Monday, July 28, 2014

July 27 Sermon

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Maybe I am wrong about this, but I am assuming that the reason most of us come to church is that we want a chance to see God at work. We want to hear a good word, get some hope for the week, learn something that is going to offer us what one of my favorite theologians says about religion, a sense and taste for the infinite.
And what better place to look than the church?
I would bet good money that if you did a survey of American Christians, or just people for that matter, and said, “Tell me the best place to find God,” they would say, with near unanimity, the church! The church. Of course the church. This is the place we come to worship God and learn from one another and experience God’s grace.
And, my friends, you are in luck! For the scripture lesson today is all about where to find God.
If you have been in worship the last few Sundays, you will notice that we have been dealing with a number of Jesus’s parables, little short stories Jesus tells to get a point across. We talked about the parable of the sower, and the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and we arrive this Sunday at what seems like the parable of all the rest of the parables. The kingdom of heaven is like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a large tree, and the yeast that leavened the bread, and treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great price, and a wide fishing net, and it makes you wonder what it must have been like to hear this all at once from Jesus’s own mouth.
The thing is, there are all these parables, one after another, and they don’t seem to have a whole lot to connect them other than the fact that they are parables. Jesus throws a truth bomb at us, all of this wisdom in rapid-fire succession, and we’re left to figure out just what on earth he’s talking about.
Just for instance.  You might be familiar with the parable of the mustard seed.  
The mustard seed is a tiny, tiny seed, not actually the smallest of all of them but small enough for the story, and when you plant it, it grows like a weed because, in fact, it really is a weed, and it ends up being the tallest of all the shrubs, so big, in fact, that you might well call it a tree.
So there’s an easy message there about the Kingdom of God, the way that God works in the world. It may start as small as an infant born in a stable in Bethlehem, but it ends up as big as the tree of life.
Or.  The parable of the women baker, who takes three measures of flour and hides within it a little yeast and waits for it to rise. The kingdom of heaven may start small, but it raises everything around it. A rising tide lifts all boats.
This is all well and good, but parables aren’t little morality tales. They aren’t like Aesop’s fables. If there is a contemporary English word that fits, it is joke. Jesus tells jokes. Now that is an image I can get behind, Jesus as Stand Up Comedian, sitting on a stool with a microphone and a bottle of water, saying things like my favorite joke from the comedian Mitch Hedberg, “How is a stoplight the opposite of a banana? On a stoplight, red means stop, yellow means wait, and green means go, but on a banana, green means wait, yellow means go, and red means where on earth did you get that banana?”
Only Jesus tells jokes, tells parables, that mean something.   They turn our understanding of the world upside down because, of course, that is why Jesus came, to turn things upside down. It is why he says things like the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is why the prophet Isaiah says of him, a little child shall lead them. Jesus turns the world on its head, which is why I get so frustrated at politicians who hold onto a false sense of piety, as if the politically popular thing is always the faithful thing; frequently, not always, but frequently. We’ve seen this in our politics at the border of the United States, and I don’t want to get too far into it because there are complicated politics involved, but there are not complicated Christian perspectives. There is one. Children are the very first in the kingdom of God. Red, yellow, black, white, it does not matter. And if that tweaks you a little bit, good, because this is why Jesus tells parables in the first place.
The parable of the mustard seed isn’t just about how something small grows into something big. That’s the way life woks. It isn’t enough to say oh, look, the seed was small and now it is big. The parable of the mustard seed is about how the smallest seed, the most unexpected seed, has so much potential energy within it that when it sprouts, it really sprouts! It bursts forth towards the sky, and it may be small, but it is powerful!
The parable of the woman baker isn’t just about some small amount of yeast helping the bread to rise.   Three measures of flour and a little yeast, which is what Jesus says she has here, will give you enough bread to feed a hundred people! Can you imagine trying to knead that so much dough! I have to admit to being a little amused imagining this poor woman watching the dough rise and rise and rise until it is so big it is almost unmanageable!   It puts that episode of I Love Lucy with the chocolates and the conveyor belt to shame! This tiny little amount of yeast and this unbelievably huge amount of flour combine to create something bigger than the baker herself! You throw a little yeast into the mix and there’s no telling what is going to come out!
And it is a lovely scene, indeed, a woman with a mixing bowl, and I don’t know what you are imagining here in our modern world, but she doesn’t have the Fleishman’s packets and a Kitchenaid Mixer.  The way she would have collected yeast would have been by allowing an old piece of bread to rot, to mold, to stink, and then using part of that bread to stick in her flour. It’s why just about every other time yeast is mentioned in the Bible, it is talked about in negative terms, which of course it was, because it was gross. What is remarkable is not just that the woman was making so much bread, nor that the yeast was so strong, but that a) something so seemingly disgusting is used as an example for the kingdom of God, and b) that a woman is viewed in positive terms here,    because two thousand years ago, when the story was told and the words were written, it isn’t like we had the egalitarian society we have today. What Jesus is doing is turning things upside down, so that the woman, the one who would have been viewed as little more than property, is the bearer of the kingdom of God which is, in the final analysis, born of smelly, old, rotten, moldy bread. This is not exactly Hallmark material. It is probably not where you thought to look for God.
And yet this is how Jesus operates, how he has us understand the world,  that his unusual mind can come up with the story of somebody who sees a treasure in a field and who without mentioning to the seller that there’s gold in them thar hills, he goes and makes an offer I am sure the seller thought was a bit high for desert property, but at least he’d get it off the market, and the buyer digs the treasure up and keeps it for himself like a dishonest businessman, AND YET JESUS TELLS THIS STORY AS IF IT IS A GOOD THING! It is unexpected behavior, and yet as people who have come to church to catch a glimpse of the divine, it is a helpful word, for while it is good that we are in church, perhaps we ought to do some looking of our own.
The merchant, after all, did not just happen upon the pearl of great price.  He didn’t just sort of stumble on it. He went searching. He spent hours learning the craft, learning the trade, making connections with dealers, traveling all over the world looking for fine pearls. He did not just happen to come upon it. He searched. He looked. And after all that time, what he found was not a string of fine pearls. He found something much more incredible, much more unique. He found one. He found one pearl, just one, and yet quite unexpectedly it was so perfect that he sold everything he had, all of his equipment, his home, everything he had to purchase this one small, perfect pearl. The thing in this story that is unexpected to me is not that he was trained, not that he searched far and wide, not even that he sold everything he had, for when you have been searching so intently for something, you’ll do anything to achieve it. The punchline is that even with all of his training and preparation, at the end of the day, he left with one. There was only one pearl, perfectly round and ivory. He spent all of his time looking for pearls and at the end of the day, he found one.
I want to finish by sharing a recent discovery. Maybe you’ve seen it, but it is new to me. I have been enamored as of late with an ongoing photography series called, “Humans of New York.” A photographer named Brandon Stanton has taken it as his mission to take photos of everyday people in New York City, to get a little bit of their stories. And I am just taken by them, this series of everyday people who share extraordinary insights about life.
Let me share a few of these with you, because it turns out that it is true that God bursts out in the most unexpected of ways.
This man said, "She was 2 lbs 11 ounces when she was born. We named her after Amelia Earhart, in case she needed to fly away."
"I told the truth on my job application about my past drug use, and they sent me a letter saying I didn't meet their standards of integrity."
"I'm doing this internship to make my parents happy. But as soon as I graduate, I'm heading to Bollywood!"
 “The only thing people care about is if you’re working, and if you’re paying your taxes. I worked for the city for six years. During the time that I was working, I was Mr. Matthew Phillips. The moment that I wasn’t able to work anymore, I became a social security number.”
And then there’s this one. I will leave you with this one, because I can’t get it out of my head. Here is what the photographer said:
The woman in the blue coat approached me by the United Nations building yesterday, and said: 'There is an interesting man around the corner that you should photograph. I don't know his name, but everyday he stands directly across from the UN, and says 'God Bless You' to everyone who walks past. I've always sort of viewed him as the conscience of the world.'
'Let's go together,' I said, and she agreed to bring me to where he was standing. When we finally found the man, I asked for his photo, and he cheerfully agreed. But he pointed at a nearby wall:
"Let's take the photo under that scripture," he said.
It is hard to see the scripture on the screen, so let me read it. It is from the prophet Isaiah. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Every single day, this guy stands across from the United Nations and says God Bless You to every person who passes by. I’ll be honest. Most days, this kind of witness seems like a waste of time. The world is so broken, the agents of violence are so powerful, I just don’t know why you’d bother. But some days, I’m so moved by the witness of someone who would stand up against something so powerful as the governments of the world, that I’m almost moved to tears.

