Pentecost 9, August 2, 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

Growing up, my kids used to hate watching TV with me.  It was because I am good at figuring out plot twists, I would often spoil the show for them. I didn’t mean to, but often I couldn’t help myself.  Part of the reason why it was easy is that all the important clues are given in the first five minutes, almost as a rule.  If you pay attention at the beginning, you can usually figure things out before the end.

Today is an example of that.  No spoiler alert here, it’s one of the most beloved stories in Scripture and we know it well.  But I have to tell you that the clues at the beginning are missing and we really need that to understand it fully, to figure out the end.

In their infinite wisdom, those who decide on these things, chose to tidy things up, to leave out the one sentence in the portion that we heard this morning.  It is the connection between the verses of this chapter. A small thing, really.  But it’s the entire motivation for what comes next.

We’ve learned about, and thought of the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes as one stand-alone, amazing event.  It is not.  It is part of a narrative that gives us insight into Jesus and the story of salvation.

So what got left out? “Now, when Jesus heard this…”  that’s it?  Yes.  so the sentence should read “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there on a boat to a deserted place by himself.”  You might not think it makes a difference, but doesn’t it make you wonder what did Jesus hear that he reacted this way?

What he heard about was the terrible, gruesome death by beheading of his cousin, friend and mentor: John the Baptist.  John who had leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice; John, who foretold of Jesus’ advent, who had baptized him in the Jordan, John the prophet, had been killed by Herod in a spectacularly cynical way.

This is what makes Jesus withdraw.  To escape a similar fate, maybe; to gather himself, I’m sure; to pray, most certainly.  Filled with sorrow and shock, he does what any of us would do until he’s ready to face such awful reality.

But, he’s not alone in this.  No, the murder of John the Baptist is a major event for everyone. As a prophet, a man of God, he was not popular with the establishment, which is why he had been jailed.  Killing him was something else, over-the-top. Compare it to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, or JFK. something of that scale.

That’s the reason for the crowds.  They’re not out there because it’s a nice day.  They’re out there because something terrible, unimaginable, has happened and they don’t know what to do next. That explains why they have no food. They seek Jesus because they feel vulnerable, crushed, lost, and hope that he might have the answer, might be able to comfort them somehow. 

When he sees them, their pain, their confusion, their anguish, Jesus is gutted.  The text says: “he has compassion for them.” but the Greek word is closer to a gut-wrenching reaction.  His heart goes out to them.  John the Baptist’s death crystallizes and propels him into mission: there is no going back now.  He is on his own.  

Well, no, he has his disciples who dutifully remind him of their own inadequacies and the hazards of managing an uncontrolled crowd: they need to go home, fend for themselves, figure it out.  

I wonder how long it took Jesus to take in that piece of information.  

I wonder how long it took to reply: “no need, you feed them.”

I know my answer would have been out of my mouth almost before He finished speaking. Everytime I read that part of this miracle, his words leave me gutted. I imagine it was the same for the disciples. You want us to do what?

Now here’s the point where, if this were a TV show, the main character comes up with a MacGyver solution, and says: “here’s what we’re gonna do…” or maybe this is where the show got its inspiration: Jesus takes a meager offering of fish and bread, blesses and brakes it, and all are filled. We know the rest.

But Jesus is no TV hero. This is not about saving the day, it’s about saving our souls. 

Do not overlook the implications of what he does: his alignment with the crowds, feeding them, healing them, comforting them, increases his visibility and popularity and makes him a wanted man. Miraculous though it is, his actions are profoundly destabilizing when added to his speaking about the Kingdom of God, he becomes a challenge to those in power.

And so it has been ever since.

Because we have power, too.  Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to feed the crowd in vain.  “You feed them,” is an invitation to participate in something grander than our small versions of salvation. It is a call to look out onto the crowds and, though gutted by their need, to have enough compassion, creativity and energy to do something about it.  We may not know it will go a given moment, but Jesus does.

