29 October 2017: A Final Sermon on Loving God and Others with a Strong Back, Soft Front, and Wild Heart

29 October 2017: Pentecost 21people-holding-hands-sunset
Matthew 22.34-46

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, ” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 “The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ‘? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Dear People of God at Intercession,

The time has come for us to say goodbye. Today we recognize and name that the relationship we began just about three years ago as priest-in-charge and congregation is now ending. And today we celebrate the process we worked through together. It feels important to say again that although the process did not lead in the direction some of us anticipated or hoped for at the beginning, the process did, ultimately, work. We have come to a greater understanding of who we are as a congregation and what God is calling us to be and do.

When I first arrived at Intercession in February 2015 you spoke openly of your fears about closing and your frustrations to find yourself in this place. Many of you were tired. Some of you were resentful, confused, frustrated.

A frequent description I heard of life in this congregation was that you felt disconnected. You talked about how those who worshiped at 8 didn’t know those who worshiped at 10:30 and vice versa, and that the gap between morning service people and the 1pm service community was even larger due to language and culture. You lamented the lack of connection between these three ‘congregations’ and longed for more opportunity to be together.

When it came to ministry that was happening, I heard words like ‘fiefdom’ and ‘silo’ – a sure sign of being in survival mode. Many of you had assumed leadership or taken responsibility for a particular task, and yet communication channels were not strong. It was unclear who, or what, was the central operating focus. Fatigue took over. Too many people worked alone. And any notion of all the parts working together for the sake of the larger whole got lost as people worked to simply keep things going.

But then, we gathered that summer to tell stories of this congregation. Energy emerged. Connections were made and people heard things they had not known before. We continued the Story Telling Project in the fall as you shared your own stories of faith during worship. Again energy. Again connections were made. Along the way, a tentative hope emerged from the persistent faithfulness of you, the people of God at Intercession. I began to see a glimpse of the body of Christ in this place.

As time went on we explored ways to strengthen our connections. Along the way we learned that the English-speaking people are energized by bilingual worship and the Spanish-speaking people crave worshipping in Spanish. We learned that Sunday is the day most of us are available to be together and yet not all of us are available at the same time. We have done more to make announcements and congregational faith formation events available in both languages. We have combined our two English language worship services into one. We worked to lift up ministries like the Community of Hope dinner and garden and Footprints, as expressions of who Intercession is as a congregation. We built ministry teams of more than one person. Last fall we began All Team Night, so that teams can do their work alongside the work of other teams and at times, work together. We haven’t figured it all out but we ARE more connected that we were three years ago. The Spirit of God is moving among us and evidence of her work is everywhere.

And yet, honestly, to me, things feel not quite done. I wish that things were more neatly tied up with a pretty bow on top, but that is not the nature of life together in community. We never fully ‘arrive.’ We are people who are always on the way. Always looking ahead to what is yet to be. Always becoming.

Which is why I smiled when I read the gospel for today. This reminder of the greatest commandment is the perfect bridge between the ending of one chapter and the step into the unknown future: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

When we hear these words we usually think first of our personal life – loving God with my whole heart and soul and mind. Which is why it is good to remember that this commandment was first given to God’s people – a whole community of people – learning, while they wandered in the desert, what it looks like to together follow God through thick and thin. This commandment reminded the people how they were to live.

Today this commandment reminds us that our fundamental call as humans is to love God with our whole selves, with every fiber of our beings. It also reminds us that we love God most fully in community. As a body. As THE body, of Christ, in the world.

And so, permit me one more word. One more admonition as you continue on the way, loving God with your whole selves: adopt a corporate posture known as strong back, soft front.

A strong back comes from a strong core. A core built up over time through exercise and practice. Your communal core will be built in worship, and formation. In fellowship, and corporate prayer. In song and silence, and meals shared around this table. To increase your corporate strong back you will need more, not less, of these exercises. And through them, your connection to God and one another will be strengthened, allowing you to stand tall as the body of Christ in the place. Stand tall and be seen for who and whose you are – beloved of God.

As your strong back pulls you up, your tired, slumped shoulders straighten, and your soft front is more exposed. This is your place of vulnerability and vulnerability is essential to corporate life. Vulnerability allows us to recognize and express gratitude. To see that all is gift given from God. Vulnerability is what allows us to express love. Think of Jesus on the cross – there is no more vulnerable posture and no posture more fully reveals the depth of love. Your communal soft front will make you approachable and welcoming as gratitude and love lead the way.

But there is one more piece to this posture: wild heart. You see, when your posture is strong back, soft front, you lead with your heart. It can be a little scary to put your corporate heart out front and center, and yet your heart IS your center. Your wild corporate heart beats to the rhythm of prayer and is nourished with the Spirit of God flowing in you. Your corporate heart is wild because it is animated by the love of God, a love larger and deeper and more gracious than any love we can muster on our own. Your corporate heart dares to do what others see as foolish trusting that the God who brought us together as one body will accompany into darkness, death, despair, bringing light and life and healing.

Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.
You are the body of Christ.
Live like it.

