Sunday, July 23, 2017

Harvest of Hope: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

24[Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” (NRSV)
The Waning Days of Summer by Robert Cross.  Creative Commons on flickr

A lady went to her pastor and said, “I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be back at church anymore.”  When the pastor asked her why, she said, “I’m sick of the gossipers, the hypocrites, the cliques, people looking at their phones in church, and so many other things wrong.”

The pastor replied “Ok, but before you go, do me a favor: take a full glass of water and walk around the church three times without spilling a drop on the ground.” 

She did it.  Piece of cake.  When she finished she told the Pastor she was ready to leave.

Then the pastor asked, “when you were walking around the church, did you notice anyone gossiping? Any hypocrites?  Any cliques?  People looking at their phone?” She shook her head and said, “no.”  “You know why?” the pastor said, “because you were focused on the glass instead of all the things people do wrong.”

I really appreciate this story in light of Jesus’ parable of weeds in the wheat field…

You don’t have to be a farmer or a green-thumb to know that weeds are bad.  They rob the soil of vital nutrients and the task of separating them from the wheat makes harvesting extremely laborious.  So why does the landowner choose to leave them be?

Jesus explains, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”  This is how God responds to all the evil in the world; “all causes of sin and evildoers.”  God leaves them be.  That’s outrageous.

Every day, you see evil—and gossip, hypocrisy, immorality, and general obnoxiousness are only just the start…”  There’s theft, violence, murder, and war.  People who physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse their spouses or children…  White collar criminals who steal your life savings and get away with it…  Industries that pollute your air and water and make you sick…  You don’t feel safe and secure.  So what do you do?

The natural human response is to fight back—and very often, that is the right thing to do.  Being a responsible citizen and a faithful Christian means standing with the poor and oppressed against those who do wrong.

Yet most of the time, we prefer to do Jesus’ weeding for him. 

We are naturally inclined to recolor the world into stock modes of good and evil.  And you’ll never have trouble bringing people together to rage against a common enemy.

Congregations and denominations get torn apart when small groups of people band together in hopes of “purifying the church.”  The same thing happens in workplaces, schools, institutions, and neighborhoods as factions battle it out for power and control.  Social media makes it possible to publicly shame and anonymously harass people or groups whom you find repugnant for what they do or stand for.  Our heroes are those who fight against evil and win. 

In the end, we succeed only in sowing seeds of suspicion and mistrust; in other words, sowing more weeds in God’s field.

Jesus’ parable speaks powerfully for humanity’s desire for justice in a world of evil, while at the same time speaking powerfully against people who would commit evil in their efforts to silence or eliminate those whom they define as evil.  The fight against death and the devil belongs to the Lord, not us.  It is Christ and Christ alone who will judge, not us.  And, quite often, the sin you condemn in your neighbor may well be the sin you refuse to see in yourself.  In destroying your enemies, you have become just like them.

This parable is Gospel because it speaks of God’s profound yet perplexing mercy in a harvester who refrains from weeding, lest the wheat be destroyed in the process.  Jesus’ desire is for justice through repentance, not death and destruction. 

In God’s kingdom, no one exists for themselves.  We are bound together, for better or worse.  If God were to strike down everyone who crossed the line, or (worse yet), send Christians on a quest to slay the evildoers, we would destroy each other.  The church would become a cauldron of self-righteous snobbery, instead of being a support group for sinners. There would be no healing, no peace, no hope.

So rather than condemning and attacking each other, let us belong to each other as the Body of Christ. 

In the light of God’s mercy, let us be real about our sinfulness rather than hiding behind a self-righteous fa├žade.  Let us be vulnerable and accountable to each other in our shared struggle against sin; never judging or condemning but loving and supporting. 

At the same time, let us recognize that there are people in this world who held captive by evildoers.  They are the abused and neglected.  They are the poor who can’t help themselves.  They are people around the world who are imprisoned and killed for their faith.  God’s fight against evil means standing for and with these sisters and brothers; praying for them; giving them refuge and safety; and helping them to get back on their feet again. 

There is no escaping evil and death in this lifetime.  But thankfully, there is no escaping God’s mercy, either.  In spite of the weeds, there will still be a harvest.  The crop is not lost.  The enemy and its weeds will not win.  This is the Kingdom of God we’re talking about. 

