Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Wheat and Weeds, Redux

On Sunday I preached the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the one where there is good seed sown by a good sower and an enemy that mucks things up by sowing weeds while everyone is sleeping.  And before that, on Tuesday evening, when we had read this parable and its explanation at an online Bible study, there was silence afterward we finished reading.  And someone said, "I don't like this parable." And I think that part of it was just that the parable itself ends with the image of the weeds being burned and the wheat being gathered, and the explanation has that line about casting out evildoers and the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So, it's not (in some ways) what you would call a "feel good" parable, although I wrestled a blessing out of it, pointing out that God lets the wheat and weeds grow together because God doesn't want to lose even one shock of wheat, and as well pointing out that the presence of the weeds does not mean God has abandoned the field.

Afterwards my husband asked me why I had not used our own yard as a sermon illustration:  with our many weeds that we struggle to control, and our St. Augustine grass (which we had never heard of up north) which we THOUGHT was a weed, and were merrily trying to pull out.  I said that I had thought about it but I had way too much material for one sermon.  So the St. Augustine grass did not make it into the sermon.

But he also told me afterwards that the one thing I mentioned that he had never noticed before was that the reason the sower doesn't want to dig up any weeds is that the wheat would be uprooted at the same time.  In other words, their roots are too close together, even entangled.  He had never noticed that.  Frankly, neither had I.  I had always focussed on the interesting idea that this particular weed looked a lot like wheat.  But the fact that it might not even be possible to uproot weeds without uprooting some wheat along with it -- that never made an impression on me.

But I'm thinking more and more about that entangled wheat these days.  Maybe it's COVID 19 and our attempts to quarantine and protect ourselves from the virus.  Maybe it's the fact that there are many gated communities around me, or the fact that we seem to live in bubbles defined by our race or class or even our politics.  We surround ourselves with people who think like us, whether or not they look like us.

But the truth is, we are all tangled up in each other, and our fates are intertwined.  Even if we live in gated communities.  Even at our most segregated.  I remember that some people would say:  why should I care about the public schools?  My kids are grown up now.  And someone else would say:  I care, because the children who go to those schools will be the teachers and police officers, and custodians and politicians in my community, and I want them all to be well educated.  We touch each other's lives, whether we want to or not.

Our fates are intertwined.  We belong to each other.   That's God's honest truth, although some days it may make us weep and gnash our teeth.

But someday, when all of the weeds inside us are burned, perhaps we will rejoice in this.  Perhaps we'll see the beauty in the dandelion and stop trying to dig up the Augustine grass, and notice that the wheat is springing up and bearing fruit, to share.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Singing, in and out of Church

My dad always sang in the shower.  He sang in the car, too.  And, he sang in church, standing right next to me.  He sang all of the hymns, and all of the liturgy, and even the bass part on the three-fold amen.  Sometimes, in the quiet of my heart, I can still hear him, singing in church.  Because he sang, I sang too.  I learned Beautiful Savior, and What a Friend in Jesus, and Children of the Heavenly Father, and Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.

It wasn't just church, of course. My mom played a little bit of piano, just enough so that we could sing a few of the old standards.  And of course, there was always the shower, and the car.  There was always a lot of singing, and singing along.

So during this season that we have not been in the church building, it has been the singing together that I have missed.  I wanted to make sure that the services that we provided included some singing -- not just music, but singing, even if it was just one person, or two people.  Maybe nobody would sing along.  But maybe someone would.  Maybe even a few people would.  I hoped so.  I imagined just one person, maybe, sitting at their computer, singing along to a familiar song at worship.  I imagined that perhaps a family or two would not just stare at the screen, but sing along as we were singing a hymn, or a contemporary song.

We went to church every single Sunday when I was a little girl.  I mean it.  Neither rain nor sleet nor snow would ever keep us from missing Sunday morning worship (although I think that measles did, once).  We did not travel much, back when I was a little girl, so church was like clockwork; we never missed.  So I have a very vivid memory of the one time that my parents decided to sleep in, and not go to church one Sunday morning.  I have no idea what possessed them, but it did not catch on.  But what I remember is that my sister and I stood in the middle of the living room floor, holding my dad's old hymnbook, and we sang the liturgy.

I'm not sure why we did it.  Nobody told us we could; and nobody told us we couldn't.  But we decided we wanted to do something holy that Sunday morning, even though we weren't in the church building.

So we sang.

These days, I am heartbroken.  I have heard that during the current pandemic, it is not safe to sing in church.  It is not safe to sing together.  That's what they say.  So when we finally do gather, we won't be singing.  And it will feel strange.  Because church has been one of the few places left where we still sing together.

