Sunday, July 27, 2014

Heaven's Leaven - Matthew 13:33 ~ Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

In my opinion, nothing beats the taste of fresh bread, straight out of the oven.  I love coming home to when Elizabeth has baked fresh bread, and the sweet, warm aroma greets me as I come through the door.  I would take fresh-baked bread over any steak, soup, or sweet dessert. 

Bread is a relatively simple food—wheat flour, water, and the most crucial element, leaven.  

When you think about it, leaven is a rather oddball ingredient.  Leaven isn’t an herb or a spice.  It’s fungus—mold!  It’s a living organism that feasts on the sugars contained in the wheat flour.  The leaven then secretes two waste products: alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The alcohol gets burned off in the oven.  The gluten molecules contained in wheat flour trap the carbon-dioxide bubbles, which makes the bread rise—giving it its soft, fluffy texture.  Furthermore, the leaven makes the bread into a living thing. 

And where does this miracle substance come from but bread, that’s left in the damp, dark place, to rot and mold… 

It’s also worth noting that leaven also grows on the skin of grapes—and therefore plays just as crucial a role in the making of wine.  

In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses leaven to teach us about God.  He says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

So when Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to leaven, it’s very ironic (to say the least).  And in Jesus’ day, leaven wasn’t a substance held in high regard.  It was a cultural symbol of corruption, hence the reasoning behind Jesus’ the crowds to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” which is to say, that their teachings were like poison—or “fungused bread.”

But today, Jesus holds the leaven in high regard… 

Three measures of flour may not sound like much to us—but when Jesus says “three measures,” he’s speaking of what would be to us as 47 pounds of flour.  We’re talking about enough bread to feed hundreds of people  And if you bake bread, you know that a little bit of yeast can go a long way.

So what we have here is a parable about what God is doing in the world.  The leaven is the kingdom of heaven; the flour is the world.  The flour is us. 

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never prayed for leaven, either for myself or for someone else.  When I’m sick or in need, or as I see all the chaos and suffering in the world, I don’t want God to give me fungus!  But more often than not, we feel that way when we pray.  We want God to cure us of our diseases; we want our needs and wants fulfilled.  We want and need God to turn the world upside down so we can all live in peace and harmony. 

But God gives us leaven…  It’s tiny; it’s slow; it appears so insignificant as to be useless.   Yet even the smallest gifts that God gives have tremendous power to bring about what God desires for you and for the world. 

Think about it: leaven is living—just like God is living.  In the same way that leaven makes bread into a living organism, God makes you alive.  The kingdom of heaven literally feasts upon your being; devouring the sin within you.  It devours your doubt, your pain and your sorrow.  Like bread, you arise. 

You become the masterpiece of the Divine Baker.  You are as different from the person you were before as bread is from the matzos. 

And where do we receive this leaven that devours sin and banishes away doubt?  From bread and wine.  The bread of God’s Word that we hear, we study, we teach, and we proclaim.  The bread and the wine that are the true flesh and blood of our precious Jesus.  By grace, we become bread and wine for the world.

Do you ever notice that just about every Sunday, we have a ton of bread and wine left over?  Some Sundays, especially in the summer time, this may be a disturbing sign.  Don’t think that way. 

Look up and see that there is an abundance of bread and wine to be shared—and people are hungry and thirsty for them.  Don’t believe the lie that people don’t want anything to do with Christianity or church any more.  That simply isn’t true.  This is the bread and wine that gives life to a world so full of death. 

You know something else?  You are bread for the world—because Christ lives in you through faith.   You may feel this way about yourself, but you are a gift of beauty to God’s world.  You are created and transformed by God, and you are given all kinds of gifts to feed a hungry world with literal bread as well as with the bread of life from God. 

It’s all thanks to a little bit of leaven, coming from God.  God puts a little bit of leaven in you, in me, in the world—and new life will arise in a big way.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Seed Power ~ Isaiah 55:10-13 ~ Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Every year, two friends of ours host their son’s family from Texas during Labor Day weekend. 

The mother, father, and two boys stay on the second floor of their house, which has two furnished bedrooms and one bath that are used only during their yearly visit. 

Shortly before Labor Day, our friends went upstairs to prepare the upstairs for their guests—and they were stunned to find a plant growing out of the drain in the bathroom sink. 

They later learned that their grandson had spit a watermelon seed into the sink.  Over the last eleven months, it grew and flourished to the extent that it took a $200 service call from the plumber to get it working again…

It’s amazing how plant life can flourish in the places where you’d least expect it…  Seeds are so tiny—but every forest, every grassland, every food-bearing crop—begins with a single seed.  Seeds teach us the most basic truth of our Christian faith that life originates in God.  Only God can take what is essentially dead—and make it alive.

