Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 7: "Wheat or Weeds?"

Dear friends in Christ, dear people of Grace, grace to you and peace from God our creator…

            I’ll confess – one of the things I love to do in a Bible study is to discover and point out the way God confounds our expectations
            – the ways that God acts totally differently than we would act.  So I love the parable of the sower which you heard last week, and how the sower sows seeds EVERYONE, even on the path and places where seeds can’t possibly sprout. 
            We would never do that, would we?
             It just shows how generous, how extravagant, God is.  So different than us….   “God’s ways are not our ways….”

            And I remember sitting down at a Bible study with today’s parable and a group of farmer’s wives one day. 
            We read the parable together and I said what I thought:  isn’t it weird that the farmer would tell the workers to leave the weeds alone?             We would pull the weeds wouldn’t we?  We would want to get RID of those evil weeds, because (I knew this from experience) if you didn’t pull the weeds they would take over the field.  
             This does not make any sense!  The ways of God – so different than ours.

            And my farmers wives told me that I was wrong.
             This made absolute sense to them.
             In fact, this was the way it was for farmers back before there were chemicals to kill the weeds. 
            You see – they told me patiently – unlike corn, wheat is not a row crop.  You can’t get between the rows and get rid of the weeds. 
            You had to sort it out at the harvest.  That was the way it was done.

            In the parable, the master is concerned that not one stalk of wheat be lost. 
            For some reason for the longest time I did not notice this.
             I was thinking about the weeds, and the idea that the weeds would endanger the field. 
            But the farmer is concerned that he might lose a few stalks of wheat if he pulls the weeds to early.  
            In our lives, there is such a thing as collateral damage.  It’s the idea that in the pursuit of good, sometimes we make mistakes and some people are hurt, even lost.  It’s inevitable. 
            Because we are human.  But in the kingdom of heaven.  No collateral damage.

            I think back to the prophet Isaiah, and one way he describes the Messiah, “A bruised weed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” 
            In other words, he’s going to protect the weak, and not throw away someone or something when it’s broken. 
            And lately I’ve been thinking – there’s one way that God is so much different than we are.

            Maybe this is because we are moving and we are doing so much sorting right now. 
            We have done so much sorting – which is really what this parable is about. 
            It’s not a huge statement about why there is evil in the world – although it’s true, there is evil in the world. 
            Also in the church.  The church is God’s creation, and yet with all of the grace and goodness and abundance, in the church there is also sin and grieving and conflict too.  We are God’s field, but there are weeds.     And sometimes we are tempting to do some sorting – who’s in and who’s out. 
            To try to figure out who and what has value and who doesn’t.

            That’s what we have been doing during the past couple of years, and even more so in the past couple of weeks, and it’s hard.
             I’m sure there have been a few times we have thrown out things that we will end up regretting, and there are times we will say ‘why did we keep this?” when we unload the truck.   

            There have been times we have found things that we thought we had lost – (I’m sure that’s another parable!), and there are times I have thrown away something just because it was broken It made the decision easier. 

            But God’s ways are not our ways, and God does not throw something away just because it’s broken. 
             God does not cut off the plant just because it’s weak.  God doesn’t want to lose even one precious stalk of wheat.   
            That’s one message of the parable.   God doesn’t want to lose any wheat.  At all.  Even if you’re bruised.  Even if you are broken.

            But what if you are not sure whether you are weed or whether you are wheat? 
            You know, sometimes, because of the things that have happened to us in life, or even because of the things we have done, we aren’t sure.  Am I one of the beloved ones, or am I a weed?
             In the parable the weed is a very specific one – it’s called ‘darnell’ and it actually resembles wheat, especially when it is young. 
            You can’t always tell by looking what is a useless weed and what is a useful stalk of wheat.  You really do have to wait

            Oh, sometimes you can tell..  Sometimes it’s obvious. 
            A few years ago I found this in my yard. 
            It’s very obvious that this did not belong there! 
            So, we cut it down.  Then we found out – who knows what this is?  It is milkweed – and even though the name says “weed” in it – it is a home to butterflies, not to be thrown away, but to be preserved and protected and valued.

