Sunday, September 17, 2017

15th Sunday after Pentecost

In the gospel this morning, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive his neighbor. After all, he’s heard Jesus teaching what we hear in the Lord’s prayer from Matthew 6:
if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mt. 6:14-15)
In his head, he knows forgiveness is important. So when he asks Jesus his question, Peter makes what he thinks is a generous offer, asking if he is to forgive seven times. But Jesus tells him not seven, but seventy-seven.

Now, that’s a lot of forgiveness when someone has angered you or betrayed you, let alone if they have caused pain to you or someone you love.

Pastor Delmer Chilton, a Lutheran pastor who’s served congregations in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, tells a story about something he’s seen take place in churches in the hollars of Appalachia, a tradition that’s known as “a flower service”.

What happens is that everyone brings bouquets of flowers and places them on a table in front of the pulpit. These aren’t formal arrangements like we order from Mike’s or Holly’s, but large fistfuls of flowers from the garden and wildflowers from the fields.

Then the minister preaches a sermon, reminding people of Our Lord’s admonition to make peace with our neighbor before kneeling at the altar to pray to God.

After the sermon, everyone in the congregation comes and retrieves their flowers, and begins to go to every other person in the church to apologize for any hurt feelings or harsh words or misunderstandings.

Every person. From the oldest to the youngest, everyone talks to everyone else, not caring how long it takes.

And after the words of forgiveness have been spoken and heard, people exchange their flowers, sealing the restoration of their relationship and then they move on to another sister or brother in Christ.[i]

With his answer, basically, Jesus tells Peter, “Go on forgiving, as long it takes.”

Where true forgiveness demands a merciful and generous spirit, Peter’s question revealed only how miserly our human understanding of forgiveness can be.

First, forgiveness doesn’t mean “forgive and forget.”

“Forgive and forget” is one of those sayings that has worked its way into our culture, but has no basis in Scripture. And, forgiving and forgetting are not the same.

In the parable Jesus tells, the king doesn’t say the slave’s debt is forgotten; in fact, when the slave fails to respond mercifully to the man who is indebted to him, the king holds the slave accountable for the full cost of the debt he had owed. Importantly, forgiving doesn’t mean tolerating unacceptable behavior and it doesn’t mean remaining vulnerable to additional pain.

Second, forgiveness isn’t earned.

Too often, we cast ourselves as the king in the parable because we want to be judge of whether another person is worthy of forgiveness. Calling them to account, we insist on witnessing repentance, reform or, at the very least, an apology. And while we are called to repentance in Scripture, it is not a condition of God’s forgiveness.

Look at the story of the prodigal son whose father races to meet him and welcomes him home, before any words have been shared. (Luke 15) The model of forgiveness that we have is God’s unmerited, unmeasurable, and unrestrained forgiveness.

Look at the cross. Jesus was crucified, knowing his disciples had fled in fear and Peter had denied him; and yet, God does not withhold forgiveness, waiting for us to respond appropriately, or at all.

To illustrate what divine forgiveness is, Jesus tells this parable where a slave owes a debt at the largest magnitude known, a sum equivalent to two hundred thousand years of wages.

An impossible debt.

And instead of being cast as the king, suddenly, we realize we are the slaves, who have received an unexpected, extravagant and transformative gift from God. And, even when we have heard about God’s grace and we think we know what it means, we are surprised again by its magnitude.

Throughout his teachings in the catechisms, Martin Luther shows that “[God declares] that all people are forgiven, loved and blessed simply because God says so. God’s love of the ungodly is what changes the world, not human efforts to try and be like God.”[ii]

Importantly, the torture the one slave returns to is not being shackled and paraded down the street, beaten and flayed, or executed on a cross, but “the torment of refusing forgiveness.”[iii]

When we refuse to offer forgiveness, and instead hold onto hurts and resentments, we suffer. Seeds of bitterness are sown and wounds fester. We are completely and wholly changed by God’s grace but instead of letting go of pain, we wallow in it because it’s so well known to us.

When we refuse to receive the forgiveness we’ve been given, when we hold onto our sin, our shame and see ourselves as lacking worth or value, we are defying God and refusing to let go of the ‘old Adam,’ the person who has been put to death on the cross. Like the unforgiving slave, we are refusing the new life we are given in faith in Christ.

