Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Jesus is a peanut vendor" a sermon for July 31, 7th Sun after Pentecost

Ho! Peanuts, popcorn, cold beer! Ho! Peanuts, popcorn, cold beer! Ho!

(Hang with me a second.)

‘Ho!’ is the first word of our Old Testament Reading. You can look it up. See it? ‘Ho!’ Like Santa. Ho, ho, ho. The problem with this word is that nobody not dressed like a giant elf with reindeer ever says that anymore. It’s archaic. Old-fashioned. To put it bluntly, it’s lame. Ho. Who says that?

So one commentary recommends that we translate it, ‘Hey you!’, only remember that the you is plural, 'cuz he’s talking to a crowd, so in Texas, maybe we’d say, ‘Hey y’all!’, but even then we’re losing something of the context: remember, this is a vendor hawking wares, a guy who is selling stuff – he doesn’t have a natural audience; he's not preaching from a pulpit; people aren’t lined up to listen – by definition, he’s interrupting. He’s hawking wares on people busy with other things, people whose attention must be claimed.

And then I’m sitting there Tuesday night at the ballgame the Presbyterians us to and the peanut guy walks by and it hits me. That’s it! That’s the single, best translation I’ve heard all week. The single best way to say that strange two-letter word ‘ho’. “Ho! Peanuts. Popcorn.” You get it.

The reading this morning is trying to make a sound like that. An enthusiastic alarm. Truthfully, he’s trying to get your attention - trying to sell you on something. Trying to interrupt you, to persuade you to reconsider your plans. “Listen up, there’s a good thing going, and let me tell you…” He knows you have other plans. He knows you’re busy. But hang on, listen quick. He thinks it’s worth hearing anyway. He thinks that what he has to give is something you don’t have that you might like to have.

He starts off with water. Free water. And the Americans roll their eyes because unlike places in the two-thirds word we can get that on tap, big deal, so he mentions the food – all for free – the milk and the wine, and don’t worry if you don’t have money. It doesn’t matter. (Though the vendor does rhetorically ask his audience why they continue to spend their money on things that don’t satisfy. And isn’t that the definition of most things we purchase, that once the buyer’s buzz wears off, they seldom really satisfy.) No matter. No money? Just come. Come and be filled.

And then the vendor breaks character and does a strange thing: he invites his listeners to sit down and listen. Before he was interrupting, now he presumes a conversation. He says, “I want to feed you because I want you to live. You may not believe it, but I want the best for you. And living, I want to make my covenant with you. I want people to look at you and think ‘glory’, the goodness of the Holy One, the abundance of the blessing of God.

This is so strange that it’s worth some ridiculous examples. Here are two: It’s like going to a baseball game to watch other people play, killing time as pastimes do, buying a hot dog with all the fixings from the guy who’s shouting ‘ho!’, and discovering that the vendor is really your childhood hero, and that he’s got an extra mitt, and he’d love a game of catch.

It’s like staring at the television, watching the bachelor or bachelorette, killing time as pastimes do, and a knock at the door, and it’s your own true love, though you’ve never met, and he wonders if he might take you out to dinner. And maybe you’ve already eaten, but instinctively you know in that moment that this story is not even mostly about the food.

I want people to look at you, he says, and think ‘glory’, the goodness of the Holy One, the abundance of the blessing of God.

Surprise and new life. Life of the kind you had stopped hoping for.

Another story about food that’s not really about food. Jesus and the feeding of the five thousand men. Probably a lot more if you counted the women and kids. We’ve heard it so many times. And sometimes we gloss over it, and sometimes we just acknowledge it, and I’ve heard preachers talk about it in order to inspire hospitality meals, potlucks, and food pantry work. You can feed the people, too, he’ll say. Indeed, isn’t that what Jesus says? He tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” And so we scramble to feed each other. And it’s not all bad. But there’s a detail in the story that we sometimes miss, I think, I know I’ve missed it - do you know what it is? The detail is that these people don’t really need food.

Think about it – the disciples tell Jesus to send the people away, so that they can go buy some grub. Grab some dinner. They’ve got money. Presumably, no one had promised them a catered dinner on the lawn in any case. So they’ve got money AND they expected to spend it that night. They’re not vagabonds. This is not a matter of would they eat, but where would they eat. So this story is not the story of the homeless being fed. Instead, it’s the story of being made able to stay near Jesus. It’s the story of being given permission to listen a while longer to Jesus even when it starts to change their other plans.

