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.

Pentecost 2, June 14, 2020

Rev. Susan’s Sermon for Proper 6 – Pentecost 2, 2020 (Matthew 9:35-10:8-23)

If I were to ask you today, how do you define discipleship? Would you have a ready answer?  I will let you sit with the question for a moment.  What are the qualities or characteristics of a disciple? What does a disciple, a follower of Jesus, have to know or be, in order to qualify being one?  Do we know anyone who fits the bill? Ask yourself this, how does anyone know who it is we follow?

We’ve moved from the festive post-Easter season straight into what’s called the green season, or the teaching season.  Right off the bat, we have a lesson on discipleship. And a tough one, too. It’s a long list of stark and somewhat confusing instructions –at least initially because we live in a different time– and we are not quite used to hearing Jesus speak this way, like a general giving marching orders, but there he is.

We can tease out some of the directions: have compassion, reach to the lost, confused people right in your own neighborhood; don’t make a big deal about what you are doing, don’t fret about what you need to take with you or about planning in advance; travel light;  Offer what you have, the good news, if it’s not accepted, so be it.  Walk away. Start over.  Go to the next place.

And then come the warnings: it’s hazardous work; it doesn’t pay well; it’s not for the faint-of-heart or naive. You are going to be accused, vilified, your work may cause division, even within your own family.  People are going to turn on you. So, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

There’s no training manual for the work he’s asked them to do, and it is significant: Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  Really! It’s really OJT  (on the job training) everything they know comes from following the Man. and now they have to put it –whatever it is– into practice.  

That is Jesus’ definition of discipleship –and more will come later.  Does it fit your definition? Does it sound like any one you know?  I think it’s worth taking a quick look at who did follow him then.

Who are they?  Several fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, a twin, and collaborator; a couple of local guys perhaps because we don’t know much about them.  Nothing to recommend them, really. That’s at the initial stage.  We know they, in the course of their discipleship, will become a doubter, a denier, a traitor.  Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to recognize Jesus’ followers, we think they look like ‘good people.’

When Jesus calls his disciples, the people who are to help him spread the word of the good news, he does so from the point of view of compassion for those who are lost. And it seems, the ones tasked with the job are part of the lost themselves.

This goes against the knight in shining armor view of a savior.  

While we might well expect Jesus, the wise and powerful Son of God, the caring and capable shepherd, to step into and set up a rescue mission for all the lost sheep, Jesus doesn’t quite do that.

Rather, he surrounds himself with doubters and dissenters, colluders, deserters and back-stabbers and puts them through a life-changing mission, so that eventually, after many of them hit rock bottom, they become the leaders of a new movement called Christianity.

But first, he commissions this rag-tag crew, people like you and me,  to step into his shoes. The Messiah has come, as it turns out, not to solve humanity’s problems for us, but to encourage and empower us to solve them, in effect recruiting us into God’s work of love and redemption, making us part of the solution to whatever ails the world. Making us agents with him in the story of salvation.

This gospel points to one of God’s signature moves: gracefully making possible what initially seems impossible; and doing so through unexpected, ordinary, even downright unlikely suspects. Life is a parable with unexpected plot twists all along the way.

How is your discipleship going these days?? Did you come up with a definition? Did you think of someone who does look like a disciple?

Right now, your, our discipleship is as important as ever.  Not surprisingly, the mission is the same as ever:  make sure people are healthy and whole, build bridges, call out evil, give people hope.  In a word, We have one task and one task only: to make the presence of God real in the world.

Our marching orders are a bit clearer, at least to me, than what we read in the gospel, because we have the baptismal covenant to guide us.  We just  reaffirmed those vows, promising –with God’s help– to respect the dignity of every human being and seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  That is how we make God’s presence visible in the world.

If that’s not happening, then it’s time to check your discipleship.

If you are confused between accommodation and peace, tolerance and justice –check your discipleship.

If you have traded comfort for control, respectability for respect, check your discipleship.

Check your discipleship If you are zealous and uncompromising in condemning the behavior or beliefs of others, but not reflecting on your own.

If you are unaffected by what is happening, if you are looking for ways to excuse the wholesale maltreatment of generations of people, if you can’t find the patience or compassion for people who are suffering -check your discipleship.

If you are unwilling to change, build bridges, support efforts to dismantle evil –check your discipleship.

If you cannot even tolerate someone Jesus was willing to die for –check your discipleship.

Jesus does not mince words when he tells his followers how hard discipleship really is: 

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware… for they will hand you over to councils and flog you… and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… Brother will betray brother… and a father his child, and children will rise against parents… and you will be hated by all because of my name.”