Remember, when Jesus told his followers, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”? (Mt. 16:24-26) Well, this is how we lose our life:

by living, forgiven and forgiving.

We let the old self die, remembering God’s promise that “in baptism, we are clothed once and for all, with a forgiveness woven for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.”[iv]

Answering Peter, Jesus reminds him, and us, that our life in the gathered community of his followers depends on the wholeness of our relationships with God and with each other, and forgiveness sustains our life together.

Let us pray…
Good and Gracious God,
Thank you for your overwhelming mercy to each one of us.
You call us to show forgiveness to one another as we have received forgiveness, living in response to the love and grace you have first given us, by faith in Your Son Jesus.
By your Holy Spirit, empower us to be merciful to the world around us.

[i] Chilton, Delmer. The Gospel According to Aunt Mildred: Stories of Family and Faith (p. 103). Brasstown Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Martin Lohrmann. The Book of Harmony. 51.
[iii] Lectionary Lab.
[iv] Robert Capon. Parables of Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. 193. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

13th Sunday after Pentecost

In his letter to the Romans, Paul presents the gospel of Jesus Christ and explains God’s unmerited gift of forgiveness that we call grace. Remember how last week I said that Christian faith is not “if/then” but “because/therefore”? Well, Paul begins this twelfth chapter, “Therefore….”

Because of the grace, justification and faith that happens by God’s saving work for the whole world, therefore we are entrusted with a responsibility to live out of our faith and show God’s love to the world.

And beginning in this chapter, he describes what living by faith in Christ looks like in our daily lives:

It looks like a cross-shaped life and a cross-shaped church.[i]

It is a life, individually and as a congregation, that is shaped by love, following Jesus in loving both his followers and the crowds, without reservation, and, at the last, loving even his enemies, and praying for them, while he hung on the cross.

Paul sees the Church – the ekklesia – as the practice field for living out this covenant of love.[ii] Now, practice fields aren’t always pretty to look at; they can be muddy and sodden with rain, or sunbaked and hardened, but they are where people learn to work together and where you discover how your gifts complement one another.

Discipleship, and especially the church, is about how we come together and live out this new life that we have been given in faith. It is the life that we have promised to support Hudson and his parents in, a life shaped by our baptismal promises and affirmed again this morning.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explained that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us – or makes us holy, preparing us for this life of faith in action. But it still takes practice.

Some of you know what sharing highs and lows means. It’s where you name a time where you saw God active in your life recently — a time of celebration, an accomplishment, a place where you encountered the Holy. And you name a time when things weren’t so great and maybe you wondered where God was in that moment —disappointment, illness or when trust was broken. Sharing highs and lows is a faith practice.

One of my highs last week was when a neighbor who I hadn’t yet met came over and finished mowing the grass when he saw I’d stopped because the belt on our mower broke; this week one of my highs was getting to celebrate my mom’s birthday with her and Curt.

But I’ve had lows too, like many of you, watching the havoc in Texas and Louisiana as the floodwaters rose, and then finding out my seminary classmate’s husband died on Wednesday in Wisconsin, two days before their son turned four.

Practicing finding God in our everyday lives, and not just on mountaintops and in Spirit-filled places like churches, teaches us to pay attention and to recognize God is with us during school and work, play and rest, joy and grief.

It also helps us reflect on how we have responded to the world around us, and whether we have embodied the love that Paul describes here. To measure whether we have served others, and persevered in prayer; whether we have overcome hate and evil with good.

Importantly, here, too, it’s not “if/then”: “if I got it right, then God will love me.” But “because/ therefore”: “Because God loves me, therefore I want to respond to others with love, with peace and with joy” and thankfully, “God loves me even when I mess it up.”

Paul knows what a life filled with evil, hatred and zeal against God looks like. He persecuted the church himself before his conversion. Here he is inviting “believers to live differently and to live out their calling both within the faith community and the wider society.”[iii]

It is the faith-filled lives that are on display when congregations from the northwest suburbs of Houston go into the city’s flooded sanctuaries to help them begin mucking out;

when interfaith leaders from California and Pennsylvania deploy on spiritual care response teams with the Red Cross to care for the people in Texas and Louisiana, and

when a teenager planning to go to next year’s Youth Gathering in Houston watches the footage from the floods and tells her dad, “We’ve got work to do.”

