Friday, December 19, 2008

What needs doing before Christmas?

RevGals ask what five things need to be done between now and Christmas?
Well, it would be nice if a magic fairy would appear and clean the house. The choir party is here Sunday night and it has been raining all week. That means there are muddy paw prints everywhere even though I try to wipe all eight paws when they come in the house. And of course, my housekeeper doesn't come until Tuesday!
I need to get Christmas cards mailed to family and friends. The debate is whether to include a xerox letter or not. Probably not.
I could use a sermon for this Sunday, although I have some ideas.
There's grocery shopping to be done. The Charlotte/Memphis family will arrive Christmas Eve.
I need to make the final donations online to Second Harvesters. My family gives small gifts that are edible/drinkable or finite is some way. We sometimes give books and then pass them through the extended family. But most of our gift giving is charitable donations. Heifer and Episcopal Relief and Development have been my organizations of choice for several years; however, this year I feel a need to give locally as well.

There's really not much to be done, especially when I look at all that's been done in the last three weeks. If the cards don't go out until after Christmas, that will be fine. But all the other things definitely have to be done this weekend. Then I think I'll take Tuesday off.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"What do you long for this advent? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is your prayer today?
In the vein of simplicity I ask you to list five advent longings...."

I don't know whether I am having trouble limiting myself to five longings or if I can't think of even one. Most of the time, it seems to me, there is no time to long for anything except perhaps an end to the busyness that is life for lots of us. But even when I do have time, I still don't think about what I long for the most. Well, not in a serious way.

I long for the end of division within my denomination. I don't understand it and it is taking so much time away from the proclamation of the good news and the work of the kingdom. It grieves me to hear us hurling labels and turning our backs on all of God's children in favor of a group that thinks and acts in a particular way.

I long for time with my children, time I don't seem to make any more than they do now that we are all adults and have very different lives taking us in many directions.

I long for the coming of the Christ, not because I need to see it in order to have my faith validated or rewarded - I naively said once that this was the one event that would convince me of faith (ah youth!) - but because I don't think humanity is ever going to get it right. I don't think we can conceive of life without war and poverty and bigotry. Only God can straighten out this mess that we have made again - history is full of stories of our predecessors who didn't do any better.

So my prayer is one of gratitude, a cry for peace and a plea for guidance in what or how I am supposed to play a part in making peace happen.

That's all I have today. It is my day off and I really don't have anything to do other than ponder the sermon for the early service on Sunday. I've built a fire in the fireplace and I'm going to stretch out on the sofa with my dogs and an Ivan Doig novel. Then I'm going to dinner with a friend and a concert afterwards. Right now, this day is probably what I long for most.

Peace to you all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sheep and Goats

I don't know about the rest of you but sheep and goats stories don't really work for me. True, I have parishioners who keep one or both and I've read - and preached - all the stuff about sheep behavior, goat warmth issues, scapegoats and even shepherds.

The only reason I can think of for Jesus to use sheep and goats is that you don't house them together. They can go to the same pasture but they sleep in different places. So his listeners would have been caught up in the familiar, I suppose.

But then it gets a little weird since neither sheep nor goats do much talking that we can understand and it is clear that Jesus has moved out of the pasture and onto the judgment seat.

So there we all are, milling around the great conference center in the sky. In order to get into the meeting area, we have to show our badges. But the folks guarding the doors seem to be sending some people in the doors on the left and others into the doors on the right. When we get inside, there's a big net separating the room and no one can get by it.

Jesus addresses us all and says that the left half have served him and the right half didn't. Shock and surprise are present in both groups. Both ask, "Lord, when?" but get very different answers.

It's the surprise that gets to me. Faithful Christians ought not to be surprised. At least, I'm sure that's what I was taught somewhere along the line. And most of us, especially given that we know this parable by heart, usually notice when we pass someone by or stop to help them, don't we? If we don't help someone, we have good reasons for our non-action, of course. We rationalize it or at least say that helping would have put us in danger. If we help, we may well do so gladly and willingly but often, there is that little voice in our heads reminding us how good we are being, the points we are scoring.

Here's why I think the sheep and goats are surprised. I think the sheep automatically, without thinking, stop to help, move over to share the grass and water, cuddle up to keep the shorn one warm. To be told that every time they did this, they did it to the Lord is a surprise to them because it was the natural thing to do.

The goats don't stop for anyone ever. Life is all about them, making sure they have enough, they are warm enough, they are safe and are receiving God's bountiful grace. But it never occurs to them to make sure others are taken care of. That's a sheep thing and goats are not, simply not, sheep. So they, too, are surprised to hear that they have systematicallly, all their lives, rejected the Christ even though they thought differently.

I don't think many of us are goats. My guess is that even the tycoon with the hardest of hearts has a little sheep in him/her somewhere. But I'm equally sure that most of us haven't reached sheep status yet. Kindness, generosity, giving are things we still have to work at, especially if it means I might feel shorted by helping someone else. But I know we can get there. I have role models who are/were great sheep, nary a goat gene anywhere. I'll bet you do, too.

And when we get pretty good at being sheep, let's convert the goats. Let's show them how to be short-haired, butting-headed, omnivorous sheep. Still goats but different. And I'll bet goats have some good things to teach even all those surprised sheep!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pharisees

I don't know exactly what I will preach tomorrow - especially since I have a children's homily at the second service instead of a "real" sermon - but it will be something like the following. And, of course, who knows what the congregation will, in fact, hear!

Pharisees: just like us?

I know it seems such an obvious thing to say but Pharisees didn’t come fully formed. When we encounter them in the gospels, they are grown men and, somehow, it never occurred to me before to think of them as anything else.

But they were children once just like we were. Okay, not *just* like us but certainly the first century equivalent of that. They were helpless babies, learned to roll over then crawl and finally stand up, graduating from walking to running in what probably seemed like a blink of an eye to their mothers.

Most likely, their fathers were Pharisees before them but Pharisee wasn’t a job like being a carpenter or tilling fields or tending sheep. No, Pharisees worked like everyone else. A Pharisee was more like being an Episcopalian or Baptist, Republican or Democrat. In those days, politics and religion were so closely connected it was hard to tell them apart, a lot like it still is in the Middle East today in fact.

Pharisees were one party within Judaism. They might be described by others as liberal but I doubt we would use that word. Pharisees believed their authority could be traced all the way back to Moses by way of other prophets. They stressed a single verse of Exodus: you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Second Maccabbees says it this way: God gave all the people the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood, and the holiness. So you might say the Pharisees promoted democracy. They established schools and synagogues all over the country and encouraged fathers – all fathers – to see that their sons were instructed in the Law. The Pharisees became the most learned of all people and saw Torah rather than Temple as the central focus of Jewish life and faith.

The Pharisees opposed capital punishment. The Sadducees were strict in observing “an eye for an eye” but the Pharisees believed in making financial restitution instead. They wrapped up the laws that led to the death penalty with so many restrictions and qualifications that they were almost never applied, almost being the key word.

But the Pharisees were also a fairly exclusive club. Calling themselves habirim, they would swear an oath in front of at least three other Pharisees that pledged strict adherence to the laws of Levitical purity, promised to avoid associating with anyone considered an ignorant boor, and guaranteed payment of tithes and other fees to the priests and the poor. And those laws included all of the oral law derived from the Decalogue. All 613 laws, not just the basic ten.

