Friday, August 29, 2014

“A New Pharaoh” - August 24, 2014

Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10

“There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.”

What kind of text is that for the beginning of a school year?  How relevant could a Pharaoh, or for that matter Joseph, be for the day before classes begin at ISU?

We often follow the lectionary in our worship services here at First Baptist.  The lectionary is a three-year cycle of scripture readings, which over the course of those three years covers a pretty broad range of scripture.  It can be a kind of “insurance” against just getting the preacher’s favorite Bible passage each week.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with the preacher’s favorite scripture verses.)  But in today’s reading, we have this passage from Exodus, and this verse: “There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.”

Last week we looked at the story of Joseph.  He was despised by his brothers because he was dad’s favorite, and sold by his brothers into slavery.  He winds up in Egypt, is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, sees famine coming, and is put in charge of all the grain in Egypt.  The famine comes, and Joseph again meets up with his brothers, who have come to Egypt looking for grain in the time of famine.  Joseph’s family winds up moving to Egypt, where Joseph is by now the Prime Minister, the number 2 guy in the kingdom after Pharaoh.  Joseph was a revered figure who saved his family and kept the nation of Egypt from disaster.

But times passes, many years go by, and “there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.”  The Israelites, once identified with Joseph, who saved the nation, are now seen as a threat by Pharaoh.

Now, this happened maybe 3400 years ago, but the thing is, it’s not just history.  It happens all the time.

You work hard, do a good job, but changes come.  There is a merger, a buyout, a restructuring.  And “There arises a new boss who does not know Bill, or George, or Kim, or Julie.”

You’ve taught the course for years, been a valuable team player in your department.  But a new dean is hired, and then, “There arose a department chair who did not know Joseph,” and there is a big reorganization, and the curriculum changes, and your class is altered and given to a brand new faculty member.

And what about students?  If you really ponder the matter, this may be one of the most relevant scriptures in the whole Bible for the beginning of a school year.  If you are a new student, chances are that none of the Pharaohs around will know you.  You could have been the star student in high school, but that doesn’t matter now.  You may have been a great athlete, or musician, or actor, or artist.  You may have been known for your friendliness, or character, or hard work, or sense of humor, or easy-going attitude, or for being caring or dependable, but nobody knows that.  You are starting over.  You are in a place where Pharaoh does not know you. 

This is not intended to scare the freshmen, and it’s not just the freshmen.  Even if you have been around for 7 years, still trying to get that bachelor’s degree, every fall means a new start, adjusting to changes, and dealing with Pharaohs who do not know you.

How important it is for us to be known.  That was part of the draw of the TV show Cheers – it was a place where “everybody knows your name.”  We all find ourselves in situations where that is definitely not the case.  We all find ourselves in places where Pharaoh does not know us, and does not seem to care to know us, and it isn’t easy.

Well, I suppose the question is, how do we act, and how do we react, when we are in those places where there arises a new Pharaoh – when we are in situations of change and uncertainty and perhaps some upheaval.  When we find ourselves in a strange land, whether it is the strange land of a murderous Pharaoh or a new boss or whether we are beginning our time at Iowa State.

We have a model in the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah.  Pharaoh is so threatened by the Hebrews that he decrees that newborn male Hebrew babies must be killed.  What’s a midwife to do?  The midwives feared Pharaoh, no doubt, but they feared God more.  They chose to honor God rather than Pharaoh.  Having given their lives to bringing children into the world, they are not about to start killing these children.

In their response, Shiprah and Puah model integrity for us.  Rabbi Harold Kushner (in Living a Life That Matters) speaks of integrity as “being whole, unbroken, undivided.  It describes a person who has united the different parts of his or her personality, so that there is no longer a split in the soul.  When your soul is divided, part of you wants to do one thing while part wants to do something else:  Do you tell the prospective buyer of your home about the plumbing problem or do you keep quiet unless he asks? ...  Like the karate expert who can break a board with his bare hand by focusing all his strength on one spot, the person of integrity, the person whose soul is not fragmented, can do great things by concentrating all of his energies on a single goal.  For the person of integrity, life may not be easy but it is simple.  Figure out what is right and do it.  All other considerations come in second.”

The midwives are people of integrity.  They determine what is right, and they do it.  Because they are people of integrity, they break the law of Pharaoh, and lie when they are asked to explain how it is the babies are living despite Pharaoh’s decree.  Nevertheless, they are doing the right thing.  It’s not that truthfulness is unimportant, but in this instance, saving innocent life takes precedence over being completely honest with a murderous tyrant.  Weighing the choice of preserving life and being true to their vocation and their God versus submitting to a desperate and evil command of a fearful king, it is no contest.  They display integrity.

The midwives have to face Pharaoh.  They have to live in the real world.  But they honor God and are true to who they are.

In the broad sweep of history, two Hebrew midwives would not seem to be nearly as significant as an Egyptian Pharaoh.  But do you know what?  We know their names, while Pharaoh is nameless.  Pharaoh is the one who is scared and desperate.  Shiprah and Puah are not pleased with the situation, to be sure, but they are calm in the midst of the storm.  They are sure of who they are and what they are to do.

Robert Kennedy once said, “Each time a [person] stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he [or she] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.  Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society.  Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.  Yet it is the one essential vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

In their quiet, everyday way, as they went about doing what they do – bringing babies into the world – they sent ripples of hope.  They helped change history.  This is the beginning of the story of Moses.  If not for Shiprah and Puah, there is no Moses, there is no Exodus, there is no Promised Land.  Their quiet act of courage changed the course of history.