Truly, we all have work to do. The cross is a reminder of the suffering that God accompanies us in and a stronger reminder still of God’s victory over it. By our baptism in Christ, we are washed clean and given new life each day, to live cross-shaped lives and be a cross-shaped church.

Let us pray…
Holy God, Our Redeemer,
Thank you for the gifts of grace and faith that you have given us;
Help us follow Your Son Jesus and love our neighbors and community without restraint;
Empower us by your Holy Spirit to persevere and practice a living and loving faith in our actions and our words.

[i] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Location 822). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[ii] ibid Kindle Location 728.
[iii] ibid Kindle Locations 669-670.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

12th Sunday after Pentecost

In today’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” While we wouldn’t be surprised to hear a political pollster ask, “What are people saying?”, when Jesus sits down with his disciples, he isn’t polling popular opinion. Sociologists describe ancient Mediterranean peoples as “ ‘other-oriented people’ who depend on others to provide them with a sense of who they are.”[i] Identity was understood as what significant others said, not your own perception.

So, who do people say that Jesus is?
A prophet, a healer and physician, a teacher?

It is a question that people have wrestled with for centuries as they try to understand him. Since the fourth century, the Church has had a common confession in the words of the Nicene Creed because early leaders talked about this very question and determined where they could agree. And today, there is even a church word — Christology — that encompasses the whole study of who Jesus is and what his life, ministry and death teach us.

After hearing the answers given by his disciples, Jesus asks his band of followers who have witnessed his teaching, healing and feeding first-hand, “But who do you say that I am?”

If someone asked you that this morning here in the sanctuary, you might rely on the Church’s confession, naming Jesus the “God’s only son, our Lord.” And, like us, Peter answers with doctrine.

But as we’ll see when his story continues, our confession of who Jesus demands more than religious doctrine. John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…in order that the world would be saved by him.” The Living God loves us and gives us Jesus that we will know God, that we will have not just a religion, but a relationship.

Father Richard Rohr teaches, “God refuses to be known except through loving, trustful relationship. You cannot know God with your mind alone.”[ii]

So when Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”, let’s ask ourselves, “Why is Jesus important?” and “How does it feel to belong to Jesus’ family?”

And let’s remember that just as God invites us to answer these questions, God is the actor and the subject of any sentence we say about faith. Faith by grace is not “if/then” but “because/therefore”:

Because God loves us, therefore we are made children of God.
Because God loves us, therefore we are forgiven of our sin.
Because God loves us, therefore we are empowered by the Holy Spirit and sent into the world.
Because God loves us, therefore we are different.

Our confession of Jesus is lived out in our words and actions throughout our lives.

It’s one thing to confess “the Son of the living God” in a pew on Sunday morning but what will your answer be the next time someone asks you about Jesus, whether you are in the grocery store, at a ballgame, or on the sidewalk uptown?

The first disciples lived in a world where Caesar declared himself the Messiah, and the judgment of the Pharisees dictated who was acceptable, who was lovable, and who was worthy of God’s involvement in their lives. They had already left their families behind to follow Jesus, and now, they were taking the risk of confessing that there wasn’t any man-made idol or identity that was greater importance than who they were as Jesus’ disciples and children of God. This is the cost of discipleship that defines following Jesus, and its demand on us today isn’t any less.

So, who do you say Jesus is? How do you speak about the transforming power of the living God, whose abundant love and forgiveness renews us each day?

Your words about who Jesus is matter in a world where language about God is misused to condone violence, to debase women and to shred human dignity; where shame is used as a weapon; and where people are afraid to trust.

Remember that because God loves you, therefore you may speak with confidence.

Let us pray…[iii]
Holy God,
We give you thanks for your child, Jesus.
In him people saw the courage of John the Baptizer,
the fiery passion of Elijah, the faithfulness of Jeremiah.
Though he was killed, you raised him to life
and revealed him to us as your chosen Messiah.
By the faith given us by grace,
teach us to follow him
that our words and actions would be witnesses to your love for the world.

[i] Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, quoted by Rev. Brian Stoffregen in his exegetical notes
[ii] Richard Rohr. The Divine Dance.
[iii] Adapted from Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

10th Sunday after Pentecost

Since ancient times, water has symbolized chaos. In Homer’s Odyssey, Poseidon curses Odysseus to wander at sea ten years.

