Saturday, July 30, 2011

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Loaves and fishes

Scripture for the day:  Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-21; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Loaves and fishes always remind me of Sharon.
I was organizing my first Trunk or Treat at Zion Lutheran in Lima.  It’s a Halloween party where there’s a meal, carnival games for the kids and the kids go trick-or-treating in the parking lot.  Sharon had agreed to manage the kitchen for the meal, and she asked what I wanted to serve.

“What do you usually serve for Trunk or Treat?”

“Usually we do hot dogs and shredded chicken sandwiches.  Last year the gal that organized it wanted to do Mexican food – enchiladas and tacos.  It was a nice change, but everyone had both tacos and enchiladas and she didn’t have enough prepared for that.  But we managed; we just grabbed some hot dogs from the preschool freezer.  Everyone got something to eat – just like the loaves and fishes.”

I laughed, said we’d go with the usual menu and left Sharon to figure out how much we’d need.

“Loaves and fishes” is Sharon’s motto.  Sharon is a firm believer that there is always enough, and if not, then the good Lord will provide what’s needed or give someone an idea on how to make what’s on hand stretch.  No matter what, God could take your little bit and make it become enough.

You know, I saw a lot of meals served at Zion – the monthly after-Saturday-evening-worship meal, the monthly Sunday potlucks, Lenten soup suppers, Alpha course meals, meals for the kids between youth choir and confirmation/youth group, teacher appreciation breakfasts, Easter morning breakfasts, dinners for the VBS volunteers – and I never saw a meal where there was not enough for all.

Not even when we had no idea how many people would come. 

Not even when more people showed up than expected. 

Not even during the huge ice storm in the winter of 2005 when Zion became an impromptu shelter for those without power.  Even that first day, before congregation members could get out and bring us food, we had enough to feed our guests - the preschool director offered the contents of their pantry for our use.

Now, I tend to be a little obsessive when planning – I like all my ducks in a row and all possibilities accounted for.  Over the years, I came to relax under Sharon’s example of trust
in the miracle of loaves and fishes.

Would there be enough food for the community block party?

Loaves and fishes.

Would there be enough craft supplies for VBS?

Loaves and fishes.

Would there be enough money for the new ministry we wanted to start?

Loaves and fishes.

Would enough people want to volunteer to help with the Easter egg hunt we were holding for the first time?

Loaves and fishes.

Sharon’s confidence in the miracle of the loaves and fishes taught me that Jesus could take my meager offerings and turn it into enough to do the ministry he set before me.

The story of the loaves and fishes is found in all four gospels. The gospel writers felt this was an important story about Jesus, the kingdom of God and Jesus’ followers.  It’s a living parable – the kingdom of heaven is like a man who took dinner ingredients for himself and a few friends and created a buffet for 5000 people.  It’s about the God who provides food in the wilderness.  It’s a sign pointing to Jesus, God’s son.

It’s also a teaching moment for the disciples.

The disciples had worked all day with Jesus as he healed the sick.  They knew he was tired, and grief stricken – he had just gotten the news that morning that John the Baptist had been murdered by Herod.  He came to this deserted place to pray and mourn and heal a bit, and instead he spent the whole day healing others.
They could see just how much Jesus cared for the needs of these people.  And wanting to be like their Master, they wanted to care for the people’s needs too.  Let’s see – what do the people need now?  Hmmm…it’s getting late, and there’s no place here to get food.  These folks must be hungry, so let’s suggest to Jesus that he ends this healing session, so the people can get into town and get something to eat. 

Yup, that’ll do it.  We’re caring for their needs too.  And we’ll be caring for Jesus’ needs as well – he most certainly needs a rest!

After a round of mutual pats on the back they go to Jesus with their caring suggestion.

Imagine the disciples surprise when Jesus, instead of agreeing with their compassionate course of action, simply says, “You feed them.”

Disbelief, shock showed on their faces.  I bet some mouths gaped open for several minutes.  Someone had to be thinking, “That’s it. He’s crazy!  The day’s hard work and grief have driven him over the edge!”  Judas starts mentally tallying up the cost of purchasing so much food and comparing that to the small sum in their common purse.  James and John are probably thinking about how much work it will be to cart all that food back from the several surrounding towns.

Maybe one of two of them are thinking, “Wait! After everything we’ve seen you do – healing the sick, the lepers, the blind and the deaf, driving out demons, calming a storm – we know that YOU could feed them.  Why not just whip up some bread right here?  Ask God to send us some manna. Don’t ask us to do the impossible!”