I will hold you in my prayers and covet knowing that you hold me in prayer as well.

In gratitude for you and with thanks to God.

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24 September 2017: If Life Were Fair …

24 September 2017: Pentecost 16Vineyard workers
Matthew 20.1-16, Exodus 16.2-15

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

One of my dad’s many sayings when I was growing up went like this:
If life were fair, the earth would be square, plains in Tibet, and the Sahara wet.

There is a second stanza I can never remember but for the fact that it includes boche balls and atom bombs. Anyway, the point is clear enough in stanza one: life isn’t fair. And in fact, fairness is not the point, goal, or intent of life.

Which is interesting given how often we are focused on fairness as a measure of life. Children are willing to talk more openly about what is or isn’t fair, but if we are honest, we adults have our fairness measuring sticks that come out every time we compare our experience to another. The topic doesn’t matter – health and wellbeing, financial security, job status, leisure time or travel, marital or relationship status, expectation of what we thought we would be doing or being at this point in life – comparison leads to feelings, expressed or not, recognized or not, of the fairness or lack thereof of life.

This reading from Exodus is one of my favorite complaint stories. Here they are, the people of God recently freed from generations of slavery. Released from a life in which every detail – what they ate, where they lived, how many bricks they made or moved each day, whether or not their first-born child lived – every detail was determined by someone who only valued them for their labor. Now, these same people are free. They are with their families, in the wide-open space of a land not ruled by a power-hungry Pharoah, no one telling them what to do and how.

And yet, this freedom is unsettling, uncomfortable, uncertain. The people aren’t at all sure that Moses and his brother Aaron really have want it takes to lead. Sure, Moses got them out of Egypt, but getting them out and now leading through the wilderness – that’s two completely different skill sets. And so the people begin to grumble and complain: If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.

If only we had died in Egypt? Fill of bread? How quickly they have forgotten.

Comparing life wandering the wilderness to lives of slavery in Egypt is absurd: This isn’t fair. All we do is walk all day. We aren’t even building anything. We don’t know where we are going, and our leader gets his directions from God, like that’s reliable. In the end, all their complaining yields is the same food day after day, and stubborn, rigid hearts, a point which becomes clear later when Moses complains to God about the stiff-necked people given into his care.

If life were fair …

Then there is the gospel parable. If life were fair in this story then of course those who had worked longer would be paid more even though they had agreed to a fair wage before beginning their work day. They would be paid more because, in comparison to those who had worked less than a full day yet were paid a full day’s wages, those who worked the full day deserved more. That’s only fair. Then again, if life were fair, everyone who wanted work would have work; they wouldn’t be waiting late in the day for someone to hire them. Better yet, if life were fair, there would be no need for people to stand in the marketplace waiting for someone to hire them. There would be no landowner and land laborer. There would be no power dynamics or economic disparity or drive to take what you can get.

Clearly, life isn’t fair.

Now, we can spend time digging deep to understand the details of the economic reality of the day, details that deepen the meanings of this parable. Details like a denariis being the equivalent of a living wage, enough to support a family for a day. With this detail we know that the landowner is fair in his bargaining with the workers before they agree to the days work. Or we can take note that what is translated ‘idle’ may be more accurately understood as unemployed, removing the negative connotation of workers who only appear in the marketplace toward the end of the day because they are lazy, when in fact, they might have been there all along and simply not seen by the landowner on his first visits to the market. Those are important pieces of the context but they are the whole story. They don’t reveal, as we have been talking about in faith formation class, why Jesus told this story, and why Matthew included this story in his gospel.

I suspect that most of us keep some kind of tally sheet, largely unconscious, that keeps track of what has been fair or not in life, who has received more, when we have been cheated, who has it better than we do, where we have had to work harder than another to get or prove or be something … It pops up every now and then, mostly when we feel we have been unfairly deprived of an opportunity or recognition. It’s exhausting to keep this fairness list up to date. It makes we wonder why we bother.

Here’s the thing. Jesus didn’t tell this parable to point out what we already know to be true, that life is unfair. In fact, I don’t think Jesus is particularly interested in fair at all. Jesus is interested in two other things – namely, the kingdom of heaven, which defies easy explanation, thus another parable describing what the kingdom of heaven is like. The second thing this parable makes clear is that Jesus is interested in justice, and in particular, God’s justice.

The kingdom of heaven and justice. Justice is not fairness. Justice is making things right. Right according to God’s way of being. Which, to be fair, is not completely aligned with what we think is right. Making things right from God’s perspective looks like the landowner paying the workers a living wage for the day regardless of how long they worked, because at the end of the day, they need to feed their family. Justice, making things right from God’s perspective, looks like loving us no matter what because as God’s beloved we are worthy of divine love. Justice means that no matter how many times I mess up, fail to live up to being the person I expect of myself or God hopes for me, that God will forgive me even when I forget to forgive myself, so that I can try again. God’s justice looks like NOT keeping a list of comparisons, NOT checking off and measuring out, but loving because God can’t help but love. Because love is who God is. In fact, according to this parable, God’s justice looks a lot like grace – freely given because of who God is not who we are.