I can't help but think, though, that perhaps this is a time to find our voice, not just in our church buildings, but out of them.  In the middle of the living room, for starters.  To learn to sing, and to speak, even when we can only imagine the other people singing along.

I heard recently from a friend whose church worships on Zoom.  The choir director there tells everyone to mute themselves when they begin a hymn.  Then, he tells them, "you can sing as loud as you want to!"

I love this.  When I think of it, I think of my dad, singing in the shower, or in the car, or in his whole life.  And I think of my immigrant foremothers and fathers.  They didn't have many books, but they had their Bibles, and they had their hymnals.  They carried church with them.  They had home altars. They lit the candles, and they sang.

Every once in awhile, someone from my church will post a picture of their home worship space.  their candle, or their Bible, or whatever it is they need to set the space apart.  It gives me a little bit of hope.  Maybe the children are standing in the middle of the living room, singing.  Maybe they are having a conversation about God.  Maybe they are praying out loud, even when they are alone.

So, let us sing. Alone, for now
.  Loudly or softly.  Whether we sing in tune or not.  And let us sing of a love wider than we can imagine, stronger than death, greater than our national interests, bigger than the whole universe.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Oil and Ashes

On Sunday evening, I got a phone call from a member of our congregation.  She wanted me to know about another member of the church who was dying.  She wanted to make sure I knew, and that I would go out to see her as soon as possible.

A little later I got a text from someone else with the same message.  It was already late, so I resolved to go over early the next morning.

That Sunday morning we had been on the mountaintop with Jesus.  It was a brief, shining encounter; we raised up brightly colored Alleluias and shouted and then put them away for Lent.  That morning we remembered the words, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased."

Then, on Monday morning, I drove over to the assisted living center where this 101 year old woman lived.   I considered that she had faithfully attended worship almost every single Sunday, but not the day before.  One of her daughters-in-law was at the door of her apartment when I arrived.  She was sleeping peacefully.  I prayed and sang and spoke in her ear; I sang Beautiful Savior and What a Friend we Have in Jesus.  I told her how important she was; how much the children loved her. Her daughter-in-law told her that her husband was waiting for her, that everyone would be all right.

Then I got a small container of oil out of my purse.  It was something I had just received; a hand-me-down from a retired pastor.  I hadn't used it before.  I unscrewed the lid; there was not much balm left, but there was enough to put on my finger, and on her forehead, and to say the words, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked by the cross of Christ forever."

And I remember that after that, her daughter in law took the container from me for a moment and she smelled the fragrance of that small amount of balm.

It was two days before Ash Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning at 7:30 I was standing in the lobby of our congregation's pre-school.  Parents came in with babies and toddlers, and I was there to offer ashes and strange words to anyone who stopped.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  And although not everyone stopped, some did, expressing thanks, some silently.  One man told me that he was raised Catholic, but hadn't been for awhile.  Several brought their children to be marked as well.

And even though I do this, I offer the words and the ashes, I have to wonder what it is that draws people to the ashes and the words, "Remember that you are dust"?  It seems like the last thing we would want to remember.

A little later, I held a chapel service for the children over in our sanctuary.  We heard the story of Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and how the fourth man was with them in the flames, so that they were not burned.  And afterwards, two of the teachers and several of the older children also wanted ashes on their foreheads, in the form of a cross.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

After the chapel service, when I arrived at the church office, and I learned that my 101 year old member had died that morning.

"You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever."

Oil and ashes, we are marked.  We are born and we die.  We die, and we are born again.

At the end of the day I got a message from a young mother from my church.  She said they had really hoped to come to the noon service, but they didn't make it.

But before she went to bed, her daughter went to the fireplace, and found ashes and marked her parents with the ashes.  With the sign of the cross.

You are dust, you are marked with oil and ashes.  You are born and you die.  You die, and you are born again.

Monday, February 17, 2020

A Tale of Two Funerals

A week ago on Monday afternoon I was here for the memorial service of one of my parish members.  That's probably not an unusual thing for a pastor to say.  I've held a lot of funerals through the years.  But, until recently, i have not had many in this little congregation.

I remember meeting with the family the Thursday before.  She wanted to have two hours visitation starting at 12:00.  The service would be at 2:00 p.m.  They chose two hymns; I urged them to include one more.  They had two friends as eulogists as well.  The man's wife and children spoke so warmly of their husband and father, memories of family events and things that he had done in the communities where they lived, including (I remember) that he liked to read to the children at Head Start.  And I remember that she was concerned that our church would be large enough.  They had heard from many people who planned to attend.  We had extra chairs ready for the narthex and the balcony, just in case we would need them.

