Sunday, August 13, 2017

Half an inch of Water and I Think I'm Gonna Drown

Matthew 14:22-33

        Like many of you, I first encountered the Bible as a child. My superheroes were Moses, David, Sampson, and Paul. I took the stories literally because the folks that taught them to me took them literally. Through the years I believe I have come to love the Bible even more by daring to wrestle with the symbolism that is to be gained from stories about arks, ladders, big fish and folks walking on water.

        What a marvelous story we read this morning in the Book of Matthew. You remember Matthew. He is the gospel writer that begins each parable with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a lost coin, or a mustard seed, or any number of ordinary things.”  Actually what he was saying was the church of Jesus Christ can be best seen in the ordinary.  Matthew’s entire gospel is about the church and how we are to represent the mindset of God. But sometimes the church can become a place which responds to dark moments by either disappearing or walking around on eggshells hoping the crisis of the day will disappear.

        Matthew the storyteller records an incredible moment in the life of Peter. But Matthew the church builder dares us to look beyond Peter and think of the church as a boat. Think of the water as the chaos in which the boat attempts to float. Think of church members trying to navigate this complicated thing called life when evil winds begin to blow.

        Jesus had a long day of preaching and teaching and wanted to get away from the crowds. It was his habit to go up into the mountains and spend time in prayer. But the disciples were fishermen. Often they would hop in a boat, cast off, in order to be isolated from the disturbances of the day. I imagine that is why most of us come to church. We want to get away from all the noise and bedlam that seems to emerge with each step we take. When we come to church we don’t have to listen to the talking heads that seem to be everywhere. When we come to church we get to listen to music that promises God will take care of us. For one hour a week we are isolated from the world. And even if we don’t like the sermon, we can shut our eyes and everyone will assume we are just praying. What could be more peaceful than Church? It’s like a boat, rocking in perfect harmony to the rhythm of gentle waves.

        The disciples found a cove on the edge of the lake. They believed it to be a safe place. Once the anchor was secure, the disciples laid down in the bottom of the boat. Ever spent a relaxing night on the water? The lapping of the waves against hull becomes melodious.  One by one the disciples fell asleep. But after midnight the wind began to freshen. Peter was the first to take notice of the sudden change in the weather.

        Have you ever had the misfortune of being out on the water when a storm unexpectedly arrives? I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. Deb’s dad had a boat and often went fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. I had no interest in the water but I was madly in love with Deb so I often accompanied them on their quest to catch Moby Flounder. More than once we were chased back to shore when the sky turned deadly.   

        Peter had no gas powered engine. It was too dark to hoist the sails and head home. The waves and rocks left the disciples with little options but to ride out the storm.

        Sometimes that is the way it is in the church. While we desire the church to be a safe place, sometimes the waves of life make our journey difficult. Last year Sarah, Ann, Ralph, Frankie and others died. Each played a pivotal role in our church. Their deaths placed us in a storm not of our own making. Sarah’s death was particularly hard on our music program. We are still trying to figure out what we must do to replace her gifts.

        This fall the Nevill’s, Turnbull’s, Beddow’s and Jefferson’s will be moving to new pastures. They have each given us such great joy and while we understand their reasons for moving to flatter ground, they will be sorely missed. Think of all the years Nancy ministered to the sick. She will be hard to replace. Our boat will certainly rock a little precariously when these good folks depart.

        And let’s be honest. Sometimes folks in church just get those noses a little out of joint. Paul did not write First Corinthians 13 as a meditation for a wedding.  The church in Corinth was one rocky ship. No sooner had Paul dealt with one problem than another appeared. Paul preferred to write about faith and hope but when it came to the squabbles in Corinth he begged them to remember, “Faith and hope are important, but if you don’t have love, nothing else matters.”

        I suspect there were moments in Matthew’s church when everything wasn’t perfect. I have spent my whole life in churches and just the fact that churches are filled with people usually guarantees not everyone is going to be on the same page. Boats get rocked by our everyday storms.