“The aim and object of the Law, according to Pharisaic principles, are the training of man to a full realization of his responsibility to God and to the consecration of life by the performance of its …duties….” (JewishEncyclopedia.com – Pharisees). That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Then why does Jesus rail against the Pharisees so in today’s passage from Matthew? Why does he heap woes upon their heads?

Because in the pursuit of responsibility to God, the Pharisees put too much emphasis upon their own importance and knowledge. They became the message rather than the messengers. It was more important to be *known* as a Pharisee than it was to actually *be* a Pharisee.

They were no longer true to who they were. Image trumped reality. They stopped being compassionate. They stopped being strict observers of the Law unless someone else was looking. They became, to a certain extent, the ignorant boors they were supposed to shun. Being better than the Sadducees and others became more important that dedicating their lives to God.

We can say this is about pride and humility but I think it goes deeper than that. Pride is not always a bad thing. We can be proud of what we accomplish but we cannot take all the credit. We cannot say “I did it all by myself” when we know that we are given our talents, we are given opportunities to use them.

Humility is not always a good thing. People have turned themselves into doormats in the name of humility when perhaps God was calling them to stand up and take action. We can “aw shucks” ourselves to a point where no one will consider asking us to help because we have convinced them we aren’t useful.

Before we can be proud or humble, we have to be honest. We have to know ourselves well, understand our worth or usefulness and be willing to take on kingdom work.

There is an old derogatory maxim that says, “Those who can do and those who can’t, teach.” That’s a terrible thing to say about teachers, isn’t it? But I would guess that we have all encountered someone who hasn’t the ability for something who is more than willing to tell us how we should do it. How many of you parents have had childless people try to give you sage advice on raising children? How many of you kids have had adults tell you how easy you have it these days even though they never had the homework you do and weren’t required to learn all the world throws at you today?

Honesty about ourselves includes being honest about our faith. We can’t tell someone how to be a Christian when we don’t spend a lot of time at it ourselves. If we haven’t got a prayer discipline, we can’t hold others to that standard. And yet we do that sometimes, don’t we?

I read an Easter sermon the other day that made me want to stand up and cheer. Dr. Fred Craddock, a Disciples of Christ pastor, once told a congregation that they couldn’t begin to have Easter if they hadn’t been to the funeral. You don’t get to Easter Sunday by skipping Holy Week and especially Good Friday. Dr. Craddock could say that because he hasn’t ever skipped it! His congregation could hear it because they knew without a doubt that the man was not saying “do as I say, not as I do.”

Never lose sight of the being that God has made you. Pop psychology says be comfortable in your skin and that’s good theological advice, too. If we can do that, then we can – along with our Father – be proud of what we accomplish and – because of our brother – be humble in those same accomplishments.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Coins and the Friday Five

For those of you who haven't heard of it, the Friday Five happens every week (duh!) on revgalblogpals. This week's list is inspired by the coin in Sunday's gospel. So here's my answers.

1) When was the last time you flipped a coin or even saw one flipped in person?
I went to a football game the first Saturday in October. I'm pretty sure I saw the coin toss. It might have been the highlight of the game. The bands were the highlight of the afternoon.

2) Do you have any foreign coins in your house? If so, where are they from?
I have some Euros left over from the last trip to Italy. I'll be taking them back with me next April when we travel to Umbria.

3) A penny saved is a penny earned, they say. But let's get serious. Is there a special place in heaven for pennies, or do you think they'll find a special place in, well, the other place?
When I was a child, we had mite boxes. The boxes were handed out at the beginning of Lent and collected the Sunday after Easter. We were supposed to earn the mites/pennies we put in those boxes.
Then I grew up and got my own United Thank Offering box. Now I know that the UTO people suggest putting in a quarter every time you want to give thanks but I have a strong mental image of my dad putting all the loose change from his pocket into that box once or twice a week and that's what I do, too. So I just turned all my pennies, nickles and dimes in last Sunday when we had our fall Ingathering.
Pennies, then, have always been vehicles for giving thanks. I'll stick with the old song and say pennies are from heaven. ;-)

4) How much did you get from the tooth fairy when you were a child? and if you have children of your own, do they get coins, or paper money?
I got a dime per tooth. My kids got quarters. Our daughter had a lovely tooth pillow that a friend made. When she lost her first tooth, we got out the pillow, she put the tooth in the little pocket and we explained about putting the pillow on her bed so the tooth fairy could come get it and leave a surprise in its place. Well, Heather was having none of that. No alien being was coming into her bedroom for any reason whatsoever! We finally convinced her to leave it in the hall even though she would have preferred outside the front door. Now that I think about it, I may still owe my son for his teeth!

5) Did anyone in your household collect the state quarters? And did anyone in your household manage to sustain the interest required to stick with it?
I have a sister who collects them and I think she stayed the course. Alas, I'm not all that interested in what's on a coin to consider collecting it. Haven't they begun changing nickles now?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

THE election

I've been on vacation for ten days. I had a great time and, yes, politics came up in conversation more than once. But we didn't take my car and so I was cut off from XMradio and the POTUS08 station - all election all the time.

Considering that I did my best to ignore all of the primaries - it was two years long! - I find it really amazing that I am now really interested in the election itself. Don't get me wrong, I have always exercised my right to vote but in the last decade, I haven't been excited about that. Now, I am listening to reporters, pollsters, commentators, speeches - XM plays them from start to finish without comment - and even morning conference calls from both campaigns. This is crazy! But it feels really good. It feels like this year we get to vote *for* someone. I've been going to the polls to cast a negative vote for far too long. Even the show hosts on the station sound excited.

I'm a Democrat mostly and will surely vote for Obama/Biden this year. That doesn't mean that I think either of them hung the moon or that there isn't room for improvement. For instance, I'd like candidates to really answer questions at debates rather than twist the questions to fit the prepared responses. I may have to go back to The West Wing and see the debate camp episode again to make me feel better about debates.

This afternoon, I had an email from the Obama campaign about the debate - okay, it came last week but I've been ignoring email on vacation - and the subject was "How do you think I did?" Alas, there was no way for me to answer the question! It was merely another request for money. It's not that I haven't contributed but I would have liked a chance to tell Obama that he needs to answer the questions directly so they really sound like answers and not "here's a piece of my campaign rhetoric that almost speaks to that question."

Ah well, I'm still excited about the election even though I live in a state that is so red you can't get an Obama bumper sticker here or a yard sign. Maybe by the next election, all states will be in play and everyone will campaign in all states rather than only in those where campaigning might make a difference. Even better, maybe by the next election, the parties will have discovered that the obscene amount of money spent by each campaign would have been better spent on anything else and we can just have a few televised debates, email flyers and skip all the racing around the country giving the same speech a zillion times. I don't know how they do that last part and instill life into that speech. If I have to preach the same text three times on Sunday, the folks at the third service get a pretty dull sermon. ;-)

So get out and vote for someone who you want to win! I may even have an election night party if I can find enough Democrats to do more than make a foursome for bridge or golf.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Laborers in the vineyard

I got in trouble once preaching this story. It was at a preaching station and the three ladies who attended did not like the idea that they were graced in equal measure with the rest of the world. It was the only time someone in that congregation commented on one of my sermons and it was not complimentary!
Every three years, though, as I study this text, I still hear Jesus telling us that when we come to believe in him matters not at all, this the believing is all that is necessary. I am liberal enough to think that grace comes *before* belief but that's another discussion for another time.
So here's my sermon from three years ago, cleaned up slightly. Parts of it will likely show up in my sermon tomorrow morning.