We can see the life-yielding potential in a tiny seed—but what is a tiny seed in a world that is so full of death?

This week, Elizabeth and I have watched a TV series on the National Geographic Channel called “The 90’s: the Last Great Decade?”  The title suggests that this was the last period of time when life was “good;” before the decade’s end ushered in the current era of terrorism, war, political gridlock, and recession.  I doubt any would disagree that we’re in a time of high anxiety.

This is the kind of world the prophet Isaiah lived in—except that the future looked far more bleak.  Jerusalem is destroyed.  God’s people are in exile in Babylon—an exile intended to break the Jews as a community.  The way the king saw it, crush out the Jewish faith, and the Israelites will no longer be a threat.  They would simply become like everyone else, and that’d be it.

We can identify with the Israelites (to an extent).  The world and its ways appear to be working overtime to crush the Christian  faith.  And as we see more and more people walking away from church and faith, we see a more troubling world.  The future has never looked so bleak.

But the words God spoke over 2,500 years ago God continues to speak today:
“For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God is in the world, sowing seeds of life where death and despair abound.  This morning, right here, Jesus is sowing the seeds of God’s Word in you.  Even if you’re struggling to stay awake; your head’s spinning with life’s anxieties; or nothing that I’m saying is making the slightest bit of sense; God’s Word is being planted in you.  The Holy Spirit sows the seeds of God’s Word to form you in faith, hope, and love—to make a sower out of you.  You are a living witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ—as his love moves in you to use the gifts you’ve been given and the person God’s created you to be to sow seeds of new life.

The Parable of the Sower teaches us an important truth about God’s sowing work—sometimes it doesn’t work out.  Hearts are hard.  Hard times can overwhelm fragile faith.  Sin and Satan are always there sowing seeds of fear and doubt. 

But do you wonder why the Sower sows so many seeds, and not always in the best places?  Because God is determined to reclaim this world, so that life, live, and hope will flourish. 

The Kingdom of God is sown in seeds—tiny little seeds scattered upon the ground, most of which sink below the surface of the ground and are hidden from their sight.  But the seeds of the Kingdom are sprouting, and soon the plantings of the Kingdom will reclaim and regenerate this world and its people in fulfillment of God’s purposes.  Given enough time and tending, God’s will shall be done on earth as in heaven.  God’s will shall be done in you.

And we never know where, when, or in whom the Kingdom shall blossom and flourish!

The best way to see God’s kingdom taking root in ourselves is for each of us to come together as Christ’s Body, to plant and tend to the fruits of God’s kingdom—which happens every time a hungry person is fed; a lonely person is befriended; a hurting person is loved; and a sinful person is forgiven.  We plant and tend as our words and our lives give testimony to the love of Christ.  And though the work is hard, and we do not always get the results we want as quickly as we want; anything we do in faith and love is never done in vain. 

For the seeds of God’s Word shall never be sown in vain, but will always, always, always accomplish what God desires in sending it. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Doing This In Remembrance: Bible Study blog for July 10

Tonight, we journeyed through the book of Exodus and the story of the plagues and the institution first Passover.

We were struck by the very specific set of instructions God gives for the Passover.  It is to be celebrated on a very specific day; with a very specific animal sacrifice; to be slaughtered on a very specific date; to be prepared and consumed in a very specific way; by people who are dressed in a very specific way.  God says "you shall celebrate [the Passover] as a perpetual ordinance throughout your generations."  As we continue through the Old Testament, we will see numerous other festivals that are instituted, to be celebrated in very specific ways.  Many of the laws that God institutes (beyond the Ten Commandments) may sound unusual to us, but continue to be followed by our Jewish friends to this day.

God makes it very clear the purpose of these festivals: "when your children ask you, 'what do you mean by this observance,' you shall say 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.'"  In other words, the Passover and its laws will be perpetual reminders of all that God has done, so that the people will give thanks-- and in their thanksgiving receive a trust in God for the future.

We will see how important this will be, because the Israelites will have very short memories of God's mighty acts of deliverance as they cross the Red Sea, with Pharaoh's army bearing down on them.  Later on, in the wilderness, they will complain repeatedly to Moses that life was better in Egypt.  They will erect a golden calf and worship it in a blatant violation of the first commandment.

As Christians, Jesus has given us ordinances that go beyond the love of God and neighbor: we have the ordinance of Holy Communion: "do this in remembrance of me."  We have the ordnance of baptism: "in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."  We have the ordinance of the Lord's Prayer, and the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations.