This is what we are after, isn’t it? A sense and taste for the divine? And if you found it, wouldn’t you do anything to hang onto it? Wouldn’t you give your very life to it? Dear God, let it be.

July 20 Sermon

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And 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?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let 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.’” 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

As I am a firm believer in proper sermon preparation, I naturally spent much of last week repotting my potted plants.  I know roughly as much about being a wheat farmer as I do about being a ballerina, so I felt like a crash-course in botany would put me in the proper parable mindset.
So last week, while it was cool and dry, I found my gardening gloves and my gardening shears and my dried-out bag of potting soil and I got to work.  I watered the begonias, brought in the caladiums, moved a gardenia that wasn’t taking so well, that sort of thing.  Nothing major—I’m more of a potted planter than a farmer—but it was nice and calming, and we could all use more nice and calming.
It’s true, you know, about the roots.  It’s not the leaves and the stalk you have to worry with.  They’ll come back; just give them a little water and some sun, and they’ll come back.  But when the roots grow together, well, you’re stuck. You can’t pull up one without pulling up the other, and it makes for a big mess, a big dirt-under-your-fingernails mess.  It means that some of the good plants will be sucked dry by the bad, and that means some of the good plants will die.
It’s a big enough mess in gardening, but imagine the implications for the church. Judgment is dangerous business.
There is an upside, though, and for all the nutrients sucked dry by the weeds, for all the time and energy we spend on those who just love to suck up the church’s time and energy like weeds in a field, the fact remains that judging is God’s job, and what a relief, because it takes a lot of pressure off of us . . . because even when we squint, we still can’t distinguish the weeds from the wheat 100% of the time.  And sure, the church is a mess, but it’s a holy mess, and we come to God with who we are and we accept everybody no matter what because we’re all just people, you know, just people who are all longing after God.
It is one reason I am so fond of this parable. I do not like judgment. It’s God’s job, not mine, and I’ve seen so much foolishness happen in the name of maintaining holiness, of judging others, that I just don’t have time for it. And this parable reminds us that it is God’s job to judge, not mine, and thank goodness, because that’s a lot of pressure.
            It seems simple enough, but somewhere down the line, the church missed this parable, got down on its hands and knees and started weeding.  And it stings, you know, it stings for some of us, some more than others, because we’ve been called weeds before; we’ve been told that because of who we are or what we’ve done, we don’t belong in church.
            You may have heard me tell the story of the church that was booming back in the late 60’s, full of young people, people who didn’t really fit anywhere else, but that was ok because it was the church’s vibe, that it was a place where people who didn’t fit could go and feel like it was ok not to fit.
And so those are the kind of people who went to that church, girls with short hair and boys on motorcycles, and it was great, great for everybody, until one Sunday, when it came to the pastor’s attention that one of the girls with short hair had returned after several months away, and she had brought her newborn child.  If she had been married, of course, the whole church would have cooed at the child, would’ve told mom just how much the baby looked like her, but since she wasn’t married, there was none of that.
Don’t you know that they marched her right up the center aisle during worship that Sunday, they stood her in the front of the church, and they had a vote right then and there as to whether someone who gave such a bad name to the church, whether that kind of person belonged there.
And who cares whether they voted to keep her or to reject her, because no matter how they voted the verdict was passed the moment they made her walk up the aisle.  Of course, they were just doing their job, she had upset the holiness of God’s church and something just had to be done about it!, but, you know, they broke right in two, the congregation and the town and that poor young woman broke right in two.
            You pull the weeds and the wheat comes up with it, and soon, there’s nothing left for the bread.
We recently passed the 50th anniviersaty of the Civil Rights Act, so this morning I am remembering the Little Rock Nine, those nine brave African-American high school students braved crowds, guns, and worse to enroll in and integrate Little Rock Central High School.  For days, the nine students stared down an angry white mob, over a thousand strong.  Brown vs. Board of Education had been decided three years prior, but the law means little when you’ve got a thousand angry faces growling at you.
            And if the mob weren’t enough, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the ten-thousand-strong Arkansas National Guard to block the students’ entrance to the school.  Each day, for three weeks, the students watched armed men block their entrance into the school.  Nine teenagers against ten thousand soldiers.  It sounds ludicrous now, and it should, but that’s how it was, nine against ten thousand!
            Those nine ended up being awfully successful, and I don’t know what happened to those ten thousand, but I do know about Orval Faubus, the governor, who ordered the National Guard to block the school.  Now, part of me wishes that he’d been despised for what he did; I wish he’d been seen as the sanctimonious opportunist that he was, but he got reelected four times after the Little Rock fiasco.  In fact, Gallup did a poll in 1958, and it turns out that Orval Faubus was one of the ten people in the entire world who Americans admired most.  In the world.