In Hebrew thought, water was emblematic of anything opposed to Yahweh and so, in the Old Testament, time and again, we have stories of how God triumphs over the waters,

beginning with the creation story in Genesis 1 when God separated the waters that above and below and named them;

in Genesis 6 when God brought a flood upon the earth that destroyed everything that was evil;

in Exodus 14 when God drove the Red Sea back and turned the sea into dry land so that the Israelites could escape from Egypt’s Pharaoh;

and in Joshua 3 when God cut off the overflowing waters of the Jordan river so that the nation of Israel could cross over to Canaan.

In the New Testament, for followers of Jesus, water and storms still represent chaos, whether it is in the meager living earned by fishermen who drop their nets and follow him, or the two lake-crossing stories where the disciples encounter storms.

Amid the chaos of the world, whether it threatens our safety and security, our livelihood or our future, God remains sovereign over all the other powers and principalities that are at work.

In Matthew’s telling of the lake crossings, both in chapter 8 and here in chapter 14, Jesus addresses the disciples as “you of little faith.”

What he doesn’t do is give them ‘seven habits of highly faithful people’ or prescribe a twelve-step plan to achieve deeper faith.

After all, they cannot, by their own effort or strength,
increase their faith, because,
after all, it is a gift of grace.

Jesus just names what he sees – people debilitated by their fear – and then he says to them,
“Do not be afraid.”

They are the same words the angel Gabriel speaks to Joseph when he learns that Mary is pregnant;
that Jesus teaches when he compares God’s love for us to that for two sparrows;
that God speaks to the disciples when they witness the transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop;
And that first the angel, and then Jesus himself, says to the women at the tomb on the day of his resurrection.

His words do not offer mere reassurance; they offer a promise. A promise that God is present in this place, in your life, in the things you do not – that you cannot - understand.

“Do not be afraid.”

Jesus doesn’t say they should not be afraid, or mock them for being afraid.

That’s comforting in a week where the headlines included threats by and against North Korea; torch-bearing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia and the return of rising floodwaters in New Orleans;
it is good news in a world where suffering is evident on the faces of people living in poverty and homelessness;
where hope can be elusive and where death is inescapable,
whether it arrives unexpectedly or after a diagnosis.

There is a lot about the world where we live that escalates our fears and makes us afraid. But, Jesus doesn’t dismiss our fears; instead he reminds us that our fears do not go unanswered.

In this Gospel, Jesus reached out his hands to Peter and called him to himself; he grabbed him and did not let him go,
just as he did for the world two thousand years ago, when he reached out his hands to be crucified.

Jesus’ death and resurrection demonstrated that God’s power is greater than any political system or civic leader; God is sovereign over the chaos.

But, did you notice that Matthew said Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead…?” He does the same thing to us whenever we gather in the naves of our churches. The word “nave” comes from the Latin navis – it’s the same word that gives us Navy and navigation; it’s the word for “boat” or “ship.”

God calls the Church – us, puts us into a boat and sets us out on the storm-tossed water, into the chaos of the world, to tell the world about the one God, who is our Lord and Savior, our Creator and Redeemer.

Staying tied up in port, where we know our surroundings and where we can provide for all our needs is not acceptable. Neither is merely testing the waters, or venturing a little way out and setting anchor in a protected cove. In Second Timothy, the author of the epistle writes,

6 …I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to follow Jesus and sent into the world and accompanied by God’s grace to go and love our neighbors, even when we are afraid.

We each can remember an iconic image of someone whose life has embodied what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus:
Pope Francis washing the feet of Muslim migrants and kissing them on Holy Thursday;
Martin Luther King, Jr. walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma;
Martin Luther on trial at the Diet of Worms saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

But God doesn’t stop with the people who are known to history.

Sometimes a disciple looks like my friend Christine, now a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, who spent four months as an ecumenical accompanier in Hebron in Palestine, walking alongside Palestinians who were under Israeli occupation while their homes and their wells were destroyed by soldiers.

On Friday night it looked like a group of interfaith religious leaders gathering in St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, praying and singing before they marched in silence on Saturday while another group of people including KKK and neo-Nazis rallied in a nearby park; following Jesus, the clergy were witnessing to the power of God’s presence and love to triumph over hate-filled speech and racism.

But God doesn’t stop with pastors and clergy leaders either.