God’s awesome saving power over evil isn’t about shaming or blaming; silencing or eliminating.  God’s power is made real in sinners made righteous by God’s grace; standing together by God’s Spirit; bearing the fruits of peace, hope, and love. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Seeds for the Soul: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”

18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (NRSV)
I recently read a book entitled Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus; the spiritual autobiography of Nabeel Quereshi, a Pakistani-American man who was raised in a deeply devout Muslim family.  Their Muslim faith was unquestionably at the center of their lives.  They prayed five times per day; attended mosque without exceptions, and memorized vast swaths of the Koran (in Arabic) with precision.  He was trained to debate and defend his faith against all detractors. 

But for us much as he knew, he had questions: who was the true Muhammad?  How can the Qu-ran be trusted when it contradicts itself?  And who was this man Jesus of Nazareth?  When he goes to college, his best friend David happened to be a devout Christian—and the two engage in rigorous religious debates for years. Soon, Jesus began drawing Nabeel to himself, even as he continued to practice his Islamic faith.  He fought against Jesus with all his might, but couldn’t get away.  At a tremendous cost to his relationships with family and friends, Nabeel is baptized.  He will ultimately leave behind a promising career as a doctor to become a missionary and scholar for the Christian faith.

I continue to be amazed by his story, and how someone could leave behind the Islamic faith when they’re so deeply immersed within it.  Yet, this exactly what Jesus describes in his parable of the sower and seed.  Even while a great deal of seed ends up wasted, other seeds fall on good soil and yield at a phenomenal scale.  This is God we’re talking about—whose Word shall not return void, but accomplish God’s purposes and succeed for the reasons which God sends it.

Yet it’s not every day that you get to experience the power of God in this way.  Fact is, God has wasted seed on you and me too.  How many times have you come to church and God’s Word went in one ear and out the other?  Or when you’re praying, there’s no peace and no relief from the onslaught of trouble?  Do you feel like you’re stuck in a rut?

If you answered yes to one or more of those questions, don’t take that to mean that you’re a bad Christian.  This is normal.  The Christian faith is not without hazards.  You’re going to experience droughts and dry spells—and the devil works full-time to disrupt and destroy the work of God in your life.  The weapons the devil has are extremely effective: they are disappointment; disillusionment; confusion; uncertainty; misunderstanding; and boredom.  And far too many Christians (including regular churchgoers) have practically no relationship with God’s Word at all. 

I firmly believe biblical illiteracy to be one of the biggest threats to the vitality of the Church. It’s not that God’s Word is returning void, but people who treat God’s word as void and don’t bother to read it, study it, learn it, or even wrestle with it.  Sunday school, bible study, and private devotion don’t compete well with social media, television, weekend plans, or the inevitable scarcity of time.

I remember my confirmation years well—because compared to what we do now, my experience was more like Lutheran Boot Camp.  I memorized vast sections of Scripture and Luther’s Small Catechism—and had to recite it from memory before the church council. While I’m thankful for that experience, I know I was drawn to God’s Word more out of a sense of duty than anything else.  And while each of us makes a lifelong commitment to God’s Word at baptism, there’s a reason behind the duty—and that’s the promise of God’s Word bringing forth a phenomenal yield in you.

Jesus’ parable speaks of the continuous activity of God in your life and in the world.  It’s easy to forget that God is intimately involved in even the small things happening in your life while at the same time holding the universe in hand.  If you’re facing an uncertain and bleak future, God wants to fill you with hope and courage.  If you’re facing a life-altering decision, God wants to give you wisdom.  If you’re confused about the bible and nothing about the faith is making any sense, God wants to teach you.  God wants you to know that your life matters, even if there are no answers to your questions right now.  And God wants your life to overflow with love and compassion so to make this world a better place.  God wants this church to turn the tide against the despair and depression in this community so that our neighbors can face and overcome their struggles, knowing that God is always here.

The bible isn’t just a book.  It’s a relationship.  Next time you hold a bible in your hands, remember that God’s love is in those pages.  When you open it, know that God’s power is rising up from the words, even if you’re not “feeling it.”  As we contemplate the future of our church, God is absolutely calling us to journey deeper into the Word so that we can know who God is, know what’s God’s purpose for our lives is, and better see what God is up to on our own home turf. 