        I think the greatest difficulties in a church stem from our persistent worrying about tomorrow. Sometimes the journey just seems too much and we just aren’t sure if we are up to the task. We get so worried about our future we fail to see the hand of God at work. This week Sam Alexander alerted the wood ministry team that there were a couple trees at Doug Wood’s house that were ready to be hauled away.  Doug lives above the intersection of Black Walnut and Stoney Creek West. I rode my bike to Doug’s house once and thought I was going to die. There is not an inch of flat ground on Doug’s property. Wednesday I got there early to survey the land. The first tree was stacked up just off the driveway. This was easy pickings. But the rest of the wood was in the back yard. Our wood ministry team has big hearts and a lot of determination but we are best known for our age and bad backs.  As I climbed the hill back to Doug’s house I knew we could not possibly harvest this generous gift. Then Dane and Scott arrived. Their combined ages are less than 55. Chaos turned to triumph as within two hours six loads of wood found a new home on our church wood pile.  Sometimes we fail to see beyond the obvious.       

But sometimes the crisis is bigger than us. Peter knew he was going to die. It was only a matter of minutes before the storm would capsize the boat and leave the disciples helpless victims in the water. Just as they were about to give up all hope the disciples saw a figure approaching the boat. They thought it was a ghost, a certain sign they were about to die. But Jesus spoke, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”

        It is easy to believe in the love of God when you are sitting in a pew with your family singing, “Amazing Grace.”

        It is easy to believe that God is good when you are eating chocolate chips cookies with your grandchildren.

        When no one is rocking to boat, where else would we want to be but in the arms of Jesus? But when the storms of life arise and it seems our ship might capsize, what is the first thing we do? We panic. We forget faith demands more than just sitting on our backsides. We become like eleven of the twelve disciples who took out pen and paper and wrote their last will and testament. But Peter hoped over the side and started walking toward Jesus.

This was Peter’s finest hour. When everyone else hid Peter called out, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replied, “Come.”

        We usually only remember the part where Peter started to sink and Jesus rescued him. We forget Peter stepped out of the boat and took a few steps. Sure he became overwhelmed by the winds. Sure he sank into the waves like a rock. But before he sank, he walked.

 Remember when you took the training wheels off the bike of your son or daughter. Remember running behind them with your hand steadying the bike. Remember letting the bike go and your child precariously wobbled down the road. Remember when they looked around, lost their nerve, and fell. How did you respond? Did you scream at them for messing up? No! You celebrated the moment. You helped them back on the bike.  And the rest is history.

        Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you think you could walk on water?”  What Jesus said was, “Peter, why did you ever doubt that you couldn’t walk on water.” Yes, Peter sank, but he was the only one brave enough to get out of the boat. Yes, Peter sank, but not while his eyes were on Jesus. Are we looking to Jesus or will we cling to bottom of our boat petrified by fear?

        Chaos descended on Charlottesville yesterday. Three people died because of this chaos. One died because she made the choice to stand against an ideology she believed to be evil. Two Virginia State Troopers died on a day they certainly would have preferred to have been home with their families. Chaos seldom cares who dies.

        I know many, maybe most of you would prefer I not speak about this. After all, the crisis is over. Most of our visitors have gotten back in their vehicles and headed home. But the stench of their presence lingers. In 1933 the German National Church recognized the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler as their new chancellor. I mention this because so many of the young men who visited our city wore swastikas.  But not all German Christians fell silent. Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoller gathered Lutheran and Reform ministers together to declare that the church’s freedom is in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. Their statement was published as The Theological Declaration of Barmen. It begins with this premise:

        Jesus Christ is our righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Jesus Christ is the one we obey and trust in life and death. We reject false doctrines which suggest there are areas of life where we do not belong to Jesus.