Now, to be fair (see what I did there?), this is almost more than we can handle. Such good news certainly needs a ‘but’ or two added, right? Certainly God can’t be THIS generous. And what about that fairness list anyway … doesn’t SOME one need to be tracking things?

The short answer is no. And it is an answer given today, as it is every week at the meal we share. Justice made real in bread and wine. Christ’s body freely given for us that we might know we are right with God. Not because of what we have done or not done, said or not said, whether we arrived first thing or late in the game, but because God can’t help but love us. Kingdom of heaven justice, rightness with God, made tangible in bread and wine.

And yes, sometimes it means that the first will be last and the last will be first. No matter. For God holds all in God’s amazing and just love.

20 August 2017: Meeting Mercy

20 August 2017: Pentecost 11/Proper 15
Matthew 15.21-28Canaanite woman

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Last week my husband had a bad toothache while we were out of town. He had to wait the better part of a week before he could get to a dentist by which time it was clear that he had an infection and would need a root canal.

It was a reminder of the way on-going physical pain affects us – edginess, weariness, low level resiliency, inward focus. The same is true of chronic emotional and spiritual pain. Reserves are low, impatience closer to the surface, react more than respond.

This all came to mind when I read the gospel.

The Canaanite woman must have been living in this space. Whatever the demon in her daughter, whatever its cause, it’s clear that being her mother was demanding. The Canaanite woman must have been chronically fatigued – emotionally, physically, spiritually.

No wonder she seizes the moment when opportunity comes her way. Jesus is in town. Seeing him, she shouts out for mercy. Her voice comes from the margins – a woman, parent of a demon-possessed daughter, a Gentile. Tired, and worn out in every way, this woman spoke with conviction: Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.

In a few short words she shows that she knows more about Jesus and what he could do for her than even his own disciples knew. Mercy, healing, power were within his reach. What she needed, the relief she longed for, were right there. All it would take was a word, a look, a touch. A sign of mercy extended.

Instead Jesus ignored her. Gave her the silent treatment. Acted as if he did not see her or hear her at all. It doesn’t get more humiliating than that.

Except … that when Jesus does speak, when he does acknowledge her repeated request for mercy, he manages to make it worse: It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
To the dogs? Really?
Where is compassionate Jesus?

The woman – I wish we knew her name – the woman, is undeterred. Her chronic pain and her daughter’s chronic pain, sends her to her knees, groveling after Jesus. It is a position of complete vulnerability and powerlessness. On the ground, crying out for mercy, her desperation is fully embodied. She will do any thing, take any chance, to get Jesus’ attention, in the hope of finding even a crumb of relief.

What this woman, this brave-in-her-vulnerability woman, shows me is how reluctant I am to ever come to such a place. To ever put myself in such a powerless and vulnerable posture metaphorically, let alone in actuality.
I will do most anything to avoid admitting when I am at the end.
I will go to great lengths to convince myself that I still have options, have some measure of choice or control in the situation.
I may pray and in that prayer admit that I am lost, at my wits end, need divine help. But if I’m completely honest, I want that divine help on my terms. I want it to arrive in such a way that I don’t have to fall on my knees in front of anyone or anything but can continue to respond to whatever is causing my pain from a place of at least some control, some power, some dignity.

Being completely vulnerable before God may grow out of desperation but it certainly takes courage.

I wonder if we aren’t here. Being invited to this courageous vulnerability before God.
Admitting that we don’t actually know what to do or where to go except to cry out to the one in whom we live and move and have our very being. Our whole lives.

At our vestry meeting last Wednesday I asked people to describe what is real in this current moment at Intercession. Some of what was named: the very tenuous financial situation; the momentum in some areas of ministry like Godly Play, the community garden and dinner; the fact that we regularly worship and come together in two languages.
And … that we are at a pivotal moment. We are not able to fulfill the markers of being a parish, yet the possibility of becoming a mission doesn’t immediately solve things. Further down on the agenda were several items that involved money, money we don’t have. We had long conversation about how to respond. The reality is that in many ways we have been here before. We have asked these questions. We have struggled with these issues. We have felt the helplessness of uncertainty at other times.

The truth is that on Wednesday, like other times we have been here before, we stopped one step short from shouting out and falling on our knees before Jesus to ask for mercy. Why? Because it is hard. Because it feels too much like giving up. Asking for mercy feels like admitting that we that we have run out of options. Seeking mercy means that we admit someone else can do what we can’t. No, asking for mercy is not something that comes easily to us.

To be honest, I am bothered by Jesus’ initial lack of response to this woman’s courageous vulnerability and shouting cry for mercy. I am appalled by his dismissive, exclusive comment about not coming for the likes of this woman. And maybe this is why we don’t go the route of falling on our knees more often – we are afraid this will be the response.

I wonder why this story is told, and told this way. I wonder what was going on in the community that Matthew was writing to that compelled him to show this less than flattering side of Jesus. Perhaps they were feeling like the Canaanite woman. Perhaps they already on the ground, vulnerable and powerless in the face of chronic pain, chronic anxiety, willing to even grovel after Jesus, determined to get his attention. Perhaps despite their frustration at feeling ignored by divine presence, they still clung to the promise that mercy was within reach.