Proper 20A RCL
Matthew 20:1-16

The drive into work in New Orleans took us right by a temporary work agency. By 7:00, many folks had already been hired on for the day. But all day long, more would arrive and some of those who arrived very early weren’t always hired early. Kind of like being picked last for the team. Even when we drove home at 4:30, there were still people hanging out. Whether they were still hoping to be hired, I don’t know.
Now the word slave is not politically correct and it is jarring when we hear it in the context of Scripture. Today’s parable does not talk about slaves, though, and that gives us all the information we have about these workers. You see, slaves have guaranteed employment.
If you recall the parable of the prodigal son, he planned to ask his father to make him one of the slaves for slaves were treated relatively well and had job security. Some of them even got paid for their work.
Not so laborers. If you found work, you ate. And finding work was chancy unless it was harvest time when more workers were needed.
So the landowner goes out early to the marketplace and hires laborers at the going rate. Jesus does not tell us whether all the available workers are hired, but hiring of at least some happens. At nine, the landowner hires more folks and tells them he will pay what is right. Naturally, they assume it will be less than a full day’s wage. Three more times, he hires laborers
and the last time, he asks why they aren’t already working somewhere. "No one has hired us,"
they reply.
Now, the usual interpretation here is that these people arrived late, maybe partied too long the night before, or that they are known to be poor workers so no one wants to hire them. But Jesus doesn’t tell us that. He simply says that at 5 o’clock, there are still workers waiting to be hired.
Already, this story is departing from the normal. It was common to hire laborers and it would be done early in order to get a full day’s work done. So going out again and again is a little strange and the hearers must have wondered why the landowner is so anxious to get the harvest done quickly. While there are lots of possible reasons, Jesus doesn’t tell us why. Our speculation is interesting but not overly useful.
But the command to pay the last first is really out of the ordinary. At this point, Jesus’ audience is on the alert. And they are right to be so for the landowner pays every single laborer the full day’s wage. I guarantee you there was murmuring going on!
Even in the early church, the listeners were deeply shocked by this turn of events. We know this because there are five endings to this parable plus Matthew’s own saying about the last and first. The original ending was “friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” This is a bitter pill to swallow but it does make sense. The first got what they had agreed to.
After that, the endings get more and more bizarre as the church tries to explain what happened.
“Take what belongs to you and go” is not the least bit helpful. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give you” really just restates what Jesus said. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me” is beginning to get the point. But “are you envious because I am generous” seems a very odd thing to say especially if it really means “is your eye evil because
I am good?” which is a literal translation of the Greek.
And then we have Matthew’s own end to the parable. To understand it, we have to go back to the end of the previous chapter.
The rich young man has just been to see Jesus and learned that all his good works won’t get him into heaven. In fact, Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for the wealthy to enter the kingdom than it is for the poor. He doesn’t say they won’t enter but that possessions shift our focus from the kingdom of God to our own kingdoms. The disciples ask, “who then can be saved?” and Jesus tells them “for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
And Peter once again puts his foot wrong and says, “we have left everything for you so what will be our reward; what will we have?”
Jesus does not rebuke him this time. He tells Peter that the disciples will sit on thrones around him and pass judgment on the tribes of Israel. Then he says that anyone who has left their old life behind to follow him will receive a hundredfold and have eternal life. And he ends by saying,
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
It is quite possible that today’s parable is aimed directly at the disciples who, still thinking in earthly terms, expect to receive a greater reward than those who have only come to believe
in the last few days or weeks. To emphasize the point of the parable, Matthew returns to the words of the last teaching about the kingdom. “The last will be first, and the first will be last”
he ends this parable.
I’d love to say that settled it for the disciples but the very next scene in the Gospel of Matthew
is where James and John – in Matthew’s telling, it’s their mother who does the talking – ask if they can have the seats on Jesus’ left and right. It is hard to think in heavenly terms when all we know are earthly ones.
Okay, what does this mean for us as well as for the rest of the household of God?
Grace, like forgiveness, comes in one size only and is available to all. No matter how long we have been followers of the Christ, we receive the same amount of grace as everyone else. We can’t work for it. We can’t stockpile it. Grace belongs to God and God seems to bestow it freely without any evidence that the bestowee ought to get it. Apparently, God does not see
with our eyes or judge with our kind of judgment. And that's good news for all of us, isn't it?
You and I actively work for the kingdom of God. Saying our prayers, attending services regularly, sharing in the Eucharist, helping out whenever and wherever we can, giving part of our wealth to the church in thanksgiving for God’s grace and love. There are myriad other ways
that we work for the kingdom. But we do that work because it is what God’s people do not because it earns us points or a better seat at the banquet.
Jesus has racked up all the points. He has done the hardest work for us.
Does it really matter if the last are first or the first are first? Not at all. We are given our invitation to the banquet at birth. Some begin their labor in the vineyard as soon as they can walk and talk. Others come and go or choose to wait until the last minute and there are lots of people who don’t even know they have labored until they see God.
God loves each and every one of us and God blesses us all with grace in exactly the same measure, just enough.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forgiving and forgetting

After much thought and prayer - will I ever really understand forgiveness or do I understand and refuse to acknowledge that? - here is the base for my sermon tomorrow. Whether it will come out this way is anyone's guess, of course, but it is what I think God is calling me to say.