“You feed them.”  Jesus tells the disciples that it’s time to step up to the plate and start doing the job he’s been training them for. 

They feel inadequate for the task.  They are well aware that they have so little, and the job is so big. They hear the challenge in his words, but they miss the promise in them.   

Jesus takes what they have: 5 loaves and 2 fish, enough for a light supper for them but nowhere near enough for 5000 families.  He blesses it and gives it to the disciples to pass out to the hungry families.

I can just imagine what they thought when the little bits they were given didn’t run out after the first family, nor after the second family, nor the third.  Even after the group with grandma and grandpa, a few aunts and uncles and a dozen or more kids, they still had food to hand out.

In Jesus’ hands, those 5 loaves and 2 fish are enough – enough so that everyone ate until they were satisfied, more than enough so that the disciples filled 12 big baskets with the leftovers.

Amazing stuff!  It should have changed the disciples forever!  You would think this would seal their trust in Jesus.  He could do anything!  But it wasn’t so simple.  Matthew and Mark tell of a second time Jesus tells them to feed a crowd of 4000, and again they ask how they can do such an impossible task!
The disciples lived in a world where it was believed there was only so much to go around.  There wasn’t enough for all.  It was a world of scarcity. 

That’s the kingdom of earth thinking.  That’s not kingdom of heaven thinking.  In the economy of kingdom of God, there is always enough, always more than enough.

In the economy of God’s rule, 5 loaves and 2 fish are enough to satisfy 5000, a bit of bread and sip of wine is a life-giving feast, and there is abundance, enough for all.

The gospel writers were right – this is an important story as much for what it tells us about God as for the teaching moment it is for us modern disciples. 
Because we still struggle with kingdom of earth thinking.  We fret that we don’t have enough – people, money, programs, talent, energy, you fill in the blank – to be able to do the work God calls us to.  We get focused on the little we have (or don’t have) and miss out on the promise and the challenge Jesus makes.

We miss out on the blessing God has for us. Even worse, we miss out on being God’s
blessing to others.

Loaves and fishes are a challenge to us.  Loaves and fishes dare us to act on our faith.  I read in a blog this week:  Jesus' words "You give them something to eat," are a "divine jest." They are a daily dare. He's saying "I dare to you take me at my word, and see what happens.”[i] 

"I dare to you
            take me at my word,
                        and see what happens.”
Like the disciples, we look at the need around us.  Then we look at what we have and say, “But Lord, all we have is just this little bit.  And we are so tired and over scheduled.”

It’s right then, we need reminding about the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

It’s right then, we need to remember what Sharon knows: God takes our offerings, tiny in comparison to God’s vast abundance, and blesses them and makes it enough, more than enough.

It’s right then, we need reminding that Jesus dares us to step out in faith and see what happens.

But more about stepping out in faith next week….


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sixth Sunday Afte Pentecost: God's love is...

Texts for this Sunday:  1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:21-33, 44-52

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Kingdom of God.   What do we mean when we say, “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven?”  It is a place we go to?  Is it a state of mind?
It’s that word, “Kingdom” that messes us up.  To us, “kingdom” is a place where a king rules.  It has a physical location, borders that define where it starts and ends.  But the word that usually gets translated “kingdom” actually means “rule” or “reign.”  It’s an activity not a place.

So when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven,” he’s actually saying, “under God’s rule,” or “where God reigns” or perhaps “anywhere God’s will is done.”  Someone suggested that a good way to think about the “kingdom of heaven” is to substitute the words “God’s love” for it.[i]  In a way, that makes sense – God is love and anywhere God rules, love reigns.    So a good way to look at the parables we read today is to say,

God’s love is like…. a mustard seed
God’s love is like…a woman making bread with yeast

God’s love is like…a treasure hidden in the field
God’s love is like…a pearl of great price

God’s love is like…

How is God’s love like these things? 
That’s the question Jesus asks us in these parables.  He says, “God’s love is like…and he tells a story.  It’s up to us to listen carefully.  The stories challenge us to look at God and ourselves in a different way.

Listen again to Jesus’ parables.  

God’s love is like….
People stopped and stared.  There it was, in the center of an otherwise perfectly good field – a tree.  But if you looked closer, you would see it really wasn’t a tree. 