In our congregations, we have liturgies and traditions by which we worship God.  Our Lutheran liturgy is very rigid-- and many of us may not understand why we do what we do.  All congregations have long-standing traditions and practices that younger and new members of the community may find strange, and some may call outdated.  But these have meaning, in that they connect us to Christ.  We pass down our traditions, our practices, and our liturgy to new generations so that they may be blessed as we have.  These connect us to the "God who was our help in ages past, and our hope for years to come."

The future will always look daunting, as we face down the giants that lurk in our lives.  It is hard to see God when all we see is trouble.  But remembering and giving thanks reveals God's goodness in the past, and helps us to trust God in the future.  Traditions keep the knowledge of God's faithfulness alive-- and sometimes the best new thing is something old.  God is always doing new things-- and looking to God's goodness in the past gives us faith and encouragement to see God leading us forward into the future.

Our next Bible study will be Thursday, July 24 at 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lessons from a Spiritual Support Group ~ Romans 7:15-25 ~ Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

For eleven weeks, I attended a church that changed my life…

It wasn’t Lutheran, Catholic, or even Christian…

It didn’t have clergy or a council; committees, or musicians…

It didn’t even have a building; it was just a room within a building…

It was the spiritual support group held in the behavioral health unit of a hospital.

It was a congregation of addicts and the mentally ill.  One of its leaders was a timid, twenty-seven year old seminarian who was in way over his head…

Yet what set them apart from me was not the fact that I didn’t have a substance abuse problem or debilitating depression, but that they fully knew that they were helpless to overcome their sickness on their own. 

You see, I walked in that first day thinking like I was above them for where I was in life.  They taught me how wrong I was

They were brothers and sisters who were fighting against the deadly grip of sin and the weakness of the human flesh that the Apostle Paul describes today in his letter to the Romans…

Now Paul had come from a mindset not all that dissimilar to mine.  Remember: he was once Saul the Pharisee; a “professional holy man” who consistently kept the Law of Moses.  He became so convinced of his holiness that he brutally persecuted and killed persons who fell short of his holiness; especially, those who worshipped Jesus called Christ.  But everything changed with a flash of lightning on the Road to Damascus.  Suddenly, Paul realized that his holiness was merely an illusion.  He was fooling himself, but not God…

And even after undergoing a dramatic transformation that shocked and amazed everyone who’d known the old Paul called Saul, Paul fully realizes now that he is not—nor will he ever be—above the struggle against the sin that lived in his flesh.

All of us are with him in that struggle.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a hardened criminal or if you’re practically perfect in every way…

Every day, a war wages within you and me.  Scripture pulls us upward to doing God’s will—but SIN pulls us downward, to satisfy the desires and longings of our flesh with that which is not of God.  It is in sin that we take possession of God; God’s gifts; and other people—using our power and our abilities to exploit them for our own selfish benefit.  We need no reminding of the havoc we wreak upon ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s creation.

But sin is more than just an individual matter.  Sinful peoples give birth to social, economic, political, and even religious systems that deny God’s image in the neighbor and deprive them of their daily bread.  And it is sin that we point fingers and cast blame upon persons different from us for society’s ills instead of recognizing our shared responsibility for the ills of the times.

And contrary to our normal way of thinking, we cannot pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and become holy—anymore than we or any single leader or idealism can solve society’s ills.

When we try to do good, we do evil.  We do the very things that we hate and despise.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  This is the Apostle Paul’s struggle—the same man who wrote two-fifths of our Bible and who planted the seeds for the Church we are part of today. 

What set me apart from the members of the spiritual support group is that its members knew this full well.  They understood total helplessness.  They were blessed as Paul was for recognizing this truth—even for as ugly as it is.  For it is God who reveals the truth that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  But it is also God who reveals God’s answer to our sin: the crucified and risen savior Jesus Christ.  God exposes the ugly truths about ourselves and our communities so that we may take hold of the grace of repentance; in other words, that we (as individuals) may be transformed—and that our communities may too be transformed. 

For when we abandon all pretense of the righteousness of our flesh, Christ’s righteousness takes hold.  There is grace to overcome deadly sin and its consequences. 

Where are you struggling most in your obedience to God?  What is it that you know you should do—but you can’t?  What disgusts you most, that you repeatedly do, even though you know it’s wrong?  And with that, what disgusts you most about society?  About the economy; the government; and even, (dare I say) this church? 

Name these things—and pray the prayer prayed in the spiritual support group and by members of Alcoholics and Narcotics anonymous:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The people of that support group taught me not just the importance of recognizing that I’m right there with them in their struggle against sin…  They taught me my total dependence on God—and my need to be with God’s people, that we may support each other.  For God uses communities to transform individuals, that they may create communities that transform the world. 

Grace can and will free you from sin’s deadly grip.  And God’s grace, at work in people like you and me, can go a long way to reshape this world into one where all enjoy their daily bread—and we learn to see God’s image in one another.