How many of us come to church today intending to say the General Confession while still hanging on to a hurt, anger or grudge which we have no intention of forgiving? I am in that number and I daresay I am not the only one here who is.
Three years ago, when I last preached these texts, I said that there was someone in my past who had hurt me and that when I thought of or talked about that experience, the hurt always came back. Except, by the time of that sermon, I realized that the hurt was no longer there, that there was no power in the story to make me angry with that person anymore. This week, as I read that sermon again, I discovered that I no longer remember what the person had even done and I felt really good about that. I still do.
But that event was more than twenty-five years ago! For way too long, I didn’t let it go nor did I attempt to do anything to reconcile with the person who I felt had hurt me. That’s a lot of General Confessions said while still carrying the burden of my lack of forgiveness.
Let’s face it, we are not good at forgiving. Even those of us who think we are probably aren’t. We are willing to say a quick “Oh that’s all right. It wasn’t that big a deal” to most infractions against us but we don’t always mean it. How often when we see the person we have “forgiven” do we once again think of the unkind thing she said or the lack of respect we feel from him? If we aren’t really going to forget these things, can we really say we have forgiven them? Are we just acting the role of the morally righteous in the hope that no one will see through the fa├žade?
Jesus says we are to forgive way past the point of reason. But it is only recently that I have come to understand that forgetting really is a major part of forgiving. If we can’t forget, then we still need to forgive. If we hold a grudge or still chew over the painful events, we are being slowly consumed by our own anger.
It the parable, the servant who owes several lifetimes of debt ought to go away from his master’s room joyful and feeling lighter than air not that the heavy burden has been lifted from his soul. But instead, he lashes out in great anger when he sees someone who owes him a much smaller debt. We all know what’s wrong with this picture and we don’t see ourselves in it because none of us, I am sure, has incurred debts of such magnitude. And we are not too quick to move the parable from the realm of monetary debt to any other kind
because monetary debt probably doesn’t divide us from one another.
Harsh words, deeds done intentionally and especially unintentionally, things done and left undone are far more likely to separate us. And those may, in fact, be harder to forgive than a debt of money. Why? Because those things cut into the fabric of our life together in ways that money never will.
When your brother dies, you expect me to call, don’t you? Well, let’s say I forget to do that and when I next see you at the door after church, I don’t say anything about him or ask how you are doing. It is perfectly natural for you to think, “Maggie doesn’t care about me. She isn’t the least bit pastoral.” And when a friend is in need of care, you will say something like, “well, don’t call the church for help. Maggie doesn’t do pastoral care.”
Now what if I never knew that your brother died? Perhaps, in your haste to go to be with the rest of your family before and after the funeral, you didn’t call but you assumed that someone else would do that for you. But you try to brush it off by thinking that I must have been really busy and you want to believe that I still care about you even though it looks like I don’t.
Simply brushing this aside with an “Oh that’s all right” isn’t forgiveness. The only way to begin forgiving is, as we heard last week, to come see me and lay out the problem. Because if I don’t know that I’ve hurt you, how can I ask you to forgive me?
St. Paul warns us against passing judgment. I think that sometimes we confuse judgment and forgiveness. If you can just make the flat statement , “Maggie doesn’t do pastoral care” then you have passed judgment and think you can put it behind you. Forgiveness requires us to confront the one who has hurt us, remember the hurt even though that means living it again, and then being willing to see it from the other person’s eyes. One person’s throwaway line may well be another’s knife in the back. One person’s pain of rejection may be another’s unawareness of events.
When we judge others, we rarely forget why we have made that judgment. There is no forgiveness in our judgment of one another. That is why Paul exhorts us not to judge. Judgment leads to self righteousness and superiority and that leads right back to our need to ask forgiveness. For when we act out of our own sense of right, we very often cause deep pain for someone else.
Paul and Matthew are writing to and for specific communities, both of them very new Christians. Despite two thousand years of Christian history between them and us, we haven’t advanced all that far in our own faith that we cannot still learn the lessons these new believers had to learn.
We pray today that the Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts in all things. More than an annual collect for the day, that prayer needs to be one we say daily, even more than once a day. For the Holy Spirit is very good about opening our hearts and mouths to say the right thing and our minds and hands to do it. And by living a Spirit-led life, we will find the way to forgive each other our transgressions and then to forget them altogether. Then we can go forth into the world with joy knowing that God has forgiven us and our burden has been lifted from us.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Five - School?
1. Is anyone going back to school, as a student or teacher, at your house? How's it going so far?
While the dog could use a refresher course, no one is going to school this semester. I am, though, preparing to teach church history next semester and that could be going better. It's the first time I've taught for the Diocese so it feels different.

2. Were you glad or sad when back-to-school time came as a kid?
I liked school so I looked forward to going back each fall. The only year that was hard was firt grade and that was because my mother was about to have a baby so life was less normal than usual. I think Daddy went off to band camp about then, too, and I was staying with oen family while my sister went to another. Nope, I was not happy.

3. Did your family of origin have any rituals to mark this time of year? How about now?
When I was in elementary school, part of our August vacation was going to my great-uncles' store in Mars Hill and getting school supplies. One year, we bought readers too for my younger sister. I do remember never liking the socks.
We didn't have any rituals for my kids. When we moved to New Orleans, I remember having to find new stores for shopping for new school clothes. One day, I saw a store I knew I'd seen advertised and suggested we stop and see what they had. It was all we could do to walk all the way through the furniture store and back out before laughing ourselves sick! :-)

4. Favorite memories of back-to-school outfits, lunchboxes, etc?
Not a one. I'm sure I must have had a lunchbox at one point but I don't remember. And there's very few outfits I remember wearing ever. Now if you asked my sister, Barbara, I'm sure she remembers every single one.

5. What was your best year of school?
I'm not sure one year stands out more than another. I loved most all of them right through both master's degrees. First grade was memorable because I walked home with Mrs. Boone and her children many a night - kept after for not completing Today's News which I learned was more fun than finishing it. In fifth grade, I got to work in the library for the first time and that was a real treat as well as setting the course for my first career. In 12th grade, I was a chemistry lab assistant - a clear case of the halt leading the blind - and it was a lot of fun. That year, I only had four major subjects so I could fit choir into my schedule and I love to sing.

I remember a lot of my teachers. So many of those men and women pushed and prodded me into being more than I wanted to be - type B personality traits came out early. I saw that same dedication in some of my kids' teachers, too. I so admire those who feel called to teach and don't lose the call part of that when they finally get into the classroom.

School starts early in upper East Tennessee. Our kids have been back for over a month now. My great-nephew, who lives in Illinois, had his first day a few weeks ago. He is a first grader and still trying to decide if he wants to be one. His brother starts pre-school in two more weeks and can hardly wait, having watched his brother love those three years in Montessori. May they both love learning as much as I still do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Puppets and Children's Homilies

Last year, we instituted a monthly children's homily. It takes the place of the sermon since it is my experience that adults listen to the kids' part and don't need another sermon on top of that.

A friend of mine was telling me that he had a puppet he used for homilies - he was doing a children's chapel service every Sunday, complete with homily, a feat I never want to try. Anyway, one Sunday, he left the puppet at home. When the service started, one of the kids asked where "Jeff" (I can't remember his name) was and Andy explained how he had stayed at home that morning. "No offense, Andy, but we like it better when Jeff preaches," responded the child. !!

With that in mind, I set off to find my own puppet. I loved one in particular. It was a dessert sheep, dressed up in nomad garb and complete with sunglasses. But the first time I practiced with the puppet, I realized a terrible thing. He was male and I can't *do* male. So I took him back and gave up on the puppet idea.

Until my installation in May. The Sunday School gave me a puppet. She is a camel with very long eyelashes and gold trim on her headgear. Yesterday, we went down to the church to practice for Sunday's debut sermon. Well, her name is Mae East and she has a deep Southern gentlewoman accent. I love her! Let's hope the kids do, too.

Logs and specks

I am disheartened today. A very nice group of people got together last night to be about the work of the Lord and did a lot of complaining and character assassination. How do we ever expect the world to give Christianity credence when we just don't/can't behave like Christians?

Sometimes, I wonder if we even consider what it means to follow Jesus. Actually doing it seems to be even more hit or miss. And yet I know some people who are incredibly successful at being Christian, treating everyone as a loved member of the household of God even if that person drives them crazy. When did it become necessary for us to tell others *that* they drive us nuts and *how* they drive us nuts. Oh yes, and how to *change* so they will no longer drive us nuts.

I commisserated with God on the drive home about putting up with all of us when I am sure God regularly feels like I did last night.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Matthew 15:10-28

This morning, in the shower as usual, I began thinking about what to say next Sunday. I've pulled the two sermons from previous years and will look them over before starting in on the commentaries and online info later this morning. But here are my first thoughts.

When I was about 4, we got a new car. I remember asking my dad why and his answer was something about the car being broken. In my small child's mind, that meant the forbidden "do not touch this" cigarette lighter no longer worked. Well, it did and I burned my finger! Daddy asked me why I had touched it and of course I fed his own words right back to him, "you told me the car was broken."

When we are wee children, we need black and white rules. Don't touch the stove, don't cross the street, don't squeeze the cat - I'm noticing that we tend to stress the negative in all these rules. My sister, Helen, told her little boys (14 months apart) that they had to keep their seatbelts fastened because if they didn't and she had to stop quickly, they might fly through the windshield - from the back seat, of course - and die. It comes as no surprise, then, that the day curious Greg undid his seatbelt, literal Robert cried, "Greg's gonna die!"