            Like you.  Like me.

            God’s ways are not our ways. 
            We like to sort, and sometimes we think we know who is valuable and who is not, who to welcome and who to turn away. 
            But we don’t.  Only God knows. 
            And God does not want to lose even one of us.  God will not lose even one of us.
             I think that is one of the reasons that Grace put in our new mission statement that we welcome everyone, no exceptions.
             Because we know that, right?  God does not want to lose even one of us. 

            A few years ago I remember reading about the crisis with immigrant children coming here unaccompanied. 
            They were fleeing violence in their own countries, and some of their desperate parents were sending them on their own, which was creating all kinds of crises for us, too.
              What to do with them.  How we should treat them.  Who they even were.  And I remember reading that someone called them “refugees” and another person commented back:  “They are not refugees.  They are criminals.”
             And at the time, I wondered, “But how do you know?  How do you know?”

            God’s ways are not our ways.  We like to sort, and sometimes we think we know who is valuable and who is not.  But we don’t. 
            After all, it was us who put Jesus on trial, judged him and sentenced him to death. 
            But God said no, He was the  Holy one, the one through him we are all saved, all preserved, all named “worthy”, all saved.
            Thanks be to God.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

What is it about Books?

I have moved, and I am moving.  Two years ago I began the process by saying "yes" to a call to serve a congregation just north of Houston, Texas.  At that time I knew I would be living temporarily in a small apartment while my husband completed his work and was able to move with me, and so I took a few of the things I thought I were the most important -- including books.

Books.  What is it about books?

Now we are completing the process, two years later, and we are packing and sorting the rest of our things, deciding what is most important and necessary and what is not.  We are taking things to thrift stores (God help us) and throwing things away and packing and labeling.  We are trying to figure out what is most important, and it's not always easy.  Especially about the books.

Books.  What is it about books?

I find the number of books I own sort of alarming, and I find that I truly do want to downsize.  i want to live a lighter life, and books are one of the heavy things.  I want to be more portable, to travel and to be available to go.  I don't want to feel weighed down with things.  And all of this is theoretical when I look at each individual book.

I won't lie.  Some of them are easy, and it's a relief.  Some of them I hadn't seen in a long time, and I had forgotten that I even had them.  Some I rescued, and put in a stack "to keep", for one reason or another.  And not all of the reasons are logical.  I have saved most of the children's books, even though I do not have children.  They are beautiful.  There are some old books I have put in the 'save' pile simply because they have beautifully designed covers.  I have decided to donate or sell books that I have loved, reasoning to myself that I will learn to love again the public library.  I have tried with some success to read some more on Kindle or Nook.  I am reading H is for Hawk on a Reading Device right now, and I love it, but when I saw some used copies in a bookstore I still had to stop and stare.

Books.  What is it about books?

It's about relationships, I tell myself.  I want to value people more than things.  I don't want to spend more time on things than I do on people.  But then I consider how I want to buy many copies of a certain book of creative prayer, and give them to all of my friends.

There is something for me about the whole book, the entire experience, that is not the same reading electronically.  There is something about the marriage of the words and the pages and the weight of it in my hands, how the whole thing is put together.  A book is a work of art.

I took a couple of book-making classes where we cut the pages and sewed the bindings and learned a little of the terminology of the making of books.

When I was a child, I  could lose myself in a book, and forget where I was for awhile.  I could lose my sense of hearing while I reading about Alice or Lucy, abut Laura or Betsy.  People would call me and I was somewhere else, because I was reading.

So books and reading are sort of a spiritual experience for me.  Not just the Bible and the prayer books, but those too.  I have caught glimpses of God, and the more acquainted I am with the Book, the more I catch sight of God in books.  (And in other places too.)

Books.  What is it about books?