Because God is speaking.  God is working.  God is saving.  And nothing else can satisfy the human soul better than the seed of God’s Word and its harvest of faith.

photo credit: Sower went out to sow, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved July 11, 2017]. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Prisoners of Hope: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus spoke to the crowd saying:] 16“To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
  we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (NRSV)
Photo by author

About a week ago, I came across a viral video on my Facebook news feed  A man climbs into the passenger seat of a car, and he’s crying.  He says to the male driver, “bad news, bro…  I got a disease.”

The driver asks him if it’s cancer or AIDS, and he says “no, bro.  I’m addicted to drugs.”  The driver goes ape—and argues that addiction is not a disease, but a weakness.  “A disease isn’t something that you chose to do.  “You chose to put that needle in your arm.”

26 million people saw that video as of Wednesday—and that worries me because of something I learned long ago: nobody wakes up one morning in their perfect life and chooses to become addicted.  There are always other factors in play—which don’t necessarily cause addiction—but certainly facilitate it.  And I’ve never known an addict who’s cured themselves.  And our society’s love for shaming and blaming doesn’t help…

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is accused of being a drunkard—and not because they’ve seen him drunk—but because he eats and drinks with gluttons and drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners.  These are the weary ones carrying heavy burdens that Jesus reaches out to.  These are the ones who cannot help themselves; who have nothing else and no one else. 

Today, Jesus cries out to the addicted—along with those who love them—and the children who depend on them.  When these children of God hear Jesus, where will they go and to whom will they turn?  The answer is simple: his church.  And that is where the challenge comes in.

It’s all too easy for the church to respond to the addicted as everyone else does.  What sets apart addiction from other diseases is that it is because of human weakness.  In America, we don’t like people who are weak.  We don’t like people who make poor choices when they should’ve known better.  We say, “God helps those who help themselves.”  And if someone is suffering the consequences of their own bad choices, why should you or I even feel sorry for them? 

There’s only one problem with that: nobody chooses to become weary and heavy-burdened.  And when you are—you’re not going to make the best choices.  And your ability to make good choices will be diminished if you don’t have supportive people at your side.  Furthermore, many people who fall into addiction do so for reasons you may not expect: they were prescribed opioid-based painkillers by their doctor, only for the doctor to stop prescribing them later and they go into withdrawal.  Many turn to drugs or alcohol because of mental illness—which is also something our society (wrongly) sees as a weakness and a choice. 

Yet, every addict is somebody’s son or daughter; brother or sister; mom or dad.  Most of all, they are God’s children—and so are their loved ones. He’s not standing idly by while people die and children cry.  He’s there in the alley with the person shooting up heroin who can’t get clean.  He’s there with the person seeking solace from a bottle.  He’s there with the children, the spouses, the parents are abused, exploited, and neglected because of their loved one’s addiction. 
He’s there with emergency responders reviving an overdose.  He’s there in the people God has called to serve and advocate. 

The cross of Jesus stands amid this plague upon our humanity.  Jesus is calling out—and people are going to come.  And while far too many churches are hung up on programs and budgets and buildings, Jesus is building his church with and among these all the weary and heavy-burdened, just as he did 2,000 years ago.

The drug and alcohol crisis is enormous—and the church doesn’t have all the answers. Faith does not equal fix.  But when we belong to one another in Christ, we can easily bear the yoke of caring for one another. 

I’m reminded of the classic poem “Footprints in the Sand,” which you probably all know.  Two pairs of footprints run parallel through the sand until only one pairs remains—for when Jesus carries you.  That’s only one small part of what Jesus is promising today.  The fullness of his promise consists of many footprints in the sand, as we carry each other by the strength he gives us.

Addiction or not, we share with everyone in this world the captivity to sin of which we cannot free ourselves.  Sin and death are bigger than every one of us, and beneath them we are defeated.  But Jesus bears that defeat—and the cross gives way to victory.  Resurrection is our reality.  New life is our destiny.  In the meantime, we are prisoners of hope together. 

As God’s people, we assure others that they matter to God and that God has not rejected them. We break the cycle of shaming the blaming.  We confront the evil and love the people by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The power of God is changing the way we see the present crisis and the people impacted by it.  The power of God draws us down to our knees, to pray together for God’s help and guidance.  The power of God gives strength for you to say “no” to enabling your addicted loved one’s behavior; to face reality for what it is and to give that tough love.  The power of God raises up our voices to advocate for changes in our legal system to treat mental illness and addiction with something far more compassionate than prison. The power of God happens as we set the captives free; heal the sick; build up the broken; and stand together as prisoners of hope.