The miracle is only part of the story.  

Right now, there are crowds gathering and reeling from racial injustice; there are crowds decimated by poverty; there are crowds facing unemployment and evictions and eventual homelessness.  There are crowds that live in fear of deportation; crowds wallowing in loneliness and abandonment. Crowds that are hungry for a little kindness. “You take care of them,” Jesus says, and then he shows us that we are not alone in this ministry, not by a long shot.  In fact, discipleship is full of possibilities, sometimes even miracles.

This story starts in sorrow and distress, but how will it end? 

Spoiler alert: we already know the ending.  Through Jesus we find our life among the vulnerable; we give whatever we’ve, ourselves, our souls and bodies, even if it seems inadequate; when overwhelmed, we can count on him being always by our side. Through him we are blessed to be a blessing. And what a miracle that is!  Amen. 

Pentecost 8, July 26, 2020

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

The kingdom of Heaven is like…”Good trouble”

Where on earth do we get our ideas about heaven?  What do you imagine? Clouds, angels, golden thrones, music? It is impossible to talk about the kingdom of heaven without conjuring some sort of picture in our minds. Most of these images we think of come to us from the Book of Revelation, amplified by liturgical art across the centuries.  But is that what the Kingdom of heaven is really like?

Episcopal priest and writer, Barbara Brown says “How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?” Perhaps we do best if we use the most ordinary things or the most ordinary of beings. (The Seeds of Heaven)

And that’s just what Jesus does.  

Soil and seeds, flour and yeast, pearls and fish; gardeners and bakers, fisherman, laborers and entrepreneurs; men and women, this is what Jesus uses to speak of the Kingdom of heaven.

Rather than point to a future place or final destination of some sort, Jesus tells a variety of parables utilizing everyday images, so that his hearer might connect with an image. What he describes isn’t a mythical, pie-in-the-sky place. The parable’s images reveal a sense of immediacy, something in the here and now, not something fantastic and far away, or  inaccessible.

These parables change our rosy vision of the Kingdom of heaven, grounding it, as it were in our everyday lives. The lives of the crowds and disciples who followed him, and ours, making the kingdom of heaven something possible, not just imaginable. It is as if he’s saying: “Look for signs of the kingdom everywhere — it hides in plain sight, it’s overlooked among the delusions of grandeur, it only becomes visible when you’re among kindred spirits, rising to the top.”  

The Kingdom of Heaven, while not fully realized, is not like a dream deferred, or something that is outside our human experience. In fact, Jesus affirms with his presence that he is breaking down the barriers, clearing out the obstacles, removing everything that stands in the way of the establishment of his kingdom.

Perhaps that’s the need for the parables themselves, because we can’t see what’s emerging in front of us; because to see it, we need to reframe our notions of heaven. And that will take work, discipline, vision and faith.

But God does not disappoint.

Believe that something insignificant could become something mighty, something grand. Jesus says. Invest in something that doesn’t seem worthwhile. Get your hands dirty, work hard, tirelessly for something unappreciated by others. Try something new, break with ‘the way we’ve always done it’ to uncover the treasure hidden in plain sight.  

Make no mistake, the parables of the kingdom offer us images that are powerful, beautiful and absolutely disruptive: they tell us there is another way to see the world.

Consider that Jesus’ audience would have thought a mustard bush a weed; they would also have thought to add any kind of leavening something unclean, even corrupting.  The foolishness of selling everything to own only one thing could only be compared to the foolishness of sowing seeds in rocky soil. Letting the wheat and the tares grow together?   Crazy. Jesus used such language and such images to offer an alternative vision, breaking through the customs, structures, norms and traditions that kept people from having an authentic relationship with God.