If you are already on the ground, already feeling ignored, already admitted that you have done all you know how and there is no where else for you to go, then this story is, actually, good news. Jesus responds. It may seem like it took too long or too much effort, but from the ground, that doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that a response happens.

Because of the woman’s persistence, because of her ‘Yes, but …’, everything changes. A dramatic shift takes place in Jesus when the woman will not be dismissed, nor let her daughter be ignored. Suddenly Jesus sees her and hears her plea for mercy and in that instant Jesus’ mercy is hers, and Jesus’ mercy is extended to her tormented daughter, and to all marginalized, oppressed, worn down, outsider people.

Mercy cannot be limited, and while this is indeed good news, it is also hard news. For with mercy comes change. When her daughter was healed, everything about her life and the Canaanite woman’s life changed. Everything. Routine. Status. Relationships. The truth is that as long as the pain of changing is greater than the pain of staying the same, the status quo – even a painful status quo – will win the day. Perhaps we are reluctant to plea for mercy because of the change that comes with it.

The final note of the story remains. No matter our complicated relationship to mercy, no matter Jesus’ complicate response to this woman, in the end mercy is freely given, healing happens, and the promise of mercy for all is clear. A promise again made visible in bread and wine of the meal we share. So come, all who seek mercy, all who long for mercy, all who fear mercy. Come.

13 August 2017: Storms and Jesus in the Boat

13 August 2017: Pentecost 10/Proper 14Peace-Be-Still
Matthew 14.22-33

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 

Beloved in Christ, grace, mercy, and peace be with you all from God who is our light and our life. Amen.

Another week. Another hard week.

You have probably figured out by now that I am the kind of preacher who, as the saying goes, preaches with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Or, more accurately since I don’t get an actual newspaper, I preach with an eye turned to the news. To be clear, this is distinct from being ‘political’ as in advocating for one party or one platform, and at the same time is very political, as in rooted in the ‘polis’, the Greek word for community that is the root for our word political.

Every now and then someone tells me they come to church to get a break from the craziness of the world and so they don’t want to hear ‘these things’ in church. I get tired of it all too. But we must talk about ‘these things’ in church, so that we are equipped and encouraged to live out our faith ‘in the world’.

If our lives of faith are to mean anything, it is essential that we make connections between scripture and what is happening in the world around us and in our circles of community. We still bother with scripture, these writings from so very long ago, because it tells us about God, and about God’s enduring relationship with humanity over the long arc of history. We still read scripture because these stories of our ancestors of the faith, of the disciples, of Jesus, of the first followers of Jesus, these stories give us perspective and words for our experience of life and of God. They help us figure out how to be people of God here and now. This is what it means to preach or pray or worship with a bible in one hand and the news in the other.

The week was difficult enough with talk of nuclear warheads and missiles that can travel half-way around the globe. I can hardly believe we are in this place again.

I grew up in post-war Japan well aware of nuclear power, the pros and cons, the very delicate dance between energy and destruction. We have lived all or most of our lives in a nuclear capable world and I like to think we have learned something about the destructiveness of nuclear power. Enough to keep warheads safely locked up, and refrain from verbal provocation.

So this week I listened to the news, to the verbal sparring of a president and dictator, to the diplomats around them, to the reporters asking questions and looking for clues, and I felt an echo of my childhood nuclear anxiety. Mostly what I felt was dismay. In a world oriented to life, I see no room for threats and counter-threats. Such behavior comes instead from a position of fear, of posturing, of power and not wanting to be seen as weak.

Then the weekend and the events of Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists gathering to protest the removal of a Confederate statue, using the occasion as an opportunity to unite different groups with the same ugly core belief – that one race matters more than any other. As if race is even a real thing, and not an invention to shore up discomfort with people whose ways we don’t understand or like.

People of faith – Episcopal and Lutheran and every other stripe – also gathering to let it be known that there is no room in Charlottesville for white supremacy or racism. Silent marches. Shouting marches. Violence. People not allowed out of a church after a prayer meeting. A car driven purposefully into the crowd killing 1 injuring 19 others.

White supremacy is extreme racism, and racism has been an undercurrent in the story of this country from the beginning. We didn’t always have a word for it, yet there is no denying that this country was built by those who believed that one people, with one kind of skin, were better than others and therefore deserved all the privilege and power. It is the smelly underside of our country that keeps erupting and will continue to erupt until we decide we have had enough and denounce this evil.

Nothing about any of this is ok, nothing. This is domestic terrorism. I can hardly believe we are in this place again.

So there is the news part. Now about the scripture part.

You may wonder what this story of Jesus and the disciples on a boat in a storm can say to any of the news this week. It helped for me to focus on what Jesus is doing. I already have a good enough sense of what the anxiety-ridden disciples were about. So, here are a couple things I see Jesus doing

First, after sending the disciples on their way, Jesus goes off to pray. I almost skipped over this action because honestly it felt a bit lame. Alone. By himself, Jesus goes to pray. Nothing actually happens. Then I thought about Jesus in prayer, Jesus being in communion with God so that he might be God’s presence in the world. This is central to the rest of what Jesus does. His actions begin with prayer, with quiet, and contemplation, and being in the presence of God.