As it turned out, we did need them.  This little church of ours was packed that Monday afternoon.  I have never really seen anything like it before.  I have been to a few other large funerals, but it felt like people just kept coming, squeezing into every nook and cranny, singing "Beautiful Savior" at the top of our lungs.  I did not see this, but i was told that there was a line of cars stretching down the highway waiting to get into our small parking lot.

It is not very often that you get a glimpse of the impact that one life can have.  One ordinary life.  This man, though beloved, was not in any way famous.  He did not have an especially large family. He was active in his church and he was active in his community.  There was something humbling about trying to squeeze all of those people into our little building that day.    It felt like God was shouting at us to have faith -- that though we are small, God is mighty.  Just look around.  Look at all of the people.  Look at how God works in the world.

That is how I felt that day.

Inevitably, though, I thought back.  It was early December, the beginning of Advent.  I was preparing for a funeral that day too.  We had gotten word that an elderly member of our congregation had died on Thanksgiving Day.  Her daughter called and asked if we could have a small memorial service in our church.   Of course we could.  This woman had been a faithful member of our congregation for many years.  I remembered where she always sat, every single week.  I remember that she wore a sweater, even when it was hot.  I remember how her son started bringing her to church, when she became ill.  During the last several months, people asked after her when she was not able to come to church.

On that day in early December, there were not many people in the church.  A few family members, a few faithful members of my congregation, who had looked out for her.  My heart warmed to see them.  One woman who came expressed dismay at the small group of people gathered.  She was as shocked to see this small group of worshipers as we were shocked to see the great crowds last week.

I don't remember much about the funeral, except that her granddaughter gave a lovely solo.  I remembered a particular sermon I had given, when I asked members of the congregation to share their favorite Bible verses, and this quiet unassuming woman had raised her voice and quoted Isaiah 59:1, "The arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor is his ear too deaf to hear."  Her family shared stories of her love and faith and strength.

And it was no less true that day in December -- though we are small, God is mighty.  Look around.

This is how God works in the world.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Following Jesus

It's that time of year again:  it's the time of year that we hear Jesus calling disciples as he walks alongside the sea.  It's the beginning of his ministry.  He has gotten baptized, and gone into the wilderness, and now here he is, saying "Repent, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  And he walks along, and he sees Peter and Andrew, and simply says, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  And they follow him.

Immediately.

This blows my mind.  I mean, simply the word "immediately" blows my mind.  They don't have to think it over?  They don't have to make a list of pros and cons?  I just can't imagine "immediately."  They just leave everything they know in order to "fish for people."

They are fisherman, and some people think this is what is so attractive, this is the thing that intrigues them.  They fish for fish, and Jesus says they will fish for people instead.  Jesus has used exactly the right words to catch them.

Right now, though, I'm thinking about this.  All they know about Jesus is one phrase:  "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near."  That's all.  He hasn't healed anyone.  He hasn't preached.  He hasn't multiplied any loaves or cast out any demons.  He has said this one sentence, and it is "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near."  And then he calls them.

And they follow.  Immediately.

He gives them no details.  They don't know where he is going.  There is no "strategic plan", no monthly goals to meet.  I'm not saying that Jesus doesn't know where he is going, but he doesn't tell them, at least not at this point.  Later on, he will let them in on the secret of his death and resurrection, but the words will not sound so clear to the disciples as they do to us.

I keep looking for something that will explain the disciples' eagerness to follow.  Immediately.  Perhaps when they heard the words "Kingdom of heaven" they saw a vision -- maybe those words conjured up a dream.  What kind of dream could it have been?  What did they think the kingdom of heaven was, that made them want to get up and start fishing for people?

What could someone say to you that would make you want to leave everything behind?  What is so good that you will risk everything for it?

The Kingdom of heaven.  A place where there is enough.  Where you don't have to lock your doors.  Where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations, or for you.  A place where those crushed by life will be restored.  A place where they would finally be out of debt, forgiven, free.

Is that what it was?  Is that what made them follow?

What could someone say to you that would make you want to leave everything behind?  What is so good that you will risk everything for it?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Just Mercy

Last Friday my husband indulged me by going with me to the movie "Just Mercy", which had just opened up in our community.  It's not that he didn't want to see the movie, but that I had read Bryan Stevenson's book in 2015, shortly after moving to this community from Minnesota.  I remembered the strong emotions the book elicited, and its stories that put a human face on many death-row prisoners -- some of them guilty, some of them innocent.  I remembered its main story well, about Walter McMillan, framed for a murder he did not commit, and the irony that his story took place in Monroeville, where Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Very near the beginning of the movie is this small vignette, which I remembered from the introduction to his book.  Bryan Stevenson is still a law student, and he is going to visit an inmate on death row for the first time.  He doesn't know the young man, and he doesn't have good news.  He is anxious about the contact on many levels.  He wonders if this inmate will be bitter and abusive to him.  But when he goes to the prison, that's not what he finds.  He finds a young man who is much like him, who had a similar church background, sang the same songs, lived in similar kinds of experiences.  He tells the young man that he will not be executed in the coming year, and he reacts as if it's the best news he ever heard.  Now, he says, he can invite his wife and children to visit him, because there's no danger that he will be inviting them on the day of his execution.