And now the two stories are becoming one story: Jesus is the peanut vendor, asking the people to sit down and to listen. And he’s giving them everything they need in order to close to him.

“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all of these things will be added to you as well.”

So this is the story of the single mother who gives of her time and her treasure to the Lord and wonders how it’s all going to balance out. This is the story of the couple that leaves home for a strange town where they will be strangers and they leave because they heard God call them, and they wonder if God will leave them like orphans. This is the story of any and every person, every people, who has ever stepped out in faith because they knew that their need to stay near to Jesus was every bit as real a need as the bread and milk they ate.

Because instinctively they knew that the story and their hunger was not even mostly about the food.

Can I ask you a personal question?

How are you feeding on Jesus? In what ways are you intentional about staying near him?

Are you finding friends with whom to regularly gather, to pray? Not just on Sundays. How is your spiritual hunger touched and filled by the bread and the wine, the Body and Blood, that you receive here? What parts of your life are being touched by this blessing? What part of your life might you still stand to hand over to him?

How is God calling you to partner with him in ways that allow God to touch the hidden parts, the hunger, of other people’s lives? The parts they’ve stopped hoping might get better. Lives they no longer, in the truest sense, enjoy.

I know, that’s too many questions. I hope some of them hit the mark, but it’s more than you have pockets for this morning. Let me share a story, then, and leave you with just one question that I hope will help to carry all the others.

So I’m at the library, picking out books to take to the beach next week, and after a few minutes of digging through the shelves I take my find to the desk and wait in line. I notice I’m a little anxious. Guilty conscience leftover from my childhood. ‘Any late fees?’ I ask the grey-bearded librarian. He checks my card. ‘No,' he says. I am relieved. ‘In fact,’ he says, ‘no check outs for the last year, actually.’ If that’s not a picture of guilt and its effects I don’t know what is. He slides my book over and checks it out on the computer. Hands it back to me. With a smile that we’d call modest on anyone other a librarian he hands it to me, and he says in a way only librarians can, ‘Enjoy.’

Enjoy. Librarians can be so presumptuous. He hadn’t even read the book! I pray to become so presumptuous. “Here, the Body of Christ," I would tell you. "Enjoy!” That’s all this Gospel is saying, and it’s plenty.

So, the five-cent recap: Jesus multiplies the food not because the people don’t have other means for food. He multiplies the food so that he can buy more time with them. You know, for as fancy a reason as he he enjoys them. Enjoys their company. Enjoys who they are. And because they enjoy him; they don’t want to go, either. I remember a prayer service at the monastic community in Taize, France, and the leaders, the monks, had all gone home, but the youth who had gathered from all over the world could not go home. They could, but they didn't. They enjoyed it too much. They wanted to stay with their Savior. So they did. They sang hymns long into the early morning hours.

This, then, is the question that I promised you a minute ago, the one that carries all the others anyway: “Did you know he enjoys you and that his delight is to be enjoyed by you?”

Come, this is the feast of the Living God and Christ himself is the Lamb. This is the invitation to a new way of life - a new life - and so, yes, it interrupts your other plans. All good love stories do. But look on the hill where he feeds them and see that they’re not thinking about the microwave dinners they left in the fridge. No, this is the feast of victory for our God. And Christ is the Lamb whose blood has set us free to be people of God. Children of God. Praise God!

And one last thing: enjoy.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

and the pearl is Christ (sermon on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost)

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Kingdom of heaven is like this.

Like a mustard seed, like a sower, a farmer, like a pearl and the merchant who wants it, sells all he has in order to own it, like a net full of fish, like a bird on a branch, like yeast mixed with flour, like finally arriving at a far, strange shore that nobody has to tell you is home after a long, dark night spent at sea.

Like angels sorting baskets.

The Kingdom of heaven is like these.

I wonder if we wonder enough about what the Kingdom of God is like.

I don’t mean that as a put-down. I wonder, can we ever wonder enough about what the Kingdom of God is like? The Kingdom which is that kingdom for which you were made.

The Kingdom is like... What is it like? How do you describe it? When have you seen it? What was it like the last time you encountered it?