Lord knows there is plenty for us to be in action about these days. Jesus models a necessary pattern. Pray first. Don’t stop there, but pray first. Linger in the company of the divine. Then, go and let your God light shine before others.

Second, Jesus goes to the disciples. Again, we could get hung up on questions of logistics – did he actually walk on water? Was there a sandbar just under the water? Was Jesus a ghost? Did any of this actually happen? Were the disciples having a collective dream?

This is just not worth our time or energy. The important thing is that when the disciples were afraid, when they were being tossed about on a strong sea, when they were exhausted and spent from keeping the boat upright and bailed all night long, when the safety of shore was still a far off reality – Jesus came to them. Jesus came to them.

This is the divine direction. And this is the heart of the good news. Bidden or not bidden, God always comes to us. At God’s initiative. Before we know what to ask. God comes to our storm-weary world.

Third, when Jesus came to them he came not with a word of exasperation or condemnation – What? you fishermen can’t ever get across the sea without me? – but with a word of encouragement: Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid. Or, in other words Jesus came to them saying:

Cheer up. Yes, even in a storm. Why? Because …
I AM. The same I AM that came to Moses in the burning bush, who led the people out of slavery into freedom, who has been since before the beginning of time. That I AM. So,
Be bold. Courage is near. Right at hand. The Lord of hosts is with you.

This is the repeated witness of scripture: the One who comes to us in our struggles comes not speaking condemnation but speaking words of hope. Words that put courage into our hearts again.

Fourth, before anyone can argue, Peter asks for a sign. In response, Jesus does not chastise Peter for thinking too much of himself, instead he invites Peter to get out of the boat and come to him. Then, when Peter’s anxiety takes over Peter’s boldness and he begins to sink, Jesus reaches out to catch him. As Jesus holds Peter up, he does not blame, but observes how difficult it is to trust that Jesus has us. That Jesus holds us. That Jesus really is with us.

Finally, to bring it all home, Jesus gets in the boat with Peter and the other water-logged and exhausted disciples. Jesus steps over the edge of the boat and into the fullness of their reality. Jesus joins them in their struggle. And it is only then, when Jesus is in the boat, that the fierce, boat-battering winds cease their howling. Only then, with Jesus among them, that the disciples know peace and calm, and perspective.

In the storms of life we could focus on the disciples and their actions. We could, like Peter, ask Jesus to confirm it is him. We could briefly overcome our anxiety and boldly step out of the boat to join Jesus. And like Peter we will eventually sink. Or … we could focus on what Jesus is doing. Today I opt for watching Jesus.

And when I do what I see is that each week Jesus climbs into the boat of our lives and meets us in the meal we share. Jesus comes to us in the bread and wine – encouraging us, reaching out to us, bringing peace.

For this hard week, that is what I need. The hard news is still there. But it is not the only thing. For Jesus is also there. With Jesus we have what we need to speak compassion and love into the noise of hatred and ugliness. With Jesus we bold to work for peace when others call for violence or threaten war. With Jesus we dare to hope that God with us means that over time the slow arc of the universe is towards justice

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

30 July 2017: Invasive as a Weed …

30 July 2017: Pentecost 8mustard-plants
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it 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.” 33 He 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; 46 on 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; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and 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.” 52 And 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.”

For the last weeks we have heard one parable after another in an attempt to describe the indescribable – the kingdom of heaven, life in the realm of God. I, for one, take comfort in knowing that even Jesus couldn’t easily, and one well-rehearsed story, describe what God’s realm looks and feels like.

In the first two parables Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a sower who scatters seed with abandon, knowing some will fall on rocky, hard, thorn infested ground, and some will fall in good soil to produce more grain than imagined. Then Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like one who sows good seed in a field. Under cover of night an enemy sows weeds among the wheat so that both grow together until the harvest, when the weeds are separated from the wheat.

From these we learn that God’s way is to spread love with abandon. Knowing that not all will yield love in return, but that when it does, the yield is beyond imaging. And, that God’s realm is a paradox of good and bad, wheat and weed, growing side-by-side in every field of our hearts and the communities we inhabit. Here the warning is to resist the temptation to yank out the weeds the minute we see them for what they are, for the sake of the growth that is yet to come.

Honestly, that’s plenty to chew on, right? The kingdom of heaven is already perplexing enough. But Jesus isn’t done, Matthew 13 isn’t yet over yet, and today we have five more attempts to describe the indescribable.

The kingdom of heaven is like: A mustard seed. Yeast. Treasure in a field. A pearl of great value. Fishing nets.

So the question is: What do these stories reveal to us about life in the realm of God?

First, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Having come from two parables about seeds, this feels like a natural move. Except that mustard seeds are more like weeds than grain-bearing wheat. This parable always reminds me of the first spring after we moved to Colorado. Some pretty pink flowers popped up in the flowerbeds around our house. Not having much experience in gardening, we let them go, curious to see what would happen. Then we learned about bindweed. It turns out that mustard is something like bindweed. Taking over wherever it takes root. A weed growing into a shrub so large and abundant, that birds make their nest in it.

