Friday, July 25, 2008

July 27, 2008 Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

July 27, 2008
A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Vonore, TN.
Text: Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

Jesus has talked a great deal about farming in our recent Gospel lessons. My friend Pr. Mark Scott is like a lot of pastors I know. They don’t know much about life on the farm. Though he grew up in East Tennessee Mark is no farm kid; his Dad was a manager at the Eastman Kodak plant in Kingsport. Mark was a town kid through and through. He called me the last time these lessons came up and told me he simply COULD NOT deal with any more Bible stories about farming. I advised him to preach on Paul.

Understanding what Jesus is getting at in all these short parables about the Kingdom of heaven is not easy, even for an old farm boy like me. I get the framing side, but like the disciples, I don’t always get the Spiritual side.

It’s important to remember that Jesus in not talking about farming, and he’s not talking about Heaven with a capital H, the beautiful city with streets of Gold where we go when we die, the eternal destiny of our souls.

Jesus is talking about the divine activity of God in the world NOW, in the midst of our ordinary earthbound existence. He is talking about the hidden holiness lurking about in the mundane monotony of our daily lives.

In this Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of heaven is, at one and the same time, a very present reality in the world and also very difficult to discern and locate in the world.

In particular we are reminded the Kingdom of heaven is not something we create; it is rather a treasure that God has already created and given to us and that when we find it (or more correctly) when it finds us, we are called to give ourselves to it completely.

Our lesson today consists of six analogies starting with the phrase “THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE.” And, these six analogies come in three sets of two that are similar to each other. This is called parallelism and is typical of Hebrew thought and poetry.

The first set is the mustard seed becoming a large tree and the yeast acting on flour and water to make bread.

The second set is the treasure found in a field and a pearl of great value found in a shop.

The third set is the net of every kind of fish and a homeowner showing off his stuff.

Let’s look first at the Mustard Seed and the Yeast. They are about how the work of God is often slow and subtle; not fast and flashy. They also teach us that, unless you know the whole story, you won’t even notice what God is doing. And, this is most important; often times the one who plants the seed is not around to see it grow.
Pr. Brian McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, tells a true story about a turtle:

Some people I know once found a snapping turtle crossing a road in New Jersey. Snapping turtles are normally ugly . . . This turtle was even uglier than most: it was grossly deformed due to a plastic bottle cap, a ring about an inch-and-a-half in diameter that it had accidentally acquired as a hatchling. . . The ring had fit around its midsection like a belt back then, but now, nearly a foot long, weighing 9 pounds, the animal was corseted by the ring so that it looked like a figure 8.

My friends realized that if they left the turtle in its current state, it would die. . . So they snipped the ring, and . . .nothing happened. Nothing.

EXCEPT ONE THING. At that moment the turtle had a future. It was rescued. It was saved. It would take years for the animal to grow into normal proportions, maybe decades. (p.98)

Here’s the Kingdom Point: anyone finding that turtle in the future would not be able to tell that a good thing was at work in it, that it was moving from deformity to wholeness, from pain to health, from death to life. All they would be able to see is an ugly guitar-shaped turtle.

So it is with the Kingdom of heaven. Its work in the world is often hidden from our eyes, but Jesus assures us that the Kingdom IS here and it IS working, like a seed beneath the soil or yeast in bread dough.

The second set is the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great value. The point here is not so much the surprise of finding the valuable items, but the whole-hearted response of the farmhand and the pearl merchant to their good fortune.

The farmhand stumbled upon his treasure, the pearl merchant searched long and hard for his, but both gave up everything to possess the prize.

Some people go through life never giving God a second thought and then suddenly, they find themselves overwhelmed by the presence of God in their lives.

Others spend years diligently searching, praying, thinking about the meaning of life and eternity, unable to feel God fully; and then they find it, or rather It finds them.

Either way, the important thing is that both the farmer and the merchant give away everything they have in response to the new treasure in their lives.

The famous Ryman Auditorium was the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry. It began as a church, built around 1900 as a preaching place for the then famous evangelist Sam Jones.

Jones was holding a month long revival there once, and it turned into what the Methodists used to call a “quittin’ meeting;” during which people confessed their sins and swore off things like drinking and smoking and running around and the like.
Jones called upon one ultra-pious lady in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit. She said; I ain’t been doing nothing and I’m going to quit that too!

These two parables, about a treasure in the field and a pearl of great price, are a call to us to “quit doing nothin’” in response to the great treasure of the Gospel, the Kingdom of heaven. We are called to give up all else in order to have this beautiful thing as a part of our lives.