Rules are good to have but at some point we begin to reason and think logically and some of the rules don't work anymore. We learn that the stove is only hot when the burner is red or the flame is on. We learn that a hot stove can be a good thing. And, hopefully, before we leave our parents' houses, we learn how to use the stove for our well being!

Once we are adults, there are very few black and white rules anymore and I think most of them can be traced back to the ten commandments. Don't kill, don't steal, honor your parents, have but one God still work. But so many of our rules begin to show signs of grey. Sometimes talking to strangers is a good thing, for instance.

I remember a friend telling me once that she was terrified of African Americans. She was almost 40 years old and had never met anyone who was not as white as she was! Then she went back to school, got a job in the nearby city and learned that her childhood fear was unfounded. Furthermore, she discovered that not all white people were good just because they were white.

The Pharisees can't let go of any of their rules. To do so would mean being unclean and maybe even jeopardize their standing as Pharisees. The disciples, who were never Pharisee material, have some hard and fast rules of their own. Jesus sets out to stand them all on their heads.

And that's it for starters. Since there is no way this is a complete sermon, I trust there will be more to follow. ;-)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Peter and Jesus on the water

This is my sermon from three years ago. I'll likely say something like this again but I still have some reading to do. And today is the Feast of the Transfiguration so I have that sermon to think about as well - although that story appears about twice a year besides today so I have some idea what I'll say.
Anyway, here's Jesus, Peter, the water and the boat.

Proper 14A
Matthew 14:22-33

After feeding all those people
in last week’s gospel,
after overcoming
the disciples’ skepticism,
Jesus manages to disperse the crowd
and get the disciples to row back
across the lake without him.
It’s been a very long day
but now Jesus
gets time alone to pray.
Well the disciples haven’t been away
from Jesus in a long while
so they might wonder
why he forced them to go.
But going out in the boat
is not a problem.
Remember that many of these men
have made their living on this sea.
They know the boat inside out,
know when to raise
the sails,
when to bring them down
and when it is best to row.
The disciples also know the sea
as well as we know our way to work
or school or the grocery store.
They know where it is deepest.
They know its winds and weather.
They know the trip back across
will be into the wind
and that the water is likely
to be choppy.
We have this image of hapless disciples
floundering around in a sea whipped
by gale force winds
that cause mountainous waves
to wash over the boat.
This is not a boat about to capsize.
Yes, there is a struggle
to row back to the home shore
four miles away
but the boat and the disciples
have made this kind of trip before.
It is early in the morning
when Jesus ends his prayers
and begins his own
journey back across the sea.
By now, the disciples are tired
from the exertion of rowing
as well as from the lateness of the hour.
So when they see Jesus coming,
they are, not surprisingly, frightened.
In all of Near Eastern theology –
Jewish or pagan –
no one can walk on the chaos
of the sea except God
because only God can tame
the chaos.
We are still two chapters away
from Peter’s statement,
“You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.”
and the disciples are still getting the big picture.
Naturally, we
think they should have figured it out by now
but we weren’t there
and I’m fairly sure
we wouldn’t have done any better.
Be certain, though,
that the disciples hear Jesus say,
“Take heart”
just like Moses told the Israelites
when they were caught between the sea
and pharaoh’s army;
“it is I”
just like God answered Moses
from the burning bush;
and “do not be afraid”
just like Isaiah told Israel
when she was in exile.
In Peter,
ha Satan finds just enough lack
of faith
to insinuate the idea of testing
what Jesus is saying and doing.
“Lord,” says Peter –
he really does know
who this is –
“if it is you,
command me to walk on water, too.”
And Jesus,
who has already
given ample demonstration of his authority
and even shared that authority with
these twelve men,
now shares his power and authority
over the chaos of the sea
with one who questions
that very authority and power.
Peter steps out of the boat
and takes several steps,
keeping his eye on the Christ.
But the wind catches his cloak,
and distracts him just enough
to replace his growing faith
with fear of the elements.
Like so many of us when we get in trouble,
Peter cries out,
“Lord, save me!”
Jesus stretches out his hand
and helps Peter back into the boat.
The message here is not
that Peter’s lack of faith caused
him to sink.
The message here is that Peter
should have heard Jesus’ words
telling the disciples
that, even though he was not physically present
in the boat, he was there anyway.
“Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”
There should have been enough faith in the boat
for Peter to have stayed put.
Peter never should have gotten out of the boat.
Theologian Eugene Boring says,
“Faith is not being able
to walk on the water –
only God can do that –
but daring to believe,
in the face of all the evidence,
that God is with us in the boat,
made real in the community of faith
as it makes its way through the storm,
battered by the waves.”
Matthew is telling the story of the disciples
but he is telling
it to a community battered
by the political and religious waves
of the time.
In this passage,
he is clearly saying to his community,
“you will find your faith within
the community.
Don’t go testing God
thinking that will bring you
what you already have.”
For centuries,
the boat has been a symbol
for the Church,
the body of Christ in the world.
It is from stories like this one
that that image grew.
So here we are in our boat.
There are storms out there
of one kind or another.
How are we going to weather them?
Not all of the disciples
were fishermen.
We know that Matthew was a tax collector.
You may think that he had nothing
to do with getting that boat
back across the sea.
But I suspect that he probably helped bail
or maybe took a turn at the oars
when one of the real sailors
needed a break.
If those twelve men had not worked together,
even a small storm
would have capsized their boat.
If half of them chose to be rowed
instead of helping row,
the same fate would have been likely.
Despite differences in skill
or intelligence
or opinion,
the disciples pulled together
to get the boat home safely.
Being in the boat requires
being a member of the crew.
We cannot sit quietly and hope the others
can get us back to shore.
We have to pitch in however we can
and keep the boat afloat.
We are one in Christ.
We have different skills
and some of us are smarter than others.
We have lots of opinions
on all sides and in the middle
of just about any issue we can think of.
But we are still one in Christ
and part of this community.
Our faith in the triune God
is expressed in what we do here together.
Our strength for facing personal storms
comes from being part of this worshiping community.
And our commitment to each other
is necessary for our spiritual growth.
Jesus is in the boat with us.
He manifests the love and grace of God here.
Our job as disciples of Christ
is to stay in the boat
and do whatever we have to do
to keep it afloat.
And that takes all of us
working together
for the glory of God.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Theh Friday Five

1) How do you amuse yourself when road construction blocks your travel?
You mean other than cursing or wishing I'd gotten off that road sooner? ;-)
On a trip home with my brother-in-law and sister, we took a county road that quickly became unpaved. At one point, we passed some very new houses and a sheriff was standing in one yard. He waved. Then we came to a place where the road took a sharp 180 degree turn and went "straight" uphill. Finally, we got back on the highway and I realized that the banjos were all in my head.

2) Have you ever locked yourself out of your house? (And do you keep an extra key somewhere, just in case?)
I hadn't been in the new rectory for more than a few days when I locked myself out around 6 a.m. while walking the dogs. I panicked, walked up and down the road several times wondering if I could get to a nearby parishioner's house and would they have a key before remembering that the front door sat loosely in the door frame and there was a piece of flexible plastic in the trash can. Yay!