The Kingdom of heaven is like an old, weathered woman, her name was Teresa, she lived with the poor, because she saw the pearl of Christ in them. The Kingdom is like the pre-med student who disappointed his parents when he abruptly stopped his schooling and became a monk, moved to the country in France, because, he said, he had found the pearl worth selling all for. The Kingdom is like the young woman student who likewise disappointed her parents, but this time when she enrolled in pre-med, because, as a doctor, she would be able to tend the fish in the net, she said. Especially the fish, the people, she explained, in the poorest corners of rural Africa. Like the teacher whose name you don’t even remember – only that she loved you with a smile that made you believe that you were God’s pearl. Planting the seed of the Kingdom of God. Sprinkling the yeast of love on which God’s Kingdom stands.

The Kingdom of heaven is like these. Like treasure. Like selling.

Like a woman, come in early on Saturday’s morning to set the altar, fill the cruets, trim the candles, saying prayers as she does so for the congregation that will meet the next day, praying by name, as she looks out on their customary spots in the pews. Like a man who bravely picks up the strange book before the Sunday Assembly and at the end of the reading calls out, “The Word of the Lord,” hiding a slight tremble stemming from the mystery that these words have touched his lips. He remembers the first time, as a youth, he was invited to read; he felt a joy as if the Lord himself had called him; like Peter. The Kingdom is like the youth who is not ashamed of her age but stands before the children and leads them in songs of raucous praise for a week at church camp. Like the anonymous one whose action is unseen to the church and the world, as she sits in quiet at the bedside of the home-bound, praying, holding hands, holding the silence over which the Spirit alone presides.

The Kingdom of heaven is like these. Like sharing. Like leading. Like self-giving.

Like a wedding banquet and no one came, so the host opened the doors to the streets. Like a movie shown in evening light, strangers collected under a bell tower, neighbors from the streets stopping to drink in the occasion. Like a tiny group of holy friends meeting every week, midweek; over breakfast, sharing stories of God at work in their lives. Like the accidental meeting of friends between aisles nine and ten, just before the produce section. Like two or three gathered in His Name.

The Kingdom of heaven is like breaking bread. Like drinking peace. Like forgiveness. Like new life. Like challenge. Like rest. The Kingdom of heaven is like these.

The Kingdom of heaven is like the small gift that no one thought mattered. But it did matter. Like stories we remember as children: like the boy David, made King. Too small to be noticed. Like Mary, still a girl. Not married. Small things don’t always stay small. But they almost always start small.

Like the first light that speaks dawn in the darkness.

The Kingdom of heaven is like life we did not expect.

A boy once marveled to his mother on his way home from church, in the car, he marveled to his mother his amazement that his God was big enough to become small enough to live inside of him.

For all of these reasons, the Kingdom resists being measured in numbers; the Kingdom’s only visible measure is love lived in motion. Small things with great love. The Jews in Jesus’s day wanted a military of thousands. Large numbers and power. Instead, they got Mary. But Mary said, “yes,” with love, and the powers of this world were unmasked with a baby’s birth. Because big things without love are like no things at all in this Kingdom, but no thing is too small with the love of this Kingdom.

The Kingdom of heaven is like saying ‘Yes’ to God, with love. Like love with arms in motion.

The Kingdom of heaven is like pursuit of the pearl. Like giving up wealth and becoming truly rich. Like buying the pearl. And the pearl is Christ.

And Christ is not glamorous. Christ is not pretty. But this is not the story of things glamorous and pretty things, is it? This is the story of small, unnoticed things, but small things filled with unspeakable love. Not big, pretty things, but the truly beautiful things. And should you look around you in the course of a day, in an unhurried way, you will notice that we are surrounded by truly beautiful things.

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven,/ And every common bush afire with God,/ But only he who sees, takes off his shoes; / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

(Had Browning lived to see them, she might have added iPhones and smart phones to Blackberries on the list of things we use to distract ourselves from the truly beautiful.)

The Kingdom of heaven has a well-established habit of speaking in the silence, inhabiting the poor, appearing in the unlikely places. And all places become unlikely when we grow too big for love.

“Love is patient; love is kind,” writes St Paul. “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

We know these things about love, because we have seen these things in Christ.

