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.


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


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.