In Romans chapter 12, the Apostle Paul speaks of offering our lives as “a living sacrifice.”  Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, puts it this way: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you:  take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering.”  That is exactly what the midwives did.

The parallel between then and now only goes so far.  It is doubtful whether any of us will be asked to serve Pharaohs like this one.  I don’t want you to confuse your boss or your professor or your parents with the treacherous king of Egypt.  Coming to ISU is not the same as being in captivity in Egypt, even if it may feel like it when you pull an all-nighter studying in vain for your Physical Chemistry exam.

In fact, let me put in a plug for much of what you will find in the culture in which we live.  God has given us minds with which to think, and at its best, education can be God’s instrument to help us grow, to help us become the person we were created to be.  It can be a process by which we, as it was said of Jesus, “Grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God and others.” 

We find ourselves in a very different place from Shiprah and Puah.  A pharaoh with life and death power over us is not looking over our shoulders.  But what is true for all of us is that like Shiprah and Puah, we must deal with the dynamics of being a person of faith in society.  How do we relate to the culture?  Do we accept everything around us uncritically, assuming that if Pharaoh says it, it must be OK?  We have seen enough corruption in high places to know that is not the case.  Or on the other extreme, do we look upon everything in the world as essentially evil and try to separate ourselves into a Christian enclave?  Some take that approach.  Or do we engage the culture – the campus, our neighborhood, our workplace, civic and community life - with integrity, honoring God and being true to ourselves?

The question for us is, “As people of God, as followers of Jesus, how are we to live with integrity in the midst of all the cultural pressures and difficulties of living that we face?”

The scripture suggests three things:

1) Know who you are.  Shiprah and Puah knew who they were.  They knew what they were called to do.  They were not killers, they were midwives.  They did not serve Pharaoh, they served God.

In Romans, after Paul speaks of becoming living sacrifices, he goes on to speak of the various gifts we are given, the different callings.  We don’t all have the same gift, or the same call.  But if your gift is teaching, you should teach.  If your gift is in ministering to others, you should do that.  If you are a midwife, use your gifts of caring and bringing new life into the world.  And if right now you are a student, you are called to study, to learn.

But it is not simply that we are teachers or students or employees.  We are friends, we are family members, we are children of God.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  To live as a person of faith in our culture, we need to know who we are.

2) We also need to know what really matters.  This is sometimes more easily said than done.  Discernment can be hard to come by.  We see so many crazy choices made by so many people, that after awhile they don’t seem so crazy.  We hear the same stuff, see the same stuff so much that we begin to wonder if maybe it is true.  Maybe money is what it’s all about.    Maybe violence is the answer.  Maybe drugs aren’t such a big deal.  Maybe the problems in the world are so big that we should just give up on trying to solve them.  Maybe I should just look out for #1 and forget everybody else.

Discerning what is good and right and true, and what really matters, is not always easy.  But my guess is that we make it harder than it needs to be.  Sure, there are those times when we’re not sure which course to take, but most of us have a harder time doing those things we already know we need to do and going those places where we already know God is leading us.  It doesn’t have to be so difficult.  Paul’s words again speak to us: “Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering.”

What really matters?  People matter.  Using the gifts we have been given matters.  Peace and justice matter.  Being true to God and true to ourselves matters.  Following the way of Jesus matters.

3) Don’t go it alone.  As we seek to live out our faith, regardless of what kind of Pharaoh is around, we don’t have to do it by ourselves.  There were two midwives.  That is important.  It wasn’t just Shiprah, it wasn’t just Puah.  Sometimes we feel like we are the only one, but we’re not.   

This is what the church is for.  This is why we have sisters and brothers in Christ.  We are here to support and encourage and challenge and celebrate with one another.  We are here to lift each other.  It is much easier to live and act with integrity when we don’t have to go it alone.

If this is your first time here today, we are just delighted that you are here.  But you may have caught something in the air – maybe a kind of somber feeling, like people are having to work to feel joyful.  There is a reason for that.  This time of year is always exciting, as new students arrive, but our church suffered a big loss this week.  Bob McCarley was a longtime and much-loved member of our church.  He was here last Sunday, full of life; we never would have guessed that his funeral would be yesterday. 

Last Sunday, I happened to sit at the table with Bob at Fellowship Time.  He had met a brand new college graduate who had just moved to Ames and was in church for the first time last week.  Bob invited him down for fellowship time and we all had a great conversation.  Bob understood that we are all in this together, we all need each other, and maybe the last thing he did as a member of this church was to welcome a newcomer – an 83 year old welcoming a 22 year old.  We need one another, and as we try and live with integrity, as we try to follow the way of Jesus, it works a lot better if we don’t go it alone.

We can sometimes find ourselves in new places, strange places, difficult places.  There may arise a Pharaoh who does not know us.  But whether Pharaoh knows us or not, supports us or not, gives a rip about us or not, we can live with integrity, knowing who we are, knowing what is important, knowing that God is with us, and knowing that we have one another.  How are we to live out our faith?  “Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering.”  Amen. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

“Dreaming a New Dream” - August 17, 2014

Text: Genesis 37:1-11, 17b-28

There is a new app for smartphones called “Push for Pizza.”  Once you set it up, all you have to do is push one button and your favorite pizza will be delivered to you, piping hot, from the nearest pizza joint.  It is being billed as “a dream come true for lazy students everywhere.”