Because that may be the point: It’s not the what, it’s the how

 Arland Hultgren writes, Jesus says that “the kingdom” isn’t so much like the objects themselves (mustard seed, treasure, leaven) but more like the actual process of what happens in these little stories, the mysterious and powerful things that happen right beneath our eyes, even if our eyes can’t seem to see [or our hearts comprehend] what’s happening (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). We make a mistake to think of the kingdom as a reward at the end of our lives.  It is in fact a call, a vocation to live out now. The more and harder we work for the kingdom, the more it’s truth is revealed as: the shrub that shelters a diversity of birds, the bountiful bread, the pearl of great price, the wonderful catch of fish.  

The  parables all talk about taking on a specific –though strange or  difficult- action to achieve a specific –but worthy– result: sometimes it means divesting oneself of the unnecessary things, in order to reach something greater; sometimes it involves sorting through and letting go of things that are toxic; sometimes it means taking risks, traveling in uncharted territory; sometimes it means trusting in ways we’ve never trusted before; sometimes mixing things up, resorting to ‘good trouble’ so that others may reap the reward. 

I keep thinking this morning about Congressman John Lewis: a giant of the civil rights movement, an icon for nonviolent change, the moral “conscience of Congress.”  He lived an incredible, storied life.  One that begins as a sharecropper’s son and ends in the highest halls of government, but not before enduring the oppression of segregation.  He labored on even though he was arrested, beaten, incarcerated, as he worked tirelessly and single mindedly for the great pearl of justice.  Because of his work, laws were overturned, people’s dignity restored.  His legacy is one in which many will rest and find shelter.

Few of us will be able to accomplish what he did. Few of us will be able to inspire others like he did.  His life was a parable, a parable of hope, showing us that humble can be great, that ‘good trouble’ is not a contradiction in terms, that non-violence is the path to peace, that the kingdom of God is here breaking into this world, into our time, into our lives, making it a reality for us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like…Good trouble

It’s like nothing you have ever imagined, but everything you’ve hoped for. In Jesus’ name. amen.

Pentecost 7, July 19, 2020

Rev. Susan’s Sermon 7/19 Pentecost 7/Proper 11A

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Mixed results.

In the midst of summer, parables about planting seem really appropriate. In last week’s parable, we heard how the sower liberally spreads seeds on every kind of ground, from rocky to fertile, with mixed results. This week’s sower presumably uses good ground, but also gets mixed results –this time because of the actions of another, an enemy.  

Today I want to focus on the sower in these parables.  Usually, the soil and the weeds take center stage.  Yet, we can’t overlook the one who is taking such a risk to cultivate the land, to plant, to expect something positive to come out of this exercise.

But listening to these parables leads me to wonder about them, for if the best you can hope for is mixed results,  should they be in this business at all?   Why not do something else that has better results, a chance at success?

I can relate to the sower though, because I, too, am a somewhat gardener with mixed results. 

Perhaps my results are mixed because I really don’t like gardening. I don’t like getting dirty, don’t like the bugs, don’t like working in the sun, and I most especially don’t like weeding! If only someone else could do it!! So why garden? Because hope springs eternal.  And in my case, hope is  a pack of seeds or a tray of seedlings.

Shopping for supplies every spring, I can’t help but look at a rack of seed packets and imagine how wonderful it will be to have a growing in a garden: tomatoes, corn, radishes, carrots… in my mind’s eye, I can go from a little envelope or a tiny seedling, to a bushel in a matter of seconds.

Truth be told, I don’t have what it takes –a green thumb– to guarantee success. Among my many shortcomings is that I can’t always recognize a plant from a weed.  To me, they look pretty much the same. Often, it’s the weed that gets going sooner, looking taller and healthier, crowding out everything else, adding insult to injury. Meanwhile the seedling struggles. 

So when the householder says, “Leave the weeds,”  I wonder what that garden, that field is going to look like in a month. The weeds will take over.  I know that because my garden plot often reaches that stage: weeds taking over all the real estate to be had.   