No, it was a mustard plant – an enormous mustard plant, probably the largest in the whole region.  It was so big, birds could nest in it.  The farmer often had his lunch in its shade.  It provided an amazing harvest of mustard seed each year, going to spice merchants and to medicine makers.  Truly a remarkable plant.
But it wasn’t the sheer size that causes people to stop and stare.  No, it was the sheer audacity of the farmer in planting the thing in the first place.  Who ever heard of planting a mustard seed in the middle of a field?  Didn’t he know that mustard would take over his field?  Didn’t he know that mustard was nearly impossible to keep just where it was planted and just as impossible to get rid of once it went where it was not wanted?

There were good reasons that the Torah said not to plant mustard in your fields or gardens.  No good Jew would plant a mustard seed in the middle of a field. 
Leave it to a Gentile to plant mustard!

God’s love….invasive, it won’t be conquered, it messes up our human ideas of order, it’s impossible to remove…

God’s love is like…
Anna felt in the deepest corner of her cupboard for the secret hidden there.  Ah, there it was - the leaven.  For weeks, a piece of bread lay hidden in the warm, moist, dark of the cupboard.  It got stale, and then mold grew on it, and finally…well something had changed and now she held no longer a piece of bread but a mysterious substance that would make today’s baking rise into fluffy loaves. 

And did she ever have baking to do.  Fifty pounds of flour!  She would be baking all day.  The smell of bread would permeate the entire neighborhood.  She would bake enough bread to feed a legion if she chose.  She could feed her whole town with the day’s baking.  She could supply a lavish wedding feast with bread.

Anna thought about the last time she searched the cupboard for leaven.  It was just before Passover, and leaven was ceremonially unclean.  Like any good Jewish housewife, she scoured every corner of her house to remove the leaven – thereby removing all uncleanness from her house.  During Passover, all bread had to be the dry, hard matzo.  Today - today, she could make the mouth-watering soft bread, enough for everyone and more.
Anna smiled as she carried the leaven to her workspace.

God’s love…hidden, mysterious, permeating everything it touches, abundant….

God’s love is like….
David had been plowing when he heard the ‘chunk’ of the plowshare hitting a rock.  “Great,” he thought, “I bet it broke.  Now I’ll have to traipse back up to the homestead and tell the owner I broke his plow.  I bet he’ll take it out of my wages!  What rotten luck!”

But when he pulled the plow away and dug up what he had hit, he found a box.  “What in the world is this doing in the middle of the field?”  He opened it and gasped – it was a fortune! 
Did the owner know this was in the field?  Surely not, or he would have plowed it himself to keep the secret.  David’s eyes narrowed and he looked quickly around.  No one saw him – or what he had found. 

He quickly buried the box - a little deeper – and carefully plowed over it.  There!  No one could tell that there was anything different about the 7th row from the north end.  Only he knew that just 15 paces from the end of the row was buried treasure.
Anxiety grew over the next few weeks.  All he could think about was the treasure.  He worried someone else would find it, he couldn’t get enough money to buy the field, the owner wouldn’t sell.  His friends said he was no fun anymore – he didn’t want to sit with them in the evening and tell stories.  He was too afraid his secret would slip out.  His wife thought he had lost his mind.  She argued and cried and threatened to leave, but he sold everything they owned anyway.  Finally he had enough to go to the owner and bargain for the field.

The owner wondered why he wanted that particular field.  It wasn’t much of an investment.  David smiled to himself and said nothing.  Later, he thought maybe he should have mentioned the treasure to the owner.  Was it right for him to keep that bit of information to himself?  Certainly if he had told the owner, the owner would have claimed the treasure.    
But now, finally, it was his.

God’s love…unexpected, all-consuming, life-changing…

God’s love is like…
“Oh, before you go, I’d like to show you one last item.”

Joshua knew Phillip had held something back.  They had been doing business for a long time and Joshua could rely on Phillip to have the finest pearls.  He also knew that Phillip liked a bit of suspense, showing the inferior pearls first and slowly bringing out finer and finer pearls as they bargained.  From the smile of Phillip’s face, Joshua knew that whatever he had, it must be special.
Still, he was unprepared for the exquisite beauty of this pearl.  Such luster! Such color! Such size!  Never before in all his years as a pearl merchant had Joshua seen such a fabulous pearl.  He had to have it!

Casually, he said, “How much?” and gasped at the price.  He would have to sell his entire inventory at full price to purchase this one pearl! 
It was impossible, really.  The smaller pearls, the inferior ones were his bread and butter.  He could sell them all day long.  The really beautiful, more valuable pearls were harder to move.  A wealthy client with a special event would purchase such expensive merchandise, but those sales were few and farther between.  This wonderful pearl would be admired by everyone, but…who could purchase such a luxury except the emperor?