Then, yeast. Small, beady yeast. Now yeast on its own isn’t anything much. Yet without yeast, flour, water, sugar, and oil mixed together remain flat. Mix in yeast, give it a little time and warmth, and these same humble ingredients are transformed into raised bread, full of body and texture.

Then, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure found in the field. A treasure that causes such joy that the man hides it again while he goes off to sell all he has, and in a sneaky move, purchases the field in order to acquire the treasure. Or the merchant looking for fine pearls who abandons his search for multiple pearls upon finding just one pearl of great value. He too, sells all he has to acquire this one treasure. Ordinary people, unexpectedly finding more than they imagined, who then behave in ways others regard as foolish. Left with nothing except one treasure, one pearl. And joy.

Finally, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net that, thrown into the sea, catches fish of every kind. Sorting happens once the net is hauled on shore – the good fish is kept, the bad thrown away. But … in the water? In the water the fishing net indiscriminately catches EVERYthing.

Five glimpses. Five descriptions of life in the kingdom of heaven. So what do we have?

The kingdom of heaven is like … a weed. Small, easily overlooked. With appealing qualities like pretty flowers or branches for birds nests. And yet, also invasive. Persistent. Subversive. Everywhere present, wanted or not.

The kingdom of heaven is transformative like yeast, adding texture and heft. And while that works for bread, we know all too well how uncomfortable, unsettling, and often inconvenient transformation is in real life.

The kingdom of heaven gives everything away – no, intentionally goes out to sell everything – simply to gain one treasure that brings joy, one item of great value. Everything else, gone.It does not get much more foolish than this.

And yes, the kingdom of heaven catches all. Period. All.

It turns out that the kingdom of heaven is abundant, and, a bit invasive.
It is transformative in ways that are both helpful and uncomfortable.
The kingdom of heaven brings joy and beauty of such great measure ] that people go to radical lengths to have more of it.
And the kingdom of heaven does not discriminate; it catches all.

These descriptions of the kingdom of heaven make me squirm. They are subversive, and not immediately comfortable or comforting. Yet the reality is, that seen or not seen, the kingdom of heaven is happening right in front of us all the time.

Which means that today, these parables might sound something like this:

The kingdom of heaven is like becoming a parent. Ordinary, not yet complete people, overnight becoming responsible for the life – the LIFE – of a vulnerable human being.

The kingdom of heaven is like regular “I don’t want to be political” Bob or Joan, now speaking up and out, marching, and making phone calls to legislators because, well … health care, LGBTQ rights, climate change, immigration, pipelines across sacred lands, border walls, education reform, ethics violations, treaty violations.

The kingdom of heaven is like the small group of people who adjust their schedule to show up for – fill in the blank – working in the garden, VBS, youth events, service events, that special gathering in the neighborhood, the hunger meal, the fundraising concert, the weekly community dinner – so that God’s love has a voice, and arms that hug, and hands that get things done.

The kingdom of heaven is like a bag of groceries gathered or a quilt made, then sent into the neighborhood or half way around the world, multiplying full bellies, warm bodies, connections between strangers who will never meet but are still related.

The kingdom of heaven is like opening the door to people we don’t know – doors of our hearts, our homes, our church – opening the door to people who don’t look or sound or act like us, who even make us uncomfortable. Who cause us to question and wrestle and ultimately, to be changed.

The kingdom of heaven is like a moment in the wee hours of an anxious night when tears give way to unexplainable peace.

The kingdom of heaven is like a phone call, card, or visit begun on a hunch and arriving when most needed.

The kingdom of heaven is like a song or phrase from Sunday that stays with us into Monday, and Tuesday, and the week, grounding us in our life of faith.

The kingdom of heaven is like a bit of bread and a sip of wine that fill us, a feast beyond measure, because they are the very presence of God-with-us.

Bidden or not bidden, the kingdom of heaven is like the unexpected, the quiet, the relentless spirit of God moving among us, catching us off guard, working in us, bringing what we could never have imagined to life.

Thanks be to God!

23 July 2017: Wheat and Weeds

23 July 2017: Pentecost 7wheat and weeds
Matthew 13.24-30,36-43

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, “An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ “ 36 Then 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.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Another parable about wheat and weeds and the kingdom of heaven. Last week the kingdom of heave was compared to a sower who lavishly scattered seed in every kind of soil and how the seed grew depending on where it landed. Today’s parable has a sinister element to it. The kingdom of heaven is compared to one who sows good seed in his field, then under cover of night, an enemy comes to sow bad seed among the good wheat. Not until weeks later, when the plants – both good and bad – bear grain, is it clear that not all was wheat. That some were in fact, weeds. As if the earth itself, the very soil of the field, had betrayed the good intentions of the householder and the good work of his slaves. The slaves want to pull up the weeds. Get rid of them now. The householder, seeing the bigger picture, knowing that pulling the weeds will also destroy the wheat, insists on letting the weeds be. Then, when the time is right for harvest, the weeds can be put aside and burned.