A man named D.C. Barns, a huge fan of the Star Wars movies since he was a kid, heard about a UNICEF fundraiser that involved the upcoming Star Wars movie.  He entered a random drawing and won the grand prize – a walk-on role in the movie.  He described this as “a dream come true.”

This week I was on the lookout for people talking about dreams, and when you are looking for something, it is amazing how often you will find it.  Ames High School grad Clifford Kwah-Mensah was a star high school football player but judged by recruiters to be a little undersized for major college football.  So now he is a freshman walk-on at ISU and enjoying fall practice.  “I’m living my dream,” he said.

Habitat for Humanity in Lexington, Nebraska broke ground on a new home for Lydia Saenz, a single mother of four.  She calls owning her own home “a dream come true.”

Chuck Spence was a high-powered Wall Street banker who loved his job in New York but gave it up a few months ago to move to Hawaii, where he now runs a small resort.  He said, “I knew I wanted to live on the island of Maui from the first moment I stepped onto her soil 36 years ago.”  This had been his dream for 36 years.

Holding on to a dream and living to see the dream come to reality is a wonderful thing.  And in our text today we have a young man with a very big dream.

Joseph wakes up one morning, comes to the breakfast table before the older brothers are going off to work, and says, “Wow, did I ever have a neat dream.  Do you want to hear it?”  Mistaking the silence for consent he continues, “We all had sheaves of wheat and all your sheaves of wheat bowed down to mine.  What do you think that means?”

Stone cold silence.  So Joseph continues, “And I had another dream -- the sun, the moon and the stars in the heavens bowed down to me.”  At this point his father told him to shut up and eat his cereal.

What is the dream of Joseph?  That he, the youngest child in the family, will be greater than all of them.  So great that all of God’s creation will bow down before him.

As you might expect, this dream did not sit very well with Joseph’s brothers.  If you were with us for worship at the park a couple of weeks ago, we talked about Joseph’s father, Jacob.  Fearful that his past would catch up with him when he reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob had arranged his very large traveling party into two companies – figuring that if Esau and his men attacked one, the other might escape.  Then finally came Jacob’s family, with those less favored in front, presumably closer to danger.  Joseph and his mother Rachel, the most favored, were at the back.

From the moment he was born, Joseph was his father’s favorite – he made no bones about it.  Among other things, he had given Joseph a special coat.  Joseph wore this brand-new $1500 Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, while all the other brothers got was windbreakers on clearance at Wal-Mart.  This favoritism did not exactly make for good family relationships.

And now, Joseph shares this dream of ruling over his brothers.  It was more than they could stand.

In time, Joseph’s dream becomes a nightmare.  His brothers sell him into slavery.  They tell Jacob that he has been killed by wild animals and bring back the coat, with blood on it, as evidence.

We read much of chapter 37, but we are going to jump ahead and pick up the story as it continues in chapter 39.  Joseph winds up as a slave in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials in Egypt.  He has an amazing aptitude and good leadership skills and before long, he is in charge of the entire household.  He prospers.  He does have potential.  Maybe his dream wasn’t all that crazy.

Mrs. Potiphar sees potential in this young man as well.  Apparently, Mr. Potiphar wasn’t home very much.  Joseph is young and good-looking.  And Mrs. Potiphar doesn’t beat around the bush, she says to Joseph, “Come lie with me.”

What this is really about is power.  Mrs. Potiphar is used to getting exactly what she wants.  Joseph is just a slave in her house.  And right now, Joseph is what she wants.

The question for Joseph becomes, which dream to pursue?  Hey Joe, you’re in Egypt now, we do things differently here.  Lighten up, go with the flow, go along to get along.

In this foreign land, just a slave but rising up the ladder, who could blame him if he opted for a different dream? 

We all face obstacles as we pursue our dreams.  There are competing dreams.  Temptations.  Attractions.  Roadblocks.  Other people who tell us what to dream or what not to dream.  Alternate visions can be seductive.

A young woman dreams of making a difference by teaching inner-city children.  With loans to pay, she opts for a more lucrative career, intending to someday get back to the dream.  But as the years go by and life moves on she realizes that the dream is passing her by.

A couple dreams of raising a perfect family.  At first, it seems they are living the dream.  Wonderful children, active in church, they are happy.  But over time, their faith commitment wanes.  More and more time and effort are aimed at accumulating things.  A big house, the latest technological wonders, a nice boat.  There are a couple of risky investments that turn bad.  The couple drifts apart, and they find themselves talking both bankruptcy and divorce.  How did they ever get to this place?  And what became of their dream?

Joseph finds himself in a position where his dream could die, or where he could easily latch on to another dream.  But facing the power of Mrs. Potiphar, the power of the empire, he seems to know what real power is and where real power comes from.  He tells her No, saying that he cannot do this to his master, who has placed great trust in him, and he cannot sin in this way against God.  Joseph understands that the real power belongs to God.

Mrs. Potiphar is used to getting what she wants.  One day she finds Joseph alone.  She grabs his coat and he runs, leaving her with the coat.  She concocts a story for her husband of how Joseph made unwelcome advance towards her, and once again Joseph’s clothing is evidence.

Potiphar is furious and has Joseph thrown in prison.  But this punishment is less severe than it could have been and you wonder if Potiphar really doubts his wife. 