Still…He looked again at the pearl.  It captivated him.  He had to possess it.
He shook Phillip’s hand and agreed to the price.  The next time he came to town, he had sold every last pearl he owned. 

He had nothing but the pearl.  It was his inventory.  It was his life.
God’s love…valuable, sacrificing and worthy of sacrifice…

God’s love is like….
A tiny mustard seed that invades the garden, growing little by little every day, slowing taking over

A bit of leaven in a mound of flour, mixing in with every bit, expanding, rising, making enough to feed all
A treasure in the field that so captivates a person that he or she will do anything to get it

A pearl so valuable that someone will give all that he has to purchase it.

God’s love is….
Where do you see signs of the rule of God’s love around you?

If you were to tell a parable about God’s rule, God’s love, how would you describe it?

God our King, your love is so vast and your rule so amazing that we cannot even begin to imagine it.  Your Son gave us stories to help us see a bit more clearly. Send your Spirit to us to give us ears to hear and hearts to understand, eyes to see your kingdom of love around us, and hands to work your will in the world.  Amen.

[i] Thank you Rev Dr Mom for sharing this insight!

God's love is like....Meditations on Matthew 13

God’s love is like…. a mustard seed

God’s love is like…a woman making bread with yeast
God’s love is like…a treasure hidden in the field

God’s love is like…a pearl of great price

God’s love is like…

Tim and I spent a good part of the day Friday working on the yard around the parsonage.  We pulled weeds and pruned lilacs run amok, cut away ‘volunteer’ seedlings that were well on the way to becoming shrubs, divided irises. 
As I weeded, I thought about the parable of the mustard seed.  Where I come from, mustard is considered a weed.  I don’t know of anyone who would deliberately plant mustard.  It takes over where it’s planted and it’s almost impossible to get rid of.  I know that somewhere someone must harvest mustard otherwise we would not be able to buy mustard seeds in the store.  But I wouldn’t plant it.

I thought about how hard we work to keep weeds at bay in our yards and fields.  We want the predictable, the orderly, we want to maintain things just so.  Jewish gardens and fields were like that – no mixing of types of plants, everything in its place, well-ordered. It was against the laws of the Torah to plant something like mustard in a vegetable garden.  Only a gentile, who did not know God, would plant mustard.
I weeded the herb garden and thought about how before I ever planted mint, I was warned to plant it only in a container.  It seems that mint will take over a garden, in fact will take over the whole yard.  I saw firsthand how pervasive mint can be – one small seedling quickly overran my large pot and sent out runners to the ground around the pot. 

As we cut back the lilacs, I thought of the lilac at home in the center of our front yard.  It was huge – over six feet in diameter and close to 8 feet tall.  Birds sang in that lilac and I saw a mouse or two scurry into the depths of the bush.  I played in its shade, and delighted in its fragrance.  My teachers always received a large bouquet of lilacs each spring, but you could never tell that any were picked.   Here, we pruned unmercifully to keep so that the parsonage lilac might be kept manageable.
I divided irises for the first time.  I only took about half the plants, wanting to move them to the bare spots along the side of the house.  Only 3 or 4 clumps of irises and we have more than enough plants – enough to share with neighbors, probably more than even they can use.

God’s love is like….

·         mint that creeps from its spot in the herb garden to the flower bed across the lawn and continues to flourish everywhere in the lawn no matter how hard someone tries to contain it.

·         an untended lilac bush, huge and fragrant, providing shade and shelter, delight and beauty.  

·         irises that haven’t been thinned in years and when you thin them, there’s more than enough for the whole neighborhood to replant.

Where do you see God's love?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Daily devotion: Prayer Changes...Us!

Readings for the day:  1 Kings 18, 19; 2 Chronicles 32; James 5

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  James 5:16

James is instructing his congregations in ethical ways of living out their faith.  He tells the suffering to pray and the cheerful to praise and the sick to ask the elders to pray for them and anoint them.  He reminds his congregations of the power of prayer to heal and reconcile. 

“I’ll pray for you.”  “All we can do is pray.”  “You’re in my prayers.”  We say this and similar things so often, almost as a cliché.  Do we really pray every time we tell someone we will?  Or is that just something we say when we can’t think of anything else to say?
We often act as if prayer is the last resort.  It’s the thing we do after we’ve tried everything else.  And we should pray then.  But prayer should be our first act!  Prayer is the most powerful force in heaven and earth.  Think about what happens when we pray:  we are talking to the Creator of the universe!  Prayer works!