The third set of parables, the fish in the net and the homeowner showing off the old and the new, remind us of the radical inclusivity of the Kingdom of heaven. People of every kind and every time are a part of God’s Kingdom.

The Rev. Dr. Will Willimon was for 20 years the Dean of Duke Chapel, He is now the Methodist Bishop of North Alabama. In his book Pastor he tells this personal story;

Early in my ministry . . . a couple sat in the hospital room waiting. . .The Doctor appeared shortly after I arrived and said to the new parents, “You have a new baby boy. But there are some problems. Your child has been born with Down Syndrome. Your baby also has a minor and correctable respiratory condition. My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.”

The couple seemed confused by what the doctor told them “If the condition can be corrected, then we want it corrected. . . .”

“Is it fair for you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?” said the doctor.

At the mention of the word “suffering,” it was as if the doctor finally began speaking the woman’s language. “Our children have had every advantage in the world. They have never really known suffering, never had the opportunity to know it. I don’t know if God’s hand is in this or not, but I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will be just fine. When you think about it, this is really a great opportunity.”

The doctor looked confused. He abruptly departed, with me following him out into the hall, “Reverend, I hope you can talk some sense into them.” (P.99)

What the doctor did not understand was that the couple were already being reasonable. By the standards of the Kingdom of heaven, what they wanted to do made perfect sense. In the Kingdom, all lives are valuable treasures to be honored and cared for and accepted as gifts from God. In the Kingdom, all sorts of fish, all kinds of treasures are present and welcome and valued.

Holy Trinity, Nashville had a significant number of minority members. Our Vacation Bible School was held at night and one evening parents and teachers were standing around in the gathering darkness, enjoying the cool of the evening while the children were out in the side yard playing. They were boys and girls, black and white, ages 3 to 13.
They were playing a game called “Ghosts in the Graveyard” a version of hide-and-seek. I stood on the Church stoop and watched and listened. What I saw was joy and what I heard was laughter.

What is the Kingdom of heaven like? Maybe it’s like a game of Hide-and-Seek in the dark. When you really can’t tell who’s who, differences cease to matter. Surprises are around every corner, activity is going on whether you see it or not, and it really doesn’t matter who’s looking for whom; for the games the thing, the joy comes because of the Good News that everyone gets found in the end.

Amen and amen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

July 20, 2008; Pentecost 10

Pentecost 10 July 20, 200
Homecoming Sermon: Coble’s Lutheran, Julian, NC
Texts: Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

My late Father-in-law used to like to tell the story of a man who owned a parrot. Every day at 5:00 the man took the parrot and walked down the street to the corner bar where he had a few drinks and talked with his friends. He had taught the parrot to order for him, yelling out, “gimme a beer, gimme a beer” every time he came in the room.

Every Sunday the man and his wife went to church, locking the bird in its cage before they left the house. One Sunday the door on the cage did not latch well and the bird got out. It flew out an open window and found its way to the church. It flew in and lit on its master’s shoulder, crying out at the top of its lungs, “gimme a beer, gimme a beer.” The man was embarassed and told the bird to hush, “Shut up. This ain’t the bar; it’s the church.” The bird looked around and said, “AWWK! Same old crowd, same old crowd.”

Today’s Gospel lesson deals with the difficulty in telling the difference between the good seed and the bad seed, the wheat and the weeds, the saints and the sinners. Always and forever, near as we can tell, it looks like the same old crowd.

Many times in the history of the church, the good people have tried very hard to separate themselves from the bad people. These efforts almost always turn out badly. Because this is Homecoming Sunday, a time to remember and honor the church’s past, I hope you won’t mind if I bore you with a little church history.

Many of you may know that Coble’s was once a member of what was called the Tennessee Synod, but you might not know what that was all about. It basically boiled down to this: from 1820 to 1917 there were two Synods operating in North Carolina, with about the same number of churches. The Tennessee Synod was started by some churches in East Tennessee, hence the name.

The two Synods had different understandings about what it meant to be Lutheran.
For the TN Synod churches Lutheran Theology and traditional Lutheran Worship were vitally important to their understanding of what it meant to be Lutheran.

For the old NC Synod churches, it was important to be more like their English neighbors, using English in worship services and singing easier songs and having Revival meetings, etc. etc. Becoming more American than German.

What’s funny about it is this; they were all more like each other than they were like the other churches around; the Methodists, the Baptists, etc.; but they spent a lot of time arguing about which of the two synods was the wheat and which one was the weeds. And in 1917 they reunited in one NC Synod and no one can tell the difference anymore.

In Jesus’ story the master tells the workers to wait and not try to “weed out” the bad. This story is not so much about farming as it is about realizing that only God can judge and that we are called upon to withhold judgement and treat one another with respect.