3) Have you ever cleared a hurdle? (And if you haven't flown over a material hurdle, feel free to take this one metaphorically.)
I ran hurdles in 9th grade but just in gym class. On the first day of 10th grade, I saw a hurdle and ran to jump it. It took two years for someone to diagnose what happened that day - torn cartilage (girls didn't have those kind of injuries in those days, dontcha know?)

4) What's your approach to a mental block?
Well, I try to avoid them! Depending on what kind it is, I either let it go or pray for help fast.

5) Suggest a caption for the picture above; there will be a prize for the funniest answer!
Can't I go anywhere without you guys??

Sunday's sermon

Since I'm pretty sure there's only one parishioner who reads this blog, I'll go ahead and post what I plan to preach on Sunday. The gospel is MTs version of the feeding of the 5,000. Thanks to some suggestions from the revgalblogpals for helping me hear the Spirit in this story once again.

Once upon a time, there were twelve men who became disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. They weren’t all alike but they all heard Jesus’ call to “follow me” deep in their hearts and couldn’t refuse him.

Over time, they came to love him. Without realizing it, they came to see part of their role as disciples to be that of caretakers. Jesus didn’t seem to pay much attention to his own needs so these men decided they would handle that for him.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus has just finished a teaching mission, telling many parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. At the end of that time, he receives the news that John the Baptist has been beheaded at the whim of Herod’s stepdaughter Salome. This is sad on many levels. The people have once again killed a prophet. The one who understood Jesus better than even his disciples is gone. We forget sometimes that John was Jesus’ cousin so it is a family loss as well. And, finally, it makes what Jesus is doing just that much more dangerous.

Jesus is tired, bone weary with no reserves left. More than anything, he needs time alone to pray and to sleep. So he gets into a boat with his disciples around him to protect and care for him and they go to the other side of the lake. I hope he got a nap in the boat because his departure was noticed by someone. And that someone promptly told other someones and a whole bunch of people swarmed around the lake to spend time with Jesus, to ask him questions and to find healing for themselves and their friends.

When Jesus got out of the boat, he was almost instantly surrounded by all these people. This is not a passive crowd nor is it an aggressive mob. No, it is likely that these people called out to Jesus, reached out hands for a touch, turned up their faces hoping to catch his eye. There was likely some jockeying for position, of course, because wherever two or three are gather together, someone always wants to be first.

And this tired Jesus, this man who is exhausted to the point of being physically drained, sees the people and his heart goes out to them. He steps from the boat and wades into the crowd, touching all those hands, catching all those eyes and answering their calls. The disciples know his exhausted state but they realize that something is happening here and Jesus looks refreshed and energized. What had been scarce is now abundant.

I think that when Jesus taught such large crowds, the disciples’ job must have been to make sure everyone could hear him. Now, Jesus didn’t have a single stump speech that the disciples could memorize and say with him but they knew his stories by now and they could probably read his body language well. Their ears were attuned to his voice just as a parent can hear their own child calling them when lots of other children are calling out, too. And so these few disciples were able to help this one man spread the good news of the Kingdom to thousands at a time.

But it is getting on toward evening and the disciples decide that Jesus really does need a break now. It wasn’t that long of a nap, after all, and he still needs to rest and have some time alone. So they suggest to Jesus that it is time for the crowd to be sent home. It is time for supper.
You know what happened next. Jesus told them they could feed everyone and they figured he’d really gone round the bend this time. “Are you kidding, Jesus? We’ve only got a few fish and some loaves of bread. It’s barely enough for the thirteen of us let alone these thousands of people here.”

And Jesus takes what they have, blesses it and sends them into the crowd to distribute it. When they have done so, everyone has had their fill and there is more than enough left over to feed many more. What had been scarce is now abundant.

It doesn’t really matter how the abundance came to be, whether everyone there took something out of the baskets while adding what they had brought with them or whether the loaves and fish really stretched that far. It is generally understood that most everyone would have had a little something in a pocket or pouch, just not enough to share. You’ve been in that position, haven’t you? When you’re out with friends and everyone suddenly gets hungry? You’ve brought a granola bar in case you get hungry but not nearly enough to feed everyone. So you don’t tell anyone you’ve got it and hope you can find a minute alone to eat it without the others seeing you.

No, how it happened is not nearly as important as that it happened. It doesn’t even matter if it happened grudgingly or wonderingly. All that matters is that it happened.

I remember a potluck supper one time. In that parish, we really did just bring a dish. It was never enough to feed your family. It was meant to go with everyone else’s offerings and together they would make a meal. One time, though, several people had come right from work and brought nothing. We had about six or seven dishes for about 60 people. One was a casserole with meat in it, most were veggies, one was a salad and I think there was a dessert. We all looked at the meager fare and figured this was the time we would go home hungry.
The blessing was said and we served our plates. I wouldn’t say that any plate was really full but I have to tell you that we were all satisfied and no one went away hungry that night. What we were sure was scarcity was really abundance.

How often do we look at what we have only in terms of what we do not have? How often do we lament that there isn’t enough, that there needs to be more? If you think this is veering into stewardship, you are right. But I want you to hear this from two points of view.

As individuals making a decision to give, we often worry there won’t be enough left over for us. Remember the baskets of food that were gathered and give generously of what you have.

As a church concerned about meeting expenses and having enough to fund programs and outreach, remember the loaves and fish and how many people were fed by them.

All of us, regardless of where we stand, need to live abundant lives in Jesus Christ. And that means giving up the viewpoint of scarcity. That way of thinking shrinks our hearts until we have nothing left to give. Knowing that we make our gifts available willingly and with thankful hearts will energize us and renew our strength. As individuals and as a church.

Once upon a time, there was a single man who gave everything he had, even his life, that we might live and live abundantly. Don’t you think it’s time we did so?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lambeth Conference

The decennial meeting of the world's Anglican/Episcopal bishops isn't much in the news but it is much on the minds of many of us in The Episcopal Church - as well, I suspect, as in the other 37 provinces. I've been following bishops' blogs and news from Episcopal Life, videos from TECtube and Bishops Lane, Chilton and Smith. My own Bishop has written several reflections that are posted on the diocesan website. Lambeth featured in both of my recent sermons.
But I confess I don't know what I hope will come out of this Conference except a better understanding between bishops about who these different but similar provinces are and lasting friendships. My guess is that there are people in every province who support the actions of TEC and the Church in Canada just as I know there are those here at home who do not support those actions. Can we really be reconciled with each other without changing our positions? That remains to be seen.
I am very grateful that the Archbishop of Canterbury made it clear that this Lambeth is not to be a legislative session. I think we would do well in TEC to consider modeling our General Convention next summer after Lambeth. While we are bound to legislate some things - canons and constitution, budget, elections, consents - we could spend much more time in conversation, prayer and Bible study.
Surely, listening, studying and praying together might eliminate some walls. If we get to know our "enemies" then we might find it harder to sling names and mud at them and they might discover that we aren't all that bad, either.
Let's put aside power and control and authority for one General Convention. We might find we like it a lot better than battling over legislation, much of which makes no difference in the life of the Church.