Of course, we all know that we don’t always get what we prayed for.  Jobs are still lost or new jobs not found.  Illnesses continue, tragedies happen.  But our prayer is answered, every time.  Sometimes the answer is radically different from what we expect.  Sometimes, instead of changing the situation, God chooses to change us.

And that’s really the most powerful thing about prayer – its effect on our own hearts and minds.  It softens our hearts and turns our minds to God.  Prayer makes us receptive to hear God’s voice, and to begin to recognize God’s actions in our own lives and around us.  Prayer fills us with God’s love and compassion.  Prayer enables us to be agents of healing and reconciliation, bringers of the Kingdom of God.

Gracious God, thank you that I can come to you in prayer, to tell you what is on my heart, to listen for your voice, to wait in your presence.  Make me hunger and thirst to spend time with you in prayer.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Daily Devotion: Welcoming hearts set to seek God

Today's readingss:  2 Chronicles 29-31; James 4
“But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” The Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” 2 Chronicles 30:18b-20

When Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah, he immediately charged the priests with cleansing the temple and re-establishing worship.  This went so well and so fast that he then proceeded to celebrate Passover.  However, many of the people who came to celebrate Passover had not followed the traditional rules of preparation and therefore were ceremonially unclean.  They could not slaughter the Passover lamb themselves, so the Levites, who enthusiastically prepared in advance, did so for them.  However, Hezekiah realized that this was not the accepted practice.  He wanted everything done in strict accordance to the traditional rules, but he was also moved by the heart of the people seeking God.  He prays to God to accept all who came to worship, even though they had not followed the temple rules first.

Which comes first, following God’s law or seeking to meet God?  Sometimes we act as if there’s a list of things we have to do to be acceptable to God before we even set foot in worship.  And we expect everyone who comes in the door of the church to have also taken those steps.  We want our visitors to ‘play by the rules’ even if they don’t know what those rules are.
It happens, but it shouldn’t.  We judge people who come to our church by their clothes, their actions.  We complain when the neighborhood kids show up and can’t sit still in worship.  We nervously glance at the disheveled man who slips in the back.  We ignore the couple whose ethnicity is not the same as ours.  We expect that everyone who comes to our church will automatically know the rules – the way things are done.

We expect everyone who comes in our doors to also know how “Christians act.”  We expect newcomers to follow our rules of ethical conduct.  The reading in James is full of ethical instruction, directed at the community of believers.  Sometimes we forget that such teachings are for those of us who already believe, who are claimed in the waters of baptism.  Until God works in the hearts of seekers their attempts to follow ‘the rules’ will be even more unsuccessful than ours. 

Jesus said that he was sent to the sinners – the sick need a doctor but the healthy do not.  We act as if everyone should heal themselves first and then come to meet the Great Physician of our souls.  Jesus routinely socialized and ate with people we would be scandalized to have sit next to us in church.    

If even in the law-oriented temple worship, people who earnestly seek God can be pardoned and healed, how much more in our churches of grace and mercy can everyone be welcomed to join the community in meeting with God?

God of Grace and God of Mercy, help me to see past the outward appearance to recognize the hearts seeking you in everyone I meet.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Be Still and Know

Today’s readings:  2 Kings 17, 2 Chronicles 28, Psalm 46, James 3

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
This is one of my favorite verses and probably my very favorite prayer.  This is my centering prayer – breathe in “Be still,” breathe out “and know”, breathe in “that I,” breathe out “am God.”  Repeat until the mind calms and the chaos around gives way to the knowledge that God IS.

I started using this verse as a prayer one day when I was running errands.  I was on a tight schedule, trying to finish before I needed to pick up the kids.  Things took longer than expected, and I was flustered.
Then I happened to pass a church with a sign out front.  Instead of one of those humorous, cutesy sayings, it had this verse, “Be still and know that I am God.”  It hit me right between the eyes.  I took a deep breath, exhaled and thought: how wonderful to be still!

There’s something about the call to ‘be still.”  Like most everyone I know, my life can at time be hectic.  Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with the overwhelming activity of our 24/7 world.  It’s easy to hit the floor running and not stop until I drop into bed at night.  It’s easy to forget to take time to be still.  It’s easy to give God a quick nod and bounce off without really spending time just ‘knowing that I AM God.”
It’s funny.  It’s exactly those times when I am most tempted to say a quick, “Hey there!” to God and get on with the day’s overflowing schedule – those are the days when I most benefit from some time spent focusing on God.  Those are the days that I need to be still.  Those are the days I need to know that even though I am not, God IS – everything I need, enough for the day, peace and grace.