        Barth was forced to flee Germany. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed. But their eyes never left Jesus. May we courageously maintain a similar vision.      Amen. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Midnight at the Oasis

Genesis 32:22-31

             We have all had one of those moments when a choice, or a decision, lay before us.  We lose sleep, we worry, we procrastinate, but the deadline, a deadline that could forever change our lives, gets closer.  As children we made decisions about picking friends. Later we picked colleges, occupations, spouses, not necessarily in that order.  I suspect all of us have looked back and explored how those choices shaped our lives.  As adults, we understand all too well the radical nature of life changing decisions. We weigh all the options, hopefully we pray, but most of all we wrestle with our soul in a never ending battle of trying to make the right choice.  And sometimes, at midnight, we go down to the river, wondering who or what might greet us. Such was the dilemma of Jacob.  Jacob was a scoundrel, liar, and cheat. And those were his best qualities.  He worked hard to manipulate life to suit his purposes, but this did not excuse him from his inevitable appointment with the river.  Jacob was no role model.  He is not the first person who comes to mind when we think of a biblical character we might emulate.  And yet, like it or not, I imagine there is a little of Jacob in each of us.   Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob was no hero.  He lived life running away from his problems.  He fled Esau and Laban without even saying good-bye.  What was there to say?  He stole the birthright from Esau.  He stole two daughters and the family jewels from Laban.  If anything, Jacob was the anti-hero. 

Unlike his father Isaac, Jacob was no poet.  Isaac defined his life by that ghastly incident in the mountains with his father.  When Abraham lifted the knife to slay his son, Isaac saw his past, and his future written before his eyes.  Isaac won Rebekah with his words and blessed Jacob with his vision.  But Jacob, the man who saw a ladder descend from the heavens, never spoke of his dream in poetry or song.  Jacob saved his words to manipulate, to placate, to exaggerate, in order to control the moment regardless of the lasting consequences.  Jacob was no poet, for poets speak the truth.  Jacob was just a liar, molding his desires, his appetites, regardless of the damage done to the innocent.  Jacob could not see the future, therefore tomorrow became his greatest enemy.  His fear of the unknown drove Jacob to finally confront his destiny and his God.
Jacob had been away from home for nearly fifteen years.  His mother and father had died and Jacob had skipped both funerals.  His brother did not relinquish responsibility of the land.  Under Esau the herds had grown and the land had flourished.  But despite all Esau’s labor, Jacob still owned the birthright. Legally the land still belonged to the younger brother who had fled in the night.  But Esau could not turn his back on his father’s dream and  Jacob was aware this.  Jacob knew Esau had cultivated what was technically his.  What Jacob could not know was how Esau would react once the prodigal returned home.  In the light of day, Jacob figured there was no way he could manipulate his brother a second time.  In the light of day, Jacob anticipated that Esau would respond the selfishly and self-servingly. Jacob figured Esau had to be waiting on the other side of the river with nothing but revenge on his mind.   
But at night, another voice entered the consciousness of the manipulator.  At night, Jacob encountered the God of Beth-el.  At night, Jacob had seen a ladder descending from the clouds.  At night, Jacob was reminded that God would remain with him, regardless.  So at night, Jacob went down to the river.
The tough thing about making a decision is not the final decision.  We already know what we are supposed to do.  Choosing between right and wrong is not all that difficult. Acting on what is right is the problem. There are so many complicating factors which confuse our minds.  Doing the right thing is not always advantageous. Doing what is right often works against our best interest.  Living a life where our self interests are set aside for the sake of a loved one, or a beloved community, might require sacrifice on our part.  Jacob was no hero.  For an entire life, his needs, his desires, his wishes, always superseded the needs, the desires and the wishes of his community.  Jacob had learned to manipulate everyone, but God.  And now it was night.  He had no place to run, no place to hide.  Standing by the river, on the edge of his destiny, Jacob encountered a stranger. 
Was it an angel?  Was it God?  Perhaps it was the deepest side of his psyche harboring all his doubts.  Perhaps Jacob was attacked by an inner voice that said, “I am nothing, I am unworthy of my blessing, I am unworthy to continue the covenant established with my grandfather Abraham.”  Perhaps Jacob engaged in a battle between the one destined to be a dreamer and the manipulative fugitive who was always prone to run away.   After all it has often been said our truest victories are the ones we achieve over ourselves.  Perhaps Jacob was forced to confront himself and found there was no place left to run.
As tempting as it would be to draw these conclusions, the text suggests Jacob encountered more than just his own psyche.   We all know sometimes the choices between lawful or unlawful, or between right and wrong, can be manipulated to serve our own purposes.  So we ask the more difficult question, “What is Godly and what is ungodly?”  This conversation moves us beyond our conventional answers and challenges us to explore life as seen through the imagination of God.  No where in Jacob’s limited psyche did he imagine that Esau might be waiting across the river with forgiveness in his heart.  We constantly find ourselves captured by the limited choices WE believe to be possible.  Jacob had no idea what would happen when he encountered God.  Few of us do.  But for the first time in his life, Jacob did not run away.
Was he ready to repent?  Was he hoping God would bail him out?  Was he curious?   Maybe Jacob was all of the above.  Maybe he was just tired of running. When our last resort is to wrestle with God, are we any different than Jacob? Tormented and confused, hoping for a miracle, we stagger toward the river. Only the miracle we discover is seldom what we expected.
        What Jacob encountered was not a solution but a presence.  Jacob went to the river and discovered God was already there. 
He fought with God, for Jacob had fought God all his life.  But isn’t it better to fight God than to be without God. 
He struggled with God, for Jacob struggled with God from the beginning. But isn’t it better to struggle with God than be alone.
They fought all night until all Jacob could do was hold on to that which he could not even understand. This wretched man confronted holiness. This dishonest man found himself challenged by truth.   This frightened man discovered a Holy Refuge.  This barren man encountered an Unimaginable Love.  Inspired by everything he had never been, the next morning Jacob limped across the river.
(Have Kathleen sing)
Let’s go down to the river to pray,
Thinkin’ about that good old way,
And who can wear the starry crown,
Good Lord show us the way.
Oh sinner let’s go down,
Come on down, come on down,
Oh sinner let’s go down,
Down to the river to pray.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:31-33