            And now, fifty years later, the tables have turned; we can celebrate those brave nine.  We know their names and their stories, know that they were and are nine strong stalks of wheat in the face of ten thousand who thought otherwise.
            Thank goodness for time, because it seems that in the heat of the moment, we jump right into judgmentalism, into closedmindedness.
            But there’s good news in Jesus’s parable for those who just listen!  The celebrated preacher James Forbes calls this little parable “the best kept secret in the Bible;” he says, “let’s don’t do any prejudging and start the hellfire prematurely.  Let’s leave it up to the Lord!”
            Now, I quite like that.  That’s the kind of theology I want to hear in the church.  There’s no room for judges who play God, because when the roots are tangled, pulling weeds is Russian Roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before all the roots come up and what used to be fertile ground falls to pieces, just falls to pieces.
            And that’s what Jesus is up to here.  The disciples are worried about what to do with weeds in their midst, bad folks, maybe, or at least, people they don’t know quite what to do with.  The tendency, you know, is to just get rid of them, not worry with them.  The disciples figure—and it makes sense, you know—that if Jesus brings a new way, you know, it must be out with the old and in with the new.
            But then Jesus tells a story.  The kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who sows good wheat in the field, but in the night, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat.  You’d think he’d notice, the farmer.  But it takes a while for things to grow.  You can’t just sow seed and wake up and it’s full-grown; you have to wait.  And the enemy has sown a particularly mischievous weed—it still grows in Jesus’s parts today, and they still call it “false wheat” in some places because you can’t tell that it’s not wheat until it’s almost full-grown.  And by that point, you’re stuck with the dirt-under-your-fingernails mess, because the roots have tangled, and the weed holds on to the wheat like a vice.  You can’t pull the weeds without pulling the wheat, so you’re stuck.  And the farmer tells his farmhands to leave the field be, and that come harvest time, he’ll call in the professionals because the farmhands just aren’t cut out for the job.
            Well, granted, it’s a complicated story, so the disciples ask Jesus just what it means.  Let me quote him because I don’t want to get this wrong.
            Jesus answers, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”
            Normally, you know, I run away from judgment stories, and I don’t really like talking about the devil.  But I’m willing to make an exception for this one, because it’s nobody’s job but God’s to handle the judgment.  And though Jesus is bringing something altogether new, the message is not so much out with the old and in with the new as it is “don’t kick out the old, but prepare for the new,” because you never know just who you’re kicking out.
            It wasn’t easy for the disciples to live into that story, and it’s not easy for us.  No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much we work for it, it seems like judgmental people are so tangled with us, it is hard to tell where the wheat ends and the weed begins.
Why, I heard once of a church who had to deal with a person who was homeless and lived in the woods outside the church. And because he didn’t have a place to shower, he came smelling like he lived in the woods, and folks were polite enough, but it got to be pretty significant, and some folks started to complain.
            Well, this man went to the pastor and announced his intention to join the church.  This is the place for me, he said.  I like the preaching, the choir sounds nice, the communion bread tastes good, I want to join. And she said—the pastor said—I’d like to let you in, really I would, but let me talk to the church, you know, because this is not quite as easy as just saying the vows.
            You know what?  The pastor called a big meeting.  The man who was homeless wasn’t there, of course, because that would have just been awkward, and we don’t do so well with awkward in the church.  But everybody else showed up and packed the sanctuary so full that someone brought cheese and crackers for everybody and put them in the next room.
            Oh, it was long and ugly.  Its just not church business unless it’s long and ugly; you know that.  The pastor got up to speak, and I wasn’t there but I imagine that she said something about it being a difficult situation, and how people were going to disagree, and how it was all right to have strong opinions, how they would make the proper concessions in light of the situation, but it was the right thing to do.  You’ve said this stuff before, maybe not in such circumstances, but you know what she said.  She might’ve read the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.  It applies pretty well, I think.
            And when the pastor was done, well, preaching, really, she sat down and people came up to the microphone, one by one, and you’ve never heard such hate come from people’s mouths.  I mean, never.  The people who wanted to accept the man were called reckless.  The people who didn’t want to accept the man were called judgmental.  And so it went, and worse, for hours.
            Well, after it all, after several hours of side-ways glances and under-the-breath comments, and with the cheese and crackers left untouched, they had a vote.  And you know what they voted, don’t you?
            Naturally, they voted to let the homeless man into the congregation, and they voted to kick all the judgmental folks straight to the curb, out of the church, where they didn’t really have much to be judgmental about.  And the church was happy, you see, because they were setting a model of a perfect, loving church for all to see.  And people came from miles around just to see the happy, progressive, open-minded church that let in the man who was homeless, that didn’t judge him one bit because all the judgmental folks were gone, because, everybody knows, there is no room in God’s church for judgmental folks.