The Kingdom of heaven is like God’s Son on a cross. The King of kings on a tree. “Greater love has no man than this,” Jesus says, “than that he lay down his life for his friends.”
And elsewhere, “...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

And so Christ Jesus,
6 ...though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

The Kingdom of heaven is like this.


Monday, July 18, 2011

weeds, wheat, and willie mays (a sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

It starts out simple: Jesus asks his disciples to let God be the judge of the bad seed in the field. Never mind those rough seeds, he says, I’ve got ‘em. I’ll take care of ‘em. Like an All-Star center fielder calling for the ball with confidence, “I got it,” he says. He says it in a way you believe him. “You just rest easy. You just watch me. You just keep going. You just never mind ‘em.”

Let the weeds go. Leave ‘em alone. Like a simple word that changes everything - everything you thought you knew about weeds. Because up until now, weeds were considered very bad things, which is why your grandma paid you a penny a plant to pull them - or more, if you were lucky. Used to be that weeds spelled the end of the crop. Doomsday for the flowers. Death for the daffodils. Common sense, not just for farmers, but for ordinary men and women, too: everyone knows that you can’t grow things with weeds.

Like the battles my grandfather waged with the squirrels and the rabbits. Building moats around the garden (not really). Setting traps late at night. Because one bad apple can spoil the bunch the thinking went, and that meant get on yours knees in the heat of the day and earn your pennies one weed at a time. Keep the field clean.

That was the old way. Today, Jesus says God has another way in mind, and it’s simple: Don’t pull ‘em. I got ‘em. As cool as Willie Mays.

But if it’s as simple as that - if it’s all just that cool - why is leaving weeds alone also so very darn hard?

At least, the characters in the story, they think it is.

For starters, there’s the problem of where the weeds come from. Like the mystery of mosquitoes. Seemingly unnecessary evil, say the help. Why these obstacles to a happy life? they ask. Why these thorns in the flesh. How can a good farmer (or a good God, for that matter) permit the growth of bad seed? Seed that chokes growth in others. And we’ve heard this problem before. And we’ve more than heard it. When we lost the loved one to the unnecessary tragedy, the drunken driver or the abusive parent, the recurring cancer, we felt that problem like a knife to the heart.

The farmer’s answer is short, but true: an enemy did this. The field isn’t lost, but these things were not the design. The plan was good, and the plan is still on, but the farmer didn’t plant these seeds of suffering. They are the work of an another.

For the characters in the story, this answer makes the next problem worse: Well...
If the bad seed is the work of an enemy, why not undo it? Pull ‘em all out. Heck, we’ll help you do it. We won’t even charge pennies, they say. We just want to see the crop do well. Tell you what farmer, it’s nearly the end of the day anyway, it’ll just take us an hour, maybe two, a few beers, and a half a can of gasoline.

Yikes. The farmer cringes.

“Why don’t you boys have a seat for a second. Pull up a tree stump.”

Number one, yes, the field has bad seed in it, but number two, the plants look very much alike - and what if you hack down some good seed along the way, what then? - and number three, trust me, he says, leave it to me to sort out the field -not now - but when the harvest comes.

“But Lord,” they say, “just to clarify, just so we’re on the same page - won’t they get in the way--the weeds?” “Yes, they will.”

“But Lord, wouldn’t the wheat have an easier go overall if they weren’t fighting the weeds for their lives?” “Yes,” says the farmer, “they would.”

The help stares back, perplexed.
“So really, you’re not going to fix this?”

“No,” sighs the farmer. “And I don’t want you fixing it, either - destroying on my behalf the weeds that destroy the good plants. After all, and to put it blunt, you, Joe, you can’t tell a tulip from a turnip; you go around burning up wheat in my name, well that would be just altogether weed-like, wouldn’t it? And God knows that evil doesn’t need that kind of help.”

“But boss,” they say, “an enemy did this--it’s a declaration of war! How can you ask us to just stand idly by and watch the whole thing go down like this? What kind of farmer works like that anyway?”

A long pause follows.

The farmer finally clears his throat. “The field is mine. The field belong to me. The field will be fine. I won’t lose one of them. But we’ll wait. We’ll wait. My death will be your patience; my life will be your glory.”

Confusion. Awkwardness. And you can imagine the disappointment of the first disciples at a story that ends like this.