        I went to see a movie recently and made the mistake of arriving on time. Silly me, I thought if the movie was scheduled to start at 7:10 it would start at 7:10. Instead I had to endure twenty minutes of previews.  Each was presented as the newest blockbuster, filling the screen with an onslaught of train wrecks, car crashes, and explosions. The dialogue was incredibly pithy with such memorable lines as “Duck!” which makes sense if the central theme is train wrecks, car crashes, and explosions. The sound track practically made my ears bleed. It resembled a marriage of Richard Wagner and Black Sabbath. Why is it movie folks think bigger and louder will convince me to spend another $24.00 on tickets, coke, and popcorn? Truth is, I’m not going back until they start on time, turn down the noise, and put extra butter on my popcorn, even if I don’t ask for it.

        Everything these days seems so over the top.  We don’t converse. We engage in dramatic dialogues attempting to prove that my life is more important than yours.         So what do we do when Jesus opens one of his sermons with the line, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed?”

        Not being the type person who intentionally spends much time in a garden, I had to check with an expert to discover exactly why one would sow mustard seeds. Boy was I surprised.  It seems mustard seeds are so small they can easily be blown away by the wind. But once they take root, they grow like kudzu. It actually is more of a weed than plant. It becomes a parasite choking out the other vegetables in the garden.  That information makes it difficult to understand how one might sell mustard seeds.   Now coming to your local garden, we present the mustard seed. Small to the eye but more powerful to the taste buds than paprika, the mustard seed promises to bring out the dog in your hot dog. But be careful, mustard can leave a stain that last a lifetime.

        Somehow I fear a mustard movie is going straight to cable. No matter how loud the soundtrack, the idea that the kingdom of heaven is like mustard seeds leaves me a little disappointed. Where is the pizzazz? Where are the fireworks? What is so special about a little seed eventually becoming an aggressive bush? It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom of God is hardly what you expect.”     And maybe that’s the problem. In our minds we already have a clear understanding of the Kingdom of God. In fact the only time we get confused is when Jesus speaks.

        What is the Kingdom of God? I spent an endless amount of time this week interviewing any number of folks concerning this very question. Well actually that is not true. Every morning this week from 6:30 to 8:00 I have been painting the outside of my townhouse. As I paint I have been imagining how you might respond to my question. I realize this does not make for a terribly accurate survey but then surveys are notorious for allowing a small sampling to speak for the entire universe. I figure my survey is as accurate as any compiled by CNN or Fox News.