God calls each one of us, too, to do God’s work in our everyday lives, to live by faith, instead of fear,
and trust God’s promises that God is with us,
grabs onto us, and won’t let go.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
Thank you for your Son Jesus
who comes to us amidst the storms of destruction,
pulling us up from the despair that would swallow us
and with a word, brings his terrifying peace.[i]
By faith, you have made us your disciples and given us the power to be your hands and feet in the world.
May your Holy Spirit give us courage and calm our fears as we go
out into the world to tell others about your miraculous love for each one of us.

[i] Laughing Bird liturgical resources. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

9th Sunday after Pentecost

In today’s gospel the parables that Jesus has been teaching are brought to life as the disciples and the crowd witness an abundance that satisfies everyone’s needs,
appearing out of the smallest of beginnings.

Between the last parables we heard and this passage, Herod has murdered John the Baptist, and Jesus has just learned of his cousin’s death. Matthew tells us that he retreats to a deserted place, alone, leaving his disciples and escaping the crowds that had been with them.

When the crowds follow him from the city, Jesus sees them and has compassion for them and Matthew says that he goes to them and heals their sick.

While there are other healing and feeding stories included in each of the gospels, this is the only story that appears in all four, which demands that we ask, “What does this story say about God?”

First of all, I think it challenges us to see God in the barren and desert places in our lives. Sometimes we talk about that barrenness as the stark places in our lives where we feel alone or isolated, stripped of faith and cut off from the world and from God’s love.

But when we recall the temptations of Jesus and the wilderness where he journeyed for forty days, like we do during Lent, we reflect on how emptying ourselves can make room for God to act in new ways in our lives. God is in the desert with us.

This story reminds us what Jesus and the ancient desert fathers and mothers, after him, knew: that in finding solitude, we create a space where God can act, where we can,
as the priest Henri Nouwen says, “shake off our compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.”[i]

In that same space “Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us.”[ii] And, following Jesus, we are able to imitate his own compassion, “go[ing] with others into the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken.”[iii]

Jesus wasn’t the first person to be called a Messiah in those times, but uniquely, he responded with compassion to the people he encountered. When he saw that they were hurting and in pain, wracked by illness, he healed them. When he saw they were hungry, he didn’t send them away; he fed them.

Or perhaps, more accurately, he told his disciples to feed them.

This story demonstrates to us how God calls us to participate in God’s work on earth. Next month we’ll again celebrate our churchwide day of service on what is called “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday.

God enacts grace and mercy through us!

As disconcerting as that may be sometimes, it is also a sign of God’s grace that God works through each one of us to meet the human needs that present all around us.

The disciples were surprised by God’s invitation, too. When they ask Jesus to send the crowds away, he tells them there’s no need. (v. 16) Looking out at the vast crowd of men and women and children, they despair, telling Jesus, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." (v. 17)

In the face of overwhelming need, the disciples have forgotten Jesus’ instructions to them about how to pray and to trust in God for their daily bread. They have forgotten his admonition not to worry about what they will eat or drink. (Matt. 6)

Like them, when we witness suffering in our neighbors and community, or in our nation and the world, it is easy to forget what we already know about God and God’s promises.
It is easy to become overwhelmed, to look at the resources we have readily available and to feel hopeless.
It is easy to send people away and tell them to look for help someplace else, to hope others will step in and meet their needs.

But God doesn’t promise us that discipleship is easy.
Instead, this story offers us another promise:
that God prepares us and equips us, that God provides for us.

In his compassion, then and now, Jesus offers presence and healing; we experience those benefits at this holy table where we receive bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, given for us for the forgiveness of sin, and it is at this table where we are made whole, nourished and fed and sent out into the world as God’s people, equipped with the transforming knowledge of God’s love for all.

Lutheran preacher David Lose suggests that “instead of [worrying that we do not have enough – not enough children, not enough people, not enough choir members – that] we give thanks for what we have, put it to use for those [in need] and see just how far God might
stretch, and indeed, multiply it.”[iv]

Here at Ascension, we have an abundance of physical space and land that is used by Lutheran Men in Mission, Lutheran Services Carolinas, and local quilters;
we have rich relationships where people know each other’s stories and notice when someone is hurting; and,
we have ministries where we feed hungry neighbors, honor military veterans, and generously give to meet needs throughout our community and the Church.