            All right, maybe that’s not quite how it all ended, but do you feel as I do? They didn’t kick out all the judgmental folks, but is there a small part of you, deep down in your tangled roots, that wishes they had?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Towards a millennial ecclesiology

I am at Georgia Pastors' School this week learning from Mark Beeson and Marcia McFee, and it has been fascinating to hear from such divergent understandings of what it means to be church. I will dive more deeply into this idea in the future, but the whole conversation about worship and evangelism makes me think that the Church hasn't yet figured out how to talk about what church looks like for millennials. Maybe this is because millennials are just now entering church leadership, but as I have picked up some good stuff from both Beeson and McFee this week, I am realizing that my understanding of church doesn't match what I am hearing. To (briefly) explain, let me contrast two prevailing ecclesiologies I've encountered.

1. Church as Holy Rotary. This is a caricature, perhaps, but there is an ethos among a certain generation that came of age in the church when there was a certain status to church membership. You cared for the building out of respect and obligation. Membership was important, as was tradition. It's been pretty well acknowledged that this ethos is dying, but it clearly exists in churches with a significant population of older adults. I will say that I respect this position a lot, as it calls us to an institutional life that is stabilizing, larger than our own individual needs, and concerned with coming together to do the work of Jesus.

2. Church as School for Sinners. In this model, pioneered by many innovative baby boomers, church is de-institutionalized and centered on teaching the faith. You see lots of preaching series as faith topics are explained and expanded. The prevailing ethos is that the act of worship is about praise and learning. Many boomer pastors have been quite successful at this model of church by focusing on what they are after (hence the "seeker church" phenomenon) and making the vision be the driving force. As Beeson said today, "the pastor has to choose who to lose." By focusing on one core vision, those who don't buy in are invited to find someplace else to worship. The vision is the most important thing, and practices and (even) theology are centered on that vision.