All of this is what makes this simple story hard. The farmer is talking weeds, seeds, and wheat, and Jesus is talking suffering, patience, and forgiveness - all against the backdrop of the cross. And these are not easy things.

And because we’ve been talking in pictures this morning, let me give you a real life example. Up until the 1990s, apartheid in South Africa was a political program of systemic racism by which an elite white minority relegated black South Africans to the margins of power. Apartheid left blacks in poverty, cyclical illiteracy, chronic voicelessness, and facing unjust laws and frequent imprisonment, torture, and sometimes murder. Because the perpetrators of these crimes worked for the government, they almost always got away with it, like the weeds in the farmer’s field.

While many black South Africans resisted peacefully, others resisted violently. With car bombs, kidnappings. Terrorist-like activities. Years later, Methodist Bishop Peter Storey of South Africa was able to remark about the irony of these things:

“The primary cancer may be, and was, and will always be, the apartheid oppression, but secondary infections have touched many of apartheid’s opponents and eroded their knowledge of good and evil. One of the tragedies of life, sir, is it is possible to become like that which we hate most, and I have a feeling that this drama is an example of that.”

Seeing the evil will not keep us from aiding - even becoming - the evil. That’s what the farmer is on to when he asks them to sit. Be still. When he says, “I’ve got it.”

As it turns out, when God says, “I’ve got it,” God also means “you don’t.” We don’t. It’s not just that Jesus says “wait,” it is also that by asking the disciples to wait, he commands them to put down the pitchforks and extinguish the torches. No bounty hunter justice or lingering embers of resentment kept here. To each her due process, and the process belongs to God. Thank God.

As it turns out, to let God be the judge means that the disciples will have to learn patience for those plants (and those people) that they don’t understand. The ones who don’t look exactly like them. The ones who look too much like them. You know, like an unflattering mirror that highlights the zits, they hit a nerve for some reason.

What a bummer. When the judgment of God means fire for others, it’s easier to get excited about it. When the judgment of God means deferring the act of judgment to God, there’s a lot less to talk about. The plots and schemes and secret conversations and sleepless nights give way to what? If you don’t have other things to do, the judgment of God can leave you all dressed up on a Saturday night empty, with cancelled party plans.

Quick aside that’s worth saying: the disappointment, the impatience, that the disciples feel when Jesus asks them to be patient with others shows just how much they stand to gain if they can ever learn to be patient with themselves. Because to be patient with yourself solely because God says you’re worth being patient with is the beginning of grace.

Weeds and wheat. Together. One field. (For the time being.) One Lord. (Always.) One hope. And this hope has the power to transform.

So here’s the dime store recap, plus one more story.

The judgment of God means patience for us. Even suffering patience. Even patience when it hurts. A prayerful patience that looks at the weeds and slowly learns to pray that maybe she’s wrong. Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe there’s wheat there I don’t see. A person told me once that her spiritual director had suggested that she pray for a particular weed in her life, ask God to bless this weed with the best God had for the weed. “But I won’t mean it,” she said. “Why should I pray it?” The spiritual director smiled. “Then say that. Start your prayer that way: ‘Lord, you know I don’t mean it, but bless this weed in my life with the best you have for her.’ And Lord, help me to mean it.” The woman reported that she prayed this way for two and a half weeks until one day she forgot to tell God she didn’t mean it. Pray for the weeds.

It may not be good farming practice, but it’s the heart of Good Gospel practice: if the best you can say about him is that he’s an enemy, you know for sure what to do with him: love him. Love your enemies, Jesus says. Pray for those who persecute you. In so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone, says St. Paul.

Let the weeds go. Forgive them. Leave ‘em alone. But keep growing. Like a simple word that changes everything - everything you ever knew about weeds. Because up until now, weeds were considered very bad things, which is why your grandma paid you a penny a plant to pull them - a penny a plant, or more, if you were lucky. Used to be that weeds spelled the end of the crop. Doomsday for the flowers. Death for the daffodils.

But, look! Death has been defeated, sing the angels. The risen Lord smiles with wounded, healing hands. It seems that weeds don’t hold the future hostage quite like they used to.

No, that was the old way. Today, Jesus says God has another way in mind, and it’s simple: Don’t pull ‘em. Forgive them. Pray for them. “I got ‘em,” he says, “I got ‘em!” As cool as Willie Mays.


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