In the reading in 2 Kings is a story I’ve never noticed before.  When the king of Assyria removed the 10 tribes of Israel from the northern Kingdom, he sent conquered people from other places to live there (a standard tactic of Assyria to keep conquered people in line).  Apparently, lions came an attacked those new settlers until the king send a Levite priest to teach them how to worship God.  After that the lion attacks ended.
But the settlers did not just worship God – they continued to worship the gods they grew up worshipping.  They just added a new God to their pantheon.  “So they worshipped the Lord, but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away (2 Kings 17:33).”   They gave God a quick nod – “Hey there, God of Israel.” – and hurried on to life as usual.  Israel and Judah were also doing the same thing – giving God the nod and engaging in the practices of the nations around them.

It’s hard to worship just one God.  It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the culture around us.  Even in our allegedly Christian nation, there are things that distract us and pull us away from God.  Maybe I should say especially in our nation, where there is infinite entertainment, abundant material items, and over-packed schedules, it’s easy to get distracted.  To have other things creep in and fill that place that belongs solely to God.
Those things drain us of life, steal our joy, and rob us of peace.

And that’s why we need to be reminded to “be still and know that I AM God.”
God of peace, you call me to be still, to sit with you, to know that YOU ARE.  Help me to pull my eyes away from the bright lights, and my thoughts away from the shiny things of this world, so that I can focus on you alone.  Amen.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Unpacking Family Heirlooms

The lectionary readings for this week are:  1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:36-39; Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

Moving is a chore – all that packing and unpacking.  But within that chore is a joy as well.  When you pack and unpack you go through your things very meticulously and in doing so, sometimes you discover treasure you had forgotten you had.
For me, this last move is the end of a move started five years ago when my family moved to seminary.  When we unpacked at seminary, we discovered that we didn’t have room for everything we had – especially for some of our keepsakes and family heirlooms.  So those items were carefully repacked for the day we would move into our first parsonage, where we would once again have room for them.

Then last summer, we packed once again, downsizing from a three bedroom to two bedroom seminary apartment.  Once again, we lacked room for everything, and packed away those things we would not need in the immediate future.

Now all the boxes have been emptied and long hidden treasures once again see the light of day.  There’s my great-great grandmother’s bowl – which Tim hates, but I love.  It was one of her wedding gifts and proudly displayed in my mother's house.  There’s my grandfather’s plate he used as a child, with the ABC’s around the edge.  I discovered that I had kept a few pieces of my mom’s Occupied Japan collection and a few pieces of my dad’s oriental brass collection – I thought all those were gone and I got a little misty-eyed as I thought of the joy my mom had hunting them down at garage sales and the glee in my dad's voice when he recounted finding that piece in a  $5 box of stuff from a flea market.  The journey through my family heirlooms has been wonderful.

I also discovered some newer treasures, more personal to me:  the mermaid tile my then 8-year old daughter had painted, the stuffed bear my husband brought back for me from a guys-only-trip to Cedar Point he took while we were dating, my son’s pinewood derby trophy.  Tiny shoes and wooden trains and oddly-shaped clay bowls.  All are precious to me although their market value is limited.

This weeks’ gospel is a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven.  It’s a mustard seed, a bit of leaven:  a little goes a long way.  It’s a hidden treasure and a pearl of great price: more valuable than anything.    
And the wise scribe (pastor) will go to the storehouse (God’s Word) and bring out these treasures that are old (those family heirlooms of wisdom passed down from our fore-parents in the faith) and the treasures that are new (truths that speak in fresh new ways to our congregations today). 

Hmmm...maybe there's a lesson found in all my packing and unpackng.  Perhaps we have to be "on the move" in order to discover anew those treasures!  Otherwise we get too comfortable where we are and no longer really see the beauty in Great-Great Grandmother's bowl!

May God grant me the wisdom to bring both those old treasures and the new treasures to my congregation this week and always.  Amen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Is this a weed? Or is it wheat?

Text for this week:  Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8: 12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Today we hear another parable about seeds.  We are in a seed parable mini-series: last week the parable of the sower, this week the parable of the wheat and weeds, and next week several small parables including the one about the mustard seed.  In these parables Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven. 