In prison, Joseph still prospers.  Time and again we read, the Lord was with Joseph.”  Even in slavery, even in Egypt, even in prison, God was with him, God sustained him.  God helped him keep the dream alive.  Because this wasn’t simply Joseph’s dream, it was a dream given by God.

In prison, Joseph quickly gains the favor of the jailer and is given responsibility, put in charge of things.  He is able to interpret dreams.  When Pharaoh is plagued by a troubling dream, Joseph is asked to interpret it and winds up not only being sprung from jail, but he becomes Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture and eventually chief-of-staff.  An Israelite slave rises to become vice-Pharaoh.

Joseph’s family eventually came to Egypt during the famine.  And his dream did come true.  But it wasn’t exactly the way Joseph had thought of it in his younger days.  The dream had shifted and could now be seen in a new light.  Ruling did not mean being a dictator over his brothers.  Rather, Joseph found himself in a position to serve and protect his family, to provide for them during the famine, and keep his family together.

The real test came when the old man died.  After Jacob, now called Israel, was buried, the brothers worried that the only reason Joseph was letting them live was to keep his father happy.  They went to Joseph, bowed down before him, pled with him to spare their lives.

And Joseph responds, “Of course you’re pardoned.  Of course I forgive you.  Do you think I’m God that you should grovel before me like this?”  And the ironic thing is, God is exactly who the old Joseph thought he was.  The dreams he’d had where they all groveled were his favorite dreams.  Now the dream had been fulfilled, but not quite in the way he had imagined.  But it wasn’t just the dream that was different; Joseph was different.

Frederick Buechner said, “Almost as much as it is the story of how Israel was saved from famine and extinction, it is the story of how Joseph was saved as a human being.  It would be interesting to know which of the two achievements cost God the greater effort and which he was prouder of.”

This morning, I hope all of this has got you to thinking about dreams.  Dreams you have, dreams that have perhaps been dormant, maybe some new dreams.  Maybe it’s been a long, long time since you’ve let yourself dream.  Some of us need to recover the ability to dream.

Our dreams can come from God.  That was Joseph’s conviction, and it can be true even of our wide-awake dreaming.  God gave us a heart and mind and imagination for dreaming, and when our dreams help to build God’s kingdom of peace and justice and goodness and wholeness, they may rightly be spoken of as dreams given by God.

One of the best-known dreamers of recent times was Martin Luther King, who dreamed of a time when people would not be judged on the color of their skin but the content of their character.  Jesus, too, was a dreamer.  In his very first sermon, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  This was Jesus’ mission statement; it was the dream he followed.

What are your dreams?  Where do you dream of life taking you?  What are your hopes and aspirations – for yourself, for your family, for our community?  What are your dreams for First Baptist Church?  It is important that we continue to dream.

Last week we helped Zoe move to Muncie, Indiana for graduate school at Ball State.  It was hard leaving her there, as it will be hard for a lot of parents as they leave students here at ISU this week, but it is exciting to see her pursuing her dreams.

This I week I happened on an article written by Dan Boone, a university president - “My Top Ten Must-Haves for College Students.”  Rather than listing essentials like a dorm refrigerator and flip-flops for the shower, the article listed some of the more intangible qualities that would serve college students well.  It said to bring your roots, your history, your uniqueness.  Bring space for new friends and bring social courage, a willingness to interact with others.  And number one on the list was, bring your dreams.  The college experience is supposed to help ignite one’s dreams.      

We all need dreams, and at some level, we all have dreams.  But sometimes, somebody needs to mess with our dreams.  Some dreams need to change, as Joseph’s did.  Some dreams need to die so we can dream new dreams.  Some dreams may be too self-centered, or too small, or maybe we have just come to have a better dream.  Sometimes circumstances in life change and with them our dreams change.  But I suspect that often, we give up too easily on our dreams.  Sometimes we accept dreams that others have for us, and sometimes we just plain stop dreaming.

But the good news is that the book is not closed on any of us.  Even when he was sold into slavery, the book was not closed on Joseph.

Last year, Willadene Zedan graduated from Marian University in Wisconsin.  She was a dean’s list student and graduated with a job offer.  This doesn’t sound like much of a story, except for the fact that Willadene was 85 years old.  She started taking a few classes several years after her husband died, found that she loved the college atmosphere, and wound up earning a degree.  “All the students liked me,” she said, “and if you bake enough cookies they will love you.”  She even spent five weeks studying abroad in Rome.  In her new job she assists a doctor who makes house calls on homebound patients.

“Everyday is a new adventure.  Everyday,” Zedan told the Fon du Lac Reporter.  Up in years and having lost her husband, it wasn’t too late for a new dream.

No one would expect an 85-year old woman to complete a college degree and start a new career--but she did.  Nobody could have guessed while Joseph was a slave and in prison to boot that he would become a powerful leader in Egypt, saving his people in the process--but he did.  No matter who we are or in what situation we find ourselves, God can work in us and through us as we pursue God-given dreams.

How do we know if a dream is from God?  Well, God gives us the ability to dream, so it’s not simply a matter of our dream vs. God’s dream.  A better question might be, is yours a godly dream?  Is it a dream that will help bring wholeness and happiness and healing, a dream that will use the best you have to serve God and others?  A dream that will make the world a better place?  We all need those kinds of dreams.  The world needs those kinds of dreams.