Again, there is much to respect in this understanding of church. Vision is a core Biblical theme, and God's vision is what we're after, of course. And the Boomer corrective to the previous generation's paradigm is important, too, as the church building is only important as it relates to the mission and work of the church. But in the interest of de-institutionalizing the church, this School for Sinners model places so much emphasis on a singular vision that the congregation, by definition, ends up being pretty homogeneous: if not in socioeconomic/racial status, then at least theologically.

This leads me to something I am seeing more as a millennial in ministry (and something that is attractive to me about the awesome church I serve). While I do not believe pastors ought to bend over backwards to make everybody happy (and thus become, in the words of Will Willimon, a quivering mass of availability), there is something about the "choose who to lose" philosophy that feels problematic. Worse than that, it seems boring.

I serve a church with all sorts of people. We've got conservatives who are angry about almost everything and liberals who barely believe anything. We've got white folks and black folks, young folks and old folks, refugees and native-born Americans, gay folks and straight folks (including straight folks who are affirming of LGBT folks and those who most decidedly are not). We've got plenty of old folks, but we're growing most quickly with 20-somethings who love the diversity they see.  And we are growing. In the last year we've seen a 80-90% increase in worship attendance.

These folks are ATTRACTED by the diversity, not DISTRACTED by it. As a pastor, I can affirm that a church in which I invited those who disagreed with me to leave would be way easier to lead than a church with many different viewpoints. But my vision of the church is just that: that the diversity present in the congregation gives us a clearer picture of the face of God. In fact, just this week we got a fist-time visitor's survey back that said the following:

"I was pleasantly amazed. I come from a small town in GA where churches are still segregated. I felt such comfort. I never experienced anything like it before. I was not an African-American, I was just a child of God with other children of God."

I'm still working this ecclesiology out in my head. I am sure it has its problems, but if this is the kind of response we are getting, we're doing something right. I will acknowledge that it is not the most efficient vision of the church. But the kingdom of God is about faithfulness, not efficiency, and if North Decatur UMC is any guide, diversity and growth are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cracks in the Sidewalk (A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.9Let anyone with ears listen!” 18“Hear then the parable of the sower.19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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. 22As 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. 23But 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.”

(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
The scripture lesson this morning is one of the most popular stories in all of the Bible. Jesus tells a parable, a short story of a farmer who goes out with a satchel full of seeds and scatters them all around. Some of the ground is covered up with a path, so the seed gets eaten up by birds. Some of the ground is rocky, so the seeds sprout and are scorched.  Some of the ground is thorny, so the seeds are choked out and die. And some of the ground is good soil, so the seeds grow and thrive and produce, thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. And the point is that you should be good soil for the seeds of faith so that they grow and thrive and produce in you.

None of this is earth-shattering news, so let’s get past the surface level and call a spade a spade. We know this story as the parable of the sower. I’d call it the story of the terrible farmer. I mean, this guy is SO wasteful! He takes handfuls and throws them everywhere, which is a terrible way to farm. I’m a little bit of an amateur gardener, and even I know that you don’t just throw seeds everywhere. First you find the good soil and THEN you put the seeds in the ground. You don’t throw the seed all willy-nilly all over the place. That’s a waste of perfectly good seeds. A farmer who threw his seeds around like that would be out of business in a year, his family starving while the birds ate their fill.

And maybe this is a terrible way to farm, but I will be honest that as a Christian, as somebody who is just trying to follow Jesus, this story resonates with me. It’s not as easy as finding the good soil and then planting your seeds. These days, it seems that the good soil is awfully hard to find, and it is no surprise. You turn on the television and see kids, ten deep, piled up at the border. Children! If you live to be a thousand years old, will you ever understand that sort of thing? It can be enough to make you throw up your hands and let the seeds go where they may. Or you hear about increased violence in the West Bank, as Israel and Palestine race to see who can be the first to completely annihilate the other. Or you read about Syria, or Egypt, or this famine, or that violence, and you try to figure out how to raise your kids in this mess, and you almost want to just give up. The good soil is awfully hard to find, which is one reason we come to church, to this particular garden on this particular corner.

This isn’t to suggest that we have it all together, church, that we’ve got it figured out while the rest of the world is screwed up. I hope this isn’t too offensive to you, but I’ve met some of the most screwed up people I’ve ever met inside the doors of the church, which is exactly right because what we are is not a high horse but rather a hospital for sinners. We’re supposed to be people who acknowledge our own brokenness, who know that we aren’t good enough on our own, that we can’t save ourselves. That’s why we’re here, because we need Jesus, because we’ve encountered a love so much larger than ourselves that we can’t pretend we haven’t seen it.