Because, and this is the really important point, there is no such thing as separating the good from the bad in this life. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator;” in English, “we are all Saint and Sinner at the same time.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know this is true. We know that most of us, most of the time, are decent people, but we’re not really saintly, we don’t really live up to the ideals and standards we set for ourselves. We all slip, we all fall, we all sin.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

Yes indeed. The line separating good and evil, wheat and weeds, good seed and bad seed, saints and sinners; does not go between us; it goes right through us.

This is why Jesus counseled patience in dealing with others. All of us are, we hope, growing and maturing in our faith. And none of us is a finished product yet.
So, between NOW (which is today) and THEN, (then being the Second Coming and the Final Judgement); what is it that we, the church, are called to do.
Well, it seems to me that we are called to be sowers of good seed.

We, the church, as the followers of Christ, are called to announce to the world that God has set up the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it is a Kingdom of Grace, not of Judgement; it is a Kingdom of Love, not of Hate; it is a Kingdom of Mercy, not of Law.

We are called to let the world know that God has sent a rememdy into this world to deal with our sinfulness, and that remedy is Jesus the Christ. God knew that we, all of us, each of us, were sinners.

And God knew that we could not fix ourselves, that we could not NOT SIN. As the Confession says, “We are in bondage to Sin and CANNOT free ourselves.”
So Jesus came and lived and died and rose again SO THAT our sins could be forgiven and we could live each day as forgiven sinners and supposed saints.

And the great sign and symbol of that great Kingdom of Salvation where all are welcome and none are excluded is the meal we are about to receive, the Holy Communion.

Homecoming in a church is a lot like a family reunion. I love going to ur family reunions up in Patrick County, VA and seeing my cousin with the Ph.D. from the University of Virginia chatting with another cousin who dropped out in the 8th grade and who makes and sells woodstoves for a living.

I love to see the good and the bad, the wheat and the weeds, the good seed and the bad seed all together, all accepted and all welcome at the table. That’s what Homecoming is like. Everybody comes and we’re glad to see them.

If we do it right, that’s what Communion is like, everybody’s welcome and we’re glad to see them.

And that’s because that’s what the Kingdom of God is like, everybody’s welcome and we’re glad to see them.

You know; one of these days, we’re going to get to heaven and we’ll look around and start laughing when we see who’s there that we weren’t expecting to make it.
“Good Lord, what are you doing here!”

And they’ll be laughing when they see us.

And somewhere in the distance we’ll hear a loud voice call out, “Awwk! Same Old Crowd. Same Old Crowd!

Amen and Amen

Friday, July 11, 2008

July 13, 2008; Time after pentecost, Lectionary 15

Time After Pentecost, Lectionary 15 July 13, 2008
Luther Memorial and Salem Lutheran Churches,
Parrottsville, TN

Texts: Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

It was my Daddy who first pointed out to me that Jesus wasn’t much of a farmer. Daddy, on the other hand, was a good farmer, so I found myself compelled to listen to his reasons for this semi-blasphemy.

He based his opinion on this parable of the sower. Daddy quite reasonably pointed out that Jesus understood good farming, he just didn’t practice it.

No good farmer would throw his seed around, hither and yon, wildly and indiscriminately, the way the sower in Jesus’ parable did.

Jesus’ explanation of the parable shows that he understood it was a bad idea to sow seed on the path or in the rocks or in the briars; so why did he say that the sower did that?

I pointed out to Daddy that Jesus wasn’t teaching agriculture in this story; he was preaching the gospel; but Daddy would not be persuaded.

(Though Daddy said the Gospel was more important to him than farming, I’m not really sure that was true.)

Be that as it may, that conversation got me to thinking and opened up to me a whole new way of looking at this story.

For many years I had focused on the easy, three-point sermon or Bible study about why people fall away from the faith.

You know; some people are just too involved in the world to pay attention to spiritual things; they hear the word, but not really, these are the path.

Other people get all excited about the Gospel for a while, but then their excitement dies down because they don’t grow in their faith; they are the rocky ground.

Then there are the ones who lose their faith when trouble comes, when sickness and persecution and trial attack their lives. These are the ones in the thorns.

Then this classic three-point sermon ends with an admonition to not be bad soil, not to be hard of heart, or too busy with the world or let the normal difficulties of life kill your faith.

And the remedy for being bad soil is to be good soil; which usually ends up sounding like, “Be good little Christians and listen to the pastor and come to church a lot and be on a committee and your faith will grow.”

Which is all very nice; but really isn’t what Jesus is talking about in this text.