And so I challenge you this morning to keep dreaming, and know that in your dreaming, God is with you.  Amen.

Friday, July 25, 2014

“An Unexpected Kingdom” - July 27, 2014

Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 43-53

Jesus is back with more parables.  If you are counting, this is seven parables that we have read over the past three weeks, all from one chapter of Matthew.  There are five in today’s reading alone.

Now, I like a good story; I like a helpful comparison as well as the next guy, but Jesus seems to be getting carried away, like he doesn’t know when to stop.  Is anyone else getting tired of parables?

The problem we have here is not that we need Jesus to be more direct.  We’re OK with getting at truth and thinking about God and the world through images and stories and metaphorical language.  That can be pretty helpful, and when it comes to talking about God we really don’t have much choice.  The problem today is that with so many parables told in a row, piled one on top of the other, we are kind of overwhelmed.  We tend to want to find shared theme or nugget of truth.  We want to connect the dots and find the overarching point they are making about the kingdom of heaven.  But to do that, to make them all fit together, you risk losing the punch that can be packed into the details of each parable.  Making all of these parables to be about the same general idea, looking for the lowest common denominator, can make them bland and domesticated.  So, what do you do?

And while I’m at it - complaining about today’s reading - I may as well go ahead and tell you what bothers me most about it.  It is the certainty that the disciples claim in verse 51.  Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” and the disciples say, “We sure have.”  Seriously?  All of it?  Well, good for them - but considering they had just asked for explanations of the last two parables Jesus told, this is a little hard to believe.  And the disciples don’t generally come off as “getting it.”  I mean, if they really understood it all, it might be the first time.  But if they did, well, good for them – fantastic.  But I will readily admit that I do not understand it all.

I think the question for us this morning is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?”  And to that end, I’m going to focus on the first couple of parables in our text, and encourage you to go home and read again and think about the others this week as we consider what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of heaven.

In our world, it seems as though bigger is better.  People like things that are over the top, flashy, spectacular.  We want laser lights and smoke.  We want fireworks.  We want marching bands.  We are attracted to things that are larger than life.  We are told to make a splash, get attention, grab the headlines.  They don’t market the 8 oz. Small Sip, they push the 44 oz. Big Gulp.  They don’t feature small regular hamburgers, but there are TV shows devoted to 1 pound burgers with four slices of cheese, 6 slices of bacon and a fried egg on top.  If you had your choice, would you want a computer with 4 GB of memory or 32GB?  Do you want a slow internet connection or a fast one?  If you somehow won a free car, would you choose the 3 cylinder, 74 horsepower Mitsubishi Mirage or the 520 horsepower Porsche 911 turbo? 

We celebrate what is big and fast and powerful and spectacular.  We pay attention to whatever is new and flashy and trendy and hip.   

So Jesus comes along, telling stories, making comparison about what he kingdom of heaven is like.  And he compares the kingdom of heaven to – a mustard seed.  So small you can hardly see it.  It is very unimpressive.  It is unspectacular and not at all flashy.  And it grows into – what? – a mustard bush.  Even all grown up, it is still not very impressive.  It is the opposite of what we find appealing.

We have heard this parable so many times before, about the tiny seed that grows into the great tree, that we don’t catch what is going on.  If Jesus wanted to emphasize how something so small and insignificant becomes so great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?

Jesus’ story parallels one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel, found in Ezekiel chapter 17:

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar… I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.  On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
Israel is depicted as a mighty cedar tree which grows from a tiny cutting, planted by the Lord.  This mighty cedar stands proudly on the mountaintop and its great branches provide shelter for any number of birds.  Israel is seen as powerful, a place of blessing and refuge for all the world.  This vision of Ezekiel was a point of pride for the people, something to make every Israelite feel good about themselves and their nation.

Jesus’ parable is similar enough to the Ezekiel reading that people would have understood the connection, but Jesus has turned the story on its head.  He messes with it.  Instead of being like a cutting from a cedar tree, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed.  Technically, a mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds, but compared to a cedar sapling, it’s pretty tiny.  But a mustard seed doesn’t grow into a mighty cedar, strong and tall and powerful and majestic.  Nobody calls a mustard plant “noble.”  A mustard seed grows into what is at most a shrub, and not only that, it is generally regarded as a weed.  The familiar prophecy from Ezekiel demands a mighty tree, but Jesus twists it and gives us a weedy shrub.

The kingdom of God is not like the biggest tree on the mountain.  The world will not stand back and admire its branches.  On the contrary, the work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as weak and insignificant alongside the powers and dominions that shape the world and call the shots.  Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor.  A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded – in fact, it is more often detested. 

We have kind of romanticized the idea of a mustard seed, but for Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image.  The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed?  Are you serious?

Mustard can grow to be a large bush – it can reach up to 9 or 10 feet in height, even more given the right conditions – but it’s definitely no tree.  It would seem to be kind of a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It’s a noxious weed that will not go away.  It refuses to die.  It just grows and spreads and grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed.  Just a little bit goes a long way, and it can grow and grow into something wonderful.  Well, that is true, and that is part of what he is saying here – the kingdom may be small, but it will grow into something great.  That is often the way we think of this parable, but the overall tone and feel of what Jesus is saying is much more than that.

This is not a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is invasive, shocking, scandalous, and a nuisance – but also unstoppable and abundant.