        What is the Kingdom of God? Most folks in my survey substituted the word heaven. One person said, “While I have not been there, I believe it to be a place where everything is perfect.” Another added, “When I get there I am sure I will see my dearly departed loved ones.” My favorite comment was, “I am not sure if the streets are paved with gold, but I am certain there are no potholes.” None of the folks I imagined I interviewed suggested that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. So why would Jesus suggest this?

        When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he was not referring to an after death experience. When asked when the Kingdom of God would appear Jesus responded, “The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Jesus referred to the Kingdom as the time when the reign of God would be complete. He admitted this had not fully occurred but it was in the process of happening. Furthermore, Jesus warned when it does happen, it might not be what we expect. Who in their right mind dreams of choking out what one considers being essential as a good thing.

        We prefer our parables interpreted by someone wearing a pair of alligator shoes and a mega-watt smile. Folks like Joel Osteen promise if we believe in the power of God we will never again have to drive a Kia. God will bless us abundantly. God wants us to have that house and that vacation. As Joel would say, “Believe and succeed.”

        The problem is Jesus wears sandals and warns it takes more than mega-watt smile to bring about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, Jesus is a big fan of Mick Jagger. Late at night the disciples would question Jesus concerning the kingdom of God and Jesus would begin to sing, “You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.”

        So if it’s not a house, a vacation, or new car, what is it that Jesus might think we need?  Perhaps a story told by Desmond TuTu might help. The Archbishop appeared on TV in the early 1980’s when there was no imaginable sign of apartheid ending. He said a curious thing. “When the white people arrived we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes they had the land and we had the Bible. I think we got the better deal.”

        This story and for that matter the parable of the Mustard Seed make no sense whatsoever from a practical point of view. But then that’s one of the many problems we have with Jesus. He is just not all that practical. Jesus enters our world with these words, “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’.” He taught parables and most of them began, “The Kingdom of God is like….”  Yet while Jesus spoke often about the Kingdom, he never once paused to define it. To the farmer or the fisherman the term never needed to be explained. It was part of the frequent vocabulary of every Jew. But for us it remains a strange concept lurking on the fringes of our theological language. What is the Kingdom of God? If you are a bird, it is the mustard bush which will provide your family a nest. If you are a woman trying to feed her family the kingdom of God is the yeast that makes the bread rise.    The Kingdom of God is the extraordinary in the ordinary.

        Last Sunday another Habitat House was occupied by a wonderful woman and her two children. It does not compare with the houses most of us live in but to her it is a palace. Phyllis shared a reading from the 65th chapter of Isaiah during the service of dedication. “I will create a new heaven and a new earth. No longer will an infant live but a day or an old person fail to live out their life. Those who build a house will live in them. Those that plant the seeds will eat of the fruit. You will no longer labor in vain for you shall be blessed by the Lord your God.”

        What is the Kingdom of God? It is the radical hope that people shall live together as one. It is the radical expectation that the word of the Lord is more important than the word of those who prey on others. It is the radical promise that even the wolf and the lamb will come to the same table and not hurt or destroy each other.

        The Kingdom of God does not arrive accompanied by flashing lights, thundering sounds and buttered popcorn. It comes in God’s time and meets us exactly where we are. And how will we know if the Kingdom of God is upon us? Check a mustard seed plant and witness a robin building her nest. Check the garden next to the bush and witness the produce being shared. Check Jefferson Lane in Arrington and witness a new house which has been occupied by someone who helped build it.  Check the hearts of the other folks who helped build both the house and the garden. This is what the kingdom looks is like. It is the world and neighborhood around us when God’s will is done.                                          Amen.         

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Searching for Grace - Part 2

Genesis 28:10-19a


         A line in one of my favorite songs is, “I’ve been searching for grace and grace ain’t so easily found.” Jacob could have written that line. The son of Isaac and the grandson Abraham should have been the son of destiny. He should have had the road paved and the wind at his back. But nothing came easy for Jacob. He was born a moment too late. That minute cost him the privileges that would have naturally been his. He was sixty seconds from being the king. Instead, he was destined to always be a contender.