It seems pretty straight forward. Especially for a parable. What starts as good is infused with bad. Good and bad grow together unnoticed until they are intertwined. Pulling out the bad pulls out the good, so don’t do it. Leave the separation of bad from good to God.

Intellectually, or from a distance, the message of this parable makes good sense. After all, it sounds familiar. We know all too well how ‘bad’ unexpectedly pops up with the ‘good’. And being freed from having to sort one from the other feels like good news, news we can happily live with. Let God deal with it. That is, until ‘bad’ coexisting with ‘good’ comes closer to home and closer to our hearts. Then we react. Then all we can think of is to pull out the bad, get it out of here, and where, by the way, is God in all this?

I watched the movie The Shack on Friday afternoon while I was waiting for Jim to come home. I’ll be honest, I tried reading the book and even after Jim read it and told me how much he appreciated the imagery of God it portrays, I couldn’t finish it. So I wasn’t particularly excited about watching the movie but … quite a few people have asked me if I have watched it, then someone outright asked me to watch it, so I did.

As a story, it was a little long and a little too sentimental for my taste. I got impatient for the pace to pick up and I wished the background music had a lower profile. Putting all that aside though, the core message of this movie, this story is worthwhile. I understand why people are moved by it. The image of God as three separate but linked people, none of whom were a white man with a beard … that was lovely. And important. God is God not a bigger and better version of human, and God in all God’s fullness is experienced by us in a variety of ways. That God in all three persons spent a great deal of time laughing and creating and being especially fond of people … that was also lovely. I appreciated the message of God’s great love for all. The inability to compartmentalize God or fully understand God. The nod to making room for mystery when it comes to God.

What felt most important to me as I watched, was the theme – woven throughout and then illustrated in one particular scene – of our rush as humans to judge. To judge others and ourselves. Often without full awareness that we are doing so. And then to expect, again unconsciously, that God is always judging us as well.

In The Shack, the main character comes face-to-face with how his judging ways affect his experience of life. Because judgment is his primary lens for relationships, because he judges himself so severely, he assumes, without being fully conscious of what he is doing, that God is always judging him as well. As a result of this judging way of being, his ability to forgive, others and himself is limited. And he is imprisoned in pain of his own making, with every relationship that matters to him at risk.

The beginning of the shift for this character is two-fold: he practices forgiveness, and he leaves the judging to God. It’s not easy. He wrestles and threatens to walk away several times. It turns out that the only way he can actually do these two things is to make room in his mind and in his world view, for good and evil to coexist. To acknowledge that life is both beautiful AND painful. That God is both present AND doesn’t ‘fix’ everything. And to hold gently the difficult truth that because God doesn’t fix everything to our liking, it is not our job to take over and do God’s job of judging. In the words of today’s parable, he has to come to terms with his life and all of life, being a field where both wheat and weeds grow side-by-side.

Last week the parable drew our attention to God’s ways. The kingdom of heaven is like one who sows seed everywhere, actively trusting that some will grow and produce an abundant yield. And while the parable is honest that not all terrain is conducive to growth, that not all seed will take root and produce grain, it calls us to adopt a position of hopefulness alongside the God of hope, and to act on that hope.

Today’s parable is not told for the sake of action but for the sake of honesty. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sows good seed only to have the enemy come and sow weeds in the same place. It is a story of the difficult truth that evil exists in the world alongside good, and that bad things happen to good people.

It’s not a story that feels good. When we see weeds we want to pull them out. But this is not a story that sends us out to do something. It is a story that calls us to sit in our discomfort where we see things for what they are until we can let them be, which is a kind of forgiveness. To accept that life is imperfect and full of pain. To let the weeds grow alongside the wheat so that in time the wheat can produce grain. And most difficult of all … to let the harvest, the separation of weeds from wheat, to let that be God’s work, not ours.

In The Shack, life is dramatically better when the main character practices forgiveness and leaving the working of judging to God. In my experience, it’s never that simple. I practice daily to see the fields for what they are and to give thanks for what they are. To let go of what is not mine. To trust that God has far more invested in this than I can fully imagine. Some days it feels easier to take control, to act on my judging ways. Rarely does that end well. And while I am learning to notice the underground value of weeds, to consider that they bring something to the mix I can’t always see, I am often an impatient farmer.

The bread and wine we share today were made from grain and grape of the field which – news flash – no matter what chemicals were used, you can be sure the wheat and grapes grew in the company of weeds.
Yet here they are.
Harvested. Weeds tossed aside. Grain and grapes mixed with yeast. Fermented. Baked. And now ready.
Christ with us in every field of every day.

16 July 2017: God the Sower

16 July 2017: Pentecost 6woman sowing seeds
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!” 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

I had never noticed before that this very familiar story of seeds and soil begins with Jesus leaving the house to sit beside the sea.