This agricultural version of God is confusing, he’s unconventional to say the least. If you know the soil is bad or rocky, why even bother to sow seeds there?  If you know the enemy has planted weeds, why not clear it out and start over?

 He explains himself, but not to our complete satisfaction. Let the garden grow together and mature. Then, what needs to happen will happen.  Again, a harvest of mixed results! But perhaps also, a sparkle of hope.

Our understanding of the way things work means we want the weeds out, but letting them stay may be the only hope we have.  Who’s to say, at this early stage who we are: good seeds or weeds.  Maybe God is waiting for us to mature into one or the other.  Maybe he’s waiting for something to take root in us. Maybe he’s waiting for us to grow ‘ears that can listen.’ 

Mixed results are not for the impatient. In a world that wants either/or answers, a ‘maybe’ is too unsettling.  We want confirmed, established, positive results.  We want to fix things, we want the enemy dealt with, eradicated; we want to mow down the field and burn it to the ground, if necessary.  We want straight answers and declarative sentences.  We want to be incharge of who is in and who is out.  We want to know why evil exists and why bad things happen to good people. We want to know for certain that we are “children of the kingdom” and not the “children of the evil one,” that we are the wheat, not the weeds.

The issue is that as Jesus has stated, all will become clear, just not necessarily in our time frame and  not on our terms. Things will happen when the time is ready and not sooner.  The harvest will take place according to God’s will, and not otherwise.  It will happen and all will be well for the good seed, and the weeds will also reap their reward.

But we are not patient people. 

Who among us has not questioned why God allows evil to grow and thrive? Who among us has not wanted to take matters into our own hands and root out the wrong in our midst?  Why doesn’t God do this? Doesn’t He get it? Can’t He see it? Doesn’t He care?

The parable tells us that it is not so easy to tell the weeds from the wheat, and for another, their roots are intertwined below the ground. At this juncture, the parable says, they both look alike. Think about that, sometimes the good seed and the wicked weeds look almost identical. 

That means that it takes time for both goodness and evil to make itself known.  That, I think, means that there’s hope for us yet: can we live up to God’s expectations of us? Can we flourish and blossom as we make our way in the world? It may very well depend on how we respond to what is planted in us.  Let anyone with ears, listen.

One thing is for sure, if the mixed results are only going to be fully revealed at the harvest, then it’s going to take twice as long to bring it in. That, too, may be a source of hope: we are still a work in progress.

God’s hope and God’s grace is like a pack of seeds: they –we– are full of potential right from the start.  Filled with God’s imagination, love and nurture, how will we respond? 

So it’s time to tend our spiritual gardens, to make ready for God’s harvest, when the mixed results of our lives will be brought forward: the good, the bad, the wicked and the just, things done and left undone. As we go, keep looking for the angels who are in charge of the weeding.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Pentecost 4, June 28, 2020

Rev. Susan’s Sermon, Proper 8 2020

Jeremiah 28:5-9, Matthew 10:40-42

This is one of those times where I’m grateful for the visual on the screen, so I don’t have to ask you to imagine it. I’m talking about the sign outside most of our churches, the one with the shield and the bold words: “the Episcopal Church welcomes you.”

The one we have is the ‘updated’ sign.  The older one was a bit more straightforward, the shield was vertical.  I don’t care for this one because of the peek-a-boo shield that I think sends the wrong message.  It’s like a hip, wink and a nod, instead of a declarative statement.  Of course none of this is obvious to people who walk through our doors. We hope they join us because they believe us when we say “welcome.”

The idea of hospitality and welcome however, is more than just a friendly disposition toward newcomers and visitors.  If taken seriously, as we must, it means we must confront, and be confronted with, what God is doing in the world and our part in it.

We are at the end of a lengthy discourse that Jesus gives as he sends out his disciples to spread the good news.  He has given them a wonderful mission, but brutal working conditions.  He has warned that terrible things may happen to them on their journey: their work and words will sow division even among their families, they may get heckled and jeered, and thrown out of town. He tells them to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Today, he doubles down on his warning –even though he frames it as a reward.

