can lead to holiness and strengthen our discipleship.

I think all of us have been on the receiving end of somebody else’s piety when it was clear that whatever they were offering (a prayer, advice, one of those “The End is Near” apocalyptic pamphlets that gets slipped through the church door from time to time) was more about them and their need to check the activity off their “Religious Things To Do Today” list, than it was about us or a desire to know anything about us.

And when we’re honest, we’ve done (I’ve done) the same thing to other people, too.

We’ve made assumptions rather than ask questions.

We’ve spoken very loudly in order to get our point across, but have failed to be quiet in order to listen to what somebody else was trying to say.

We’ve made our first impression of someone or something the final word on the subject, but taken great offense when the same was done to us.

The Gospel empowers and equips us to do better.

As a people who place our trust in Jesus Christ, who believe that the God of Creation and of our redemption is One, we aim to be an inquisitive and searching people who are eager to learn.

In Athens, Saint Paul preached with power and grace because, first, he took the time to walk around the city. As we walk these busy streets, may our hearts be open to learn something new, and may someone be blessed because we took the time to ask.

Thanks be to God. Amen.