And yet. And yet when we try to share that love in specific ways, when we try to invite people to church, or to tell them about Jesus, well, you may have had some of these conversations. You know how it goes. Oh, we’re not really church people. We are so busy we like to spend Sunday mornings together as a family; I am sure God understands. Church is just so judgmental; why would I bother with it? Or you know, I see God in the trees and the sunsets. My church is outdoors.

Do any of these ring bells? Have you heard them before? I have heard all of them, as I have had conversations with folks. It is funny. My wife, Stacey, is also a pastor as you know, and we have this game we play sometimes at cocktail parties, where we get in a conversation with somebody and when it is time to exit the conversation, one of us will say to the person we’re talking to, “So what do you do for a living?” and they will tell us that they are lawyers, or teachers, or whatever, and then they will inevitably ask us the same question, and then at the end of the night Stacey and I compare notes to see how quickly people high-tail it from the conversation when we tell them that we are pastors. It works every time! They’ll either sort of say, “Oh,” and then walk away slowly, or they will stammer something about needing to go back to church and then walk away in shame. It happens without fail. The good soil is awfully hard to find.

And I wish it weren’t so, but so much of the fact that it can be so hard to find the good soil is because the earth has been scorched by the church. If we were all as gracious as we’re supposed to be, as generous as we’re supposed to be, as kind and loving and open-minded and all the rest, I’d venture to say we would have more luck finding places to sow seeds. And this isn’t fair, because around here, we really are those things, I think, at least as much as people who have checked into a hospital for sinners can be, but that’s the world. It’s the way it is, for we live in a world with televangelists and sexual misconduct among the clergy and flashy displays of power by the church, and fair or not, this is the ground we’ve been given to plant. The soil is thorny with those who seek to do us harm. It is rocky with religious baggage. It’s been covered up by the well-worn paths of those who have walked away from the faith, deciding it’s just worth it anymore.

The worst part is that I wish these folks who look down on the church could see North Decatur United Methodist Church! I wish they could see Jesus at work in a church that has people who are rich, people who are poor, people who are black and white and gay and straight and young and old, people who are so conservative they are mad about almost everything, so liberal they barely believe anything, and everything in between! I wish they could see this: you! But it usually does not get that far, because the good soil is hard to find.

And yet the parable doesn’t say “a sower saw that some of the ground was rocky, and some was thorny, and some was shallow, so he decided to limit his efforts to the good soil, wherever that was.” It says, “a sower sowed seed, and he sowed it in all of these places.” Maybe he was a bad farmer, but it turns out that he was a pretty good Christian.

I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but I have been in church settings where people have said, “we don’t need to reach out to those people. They’d never come to church.” I mean, says who? Who gets to decide that sort of thing? The sower sows where he will, and some of the seed lands on fertile ground.
This is all well and good, but those of us who have invited people to church know that it can be a demoralizing experience, for we’re much more likely to discover that the ground on which we’ve planted our hard earned seeds is not the fertile ground for which we’d hoped. It can be embarrassing to discover that what you thought was miracle grow was in fact concrete, hard as a rock and no place to grow crops. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of busing up concrete with a sledgehammer, but if the concrete cracks, and it gives, it is hard enough, but if you swing the hammer and it doesn’t crack, you feel it in your teeth. You feel it in your toes. And this can be what it feels like to open yourself up to share the deepest things in your heart, your love for God, the amazing community you’ve found by being part of the church, and then to learn that it turns out you’ve thrown seed on the path, where it will get eaten by birds. You feel it in your teeth.

And yet. Someone, somewhere along the way, must have taken a chance on you. Somebody—a parent, a friend, a stranger even—must have been willing to take a chance, to open up, to swing at the concrete on the off chance that maybe, maybe this time it will take. Maybe this time, I will have discovered fertile ground.

Somebody, somewhere along the way, must have thought that even though the good soil can be hard to find, even though the paths of those who have left the church are well-worn, there are sometimes cracks in the sidewalk. And sometimes, cracks in the sidewalk are wide enough, deep enough for seeds to sprout. We may not be surrounded by farmland, but there are enough cracks in the sidewalk around this church, around our lives that if we are willing to plant even where it seems hopeless, some seeds will take root and the Kingdom of God will sprout from the most unexpected places, which keeps things interesting after all.

I will acknowledge that it takes a lot of faith to do this work. More seeds get eaten by birds and choked out by thorns than take root. And it’s awfully easy to become jaded, to say, oh, it’s just not worth it, the world just doesn’t care and I am so tired of spinning my wheels. As a pastor, I see it all the time, and I find it to be among the saddest things I know, to watch someone who buys into this love thing we talk so much about lose hope in a difficult world.