The Kingdom of heaven is like this: 
It seems The Farmer sowed good seed in his field and when the plants got big, the servants discovered that there are lots of weeds in the wheat. 

Their first thought is, “Didn’t the Farmer use good seed?  How did the Farmer let this happen?”
The Farmer reassured them.  “Of course I used good, clean seed.  But an enemy has sowed weeds in my fields.”

This alarms the servants!  “Oh let us go out and tear up all the weeds!  We’ll get rid of this problem for you!”
But the Farmer says, “No, you can’t do that.  You’ll just pull out some of the wheat when you’re pulling weeds.  We’ll let them grow up together and when the harvesters come to harvest, the problem will be solved.  The weeds will blow right out the back of the combine and the wheat will go safely into the bins.”

It’s not always so easy to tell the weeds from the wheat.  Sometimes even the ones who should be able to tell can’t.

In Fort Wayne, we lived in a townhouse with a patio.  There was a small area to plant flowers at the edge of the patio.  In addition, at the corner of the patio, there was a roughly 5’ x 10’ area where, for some reason, grass wasn’t seeded.  Taking a cue from the nice lady next door who had an amazing patio garden, we planted every inch. We planted marigolds, and impatiens, and zinnias.  We planted tomatoes, and zucchini, and bell peppers and scarlet runner beans.  I even put in a small patch of strawberries at the end of the garden. 
There was a rain spout right at the end of the area.  I saw how nice my neighbor’s clematis looked climbing her rain spouts and decided to plant morning glories there.  There was just one problem.  Apparently, the landscapers couldn’t tell that those were morning glories and not weeds.  Every time they were just about ready to bloom, someone would cut them off.  I marked them “morning glories” and they still were cut off.  I put up a sign, “Morning glories – do not cut or remove.”  Still, they would be killed.

I had the same problem with our small flower plot at the seminary. I had planted dianthus, not realizing they would come back up each year. So I was excited when they came up looking nicer than the year before. The problem was that the landscapers apparently had never seen dianthus. So, when they came to spray for weeds, my flowers would be sprayed too, unless they had actually started flowering. Some years, I was there when the landscapers started spraying, and warned them. This year, I missed them and 12 beautiful plants were sprayed and mulched over.
The people who should have known the difference between wheat and weeds can’t always tell.

Now in defense of the servants in the parable, this particular weed is very tricky.  It is a grassy weed called darnel that grows in the Palestine area.  When it’s growing it looks almost exactly like wheat.  You can’t really tell the difference until the plants start to get seed heads.  The darnel seeds are very light, while wheat seeds are heavy.  So the darnel heads stand straight up while the wheat begins to bend over. 
Of course, by this time the root systems of the wheat and the darnel are intertwined.  So when the servants could finally tell the difference between the wheat and the darnel, there was no way to remove one without damaging the other.

It can be hard to know what’s a weed and what’s a flower.

One of my favorite novelists is Father Andrew Greeley.  In addition to writing books, he is a parish priest.  His homilies are usually stories and they are posted online.  He tells a story about a teen age boy who just wasn’t living up to his potential.[i]  He skated by in school and his teachers called him lazy.  He freely admitted that his teachers were probably right.  He shirked his chores at home and wanted to spend all his time playing video games.  He did just enough to get by at his job.  It looked like he would never amount to much of anything.
Then one day, he announced he was going to South America to volunteer in a small, poor village.  His parents laughed at this idea, saying he would never last the summer.  Everyone at his church said that he had no idea what he was getting into and he wouldn’t like it.  His teachers wondered what on earth he could possibly have to offer to villagers that would be useful to them. 
He didn’t care what people said.  He earned the money for plane fare and went anyway. 

And he loved it!  He loved the hard work.  He loved the primitive village.  He loved the people who lived there.  And they loved him.  They appreciated all he did for the village, how hard he worked for them.  They appreciated how he was never too tired, or too busy, to do whatever was needed.  They appreciated how he played with the young children, and listened to the stories of the elders.  The local pastor wrote to the pastor back home and told her that this young man was one of the finest youths he had ever seen.
 You just can’t always tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds.

And that’s ok, because, in the end it’s not our job.  It’s the job of the Farmer and the job of the harvesters, who Jesus tells us are the angels.  In this parable we are the servants.  We may want to help God out by removing all the weeds from around us.   But that’s not our job! 
It’s not our job, because we are not God.  Hear again the words of God from Isaiah:  I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.  Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.  Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.[ii]

There is only one God – and it’s not you, and it’s sure not me! 