They ended up talking well over the one hour limit (which raised the ire of the prison guard).  As the angry guard pushed the prisoner back out of the room to his cell amid Stevenson's protests, the young man suddenly burst into song, "Higher Ground."  He sang with conviction in a deep baritone voice,

Lord lift me up and let me stand
By faith in Heaven's tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.

Stevenson says that in that moment he experienced grace.  He did not expect to receive hope from this young man on death row.  He wondered how many people we meet, in how many circumstances, we do not really see.

The words Jesus speaks in this week's gospel are his first recorded words in John's gospel.  They are all provocative in their own way.  "What are you looking for?"  "Come and see."

But today I am thinking that it is the third time that is the most powerful.  Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus.  Jesus looks at Simon and sees him, and says.  'You are Simon, son of John."  But that's not all he says.  He continues, "From now on you will be called Cephas" (which means Peter).  Jesus sees Simon, and he sees a Rock.

Bryan Stevenson has spent his life working for justice for those many of us do not see.  He sees people battered by life experience, struggling against disability, some wrongfully imprisoned, some trying to rise above the worst they ever did.  But before he could help them, he had to see them.  It's not as easy to do as it is to talk about it.  But it is a moment of grace.  Both to see -- and to be seen.

How many people do we meet, in how many circumstances, that we do not really see?

Friday, December 20, 2019

In Those Days...

Here it is, a few days before Christmas.  I have been lighting the candles and saying the prayers and going about my duties and my days, meeting with people and reading but not taking as much time for intentional reflection as I'd like.

A couple of days ago I went to visit a shut-in, and I brought my old confirmation Bible along with me instead of the newer, shinier translation.  It's still in pretty good shape, even though it is about 50 years old.  And I read out of that old translation, about Caesar Augustus and swaddling cloths, and I remembered back to when I made it my mission to memorize Luke chapter 2, out of this very translation.

I think I was ten or eleven years old, and I don't remember why I took up the challenge to memorize these passages.  It wasn't required for a Christmas pageant; my parents were not encouraging me to memorize scripture passages.  I didn't go to a parochial school either.  But somehow, one December I decided that this was what I would like to do:  memorize as much of the Christmas story as I could.

Every day I would crunch through the snow on the way to school, and I would start out with chapter 2, verse 1, and see how far I could get.  I didn't know who Quirinius was, or where Syria was, and I didn't know that the word "Caesar" meant "Emperor", but I plowed through the verses, understanding more or less, getting a little farther every day.

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  this was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria."

I think I may have made it all the way to verse 14, in the end.  Every day I walked and recited, I recited and walked.  It was December.

I suppose it was my Advent discipline, although I would not have said so at the time.  At the time, I don't think I knew what an Advent discipline was.   And I'm not sure that the process of memorization itself yielded any special insights into the scriptures -- at least not at the time.

I think back to that year.  I have been a pastor now for twenty-five years.  At the time I tried to memorize the Christmas story I had no idea how my life would turn out.  I had not an inkling that I would be doing this work, that I would be reciting the story myself every single year.

A few years ago, in another congregation, I was visiting a shut-in just a few days before Christmas.  He was a retired pastor who had served our congregation.  Recently he had had a stroke, and this hearty active man was now in a nursing home, barely able to speak.

I came with communion and the Christmas story.  His wife joined us.  She was there every day, all day, just staying with him.  And when I began to read from Luke chapter 2, he started saying the words along with me.

By heart.

Every once in awhile he would fade out, but he always came back strongly on three words, "in a manger".  And while we were speaking together, reciting together, I noticed that those three words, "in a manger" -- were repeated three times in that one chapter.  How could I have been reading those words all these years and not noticed this.

There is so much in the Christmas story -- the shepherds and the angels, the long journey to Bethlehem, "Glory to God in the highest!"  And in the middle of it all is the manger.  The child is lying in a manger.

This is the sign.  This is the sign of Christmas.  It is the manger that carries the child.

All those years ago, I trudged up and down the streets, and I memorized the words, not knowing where the words really led.  And then one day, many years later, they led to the manger.  The lowly place.

And the words became food:  the bread of life.  In a manger.