Jesus sees the kingdom of God, or the empire of God, as being completely unlike the Roman Empire.  There is no status at all to it, it is not powerful, it is not dominant – but it is pervasive.  It takes over.  It can’t be stopped.

This week I thought about Bertha Jane Marshall.  I knew Bertha Jane because of her brother Jasper.  Jasper was the RA leader at our church.  RAs, or Royal Ambassadors, was like Southern Baptist Boy Scouts.  Jasper was a cop and he had to have the patience of Job to put up with all of us rowdy boys.  The thing I remember most about RAs was the campouts we would go on.  We would go to some farm in Kentucky, out in the middle of nowhere.  We would pitch our tents, we would build a fire and cook our food, we would go on hikes, we would play softball, and the big thing is that we would shoot guns.  Really.  Jasper had a big gun collection.  It was all well-supervised, several dads would go along, but 5th and 6th and 7th grade boys would get to shoot carbines and AR-15s and shotguns and a Japanese machine gun, though it wasn’t set for automatic fire.  One year I had the best attendance at RAs, and the prize for best attendance was that I got to throw the hand grenade.  I’m not kidding.  I shudder to think of this now, but that’s what we did.

Anyway, to make along story just slightly shorter, Jasper had a sister named Bertha Jane who was a missionary.  She served in the Gaza strip.  She was a nurse and worked in a hospital, treating patients there and providing a Christian witness.  Every once in a while she would be home on furlough and she would come and speak at our church.

Anyway, I thought about Bertha Jane this week and the work that she and others did, working for Christ in that little strip of land that is torn by war today.  I thought of the Gaza Baptist Church – never a large congregation, but now one of only three Christian churches remaining in Gaza – 3 churches among 1.8 million people.  Its pastor, Hanna Massad, fled with his family to Jordan in 2007.  He returns periodically to check on his flock; some of us heard him speak at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta several years ago.  The church was hit by an Israeli rocket in 2003.  The Christian bookstore closed a few years later after the Baptist layman who ran it was murdered.  There are only a handful of members remaining who struggle amidst all of the violence that surrounds it.

And yet, the church struggles on.  I read a Reuters story this week that said that the Saint Porphyrios Church, the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza built in the 12th century, has taken in about 1,000 refugees in recent weeks.  Archbishop Alexios, who has been organizing the food and shelter for those claiming refuge, refuses—despite all the suffering and fear around him—to focus only on the carnage and destruction.  He is determined to fulfill his mission of Christian charity and remains resolutely upbeat.  The mosque down the street and neighbors of the church have been helping with food and supplies.   Despite the overcrowding and danger, Alexios said there has been joy in the church in the midst of tragedy.

“Yesterday, a woman gave birth to a baby, a new life.  We should be hopeful.  There is death in Gaza, but also there is also life.”

Loving one’s neighbors, loving others as Christ loved us – that is the very core of what it is to follow Jesus, and Christians, a tiny minority in Gaza, are living that out.  They are anything but powerful, they are much more like a weed than a great cedar, yet they are still there.  It certainly isn’t easy, but the work of Bertha Jane and others in years past and the work of Hanna Massad and Archbishop Alexios today is not in vain.

You might think of this parable in relation to Jesus: born in poverty in the small town of Bethlehem.  Raised in Galilee, the backward part of Israel – no one thought a prophet could come from Galilee.  He did not come from a prominent family, was not well-connected, had no money.  He was not supported by the religious leaders of the day; in fact, they worked against him.  His followers were by and large hard–working, common people.  Well, except for some tax collectors and known sinners.

Predictably, it did not end well for Jesus; he was hung on a cross as a criminal, an enemy of the state.  But by God’s power, Jesus was raised from the dead.  Like that invasive weed that you cannot kill, Jesus would not go away. 

His message was hard to swallow, and still is.  Give away what you have.  Love your enemies.  Deny yourself.  Take up your cross.  It’s very much a mustard seed story.

After the mustard seed, Jesus launches right into another parable.  He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf.  OK, that is well and good.  Big deal.  Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.  Yeast was not kosher – at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  It is a kingdom that is scandalous and surprising.  The kingdom is not what you might expect.  Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work.  The kingdom may be scandalous and surprising, it may be hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed. 

Shortly after Zoe was born, she was given a few shares of stock as a gift from her aunt and uncle.  We never did anything with it and really hadn’t given it much thought, but this spring the company was bought out in a “merger,” and she had to mail in the certificate to get stock in the new company.  Which made me think about parables: the kingdom of heaven is like having a few shares of stock in a small company that you forget about, but over time it splits and grows and splits again and then the company is bought out, and you had forgotten you even owned it, but it turns out you have 25,000 shares of Apple computer.  (By the way, this is not what happened to Zoe.)

The kingdom, says Jesus, is surprising.  It is unexpected.  And often it is small and maybe even hidden, but we can be sure that God is at work.

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, says

The reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent.  The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.  
Life can be hard, as some of you well know.  Sometimes, God can seem absent.  But the Good News is that like yeast working in dough, like an insignificant weed that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

Friday, July 18, 2014

“What to Do About Weeds” - July 20, 2014

Text: Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

We may disagree about a lot of things, but one thing most Americans can agree on is that we don’t care for weeds.  Weeds are extremely unpopular.  In a recent Gallup poll, weeds ranked below used car salesmen and members of Congress in likeability.