        Most folks would have been stopped cold by losing the race out of his mother’s womb, but not Jacob. He took destiny into his own hands and by doing so showed a lot of spunk. The misfortune of being born second was not going to stop Jacob from securing what he believed was supposed to be his. No one, not an older brother, and certainly not an aging father were going to keep Jacob from being the head of the family. He schemed and succeeded. The birthright and the blessing were his. All Jacob lacked was a place to lie down and peacefully sleep. But a peaceful rest was the last thing Jacob was about to experience.

        As Jacob lay down, his mind began to churn 1,000 miles an hour. Jacob is not the first person to suffer from insomnia and  I suspect guilt is not the only thing that keeps us awake. Sometimes it is a problem that seems to have no solution. Sometimes it is a relationship that has gone sideways. Sometimes we worry about our children and grandchildren. Sometimes we are perplexed by the unknown. Sometimes we just worry over the complexities of a very complicated world. At night, when there are no chores or games to entertain our imagination, anxiety floods our brain. We are desperate for sleep but no sleep is forthcoming. The next morning we awake but are not refreshed. Jacob was about to have one of those nights.

A favorite poet/singer of mine is Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay). Her music is so dark you better turn the lights on if you plan to give her a listen. She might have been thinking about Jacob when she wrote,

       When you sell your soul, it opens a deep dark hole;

When you sell your soul, drink will leave you thirsty,

                             And fire will leave you cold.

        Jacob couldn’t sleep because he had sold his soul for a birthright. Everything he desired was his only the birthright  were no good to him because it was as good as 1,000 miles away. The land of his father was his but his brother would kill him if he set foot on it. The wealth of his family was his but that too was now possessed by his brother. The love of his mother was his but he would never see her alive again. Jacob sold his soul and was left with nothing but his dreams and they were turning into nightmares.

        That night Jacob dreamed of a ladder that extended into the heavens. Many of us have been singing about that ladder most of our life. Because of that song we may have lost the meaning of this story. Jacob, conflicted, tired and lonely lay down on the hard ground. With his mind churning, he imagined a ramp opening out of the heavens. Contrary to the words of the song, Jacob had no desire to climb that ladder. Other than his older brother, God was the last entity Jacob desired to meet.

In the culture in which Jacob lived, an encounter with a god was not a healthy experience. When a god appeared, something really bad usually followed. A thunderstorm was understood as the anger of God. A whirlwind depicted the rage of God. Humans were created to be at the disposal of the gods. People believed wars were actually games played by the gods and humans were no more than pawns in these celestial competitions. In the cultures surrounding Israel, specifically Egypt, Babylon and Syria, their gods had little relations with humans and humanity never sought them out. Some of the great stories from those traditions depict the quest of men hiding in a mountain or traversing a great sea in order to escape the gods.

The ladder from heaven meant only one thing for Jacob and that was death. He stared skyward in absolute fear as God descended down the ladder. Jacob had tricked his brother, and deceived his father. He had run away from home and showed hardly any remorse. Can we even imagine what was going on in Jacob’s soul when God Almighty decided it was time for a visit?

        Jacob knew this was going to be his last night on earth. The man who showed no fear in the presence of his warrior brother lay down on the ground and wept like a baby. Then two extraordinary things happened. God spoke, not through fire or frosty wind but with words. Furthermore, the words were not condemnation but rather comfort.

        This story reminds the listener that the God of Abraham, Isaac and now Jacob was not to be compared with the gods of Egypt, Babylon and Syria. The Hebrew people were not pawns to be slaughtered indiscriminately on a giant chess board. Their lives had meaning because each life was sacred and held in high esteem by Yahweh.  True, the God of Sinai had high expectations but this God also cared and protected their wayward souls. Nowhere in the Old Testament tradition is this more obvious that the story of Jacob and the ladder. God descended to Jacob. God was going to have a little talk with Jacob. And unbelievably, God was about to tell this no good wretch of a man that God would watch after him and be with him no matter what.