The other day we were in a used bookstore, selling some books.  And while we were there waiting for the verdict, I wandered the aisles and stared at the books.  I saw a new book for young adults, a historical novel set during the Revolutionary War, told from the point of view of two young slaves, yearning for freedom.  I saw a prayer book for soldiers written during World War II.  I saw a locally published book of stories written by the students at one of our middle schools.

I know it is not this way for everyone.  Some people struggle with reading, and do not love books.  There are many paths to knowledge, and transformation.  Relationships are more important than things.

And yet:  Books.  What is it about books?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 5: "Rest and Restlessness"

            “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens….”
            Come.  It’s an invitation, isn’t it?
             I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.
             But it’s an invitation.  But it’s not an invitation to a party. 
            It’s not an invitation to join a group. 
            It’s not an invitation to a club. 
             But it’s an invitation.  “Come.” 

            It’s possible that I am hearing this invitation in a new way since spending some time back in Minneapolis last week where we were cleaning up and getting packed up and discarding things and giving them away. 
            And in the midst of all of this we do what most families do:  we find the old pictures of our ancestors, and we sit down and remember what we know about their sea journey long ago.
             My Swedish grandparents came through Ellis Island back in the early 20th century.  

            We found pictures of them and their parents and the names of their brothers and sisters.  They got on a boat and they came.
             They heard an invitation, too, I suppose, in some way or another.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and they said, “That’s me.”
              They were tired, they were poor, they were longing…. For something.  Opportunity?  Space?  Adventure? 
            You know, I never asked them.    I don’ t really know why they came.  But they heard an invitation, and they came.  They knew it was for them.

            “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 
            And in this short passage of scripture, Jesus is inviting us, as well. 
            Or at least, he is inviting those who are weary, and who are carrying heavy burdens…. Whoever they are.  Is it you?  Do you find this invitation irresistible?

            One year during Lent, a Catholic church in Tulsa, Oklahoma ran an advertisement to invite people to “come home, to return to the church.”   The invitation that year extended a special welcome to “single, twice-divorced, under 30, gay, filthy rich, black and proud, poor as dirt, can’t sing, no habla ingles, married with pets, older than God, more Catholic than the Pope, workaholic, bad speller, screaming babies, three-times divorced, passive aggressive, obsessive-compulsive, tourists, seekers, doubters, bleeding hearts….
            Oh, and you.”
             “Come to me, all you who are weary….” And who isn’t? …the ad seems to say. 
            Which of us can honestly say that we aren’t sometimes bone-tired, that we aren’t carrying some kind of burden we’d like to lose?


            The invitation requires us though to be honest, to admit that we have burdens, to admit that we don’t have it all together, that we “are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”, as the old confession used to say. 
            The invitation requires us to look into our hearts and say, “that’s me.” 
            I’m not really satisfied where I am. 
            My life isn’t like a glossy magazine advertisement.  I’m not “all that”. 
            The invitation requires us to identify ourselves with all the other needy who have found this irresistible, for one reason or another.

            I think of immigrants now and immigrants then – my own ancestors, and those who hear the irresistible invitation to “come.” 
            And I imagine that they have things in common.  I don’t know exactly what they are, since I never bothered to ask my grandmother or my grandfather why they came. 
             But I know that they were poor, I know that my grandfather came from a seafaring family in which there were 11 children. 
            I imagine that they were restless.  I imagine that they were carrying heavy burdens. 
            And I imagine that immigrants now are the same – restless, searching for a better life, whatever that looks like, admitting that the life they are living now is no great shakes. 

            It’s an invitation to sinners – that’s what Jesus’ words are.
             It’s an invitation to all who are weary from from trying to be righteous on their own – from carrying the burden of trying to save themselves.  
            Just put it down.  Come to Jesus.  And he will give you rest.