He calls it a “prophet’s reward.” That’s what they get, even when they are welcomed. What is a prophet’s reward? Well, let’s just say it’s not easy being one of God’s earthly messengers.

Borrowing from Eugene Peterson’s Introduction to his translation of the prophetic works in the Bible, he writes: 

“[The prophets] delivered God’s commands and promises and living presence to communities and nations who had been living on god-fantasies and god-lies… most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives, or failing that, [we] refashion God to suit our convenience.  Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call… Prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be… these men and women woke people up to the sovereign presence of God in their lives.  They yelled, they wept, they rebuked, they soothed, they challenged, they comforted… the prophets purge our imaginations of this world’s assumptions on how life is lived and what counts in life…” (The Message,The Old Testament Prophets p 7,ff)

In a word, a prophet seeks to reorder your life, to reclaim it for God.  I don’t know of anyone who wants a prophet in their life or anyone who wants to be a prophet, either.  And yet, there is Jesus wrapping up his whole discipleship call with this image.

Peterson goes on to write: “The reality is that prophets don’t fit in our way of life… for people who are accustomed to ‘fitting God’ into their lives… the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. “ (ibid). So, it seems, there’s not much reward in being a prophet at all. 

Take that snippet of the Old Testament appointed for today, you can’t really tell because it’s so short, but it’s a showdown between Jeremiah and Hananaiah.  

Sometimes called the ‘weeping prophet’ because of his pessimistic outlook, Jeremiah never sugar coated what was happening to the Hebrew people. He lived in a time of tremendous upheaval, the first Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the majority of the people taken in captivity to Babylon. To the faithful remnant, Jeremiah prophesied that things were bad, eventually would get worse, but that did not mean God had abandoned them.  

His words were not welcomed. Who wanted to listen to that? Better to consider the sweet words of Hananiah:  “Everything’s going to be fine. Soon we will triumph, everyone is coming home!”

  Within a year of this statement Hananiah would be dead, labeled a false prophet.  But  because it is a prophet’s job is to dare to tell God’s people hard and holy truths, Jeremiah’s words would make him one of the major prophets of the Old Testament.

That’s a prophet’s reward. Bearing God’s word in a broken world is hard and thankless work.  I think sometimes we suffer from that reticence illustrated in our welcome sign, peeking out from the side, unwilling to stand front and center. The welcome sign wasn’t meant to protect us, it is meant to empower us to engage the world and all it has to offer.

It doesn’t have to be a showdown, and if it seems like one, maybe it’s time to question who we are listening to, who has our attention.  

Are we listening to the warning that we have relegated God to the margins, instead of making God the center of our lives?  Are hearing how God may be calling us through others? Whose words are we dismissing because they don’t fit, they don’t square, with our set way of thinking? Are we willing to welcome the witness and lived experience of others, the LGBTQ, people of color, the undocumented and poor, if only because it may bring us closer to God?

We are living in a time of tremendous upheaval.  The prophets indeed are hard to take and easy to dismiss, but they are like signs pointing to God.  Can we welcome God’s hard and holy truths in our time?  

Who even dares speak for God now? 

It may not be who you think.

“ For the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls 

And tenement halls…”

In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Pentecost 3, June 21, 2020

Matthew 10:24-39

During the second world war, my mother and her sister were part of a home-front program called the ‘government girls.’  These were hundreds of young ladies who lived in and around Washington, DC and travelled into the canyon of buildings to help keep a number of governmental offices going, while the men were away at war.  My mother actually received a commendation for her work and she was very proud of it.

Prouder yet, however, was the fact that she made a friend.

In her office, part of this gaggle of women, was a single Black girl. She had the same kind of duties as everyone else.  Like everyone else, she was young and single. And, like everyone else, she was deeply committed to doing her part for the war effort, to advance the success of the United States during the war. But she was black. (“Colored” as it was known then in polite company).