        This radical concept is one I fear we often take for granted. We hardly think twice about laying our burdens upon the Lord. Then when nothing happens to solve our self-created chaos, our response is to question the very existence of God. The One who understands anguish better than any of us is pushed from our consciousness as we begin to travel a new road……...alone. And that is sad.

         Like Jacob we make the search for grace difficult because we expect to find an elixir that will eliminate all our problems, all our confusion and all our pain. That is not the way grace works. Instead we are promised that in the midst of our problems, in the midst of our confusion, even in the midst of our pain, God will be with us.

        For many of us that is just not enough. We don’t just want a promise. We demand proof. Then when our needs, our desires, even our demands are not met, we walk away claiming we identified the problem and God did not respond.

We need to follow Jacob into the next morning. He got up and discovered there was no great reversal of his fate. Esau and Isaac were still mad enough to kill him. Jacob was not going home, at least not yet.  A dream is seldom enough to annul the pain and anxiety with which we live. But a dream can give us the courage to face the dawn. Jacob went to meet his eventual bride and a father-in-law who was going to twist him like a pretzel. But Jacob found the courage to step forward because he now believed God would never leave him.

Jacob also discovered something else. Just dreaming is never enough. P.J. O’Rourke was remarked, “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.” Changing the world, or just your small part of it, requires hard work and some serious discipleship. Jacob could have responded to his dream by wishfully thinking God would straighten out all the wrinkles in his life. Instead, anchored by a dream, Jacob endured Laban’s demands. For fourteen years Jacob worked honestly and faithfully. Each day new callous brought Jacob closer to that dream. His faith in himself and God anchored his endeavors until eventually he crossed the river and took his family home.

Peter Marty claims, “Hope is what sustains us when we are not ready to give up on God beaming a light in our darkness or placing life in our weary hands.”

So start dreaming about God coming down a ladder to disrupt your nightmares. Then, sustained by grace, begin the long climb out of whatever hole you’re in.                    Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jesus Wouldn't Have Made Much of a Farmer

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

        I have admired with great admiration the good work of Nancy Johnson and her merry band of “garden workers”.  If you haven’t been up the hill, it is worth the trip. Last fall they turned over a patch of ground and covered it with straw. Then they built a deer-proof barrier to protect what they hoped would be a summer crop. They prepped the soil, put in an irrigation system, planted seeds, and got ready for the glorious day when they could begin to pull more than weeds. I walk up the hill singing, Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, Gonna mulch it deep and low, gonna make it furtile ground. Inch by inch, row by row, please bless these seeds we grow, please keep them safe below till the rain comes tumblin’ down.

        Well God did two wonderful things with our garden. First, the seeds were kept safe below. Then nourished by rain and caring hands, the crop has been bountiful. Every Thursday folks at the Senior Citizen lunch receive fresh vegetables. Members of Nancy’s crew also take vegetables to our wood ministry clients. Now our wood and vegetable ministries are serving Nelson County year round.

        But God also assisted our ministry a second way. God didn’t send Jesus up the hill to help with the sowing of the seeds. I am certain before Jesus became a full time preacher he was a wonderful carpenter.   But he obviously knew nothing about gardening.  Who in their right mind throws seeds on rocky soil? And why throw seeds among the weeds? I’ve watched Nancy and her crew. One row is carrots, the next potatoes, then cucumbers, and so on. I saw no random disbursement among the rocks and weeds. In other words, not one seed has been wasted.

        I doubt that would have happened had Jesus pitched in. He just threw seeds everywhere. When folks, many of them farmers, heard the Parable of the Sower, Jesus probably lost some credibility with the crowd.  They were aghast at how much seed Jesus had wasted. Perhaps that is why when Jesus finished the parable he was met with a sea of blank stares. No one understood what he was trying to say. It is like telling your favorite joke and no one laughs.

One of the disciples got up the nerve to speak, “Jesus, I don’t think they got the point of the story.”

Jesus said, “Well explain it to them.”