Beginnings

All my life, the academic calendar has held sway over all others even the church one. I suppose that's part of what makes it easy for people to take summers off from church. Summer has always seemed to be the time when "real" life is suspended for vacation.
But, of course, that has never been the case. My dad worked through the summers when I was a kid and we had two weeks of family vacation in August. Once I was old enough to have a summer job, I didn't lie around the house reading anymore. And then adult life really took hold and there is no such thing as two or three months off every year for most working adults. Certainly not priests.
Most churches have a Rally Day or a fall Sunday dedicated to starting up again. I like parties and it's a good thing to encourage people to sign up for ministries every year but doesn't this sort of thing also encourage people to take the summer off? We need to rethink this whole notion of beginning that happens every fall. Especially since we now start in August - our schools are back in session August 4th.
Maybe we really do need to have year-round school and then we might have year-round church!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lambeth

I have spent far too much time this week reading everything I can find being written from the bishops at Lambeth and avoiding most of what the press has to say. Odd that Lambeth falls in the midst of all the "the Kingdom of Heaven is like" parables in the Lectionary, isn't it?

In any case, there are some very moving stories being told by our Anglican bishops and it appears that there are many ears and hearts listening to them. I commend feeds.feedburner.com/LambethBishops to those of you curious to hear what's happening. It's almost like being a fly on the wall.

There are videos, too, for those who like TV better than books and several bishops are quite creatively including intriguing pictures with their text. They are way better at this blogging stuff than I am.

So what does Lambeth offer us in response to Matthew's series of Kingdom parables? Well, I suspect more than one mustard seed has been planted and one can only hope that those will grow to be wondrous in size. Likewise the leaven. So many bishops in one place is a lot like enough flour for 60 loaves of bread in one bowl, eh? I hope most of them came searching for the most precious pearl but will they be willing to sell all that they have to get it? These parables of treasure are hard all by themselves because we don't equate material wealth with the Kingdom all that well.

Still, Matthew's statement, "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" might well speak to the Lambeth experience for our bishops. As Matthew interwove his tradition with his new life and faith, may these good women and men return home with new perspectives on old Anglicanism and how both may live and grow together to create something greater than either one alone.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The parable of the good seed

I'm out of town this coming Sunday so I've written out the sermon. I have two very capable lay ministers who will lead the services and read this sermon for me, thanks be to God. I haven't written a manuscript for quite some time so it was fun to do this again. Normally, I preach without notes or manuscript.
In any case, here it is.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The early church struggled with who could be a member and who was beyond the pale. The obvious outsiders were Jews and blatant pagans. But some of those who had been baptized still ate the meat offered to idols and some of them didn’t quite understand just how being in Christ was supposed to changetheir lives.

A question that plagued the leaders of this new church was, “How can we let that person in when we know they are not good enough? In fact, that person might even be evil. How do we know? How can we tell?” The baptism of 3,000 converts on Pentecost was just about the last time the Church let anyone in without rigorous training and testing.

By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jerusalem had fallen, Rome had burned and Christians were in hiding. There were enemies everywhere, perhaps in the same congregation as the righteous. So membership was given very cautiously and members who behaved improperly were excommunicated. Righteousness had to be closely guarded, making Christians guilty of the same sin as Pharisees and chief priests and even Qumran hermits. Keeping the community pure was a full time job.

Today’s Gospel is another parable about sowing seed and another interpretation of that parable. Let’s discuss them in backwards order.

When Jesus begins teaching in parables, the explanation given for that move is that those who are going to reject him won’t understand but those who follow Jesus will. Right away, then, in the explanation of this parable, we have a problem. The disciples don’t understand it! Well, if parables are intended to make one think, then perhaps they can be forgiven for their thick headedness. Their misunderstanding is so great, though, that they ask Jesus to explain the parable of the weeds.

Jesus had told the parable of the good seed. Because Jesus began the parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven” most of the people who heard him, including the disciples, assumed that he meant where we go after we die. But you and I know that Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as being now, too. So for us, the disciples assumption is narrow-minded. Between fixing their attention on the weeds and thinking that Jesus is talking of life after death, the disciples have become truly confused.

So Jesus directs his explanation to the place where they are. In doing so, he turns the parable into an allegory of the end times. He begins by listing the actors. Playing the part of the Sower is the Son of Man and so on down the list. The explanation is about the victory of good over evil and justification of the righteous.

But remember that parables are not supposed to be explained to death. There is supposed to be something in a parable that keeps us thinking about it long after we are sure we have figured it out. This detailed explanation is a fairly good indicator that Matthew wrote the explanation, that Jesus probably did not say it. Matthew’s point is to assure the Christian community that the persecution they are suffering will be rewarded at death.

It is possible, though, to read the parable in eschatological terms. We believe in the Kingdom of heaven and we believe that it is the next part of life. If we read the parable as one of the judgment of our lives here, then I think we hear good news in this parable.

I believe that we will all stand before God and that we will be judged. I believe God’s judgment is full of mercy. All too often, when we hear words like “burned up with fire” we see a terrible image of being thrown into an eternal fire. But fire is also tremendously cleansing. Precious metals are purified by fire. In our own time, the fire of lasers are used to cure.

When we stand before God, therefore, I believe that the fire of burning will be a cleansing, purifying fire that burns away the weeds and leaves us restored and whole.

So now let’s go back to the parable itself.

Jesus is again speaking to a great multitude. This is just one in a series of parables that he tells concerning what the kingdom is like – not what it is going to be like, but what it is like right at that moment and right at this moment of ours, too.

A farmer sows his field with good wheat seed. Not the cheap stuff but high quality seed guaranteed to yield an abundant crop. Then he goes home, eats dinner and enjoys a good night’s sleep after a good day’s work. But an enemy comes along during the darkness and sows darnel seed, a weed that looks remarkably like wheat. And then the enemy goes away.
As the wheat and the darnel begin growing, the servants come to ask the master about the quality of the seed he had planted and the presence of the weeds. He tells them that an enemy planted the weeds. Note that the master does not defend the good seed. He knows its goodness.
“Well,” reply the servants, “should we weed the field so that the wheat has more room to grow?”
“Nope,” he tells them; “you will confuse wheat and weeds and pull them both. Permit them to grow together until it is time for the harvest and then I will tell the reapers to separate them out, binding the weeds to be burned and gathering the wheat into the barn.”

Is God really saying here that we are to do nothing about evil? Because that is so outrageous a suggestion, let’s see where it takes us.

The parable tells us why we are to do nothing. If we are the ones deciding what is wheat and what is weeds, we are likely to root out the good with the bad. Instead of pulling up plants, the parable suggests that we are not to do anything that allows the evil to become the focal point rather than the Kingdom. If we work to cultivate and nurture good, if we keep our focus on the light and life in Christ, then the evil won’t have any room to grow.

You see, the enemy has no need to stick around making sure the weeds do their evil work. We are more than willing to do it on the enemy’s behalf. As soon as we spot it, we go after evil with everything we’ve got. And in the process of rooting it out, we become just as bad because we have left off tending the good. We also run the risk of giving the evil a chance to take over our lives.

The other thing Jesus tells us to do through this parable is to let God do the winnowing. God is much better at seeing evil for what it is than we are. God is much better at recognizing goodness, too, because God embodies all that is good and so all this is good about us. God is also merciful and forgiving and we tend to want to punish first and consider forgiving much, much later.

This is a parable about good seeds planted in good soil by a good farmer. Jesus tells us that this is just one way to think about the Kingdom of heaven. Yes, God allows the enemy to plant in the same field weeds that look very much like good wheat. Yes, we are not to go flailing about in the field deciding for ourselves which is which. Yes, we have to let God judge what is good without any help from us. Does that sound like a crazy way to run a Kingdom?

You bet!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Feeding the hungry

Once a month, St. Christopher's sends three to six people down to the Salvation Army to cook lunch for whoever shows up. We've served as many as 80 but usually have about fifty. There are three or four of us take turns being the chef, deciding on the menu and doing the shopping.