Gardeners don’t want weeds in their tomatoes and peppers and flower beds so we use hoes and tillers and we mulch and we get on our knees and pull weeds.  We might even invest in The Garden Weasel.  (I bought one at a garage sale a few years back - it didn’t work nearly as well as it does in commercials, but it was worth a shot.)  Homeowners want a nice lawn and so we use Weed and Feed or have the Chem-Lawn people come by.  We do what we can to eliminate weeds. 

And in fact, battling weeds is big business, a multi-billion dollar industry.  Over 90% of our country’s corn, soybean, and cotton crops are grown from genetically modified seeds, the vast majority of those being glyphosate tolerant – otherwise known as Roundup Ready.  Weeds can be killed off with an herbicide that doesn’t affect the crop you are growing.  It means not having to till and theoretically using less herbicide.  And it means not hiring a bunch of teenagers to walk beans with a hoe or knife or machete to take out weeds.  Personally, I think that is kind of a loss, and I read just this week that walking beans is making somewhat of a comeback both because of the growth of organic farming.  But the point here is that one way or another, farmers are going to do what they can to eliminate weeds.

Whether it is your yard or your garden or a field, the objective is to get rid of weeds.  But Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who took a completely different approach.  This farmer said, “Let the weeds grow.  Don’t worry about them.  Let’s just let it all grow till harvest and then we can sort it out.”

This is not a common farming strategy.  In fact, it is a terrible plan for farming.  To follow Jesus’ advice, to just let the weeds grow till you’re ready to pick the corn or gather in the beans, is asking for all kinds of trouble.  If you do that, you might not even be able to find your corn or beans.  And your crops will almost certainly be smaller and less healthy because the weeds robbed them of nutrients.

Jesus strategy is a recipe for disaster.  Lutheran preacher Barbara Lundblad says,
these parables about sowing seeds and leaving weeds must have sounded completely ridiculous to people who knew about farming.  But come to think of it, would one shepherd really leave 99 sheep in jeopardy to go searching for one who got lost?  Jesus’ parables that seem so simple and ordinary don’t really make good sense at all.  Not to people who make their living by farming!  Did Jesus really mean to draw such pictures of the Kingdom of God?  Or was he simply a bad farmer?
Jesus’ real subject, of course, is not farming.  He is talking about life.  In this world, there is good existing alongside the bad.  There are weeds among the wheat.  The question for us is, “What do we do about those weeds?”

William Willimon was interviewing a man who had spent 20 years counseling pastors.  This man told Willimon that he had found that someone who had been a professional photographer or printer ought never to go into the Christian ministry.

Willimon wondered what on earth that had to do with it.  He explained, “If you are the sort of person who has a great need to get everyone in focus, to have everyone stand still, like in a photograph, you’re going to be miserable in the church because folks just won’t stay in place.  Things are messy.  People are always getting out of focus.  It’s a lousy place for people who like things definite and neat because people are hardly ever neat.”

“People are hardly ever neat.”  You can’t argue with that. Weeds grow alongside the wheat.  Life can be messy.  There are weeds and there is wheat, even in the Church.  Power struggles and jealousy and gossip and hypocrisy and self-righteousness are found even in the Church.  There are weeds in the garden.  But part of our problem is that we can’t always tell the wheat from the weeds.

In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.”  That word, tare, refers to a specific plant that is today called a bearded darnel.  It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact even farmers can’t always tell which it is until it matures.  It belongs to the wheat family, but it is toxic.  It won’t kill you, but it will make you sick.  You don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.

But the problem is deeper than simply identifying what the plant is.  Because sometimes, one person’s weed is another person’s flower.

When I was a kid, I can remember we would sometimes go on Sunday afternoon drives.  This was back when gas was 35 or 40 cents a gallon, and maybe 25 cents a gallon when there was a price war.  We would get in the car, with us three kids in the back seat of our 1960 Ford Falcon.  It was a great car because it had lines on the upholstery in the back seat.  We all knew which lines drew the boundary of our area in the back seat and we weren’t supposed to cross those lines.  We would get in our Falcon and go for a drive, just driving kind of aimlessly through the countryside.  Sometimes, my mom would want to stop and cut flowers growing along the road for some kind of arrangement.  We might get some Queen Anne’s lace or cattails or some kind of wildflower to use in a flower arrangement.

Just driving along the highway, these looked like weeds, but cut them and put them in an arrangement and they become decorative flowers.  Just how do you tell a weed from a wildflower anyway?  I hate dandelions, but children love to gather them—to them, they are pretty flowers.  In our neighborhood, when it comes to dandelions, some people spray them and some people dig them and some people curse them, but I also know that some people use dandelions to make wine.

Weeds are simply unwanted plants.  Plants growing where they are not wanted.  And if we take Jesus’ parable to be about people, then maybe he has a point after all, because I don’t want to be the one to determine which ones are the weeds.  We have gotten into a lot of trouble that way.  Through the centuries, the church has tried to purify itself, to remove the weeds, with disastrous results.

There were the Crusades in which Christians from Europe intent on doing God’s work embarked on a giant weeding mission.  In one of the first crusades, Christian knights blew thru an Arab town on their way to the Holy Land and killed everyone in sight.  Not until later, when they turned the bodies over, did they find crosses around most of their victims’ necks.  It never occurred to them that Christians could have brown skin as well as white. 