 The disciple responded, “I didn’t get it either.”

Jesus replied, “It’s an allegory.”

“Oh. What’s an allegory?”

That is when Jesus, the not so accomplished farmer, put on his preaching hat and sort of explained the joke.

As many of you know, a really good story has at least two meanings. One seems pretty obvious. But if you dig deeper a whole new world of understanding emerges. On the surface it appears Jesus is creating a manual for anyone interested in church evangelism. Jesus seems to be saying when you go out into a neighborhood looking for perspective members you are going to run across three types of folk. The first are the newcomers. They have the best of intentions and a lot of enthusiasm. We become captured by their excitement and by their third visit and we have signed them up to teach a Sunday School class, chair a committee, and checked to see if they have a truck for wood ministry. The problem is, by the fifth week they have burned themselves out. We might see them one or two more times but eventually they will either try out a new church or decide reading the Sunday Edition of the New York Times is a more pleasant way to spend Sunday morning.

The second type of folks Jesus warns us about is visionaries. They want to transform the world. They have  been told the church is the place where life changing events take root. The first Sunday they visit, the minister preaches from the Luke 4 text proclaiming Jesus as the one who will, “Bring good news to the poor, bring sight to the blind, and release the captives.”  On hearing the word they have a come to Jesus moment, “blow up their TV, throw away their papers, go to the country, and build a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches and try to find Jesus on their own.” (John Prine). They are deliriously happy until they spend two days without their cell phones. Next they have second thoughts about trading their SUV for bicycles. But the straw that breaks their camel’s back is when they discover apples, not peaches are the cash crop in Nelson County. The weeds in the garden choke their dreams and they admit they were not cut out to be prophets.

Then Jesus introduces prospect number three. They come to our county after spending their entire life in a church. They not only know how to spell Presbyterian, they pray for debtors rather than trespassers. They enjoy going to Sunday School and even own a NRSV Bible. After being here for a year the husband has joined the choir and the wife is being considered for the session. If they are in town they will be in church at least three times a week. They pray for others, show up on work days, and faithfully participate in the Stewardship program. In other words, they will make an excellent church member. They have heard the word, responded and will bear fruit.

The parable seems so simple. Plant your seeds where you know they will grow and the results will overwhelm you. That is what we want to here. Why waste our time of folks that will prove to be a drain on our time. They will only be here for a moment and then they will be off to the next adventure. Even Jesus warned us not to waste our time. But then there is one small problem. Why does the sower keep throwing seeds on the rocks and in the weeds?

My sister is a teacher.  She has two Masters Degrees and an incredible ability to interact with youth and children. Give her a classroom or a floor and magic happens. She teaches Head Start Children. Some might think why would she waste her talents on children that have no chance? Why not teach kids who from birth are headed to college?   Many folks with the tough job of creating budgets would like to see Head Start eliminated because they do not believe the program is cost efficient. My sister would ask how it is possible to you put a monetary figure on the worth of a three year old? She is out there sowing seeds. She loves every child that walks through her door. She doesn’t judge them based on what they could be tomorrow. She loves each child for who they are now. She is relentlessly and indiscriminately throwing seed fervently believing that all soil is potentially good soil. 

My sister understands the real meaning of this parable. You can argue until you are blue in the face that life isn’t fair. You can point out there are folks around every corner just waiting to do us in. Or you can grasp the deeper meaning of the parable and start distributing seeds.

I read last month a person pulled his car into a Macdonald’s and decided to play the “Pay it forward” game. He said to the cashier, “Whatever the person behind me buys I will pay for it.” Imagine the surprise of the person in the next car when she discovered her meal was free. She responded by paying for the person behind her. Amazingly the next 67 customers paid it forward.

Jesus didn’t know a thing about being a farmer. He pretty sure he didn’t purchase the latest books on how to do effective evangelism. The words cost effective never seemed to be part of his vocabulary.  But Jesus loved a good song and I happen to know one of his favorites was,

Inch by inch, row by row,

Please bless these seeds we sow,

Please keep them safe below,

Till God’s reign comes tumblin’ down.