And that’s why what we are doing here, in this place, is so important. It is why I am so pleased we are a diverse church, and why we need to become even more so, I think, for it is the case that if the church is the body of Christ, the more diverse the congregation, the fuller the picture of the face of God. It’s why what we are doing here on this corner matters so much, for it is not a game, but rather deadly important, for we are a witness that all people, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white, sinner, saint: all people are children of God. And I don’t know of anything more hopeful than a baptism, than a claiming of a child by God, a child who isn’t even old enough to choose for himself, which is the point, because you don’t achieve grace; you receive grace. It’s hope that baptizes that child. It’s hope that sends him out into a difficult world to be an agent of love. It’s hope that helps him grow, that serves as wise counsel and a holy example. It’s hope that sends him out with a satchel and seeds and says go plant in the name of Jesus Christ, not where you think respectable society wants you to plant, but all over, because even the hardest concrete cracks, and in those cracks grows the kingdom of God: bearing fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold.

After all, this is who we are as children of God, broken like busted-up concrete, recognizing that we can’t do this by ourselves, acknowledging the incredible power of love, love that takes root in the cracks in our souls and pushes up toward the sky. This is who we are as God’s beloved, sowers of God’s love in the world and proof that even when it seems like the earth is scorched, God is at work. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 7, 2014