The more I looked at it the more I realized that Daddy was right; Jesus was a lousy farmer; but he was a great preacher and storyteller.

Jesus’ point in this story was NOT to fuss at those who fail to receive the Gospel, or those whose faith begins to fade or those who abandon the faith in the face of trouble.His point here is to encourage those who go out to sow the seed of the Kingdom of God.

When I was in college, I worked on a tobacco farm in Eastern North Carolina. It was in the early days of mechanized tobacco harvesting and we worked on a contraption pulled by a tractor through the field.

The harvesters, “the croppers” we were called, sat on low seats a few inches from the ground. We “picked” the leaves of the plants and put them in a conveyer belt system that carried them to a platform about 10 feet in the air where the “stringers” tied the leaves onto the tobacco sticks to be hung in the barn for curing.

Our harvester was malfunctioning. The conveyer system wasn’t working properly and leaves were dropping out behind us. We kept stopping and starting while trying to fix the machine.

There was a precocious 6-year-old boy who was a friend of the family and was watching us work. He observed our troubles for a while and then walked up to the Farmer and said, “Well, You can’t elevate’em all, can you Mr. Virgil.”

“You can’t elevate’em all” is at least a part of Jesus’ message in the parable of the sower. Even Jesus could not always “Elevate’em all.” Over in the last Chapter of Matthew is one of my favorite lines in the Bible.

Matthew 28:16-17 - “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him they worshiped him; BUT SOME DOUBTED.”

But Some Doubted! What do you have to do to convince some people? Jesus got himself killed and then God brought him back from the dead and these eleven, who had been with him from the first, saw him in his resurrected state and yet, some doubted!

You can’t elevate’em all, can you Mr. Virgil?

That’s point one of this parable. Here’s point two.

You can’t elevate’em all, but you should try.

Remember I said Jesus was a bad farmer but a good preacher? Here’s why. A good farmer prepares the soil, and then carefully avoids the path and the rocks and the briars. A good farmer doesn’t waste his seed and his efforts on spreading seed where it is unlikely to grow.

But we’re not farmers, we’re preachers. Not just me, all of us. We are each and every one of us called upon to spread the good news that God loved the world so much that Christ came down from heaven to live among us and died to save us from our sins. And that God loved the Christ so much that God raised him from the dead, and God loves each one of us so much that God will raise us from the dead.

That’s Good News. And it’s our job to tell everybody. And, all too often, we don’t. We try to decide who the right people to tell it to are. We try to decide who will fit in with us at our church. We try to figure out who we want to be a part of our church, and that’s just wrong.

In this parable Jesus shows us that to be a good sower of Gospel seed, a good preacher of the Kingdom, a good spreader of God’s love and mercy we have to spread it to everybody; whether they deserve it or not; whether they are likely to receive it or not; whether we like them or not. Doesn’t matter if they are Paths, Rocks or Briars; it’s our job to throw the Gospel at them.

Bishop Julian Gordy has four children. The youngest is a boy named Ben. Ben was born here in East Tennessee, when Bishop was pastor in Morristown.

When Ben was about 6 or 7, Julian came down stairs to breakfast early one morning and found Ben at the Kitchen table, eating cereal.

This was not unusual; Ben was always an early riser. But, he noticed that Ben’s shoes were wet with dew. “Where you been, Ben?” he asked. “Inviting people to my baseball game.” Ben replied.

Ben had gotten up around six a.m. and walked up and down their street in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and knocked on doors and rang bells and invited everyone on his street to see him play baseball.

And you know what; a lot of them came!

Ben didn’t calculate who he should or shouldn’t ask, who was or was not likely to come. He just asked them to come, to my game, today. And they came.

We are called to sow the seed of the kingdom, indiscriminately, wildly, prolifically, tossing out bouquets of God’s love to everyone around us.

Who knows, they night need it and they might come.

Amen and amen.

Friday, July 04, 2008

July 6

July 6, 2008
Texts: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

For many people, Independence Day is simply an excuse for a long weekend in the middle of summer; a chance to take a little trip, to get into a summertime sort of mood. Go to the beach or the mountains or the lake, grill out and chill out.

A few years ago, a writer in the Nashville paper complained that churches don’t celebrate Patriotic Holidays anymore, by which he meant, I presume, the playing of patriotic music, etc.
A pastor wrote back saying that the Church has a higher agenda than a secular holiday, that the church is obligated to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ above all else.

I found myself agreeing with each of them. As the son of a man who served and suffered in Europe in WWII and as the nephew of a man who died in the Pacific at the age of 19 fighting the Japanese, I too lament our turning a “Holy-Day” intended to show respect for the sacrifices of many that have secured and protected our Freedom, our Independence, into an excuse for a long weekend.