Later, the Inquisition hunted down suspected heretics and burned them at the stake, like weeds.  Some of our Anabaptist forebears were drowned.  Even in this country, we had the Salem witch trials in which weeds were burned.  And we need to remember our Baptist beginnings as a persecuted minority--we were the ones thought of as the weeds in the garden.  Roger Williams founded Rhode Island essentially as a place where the weeds could grow unhindered – and in that day, the weeds were Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers.

There is still this desire to straighten things out and clean things up and make sure that weeds are driven off.  We want to protect the harvest, and we can’t have weeds growing among the wheat.  But isn’t that exactly what Jesus said that we are to do?  To wait until the harvest and leave it up to God? 

It is painfully obvious that goodness and sinfulness exist side by side in this world.  There is no question about that.  But we can’t always tell which are the weeds.  For years, people tried to kill tomato plants because they were thought to be poisonous weeds.  St. John’s Wort, found to have all kinds of medicinal properties, was nearly killed off completely by ranchers because it gives cows indigestion.  We can’t always determine which are wheat and which are weeds—and thankfully, we don’t have to.  That is not our job but God’s.    

And what’s more, we cannot drive out the weeds by our own efforts anyway.  We cannot drive out sin by our own efforts because we have been so affected by it.  Martin Luther said that the Christian is at the same time saint and sinner.  There is wheat and weeds in all of us.  Good and evil not only exist in the same field, they exist in the same individual human beings.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 
For now, even in the Church, good and bad exist side by side.  Things are messy.  For now, the weeds are allowed to grow.  And for us, that may be just as well. 

Thomas Merton, the Catholic writer, said that the goal of the faithful was to strive to be perfect; but he suggests that true perfection is learning to work with imperfection—accepting ourselves as we are.  Which means accepting that we have weeds in our own garden.  It means knowing that God can use flawed, imperfect vessels such as us.  The field doesn’t have to be weed-free.  What is most amazing is that God looks upon this world, filled with weeds, blemished as it is, imperfect as it is, and God loves us anyway.

We can be thankful that for now, God allows the wheat and weeds to exist together, because so often, to paraphrase Pogo, “we is the weeds.”  This parable speaks of judgment that comes in due time, in God’s time, but it also speaks of God’s grace.  God is patient with this world, and God is patient with us.

This is not to suggest that we are not to be concerned about evil in our midst.  And this is not to suggest that we do not worry about working for a more just and peaceful and righteous society.  But as Christians, we are to align ourselves with God’s purpose, and God’s purpose is to save.  Our premature judgment of others may thwart God’s purposes.  And knowing that we ourselves are not immune to sin may help us as we relate to those who may seem to us to be weeds.  Do you remember the story of the woman caught in adultery?  Jesus did not tell those about to stone her to stop.  He simply reminded them of their own sin, and once reminded, they left her alone.

This weeding business can be tricky.  And it gets trickier still.  It doesn’t happen on farms; it doesn’t happen in gardens; but it happens in life: by the grace of God, tares can become wheat. 

As they hung on either side of Jesus, the two thieves crucified with him probably appeared to be no more than two weeds who deserved exactly what they were getting.  But Jesus said to one, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  He looked for all the world like a weed, but Jesus saw things differently.

The power of God’s love can change even the most stubborn weed into a beautiful plant.  There is hope for all of us.  This parable speaks to us of God’s patience.  God does not give up on anyone, and neither should we.

Chris Brundage, a pastor in Michigan, performed a funeral for a man named Vic, who was 96.  Vic had no children.  Chris said that he’d known Vic only the last few years of his life.  At his request, Chris had baptized him.  He knew Vic’s wife Connie had died several years earlier, and that some friends had taken him in and cared for him in his final years.

He also knew that, as a young man, Vic had had a promising baseball career.  Among the memorabilia on display at his funeral was his Detroit Tigers uniform.  He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, as they say, but alcohol ended whatever career he might have had, along with a lot of other things in his life. 

Ordinarily, at 96 and with no children, there would have been just a handful of people at the funeral.  But 200 showed up.  The funeral home had to pull out extra chairs.  People came from neighboring states.

Why did so many come to Vic’s funeral?  The man was a legend in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He had not only remained sober for 55 years, but his gentle testimony had influenced thousands of people.  His funeral became an impromptu AA meeting, with many people coming forward to tell what this man had meant to him.

To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted financially and emotionally by alcohol -- who would have guessed then that he was wheat and not a tare? 

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  Rather, it is about the way we think of others, and it is about leaving final judgments to God.

When the New Testament writers list the gifts and fruit of the Spirit, none of them include the gifts of being right or doing things perfectly.  None of them list the spiritual gifts of calling out woeful sinners.  They do not include the spiritual gift of judgment.  But they mention peace and patience, as well as love. 

In the 13th century, the Church responded to the Cathar heresy that was prevalent in areas of Spain and France with a crusade in which tens of thousands of heretics were killed.  At one point, an entire town was besieged by a Christian army.  The town was full of heretics and the army was there to eliminate them.  But there were also innocent people in the city, and no one could tell for sure who was whom.  So the army asked the Bishop, “What shall we do?”  The bishop said, “Kill them all. God will sort out his own.”

Jesus, in effect, says the opposite.  “Let them all live; God will sort out his own.”  Judgment comes, but in God’s time and in God’s way.  God is patient and full of mercy, and God’s purpose is to save. 

For now, there is goodness and evil side by side, but eventually, all evil, all sin, all pain, all hurt will be wiped away, even the evil in our own hearts. And at harvest time, you can count on some surprises.  Amen.