July 6 Sermon

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 11:28-30
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Oh, what sweet words those are and how prone we are not to believe them. Those of us in the church spend so much time trying to make Christianity harder than it is, trying to earn God’s favor, working our fingers to the bone in order to achieve God’s grace. What a strange problem this is for those of us who live in the world today: to feel like we’ve got to earn God’s love. Of course, this is not how love works, so why do we feel like we have to work and work and work, give more and give more, desperately wanting approval from the God who created us and who wants to save us? We spend so much energy trying to achieve grace rather than allowing ourselves to receive grace!
Now, this is just my opinion, but I think a big part of the reason we spend so much time trying to achieve God’s favor is that it can be hard to tell the difference between those who want to achieve grace and those who want to receive grace. You probably assume everybody else is doing whatever it is that you are doing.
For example. If you want to achieve grace, you’ll likely throw a little more money than usual in the offering place, hoping that God will bless you and give you that which you seek. But if you want to receive grace, well, you probably do the same thing out of gratitude for the gift of grace you’ve been given. Now, if you look at the giving statements of these two people, they will look the same. But if you look at the heart of each of these people, you’ll see a distinct difference. The one who thinks that grace is something that we’re supposed to achieve doesn’t sleep well, has trouble being satisfied, never feels good enough. And the one who understands that God’s grace can only be received, that there’s nothing we can do to achieve it, that person has a deep peace. That doesn’t mean there’s never trouble. It doesn’t mean that the life of faith isn’t difficult. Quite the contrary: we follow a savior, remember, who was crucified for his sins. But peace doesn’t mean that we never have hardship. It means we understand there’s a grounding deeper than whatever is happening to us right this moment. It means we aren’t held hostage by the immediate, but given freedom by our ultimate trust in God.
It seems to me that as I survey the state of Christianity in the world, and in particularly the United States of America, there are a lot more people trying to achieve grace than who are willing to receive it, and that’s not a huge surprise. Trying to achieve grace is a lot easier than being willing to receive it, even if it is never successful, because being willing to receive grace involves admitting that you, with your gifts and talents and expertise, you are not good enough. You can try and try and try and you’ll never reach the heights of achieving the acceptance you are looking for. To receive grace is to admit that we’re each broken, broken by our pasts and our sins and our ultimate trust in ourselves above all else, and to allow God to fill those broken places. You can’t achieve that kind of healing, that kind of wholeness. You can only receive it.
Now, there’s a danger for the church here, and I’m just as susceptible to it as anybody. You come to church, week after week, and you hear sermons about what you need to do better, or what God expects of you, or how to be a good Christian, and it’s subversive, that kind of message, because while it is true we ought to all be better Christians, while it is true that we have work to do in the interest of following Jesus, it is also true that none of these things will help you achieve grace. Grace is a gift. You can’t earn it. You have to receive it.
So even though sometimes it can seem like the church wants you to earn it, because the pastor keeps saying you need to follow Jesus ever more closely, the fact of the matter is that you can’t earn grace. It’s free. This is what Jesus means when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. A yoke, of course, is the thing you put over the neck of oxen to bind them together and keep their heads down. And Jesus is clear that while there are limits to the Christian life—we are certainly bound together by it—the yoke is easy. It doesn’t keep our heads down; it lets us raise them, in fact. Our burden is light. You need not walk around like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders. Jesus already took care of that burden for you. He offers grace to everyone, for each person—even you!—is a child of God.
You can’t earn grace, for in our United Methodist tradition we believe that it goes before us pulling us towards God even before we know who God is. Maybe it is grace that drew you here this morning. I don’t know. But it is an incredible gift, grace, and as you have heard me say, I refuse to lead with grace, as if it’s the most important among other things. I think leading with grace isn’t a strong enough witness to the power of grace. Grace is all there is. It’s the way God interacts with us, and yes, there are expectations, but don’t let those expectations trick you into thinking you can earn grace. Grace isn’t karma. It’s different. As Thomas Merton, that great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century has said, grace is “God’s own life, shared with us.” John Wesley, the founder of our rich theological heritage as United Methodists, talks about grace as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” You don’t achieve it. You receive it.
This can be hard to understand in a world and an economic system centered on earing your keep, of getting what you deserve, of achieving greatness. But it is the fundamental promise of the entire Bible that God loves you and there’s nothing you have ever done or nothing you could ever do to fully deserve that love. That’s grace, that gift of love.
And I will admit something as your pastor. I struggle with this kind of thing just as much as the next person. I like to excel. I am pretty good at it, in fact, and it turns out that my own sense of self-worth is pretty largely predicated upon the things that I do well. And maybe this resonates with you as a church that does mission really well, that takes seriously God’s call to serve the poor, but I think that if I am honest, I have to admit that even my serving in God’s name is sometimes influenced by my own need to excel, to earn God’s favor, to achieve God’s grace rather than to receive God’s grace.
You have probably heard me talk about some of the mission trips I’ve had the chance to participate in. I spent three years on staff at United Methodist Volunteers in Mission so I’ve had the opportunity to serve in some pretty remarkable places. Come down to my office some time and I will show you some of my relics from those trips, batiq paintings from Mozambique, a coal-dust nativity set from Kentucky, some wood crafts from Cuba. But the most meaningful thing I’ve ever brought back from one of my mission trips was something I did not buy. In fact, if I’d been given the chance to buy it, I never would have. Let me explain.
Stacey and I led a mission trip to Uganda in 2012, I think it was. We were working with a school for kids whose families had been affected by HIV and AIDS, the Humble school, which is a great name. I wonder what it would be like to serve the Humble church. We could do worse than that.
But we were there to work with the school, to teach the kids a little bit, and to do some work on a dormitory for the girls who were a part of that school, putting up some bricks, doing some light construction in the hot African sun.
I will admit to you that I had a little bit of an ulterior motive. As somebody who has been involved in denominational mission efforts, I wanted to make sure to use the trip to teach the people who were with us about the importance of mission, to sort of whet their whistle on the work of loving God by loving people. Maybe this is a little shocking, I don’t know, but some people sign up for these trips just because they want an adventure, so you have to sneak in a little relationship work, a little teaching about the importance of serving God’s people. And I’ve seen it as a big part of my calling to ministry, and especially my job as the head of that team, to teach people about mission, to excel, to have a great team who would go back and, because of my work, you know, change the world or whatever.
We had a good trip, and people were starting to open up about the things they were experiencing, and I started to feel pretty good about myself. I was thinking, you know, great, this is what I wanted, to bring these people here and to have them experience God in a new way. I’m thinking, I’m something else. I’m pretty good at this. In fact, I had the added pleasure of sharing something with one of the Ugandan pastors we were working with. I had this little pocket book of worship I’d picked up at the denominational bookstore for 8 or 9 dollars or something insignificant. I use it for funerals and weddings and the like, and I had it with me to use during our evening team devotionals. And the Ugandan pastor we were working with saw me reading it one day and his eyes got really big and he told me that the thing he’d always wanted was a United Methodist Book of Worship. I guess I should mention here that he wasn’t just any pastor. He was a district superintendent, and his district was the Sudan. Not, you know, this little stretch of the Sudan, or that swath of Sudan, but Sudan. The whole thing. This guy has almost nothing—his family is two countries away and he’s been wearing the same clergy shirt every day with a rip in the chest, and I figured, you know, this thing cost me 8 or 9 dollars, so I gave it to him and felt awfully good about myself, having given this great gift that he’d always wanted.
Well, it was the very last day of the trip, and as a sort of treat for the team, we went to Victoria Falls, which is the start of the Nile River, and then we drove to a little African zoo, which wasn’t as exciting as a safari but still pretty amusing, especially when a monkey stole the sunglasses off the head of one of our team members. And at the end of the day, we were standing around just at the inside of the zoo, where there was a little stand where a guy sold little trinkets, sort of a miniature flea market, with some fruit, and some housewares and the like. And I saw the District Superintendent walk over the stand and exchange a little money, and I sort of wonder where he got the money to engage this guy, but I figure he’s getting a snack or whatever.
Well, we get back to the bus and are headed to the airport to head back to Atlanta, and we’re sweaty, and dirty, and we smell like a fraternity house after a long weekend, and the district superintendent sits down next to me and pulls out a plastic bag and hands it to me. And I ask him, what is this? And he says, “It is a presentation.” It took me a minute to realize that he meant he’d given me a gift, and I open it, and I pull out the kindest thing I’ve ever received. It was a Nike watch, and it didn’t work, but that didn’t matter. If that thing could have run on love it’d be running an hour fast. I would have never, never bought that watch, but then, I really couldn’t have, for the power was in the giving, in the gift, in the sacrifice.

You know, I could work my entire life and never make enough money to buy that kind of love, to achieve that kind of grace. But having received it, I can’t shake the feeling that it is incumbent on me to share it with everybody I meet. Amen.