            And then Jesus says something odd. 
            After promising rest, he tells us, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” 
            I don’t know how many of us have a picture when we think of the word yoke – but for me, it conjures up something just the opposite of the word “rest.” 
            A ‘yoke’ means not rest but work. 
            My first picture when I think of a yoke is of two oxen who are yoked together to plow the fields.  
            However, in ancient times people captured in battle were also yoked as slaves to those who had won. 

            After promising us rest, Jesus offers us a yoke. 
            What is this, a great bait-and-switch?  First Jesus promises rest.  Then he offers us a yoke, his yoke, saying:  my yoke is easy. 

            Well, maybe it’s as simple as this:  As Bob Dylan once famously said, “you gotta serve somebody”. 
            We are bound to be yoked to something or someone in this life.      We can be yoked to our own fears and desires, we can be yoked to the power of sin in our lives, or we can be yoked to Jesus. 
            And his yoke is easy because we can trust him – because his promises are true – because when Jesus says “you are forgiven” – you are forgiven.  

            Bible scholars have noted that a yoke is “easy” when it fits, when it is the right one which does not chafe.
             If it is true, as we prayed earlier, that God has made us for himself, that the yoke of Jesus fits us – it is the one that is right for us, that directs us, but does not chafe or burn.  
            And the yoke is easy because it is shared. 
            Think about the oxen, traveling together.  That is the way it is with disciples.  We are meant to go together.  We are meant to share the load with one another.  

            I’ve been thinking a lot about the story about the Gard baby – that little boy who is – probably – terminally ill, and the burden that his parents have, wanting to care for him with the most love and respect.        Both Pope Francis and President Trump have reached out, saying they want to help the parents in some way. 
            What is it that makes us – in cases like this – so much wanting to help bear that burden?
             And what is it that makes our hearts harden to others who have burdens to bear -- the poor, the elderly, the stranger, the immigrant?
            All I know is that Jesus’ burden is light because it is shared.  And that is the yoke we are called to take up.

            Finally, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light simply because it means we are traveling with him. 
            Wherever we go, through whatever difficulties, he shares the burdens with us, he shares his life with us. 
            We get to be with HIM, and somehow that eases our restless hearts. 
            I remember once a little girl asking her mother, “Mom, will I have to do dishes in heaven?”  Her mother thought about it for a moment, and then said, “Yes…. But you’ll like it!”
             What a great answer! 
            Simply because you are with Jesus, traveling with him, you know that whatever you do, you will share with him.  
             And because you are traveling with Jesus, yoked with him, you know that wherever you go… you will share his abundant and eternal life. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 3: "Don't be Afraid!"

“Don’t Be Afraid!” 
Matthew 10:24-39

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

            These words of the pre-school children often ring in my ears.  “Don’t be afraid!” they tell me. 
            It’s often when I tell them a particular Bible story. 
            When the angel came to Mary, before Jesus was born – and what did the angel say?  “Don’t be afraid!”
             They all shout. 
            Or when I am telling the story of when Jesus walked on the water, late at night.  It was the middle of a storm, and they all thought he was a ghost. 
            But what did Jesus say?  “Don’t be afraid!”  they shout. 
            Or when I tell the story of the angel at the tomb, after Jesus rose from the dead, except that no one knew it yet. 
            And what did they angel say?  “Don’t be afraid!”  they all shout. 

            I have to admit that I admire their enthusiasm. 
            They don’t whisper; they shout. 
            They don’t walk; they dance. 
            They are confident that there is nothing to be afraid of, because Jesus said so. 
            They remind me of the time I witnessed a class trip to a place called “Pump it Up!”
            You might think that this is a venue for body builders, but in truth it is a special playground for children, where everything is built like a bounce house.  No hard edges. 
            All landings guaranteed soft. 
            No danger of being hurt.  Nothing to be afraid of.  
             And the children – all trusting – played hard that afternoon, running and taking risks and living unafraid.

            Wouldn’t that be nice? 

            Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to play and live like the children?