On the other hand, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can not take second place to any other agenda in the life of the church. And, I keep thinking about all Jesus’ words about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek and forgiving our enemies.

We have drawn the lines of discussion about this in such a way that it is difficult to keep God and Country in right relationship. We have trouble talking about this subject in the church without either dishonoring the dead or glorifying war.

True story. Small Southern town. The Town Council asked a young architect and landscape artist to create a Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial out of a narrow vacant lot downtown.

He landscaped the lot into a grassy knoll with winding walkways, flower beds and park benches. He created a “triptych” monument, moderately sized, out of local granite. On the two side panels were listed the locals who had served and died in Vietnam. In the center he designed an etching of one weary soldier carrying a wounded buddy on his shoulders. It was cruciform without being a cross. It was meant to evoke service and sacrifice and “no greater love”.

The Town Council approved and applauded everything but the etching. They didn’t like it. It was “defeatist”, and “negative”; not “upbeat” and “positive”. So they got a stone cutter at the quarry to etch in the scene of raising the flay at Iwo Jima instead. They even painted the Red, White and Blue on the Flag. Wrong symbol from the wrong war, but that didn’t matter to them. American honor was all that mattered. (You can go to Mt. Airy NC and see that statue. It’s across the street from the Post Office. The young architect was my brother.)

That story can serve as a parable of our ambiguous attitudes toward the wars which our country has fought. On the one hand, we lament the loss of life, we honestly mourn those of our families and communities who died, we carry a deep sorrow for their pain and suffering. We mean it. We are not hypocrites.

But, on the other hand, we sometimes get carried away with our pride in America’s military might, with its “win-loss” record if you will. By replacing the cruciform symbol of service, sacrifice and suffering with one of victory and triumph, the town council said to the Vietnam Veterans,

We want to remember that you served and that some of you died. We just don’t want to remember that you, we, lost and that we may not have needed to be there in the first place.

As Christians, we must always shy away from the glorification of war. War is mean, nasty and ugly. It is the result of the failure of humanity to settle issues of economics and ethnic tensions peacefully. War is the eruption of our inherent sinfulness on a national and global scale. War occurs when Pride and Materialism and Greed and Hatred of the Other overcome the Divine call to peace with justice. For Christians, War comes when we forget that we are not of this world, but are sent into this world by the Prince of Peace, to spread the Gospel of Peace.

As Paul says in Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

One of my childhood pastor’s explained Original Sin this way:

Original Sin means that there is something in us that just can’t wait to mess up a good thing.

The longer I live, the more right he seems. At the beginning of the 20th Century, much was written about how the World was on the cusp of its greatest Golden Age. Science, Technology, Learning were leaping ahead at a record pace. The end of war and disease and poverty were practically in sight, or so it was thought.

A look back at the last 100 years shows a much different picture. We have seen 2 world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the use of weapons of mass destruction, new diseases and behaviour related health problems. We are trying to destroy the earth and sea and all that is in them. What happened? Well we did. We, the human race. We, all of us. Original Sin erupted and continues to erupt in our persistent proclivity for messing up a good thing.

What we do on Independence Day is weep for those who lost their innocence and perhaps their lives in the service of their country. Independence Day is an opportunity to prayerfully remember those who have suffered and died because of the world’s inability to live love and justice on an international scale.

My Daddy lived until he was 80. Until he went to the hospital a week or so before he died, he lived in the house he was born in.

The only time he spent any real time away from there was when he was in Europe in WWII. He never told us much about it. Until the last year of his life, and then in bits and pieces. Buddies who were there one minute and blown up the next, little French and German children stepping on mines or begging for food. As I sat at that kitchen table, listening to him talk, coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other, I began to understand his years of staring into the distance, the emotional distance, the stoic devotion to duty.

Then he began to weep, his 80 year old shoulders going up and down, as he cried for someone named Willie from Oklahoma and I cried for Willie and Daddy and millions of others, American and English and French, Korean and Vietnamese and Iraqi and Afghan and all those caught up in the senselessness and pain.

Freedom is a gift and a responsibility and a burden. We are called to what one of my teachers at Duke called “Responsible Freedom.”

With the gift of freedom comes the responsibility of respecting and protecting the freedom of others. As Christians we must always celebrate our country’s efforts to live out that responsibility without turning a blind eye to our failures and imperfections.

Only God is perfect, and only Jesus was sinless and all the rest of us, as individuals and as countries, do our best and pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

And the Good News, God’s mercy is great, Jesus’ love is wide and oursins are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Amen and amen