Mind you, having lived significant parts of my life on a lake and by the Indian Ocean, I have no trouble imagining Jesus’ need for water therapy. After days of teaching and traveling, of healing and listening to people in pain, I can see why he would choose to go out and sit on the shore of the sea. The sound of waves and the breeze soothing his body and soul. The rhythm of boats pushing out for a day of work, fishermen on the shore mending nets, the hustle and bustle of activity on the beach. All providing a change of scenery, a fresh perspective on daily life and work.

Yet as is often the case in the gospels, when Jesus goes off on his own, his solitude does not last long. Soon crowds gather on the beach. Clearly expecting something, looking for something, gathering for some reason. Such a large crowd gathers that Jesus resorts to getting into a boat and pushing off some distance from the shore so that he can then turn and talk to the crowd.

All of a sudden the move from house to beach makes sense. Jesus has come not for perspective or time alone, but because of the need for more room. The crowd following him, the number of people hungry to hear what he is talking about, is simply too large for a house or yard. And so Jesus leaves the house for the open space of the lakeside in order to continue preaching and teaching.

Still, knowing that, doesn’t explain what happens next. Given the context, I would expect Jesus to tell a story about the sea and fish. To talk about the kingdom of God being like fishing and nets. About the condition of the seas, the currents, the risks and opportunities of life underwater. But instead, Jesus tells a story about a seeds and soil.

Anyone who has attended or taught Sunday School or vacation bible school knows this story about seed that falls on the path where the birds eat them, seed that lands on rocky ground where there is no room for roots to go deep, seed that falls among the thorns that grow up and choke them, and finally seeds that fall in good soil where the yield is beyond imagining – a hundred, sixty, thirty times more than what was sown!

And for most of us, humans that we are and aided by the second half of the reading when Jesus ‘explains’ the parable to the disciples, we hear the parable and immediately put ourselves into it. Wonder about our own lives and hearts. We do a quick review: are we a hard path? Rocky terrain? Full of thorns? Or perhaps, dare we hope it, are we good soil? Have we ‘heard the word and understood it’ as the gospel says, and in the good soil of our faithful lives born fruit and yielded a harvest worthy of Jesus who we know loves us?

I know because I’ve been there. And where I end up is feeling crummy about my heart and my life being less than really good soil, yielding less than an abundant harvest. After some wallowing, this usually leads to some kind of re-commitment. A promise to try hard, be better, pray more, serve freely, worship regularly, give without counting. Sigh.

That’s one way to go about life as a follower of Jesus. And it is certainly a familiar and easily recognized way. Focus on the lack and falling short of our sinful human ways, and then strive to live differently. Throw some fertilizer on and hope for the best next season. It’s a classic scarcity driven approach. We are not enough, and we are suspicious that there even exists enough of God’s grace and love to make us become enough.

And then I see it. Then I see why Jesus is talking about seeds and soil rather than fish and water while sitting in a boat on the sea. Because the focal point of the parable of God’s kingdom is not seeds and soil, or even fish and water. Rather the focal point of this parable is the sower, the one scattering the seeds. Which means that the parable is not about you and me and our hearts – hard, rocky, thorny, and occasionally good soil hearts. This parable is about God the sower of seed.

And what kind of sower is God? One who sows seed everywhere. Hard paths. Rocky ground. Where the thorns thrive. And, on good soil.

You could interpret this as thoughtless action on God’s behalf. Randomly spreading seeds without thinking about where they are landing, simply hoping for the best. But I don’t see it that way. That doesn’t sound like the God scripture bears witness to. The God of Abram and Sarai, who walked with them from one land to another, as the seed of faith grew in them until they became ancestors of the faith.

Nor does it sound like the God of Rebekah, praying for children. God who granted that prayer and was steadfastly present through long years of fighting and estrangement until in time, maturity led to reconciliation.

Nor does it sound like the God who came to dwell among us. God who chose to take on human form, living as one of us so that we might know divine love up close.

No, random acts of thoughtlessness are not the way of God.

This parable of one who sows seed everywhere points us to a God of abundance and abundant hope. God who is not blind to hard, rocky, thorny hearts but who sees beneath the surface challenges to the deeper possibility and dares to believe in the power of transformation to make even such ground good soil. God who sows without ceasing believing that in time, in due season, the seed will indeed land on good soil and yield unheard of fruits. God who created all the ground and knows what its potential is, given half a chance. God who does not limit love and grace to the most promising but instead casts them where they are most needed. God whose hope knows no measure. This is what the kingdom of God is like.

What if, in the same way that the parable is actually not about the seed and soil but about the sower God, what if the story we are tell of our lives and live out here at Intercession focused less on us and our lack and more on what God is doing? Less on what kind of soil we are and more on God who keeps scattering and sowing seed in us and all around us? What if we are actually the seeds God is sowing?

God scatters seeds of love and grace, and hope and faith in you and me. As those seeds take root and grow and we are transformed.

God scatters seeds of love and grace, hope and faith in this congregation. And in the neighborhoods around us.

God scatters knowing some will fall on good soil where the yield will be beyond imagining, cause for rejoicing, but mostly God sows seeds because sowing is what God does. Abundantly. In hope.

Let anyone with ears listen.