We are encouraged this morning to give thanks for the ways God has already equipped us to meet the needs that surround us, to rely on God, and to witness God’s surprising grace in our life together.

Let us pray…
Nourishing and nurturing God,
We give thanks for your Son, our Lord and Savior whose life teaches us how much You love us.
Lead us by Your Spirit to the places where people’s needs are greatest.
Teach us to empty ourselves and make room for You to act in our lives.
Feed us that we will have strength for the journey and to answer your call to serve others.
We pray in Jesus’ name,

[i] Henri Nouwen. The Way of the Heart. 30.
[ii] ibid, 32.
[iii] ibid, 34.
[iv] David Lose, In the Meantime.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

8th Sunday after Pentecost

The reading in Matthew’s gospel provides us with five parables, a rapid-fire succession of examples of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Different scholars classify the different parables noticing how some of them, like last week’s weeds and wheat and today’s dragnet, end with judgment, while others, like the sower from two weeks ago, focus on what life with God looks like. Four of the ones we heard this morning are known as “kingdom parables.”

Speaking first to the crowds and then to the disciples, with this grab-bag of parables Jesus reminds us again that God’s kingdom is beyond our understanding of how stuff works.

Jesus has entertained us with his images of inept characters like the one who wastefully and extravagantly sowed seed and the farmer who didn’t care about weeds. But he also spoke truth about who God is, what God’s love for us looks like, and how we are to live as a community of God’s people. Now, hearing another series of parables, we must ask,

“What is Jesus really saying?”

In the parable that we have in verse 33, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a woman who hides leaven in three measures of flour, until the whole lump of dough was leavened.

It’s hard for us to hear just how audacious his description is.

But first of all, he describes a woman,
not a man, not a priest or Pharisee.

Most women in the first century had no status — no property of their own, no education or trade, and no wealth. But that doesn’t prevent Jesus from saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a woman.”

Then he continues: the woman hides leaven into three measures of flour. I don’t know about you, but I measure flour by the cup, and when I make the communion bread that we sometimes have, I use three cups of flour, but that’s not the same as three measures. A measure here is the same as a peck and a half, or 48 cups. Altogether, he is describing a massive amount of flour, between 40 and 50 pounds!

And in this mountain of flour, the woman hides leaven.

Our modern translations make that word “yeast”, but it’s really more like the starter one keeps to make bread. If you aren’t familiar with starter; you can make it from scratch, but more often, it is handed down from one baker to another. It’s water and flour that has been mixed together and allowed to ferment, creating a wild yeast. And once it’s active, that is light and bubbly, “it needs to be fed. It asks to be used.”[1]

When the leaven is mixed into the flour, it may look like nothing is happening, but the starter changes everything and something new is being created.

Jesus says this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

When we create space where God can act,
we will be surprised and delighted, nourished and fed,
by God’s abundant grace and goodness.

Of course, as Jesus knows, like any of us who have tried to double or triple a recipe, anytime you create something in large quantities,
you introduce a degree of uncertainty into the mix.

But the parable shows us that uncertainty, mystery and surprise — an unpredictable change-able-ness — is characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.

Something else I love about this parable is its conclusion. It says the whole lump of dough is leavened. In the earlier parables, you could argue that someone could return and sweep away the seed that didn’t yield a harvest, or even dig up the bad seed before it could take root, but once leaven is introduced into flour, there’s no way to retrieve or remove it; it is all mixed in together.

Also, because all of the flour was leavened, we know that the woman didn’t stop at doing what was “manageable”, making just one or two loaves and reserving the rest for next time. Instead, I imagine a scene like we saw in Disney’s Fantasia when the sorcerer’s apprentice conjured a broom to carry buckets of water to fill a cauldron, but he can’t control it and soon the cauldron is overflowing. At first, he is exhilarated, and then a little overwhelmed, and even a little frightened.

Aren’t we all?
…when we realize that God’s kingdom is bigger and more complex than our understanding, and that we cannot exert control over what the kingdom looks like.

In this one parable, in this one verse,
Jesus urges us here to imagine what life together looks like when we remember that we live under God’s extravagant grace,
to reflect on what about our life with God surprises us and maybe even shocks us, and where, as a congregation,
God may be leading us.