As my mother told the story, she was moved because the girl was pretty much alone, kept to herself, doing her work.  My mother had the audacity to speak to her, and then befriend her.  Other office mates scolded her in disbelief: “I bet you would even eat with her!” one sneered.  Of course she did, and more.

If the story ended there it would be another example of the many unconventional friends my mother had during her life.  But there’s more to it.  You see, my grandfather, her father, was an out-and-out bigot. Very much a product of the South.  “Make those people sit at the back of the bus,” kind of racist. Proud of it. 

When word got to him of my mother’s new friend, well you can imagine the result. This was not allowed, not in this family! So my mom, with all the bravado of a teenager, told him off, and threatened to leave home. They battled it out and eventually, he relented, though he didn’t change his mind. 

Her plight seems tailor-made to illustrate Jesus’ sayings today about what following him really means.  This is part two of the commissioning of the disciples, where he goes to great lengths to tell us just how difficult discipleship is, and what the consequences will be.

Channeling the words of the prophet Micah, Jesus says emphatically:

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

I’m sure that’s how my mother and grandfather felt about each other over this: a house divided. How is it that Jesus seems to advocate for this? He doesn’t. He’s just warning us that this is the price of peace. For peace, true peace, isn’t one that accommodates denial or dishonesty or bigotry disguised as courtesy.  It is one that takes seriously issues like suffering and inequality, exploitation and abuse, marginalization and repression, as obstacles to overcome in order to achieve it.

  Do not forget that he himself lived under something called ‘Pax Romana’ a period of relative political stability in which the Roman Empire is established, grows wealthy and expands.  As we know, that type of ‘peace’ came at a price, too.  Some were paying more than others for it.

The kind of peace that Jesus brings is a deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to stand up to authority, it isn’t afraid to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal.  It is peace that is difficult to get to, but ultimately worth it.  It is a real oxymoron: sometimes real peace is worth fighting for. 

That’s what he’s warning us about.  The real battle begins within.

“Consider the fact that Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met… No one met him without feeling compelled to change.  He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation.  He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn’t understand.” Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus 6/21/2020 

My father walked into the war-at-home that my mother and grandfather were engaged in.  Here he is, dark, exotic looking, from another country, with a thick accent. Ah, but he was studying to become a man of the cloth.  Apparently, that my grandfather could respect! My father didn’t fit the neatly carved out place where my grandfather put all of those other people who were beneath him. He still couldn’t abide my mother’s Black friend, but the mexican boyfriend somehow wasn’t quite so offensive.

But you can see, can’t you, that his world is beginning to crumble.  Those long-held beliefs that propped up his home empire weren’t built to last.

Today’s gospel compels us to continue with that dismantling –if we want real peace. It asks us to risk moving beyond comfortable, soft, sentimental Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship.  “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Discipleship in the work of peace asks tough questions because we easily conflate the good news with good citizenship; good behavior with conformity; just following orders as an excuse for violence or intimidation; not causing trouble for acceptance of behaviors that are actually contrary to the gospel.

And so we must wrestle with all that stands in its way.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” we read in Hebrews (4:12).  “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

 A sword that pierces the heart.

I think that’s what happened.  By the time he died, my grandfather was a changed man. Not only did he welcome all sorts of people into his home, he actually broke bread with a Black pastor he befriended –or befriended him, I’m not sure which.  It couldn’t have been easy to let go of those things that made him who he was, to live with the loss of respectability, to have the courage or the humility to admit his errors. I can only imagine what that must have been like, to lay down the weapons of prejudice, arrogance of distrust and disdain, to pick up his cross and become a man of peace.  

We are still in that place where some are paying more for our peace than others.  The peace that Jesus calls us to is costly, but well worth the price of our contempt. May we be willing to bear that cross. May we be willing to be a part of a whole new family.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.