Discipleship is never comfortable; it’s  often deadly.  There is a real cost to making the presence of God real in the world. Just ask Jesus.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020

Trinity, June 7, 2020 Rev. Susan’s Homily, “You Stretch”

That’s the only way I can answer the question that the Trinity poses for the believer.  Every year I look forward to the Feast of the Trinity and to finding a way to explain the unexplainable three-fold nature of God.  Every year I joke that there’s no way to do it without committing heresy –not that I’m too worried about that, the doctrine of the Trinity has has baffled theologian, scholar and peasant alike, so I know I’m in good company.

So my advice for today is this: You stretch.  Think of what stretching does for you physically. Everything I know about stretching comes from Penny’s yoga class.  She is the one who made me understand how important it is to do, before doing anything else. When you stretch, you become more flexible, increases your movement, improves condition, pain relief, decreases tension, helps calm you down. 

In terms of understanding something as exquisite or difficult, it means you make room for opposite and conflicting ideas.  You make room for paradox, illogic, contradiction and fancy. It is unreasonable, of course, to believe in a triune God, but what does reason have to do with it? The Trinity is a faith statement, based on the revelation of God in scripture and the collective experience of the church.

The readings we have today all point to God as Trinity whether or not they spell it out clearly.  From the readings we are to glean who God is and why it matters, especially now. 

The doctrine matters because it makes us stretch, it doesn’t allow us to  pigeonhole or box God in. The moment we think, it’s all about the Father, here comes Jesus.  The moment we think we know what Jesus is all about, here comes the Holy Spirit, like a wind blowing where it will, refusing categorization. 

God as Trinity ensures that we can never be comfortable around God.  There is no logic to God’s creating us, loving us and sustaining us.  See what I did there? That is a description of God from our perspective, doing what God does: create, love, and sustain.  The Trinity is the unending, flowing movement of God towards us.

In a way, our trinitarian approach to life is one of God’s great gifts to us, I think, because it makes us stretch.  

The first way the Trinity makes us stretch, we hear in the reading from Genesis.  We are made in God’s image. Imago dei. That means that God’s imprint is in us, so if we want to know about God, we can start by turning to each other first.  

Another way the Trinity makes us stretch, again from Genesis, is in relationship: a community unto itself. One that can’t be divided or separated. One that lives in a constant fellowship of love.  God is deeply, unequivocally, relational. 

A very intriguing way the Trinity makes us stretch is how God is diverse. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not the same, yet they all are God.  Each one of them so distinct. Each one of them the same God.

We have to stretch to take it all in.

Stretching is uncomfortable, even painful at times, but good for us.  Stretching takes us to new places, even when we are reluctant to go.  Stretching enables us to begin to shed what’s no longer good for us, what doesn’t serve the God in whose image we were created. 

It’s been a difficult week. We have been shown the dark underbelly of our social structure. One that is profoundly unjust, and often cruel. For a country that takes pride in the certainty of unalienable rights –divinely ordained, no less– it is hard to hear and see that, for many, this just isn’t true.  Many are scared, many offended, many cynical, many angry to the point of violence, many, so many are just tired of living in a never-ending cycle of oppression. 

What do we do now?

We stretch. And in this case, stretching means standing in the tension of contradiction, rather than conformity and looking for the image of God in the faces of those around us, to regain our balance.  Tragically, sometimes doing this is really, really hard, physically or spiritually.  We have so closed our hearts and minds to each other, that we fail to see the holy in them.  That is our greatest failure, not just the policies and principles that are supposed to guide us, not just in affirming the dignity of every human being, we have failed at holiness –at honoring God in each other.

How do we go forward? I wish I had all the answers.  I wish the answers were easy! The only thing I can say is we stretch. That’s our job now.  We stretch and try to wrap our heads around what is happening, without hiding in comfortable remedies of the past.  We stretch admitting our own complicity in structures that oppress and denigrate others.  We stretch by laying down our self-serving weapons of hostility, resentment, enmity and racism. (How can it be that  lynching still isn’t a federal crime?!) We stretch by willing to be educated, willing to have our blinders taken off, willing to show and share our own mistakes and vulnerability.  We stretch by showing humility and compassion and acknowledge other’s pain. Otherwise we become calcified, atrophied, set in our ways, disconnected from all that is life giving.

Writing about the Trinity, writer Debi Thomas says, “I can’t imagine a more relevant characteristic to ponder than God’s innate diversity.  As churches, communities, and countries, we will not survive unless we learn how to live gracefully and peaceably with difference.  We will not heal unless we’re honest about our fears, penitent about our histories, and unrelenting in our longing for God’s diverse nature to be realized in its fullness among us.” (Debi Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Current Essay 6/2020)

We stretch or we die, as people, as a country, as children of God. So we stretch to listen, we stretch to comfort, we stretch to restore balance, we stretch to realign, we stretch to build community. It’s on us. It’s what we do before asking anyone else to bend. We stretch.

God the sender, send me, God the sent, come with me, God the strengthener of those who go, empower me, That I may go with you and find, Those who will call you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen (A prayer from Wales)