Let us pray…
Gracious God,
Let us delight in seeking your power and presence all around us;
Give us courage to recognize change and creativity as Kingdom building gifts from you;
Guide us by your Spirit, that love, like yeast in dough, will permeate all we do.
We pray in the name of your Son Jesus.

[1] Sam Sifton. “Sourdough Starter, America’s Rising Pet.” The New York Times. March 22, 2016.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

7th Sunday after Pentecost

If we had any doubt after last week’s parable of the sower, this week’s gospel confirms that Jesus was no farmer. Last week he applauded the sower who recklessly and extravagantly sowed seed everywhere, and, this week, the master in his parable tells his workers to leave the weeds where they are and let them grow up alongside the good seed.

More importantly, this parable confirms that God’s kingdom is beyond our understanding of how stuff works.

Remember that, with parables, Jesus draws on images and stories from everyday life to illuminate who God is and what the kingdom of God looks like. Around us, kudzu and poison ivy are greater threats than a look-alike weed growing among good crops, but I think we can still hear the truth in Jesus’ words, especially when we remember that he really isn’t teaching about farming or gardening, but about how we live together in community as God’s people.

Jesus tells the disciples a story about a master who sows good seed. The Master’s vision is fields of amber waving in the sun. The Master never intends for rot or decay, fungus or disease to develop.

But the parable says, “While everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…”

So when some time has passed, the plants come up and begin to bear grain, and the workers see what has happened. There among the healthy wheat are tares, look alike plants that will spoil the flour.

And they want to do something about it. They want to fix it. So, they go to the master and ask to weed the fields before the harvest time.

But the master explains that they can’t fix it. The plants are too similar, and their roots are intertwined, so if they tear out one, they’ll likely destroy the other too. The good and the bad will have to be allowed to grow up together. The Master is not panicked; he is confident that, at the harvest, the wheat and the tares will be separated and the good crop will be salvaged.

The parable affirms that, despite appearances, the Master knows what is happening and is in control. We have all heard someone say, “God is in control” in the face of circumstances that eclipse our ability to manage them or fix them.

Often, I think those words can often do more harm than good, but this parable may provide us with another way to hear them. 

It is clear here that the Master intended good and the enemy came in and sowed evil alongside it. Understanding the Master as God, God’s intention remains unchanged, and, in due time, good will prevail.

In the midst of crisis, faced with the realization that I cannot do something to fix what has happened, and in fact God doesn’t make that my responsibility, I find comfort in God’s recognition of the presence of evil that opposes God’s good vision for God’s beloved people.

So if that’s what this parable teaches us about God,
what does it have to say about God’s kingdom?

First, the parable affirms that God does not leave us alone. God remains engaged and involved in the work of the kingdom, and Jesus tells us there are other workers in God’s kingdom, too— planters, workers and reapers. We all have a place and a role, and God works alongside us all to bring about the kingdom here on earth.

But even more importantly, I think, it tells us how we are to live together in community as God’s people.

In verse 30, the Greek word translated as “let them grow together” comes from the same root as “let go”, “pardon” or “forgive.”

Writing about this parable Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon observes that “because good and evil inhabit the same individual human beings…the only result of a campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.” [1]

In our human condition, sin is ever-present in our lives, we cannot, by our own strength, successfully yank it out.

Thankfully, as Luther wrote, “grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you and destroys it.”[2] God recognizes what is good and beloved in us even when we are infected by sin, and, by his infinite grace, roots out the sin and restores us to wholeness. God does that, not us.

Recognizing that our lives are connected to each other and our wellbeing — our ability to grow and thrive and embody God’s kingdom on earth — is dependent on each other, we are not called to destroy or exclude others while we strive for an elusive purity or perfection; we are not called to bring brute strength to bear to make others conform or grow in the same way we do.

We are called to be a mixed community and to listen for God’s direction and trust in God’s intention, power and grace to bring about the harvest that God has ordained and that God is working out in our midst.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
Help us remember that your labor brought forth creation and we are but workers in your Kingdom;
Give us patience with ourselves and others as we live in the weeds and brokenness, the evil and sinfulness of this world;
Teach us to always see sin in ourselves and others in the light of your grace, confident in your abundant love and mercy.
In the name of your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, we pray.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace Judgment. 87.
[2] “Sermon on Preparing to Die,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (2nd ed.),” Timothy F. Lull, Editor. 422.