            In truth, we know that life is more dangerous than the children know;
            that there are no guarantees of soft landings, that we will be hurt, that being a disciple of Jesus is no guarantee of an easy life. 
            Disciples will face storms and illnesses and tragedies just like everybody else. 
            That’s what Jesus means when he says that “A Disciple is not above the teacher.” 
            There are dangers, there are risks in life – and there are risks involved in being a disciples of Jesus. 
            There ARE things to be afraid of.

            And yet, I couldn’t help noticing, three times Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t be afraid.”  “Have no fear of them.”  “Do not fear.”  “Do not be afraid.”  He must mean it.   

            I have to wonder why he even says it.
             We can’t help how we feel, after all. 
            And there ARE things to be afraid of in life.  
            He says, sometimes our faith is going to cause division, we will be misunderstood and we will be mistreated sometimes when we take a stand, when we go where the love of God leads us. 
            There are things to be afraid of.  

            I can’t help but remember back to words I learned when I was in school.  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
             Who said them?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  When did he say them? 
            During the Great Depression – another time when there were many reasons to fear.
             And he said those words, I believe because he knew that we could only go forward as a country by NOT giving in to our fear, but instead living by our hope, even in the darkest of times. 
            He knew that out of fear – people would do the wrong thing, take actions that hurt rather than helped – themselves, and other people.

            So Jesus says it too: he says it three times.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  Don’t be afraid!  What are you afraid of?

            Then he tells them about the sparrows. 
            Perhaps this is one of the most beloved passages of scripture, partly because of the song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow…. And I know he watches me.”  
            He tells them that two sparrows are sold for a penny.  They are cheap and abundant and not valued much.
             Even today, I think that sparrows are not valued. 
            I was looking on Amazon for those stuffed birds that have the bird calls in them?  Do you know about those? 
            And they have all kinds of birds – they have the cardinal and the robin and the bluejay and even the northern mockingbird (I want one of those!) 
            But you know what they don’t have?  Sparrows

            Many of Jesus’ first disciples were sparrows. 
            They were the poor.  They were the ones who were not valued by society. 
            They were easily thrown away. 
            And Jesus didn’t promise them that they would never be hurt, but he did say to them, (all evidence to the contrary) they were valuable to his Father. 
            They not one of them fell to the earth without his care. 

            Do not be afraid, he tells them.  Follow me. 
            It’s going to be hard, and you will suffer, but you will ALWAYS be in my hand.
             That’s what he wants us to know.
             That’s what he wants us to do.  He wants us to stand up for the sparrows, to go where his Gospel leads us,  hanging on to those promises like the children who bounce off the walls and slide down the slides and dance and jump as high as they can – because they believe they cannot be hurt.

            They are right you know. 
            Even though it’s hard for me to believe, and hard for me to follow sometimes, hard for me to trust.

            I remember when I was a little girl, one of my uncles, Roger – like to play games with the children. 
            In many ways he was a big kid himself. 
            He had had polio as a teenager and his legs were weak, but his arms were strong because of all of the exercises. 
            So one of his games was that he would lie on the floor and lift us up in the air on his hands. 
            It was a great game, but I was afraid to play.
             All of my cousins and my sisters and brothers did it, but I would hang back.  Because I was afraid.

            But when I look back at the pictures of the children in his hands – (there’s so much joy. )
            He could have dropped us, but he never did. 

            There’s danger in following Jesus.  I won’t deny it. 
            We will find ourselves on the side of the little ones, the sparrows.  We will stand up for those who are misunderstood and mistreated.  
            We will tell about the one who love the whole world so much that he died – and the life that is in his name.

            And we will live as if it’s true.  Despite our fear.
            You know why?  Because there’s also so much joy.  There’s so much joy when we follow Jesus. 
            That’s what the children know.

            So jump as high as you can, sing as loud as you can, run as fast as you can. 
            Be like the children, who know that no matter what, they are in his hand. 
            Listen to their voices, speaking the truth, and “Don’t be afraid!”