We have a lot of fun. The SA staff are great people and we look forward to seeing them every month, asking them about families and special events they've had since we were there last. They like us, too. Apparently, other organizations sign up and then don't come or they don't bother to clean up. Everyone today asked about one of our regulars who is on vacation.

We've learned some good life lessons. You can work hard to make a really good meal but there will always be someone who doesn't like it - except the dessert. No matter what's in the casserole, spray all baking pans liberally with Pam unless you like chiselling cooked food off the pan when it is empty. Service with a smile does work best. Not everyone wants to eat their vegetables and we aren't their mothers.

I admit that there are times when I haven't wanted to give up my Saturday morning for ministry but that was before I started this gig. I look forward to the second Saturday, not because I am doing some great good for the Lord but because the Lord does some great good for me.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sowing seeds?

The Gospel this week is the parable of the sower, this farmer who tossed seeds everywhere. On the path, on the rocks, in the thorns and in good soil. Rather than think of ourselves as being a particular kind of soil or having times in life when we tend to be thorny or rocky rather than well-tilled and receptive, I wonder if we might think of how we need to be gardeners.
I like the image of the constant gardener that was posted to revgalblogpals. Certainly, we all contain the various types of soil, even though God made us as good soil, but I believe we are called to tend the garden, to do the weeding and to get rid of the rocks. Both within ourselves and in the world. So how do we do that?
Starting with the self is in order, of course. A parishioner was just here and we were talking about conscious language, being deliberately careful of the words we speak. By altering our language and tone, we can stop planting thorns or making rocks. By deciding to live more simply, we can make space for God to work in our lives and that makes it easier for us to become sowers. After all, if we don't sow seed in the soil we have worked so hard to prepare, what's the point? Working to become receptive is only productive if we then receive and nurture the seed to grow and produce good fruit.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

And now for something slightly different

We bless pets pretty regularly in the Episcopal Church but today I got to bless a new animal hospital. I used the format for house blessings found in the Book of Occasional Services, adapted prayers from the New Zealand Prayer Book, the BOS and the Book of Common Prayer. A very few I wrote myself.
It was pretty neat. People often ask to have their houses blessed and I've done several of those. For the first time, though, I realized that we bless the space less than we bless the people who will be using it. To be able to extend those blessings, through the new building and the people who work in it, to pets and farm animals felt really good, particularly as my own pets are so often the bearers of God's love for me.
One of the books I used to prepare the service was John O'Donohue's To Bless the Space Between Us. I recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about prayers of blessing. They are written in the Celtic style and cover a wide range of times and places.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Thinking toward Sunday

Preaching, of course, is a large part of my life as a priest. I do two sermons a week - three, really, since the two Sunday ones tend to be slightly different. Currently, I preach without a text; however, I preached from a text for five years and have saved most of those. Sometimes, an old sermon will help "write" a new one. Here's the text from my sermon on this Sunday's Gospel from 2005.


Proper 9A RCL
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Have you ever played house? Or school or doctor?
Almost all children play at what they see grownups do or what they think grownups do.
I remember my sister Helen and her friends playing hospital. Mother had gone there
to give birth to sister Barbara when Helen was two. So going to the hospital to buy a baby
was one of the games Helen played. I played house with a friend on the next block. For some unknown reason, we were a family of squirrels.

In Jesus’ time, children played similar games, imitating adult life. Today’s reading indicates that two of those games were weddings and funerals. Jesus compares the people listening to him to obstinate children. Whatever game one group proposes, the other group refuses to play.
There is a group of people who believe John the Baptist – whose dour message of repentance
is funereal – to be a prophet telling of the coming of the Messiah. Many of those people and others who have joined them believe that Jesus is that Messiah, the bridegroom who has come
to bring in the kingdom of God. But most of the people refuse to believe. They won’t join in.
In fact, they are convinced that John the Baptist is possessed of a demon. Why else would he live in the wilderness, dress in the skins of wild animals and eat very strange food? John is too weird to be a real prophet so why should they heed his warning and repent. He must be a false prophet who wants to lead the people away from the Lord.

Moses warned Israel to steer clear of false prophets. Moses also warned them about the rebellious son, one who refuses to obey his parents. How do you recognize one of these?
He will be a glutton and a drunkard. And Moses says sons like this are to be stoned to death.
Isn’t it a good thing that no one chose to play that game?

In the verses we did not read this morning, Jesus hurls some very adult warnings to those who have turned him away. “Woe to you,” he says. “For Sodom will receive kinder treatment on the day of reckoning than you will.” At the same time, Jesus, still seated with a crowd of unbelieving people, gives thanks to the Father for people who are not wise and intelligent but are like infants.

I love to hear my daughter talk about her class of two-year olds. Little children watch and listen to what the adults in their lives do and then they act and say what they have learned. Sometimes that’s a good thing but sometimes it means they learn to hit or call names they don’t yet understand but do hear said in anger or derision.

Children are like sponges. They also have an innate sense of who to trust, who to follow. Be like little children, Jesus implores us. I am showing you the Father. I am telling you about your God. Learn from me. You have been carrying the burden of the Law too long and the yoke of Torah is weighing you down with obligations of fasting and sacrifice.

Take up my yoke instead. It is the yoke of God’s will for you and it will rest easy on your shoulders and your hearts. I am offering you gentleness and warmth salvation and eternal life.

Be like infants. That is so hard for us to hear in part because we usually do not mean anything good when we call someone an infant. But good scholars are like infants. They absorb their subject, read everything they can, listen to all the experts in the field, learn the language and nuances. Then one of two things seems to happen to them. Some will reach a point at which they determine there is nothing left to learn. They know it all and expect recognition as the new experts. The wiser ones realize that what they know, what they can learn, will never be all there is. They always have new questions, find new avenues to explore. Even though they recognize their status as scholars, they do not lose their initial curiosity; they retain their child-like outlook always expecting to be amazed by something new.

Wisdom is a good thing. Knowledge is necessary, a gift to humanity given to us by the one who created us. God expects us to use our wisdom to enrich our faith, to study throughout our lives.
But when wisdom becomes the goal rather than a tool for reaching the goal, then we have perverted the gift.

The Law was given to Israel to guide the people in the new land God led them to. They would need to behave in a way that set them apart from those who worshipped other gods, false gods and idols. But as Israel gained in wisdom, the Law became less a guide and more a burden
with more than 600 extra laws to help interpret the original ten. Finally, it was so important
to keep the nation pure and to worship in a very particular way that the Law became a high wall separating the people from their God as well as from idol worshipers.

The Church has done the same thing with the Gospels, the Creeds and the teachings of some
scholars. We can and do use our intelligence to build walls protecting our faith, keeping it from being polluted by society, science, other faiths, new interpretations of ancient texts
anything that might shake that faith. Preserving the faith exactly as it was learned however
many years ago has for some, become their religion. They have stopped listening, stopped trying to see God through the life and teaching of the Son.

The Pharisees, with their rigid interpretations and myriad laws are alive and well in Christianity. How do we avoid becoming a Pharisee? We need to retain our child-like curiosity and trust.
We need to understand our study of Scripture as opening new doors through which we enter again and again into that relationship that gives us rest, grace and hope. We need to trust
in the Holy Spirit.

Open your hearts and minds, take up the yoke of the Christ. For it really is easy to wear.