But we want to be like God.  We want to be good servants of God.  We want to do God’s work.  Sometimes in our eagerness to be good children of our Father, to be the good seed, we get so excited that we overstep our job.  We try to be the Parent, instead of the child.  We try to be the Farmer instead of the servant.  We try to be the Sower instead of the seed. 
We too easily deal out judgment of who is the wheat and who is the weed. And that’s not our job.  We think we know what God thinks.  We forget that we are not God and we don’t know the mind of God.  We forget that, like a small child, we need to be taught.  The Psalm today remembers this.  The psalmist asks God, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”[iii] to teach him God’s ways. 

The Farmer is patient, unwilling to sacrifice even one wheat seedling from maturing into the harvest.  God desires for all creation to be renewed and God patiently delays judgment, in order that all might be saved.

This is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to sin.  Later in Matthew,[iv]  Jesus teaches the disciples how to correct each other when one sins – going privately, then taking 2-3 others if the one in error does not listen, then bringing that one before the leadership of the church, and finally removing them from the congregation until he or she repents.  But I think it is important to notice that this procedure is sandwiched between Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd leaving the 99 to find the lost one and Jesus telling Peter to forgive 70 times 7, to forgive as the Father has forgiven. We do need to hold each other accountable, but we also need to remember that as children of God we need to imitate God’s mercy, grace and steadfast love.
But it’s a lot easier to judge than to forgive, to punish than to show mercy.  I am reminded of a scene from The Fellowship of the Rings:

Frodo the Hobbit is bitter that Gollum has caused additional trouble for him and the ones seeking to destroy the Ring of (evil) Power.  He wishes that when the side of Good had the chance, Gollum had been killed.  Gandalf cautions Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.[v] 
It’s not always easy to tell the wheat from the weeds.  And even when it seems obvious, in the kingdom of heaven where “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,”[vi] what looks to us like weeds just might be growing into a new strain of wheat under the skilled Master Farmer’s hand.

I wonder how hard it is for the wheat to tell if the other plants around it are weeds or wheat?
Because, in this parable, we are also the wheat.  The harvesters will know that we are wheat because we produce good fruit.  We may worry about the weeds choking us out, like in the parable of the Sower, but the Farmer does not seem to be too worried about that.  Like last week, the Farmer knows that the seed he sows will produce an abundant harvest and nothing – hard dirt, rocky soil…or weeds - can keep that from happening.  

Jesus says that the wheat will bear fruit – that the children of the kingdom with shine like the sun.  That’s us.  We will reflect the glory of the Father.  We will be known because we produce the fruit of the Spirit –love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control[vii] - an abundant harvest.

I started out by saying that in this parable Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of heaven.  If you’ve ever watched a VeggieTales video, at the end of each one Bob the Tomato asks what we learned today.  So I ask, what have we learned from Jesus today? 

·         We learned that in the kingdom of God which has drawn near right now, good and evil live side by side. 

·         We learned that in the end time, God is going to make it right, that evil will be destroyed. 

·         We learned that, as God’s servants, we are not the ones to make the decisions on what is weed and what is wheat. 

·         We learned that as the good seed, the wheat, God’s children and heirs, God will make us prosper in this evil, weed infested world, and we will bear much fruit for the kingdom of God.
As wheat, our only job is to grow.  In working on my sermon this week, I ran across this quote one of my colleagues posted on facebook:

It is not for us to determine who the weeds and wheat are. However, we must ask ourselves, "How should we live our lives amongst the other plants in the field?"
God of Life, we ask you this day to be a compassionate and forgiving harvester. May we be nourished in good soil, and raised to be gathered in your harvest. Amen.[viii]

[i] Paraphrased from Father Greeley’s homily from
[ii] Isaiah 55: 6b-8
[iii] Psalm 86:15
[iv] Matthew 18:15-19
[v] Lord of the Rings, Gandalf in the Mines of Moria.
[vi] Romans 8:28
[vii] Galatians 5:22-23  
[viii] Quote gleaned from Rhonda Gallagher’s FaceBook status, attributed to Craig Wexler

[i] Paraphrased from Father Greeley’s homily from
[ii] Isaiah 55: 6b-8
[iii] Psalm 86:15
[iv] Matthew 18:15-19
[v] Lord of the Rings, Gandalf in the Mines of Moria.
[vi] Romans 8:28
[vii] Galatians 5:22-23  
[viii] Quote gleaned from Rhonda Gallagher’s FaceBook status, attributed to Craig Wexler