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.

Friday, July 11, 2014

“Sowing the Seeds” - July 13, 2014

Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This morning, I want to talk about rabbits.  Do you mind?  My question for you this morning is, How do you feel about rabbits?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about the critters.  For one thing, they are everywhere.  I’ll go on a walk with our dog Rudy, and he pays no attention whatsoever to rabbits.  We have literally walked past a little bunny no more than 5 feet from the sidewalk, and Rudy doesn’t even glance in its direction.  I don’t think it is because he is on a leash, and I don’t think it is because he has tried to catch rabbits before and failed.  I think it is because they are everywhere, they are like sparrows or crabgrass or Ford Tauruses parked on the street – a rabbit is really nothing to get excited about.

On the other hand, they are cute little boogers.  We have a whole family who have taken up residence under our shed.  I put up this new shed a couple of years ago.  It has a solid foundation, a nice little ramp, and skirting all around the bottom of the shed made with treated lumber.  I even landscaped it with ornamental grass and day lilies and hostas.  I had barely finished putting the thing up when the rabbits moved in on the ground floor, underneath the shed, and they improved on my design by digging out a back entrance under the skirting. 

At almost any time of day or night, you might see rabbits in our backyard, hanging out around the shed, or under the bird feeder, or by the shrubs in front of the house.  I’ve even helped rabbits get out of our garden who got in under or maybe over the fence, but then didn’t seem to be able to get out.  They are really cute, especially the little baby bunnies.

But here’s the thing: cute as they are, they are completely insensitive about what they eat.  It can be your favorite hosta or the tomato or bell pepper you just planted - they don’t really care.  They have no conscience.  They will munch on all of it. 

It is hard enough trying to grow stuff without having to contend with rabbits.  In our scripture today from Matthew, Jesus describes some of the difficulties in planting seed.  He mentions several types of soil and the problems associated with each, but if he lived around here, I’m sure he would have added something about new crops that are overrun by rabbits.

Anyway, Jesus tells this story of seed scattered on various types of soil, and how some did not sprout, some took root but then died off, and some was choked out by weeds.  He forgot to mention the rabbit problem.  But then, other seed sprouted and grew and produced abundantly.  Jesus tells this story, but his disciples don’t get it – they don’t see the point.  The parables were meant to be chewed on, thought about, contemplated, but people wanted it explained to them – right now.  So, the second part of our reading is an explanation of the parable, which makes it into more of an allegory – the various parts of the story represent different things.  The explanation involves how people hear the word of God.

Hearers of the word might be compared to types of soil.  Some are like a pathway.  Their hearts have been hardened like that hard path, and they do not receive the word. 

Others are like rocky ground.  The seed sprouts and begins to take root, but because there is no depth of soil, it can’t withstand the hard times.  Just as the hot sun or the driving rain may be too much for a young plant, troubles in life may be too much for a young Christian with no deep roots.

In other cases, it is like seed sown among thorns.  The plant sprouts and grows but is soon choked out by weeds and thistles.  We have all known people who seemed to have interest in things of the spirit, but life is just so busy that there is no time left for God, no time for church, no time for fellowship with other believers.  And so the young plants are choked out by other concerns.

But then some folks are like good Iowa farmland, and the seed grows and the harvest is plentiful.  They hear the Word of God and it grows in their hearts and they bear fruit for the kingdom.

The explanation given for Jesus’ parable is easy enough to understand, but I wonder—is this the whole point?  Is the parable simply a description of what happens when various people hear the word of God?

It is certainly that, but I think it is more.  Jesus’ parables are always meant to be pondered, to be contemplated.  Perhaps Jesus was simply helping his followers get started on understanding it.  And his response did address real questions. 

Why didn’t everyone believe?  Why didn’t everyone repent?  Why didn’t everyone respond to the Good News?  Why doesn’t everybody want to be a follower of Jesus?  These were questions his disciples were asking.

When you hear about these different kinds of soil, perhaps particular people come to mind for you.  But there is a problem when we start putting people in neat categories—when we start labeling people.  It’s not long before we are saying,  “Hard ground - forget about him.”  Or, “Rocky soil - she won’t last.”  Jesus never intended for us to use this parable to dismiss people.

When we label people, we can set up a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  A number of years ago, the army was impressed with a tool many chaplains used in pre-marital counseling.  Someone decided to adapt it to help unit commanders predict who was prone to go AWOL (Absent Without Leave).  So a special scale was developed and trainees were administered the test.  When someone was “flagged” as being AWOL prone, the Company Commander and First Sergeant would sit down with the trainee.  They would explain the trainee’s proneness, give a warning, and pledge to help the trainee become a good soldier.  But guess what?  The trainee would go AWOL.  The Commander and Sergeant said the trainee would likely go AWOL, because the test said they would likely go AWOL, and so not surprisingly, the trainee went AWOL.  Needless to say, this test was not used very long.

When we take Jesus’ words to heart about the different planting experiences, it appears there are four ways of classifying responses to the Gospel.  But the point is not to put people in pigeonholes.  There are, in fact, all kinds of ways that any of us can and do respond to God’s word as it continues to come to us.

In Jesus’ parable, we tend to focus on the soil – right?  Four types of soil.  And we might focus on the seed.  But what if we thought for a minute about the actions of this farmer?

Farming is not easy.  It wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now.  Modern machinery and technology have made farming easier in some ways, but in other ways it is more complex than ever.  Many of you know this a lot better than I do.  Here at Iowa State, we have all kinds of research going on that is aimed at growing crops more quickly and easily and efficiently, and in ways that protect the environment.  There is research aimed at developing crops that are more nutritious, more resistant to disease or insects or drought, more compatible with particular climates. Some of you are involved in that work.

Farming is complicated.  In order to turn a profit, a farmer needs to keep up with the latest technology.  With GPS technology, you can deliver just the right amount of fertilizer or herbicide or pesticide or the right chemicals based on the pH of the soil.  You don’t want to waste these inputs where they are not needed.  Different parts of the field are treated differently.  This is all done in order to maximize yield while minimizing cost.  Farming is an expensive proposition, and you don’t just start throwing seeds all over the place, willy-nilly.  Seeds don’t just grow on trees (well, in some cases they do, but you have to pay for them anyway).  You certainly don’t plant seed where it won’t grow – that would be a waste of time and effort, not to mention money.  

But Jesus isn’t saying that.  The point of the parable is not that we should only plant seeds where they are likely to grow.  In fact, this sower scatters the seeds everywhere.  I think a good title for this story would be “The Parable of the Reckless Gardener.”  This farmer just throws the seeds all over the place.   

We have had a lot of wildfires in the west in recent years.  Often, following wildfires, they will quickly plant rye and barley to prevent erosion.  Small planes will drop the seed on tens of thousands of acres of ground.  They won’t be real discriminating about it.  They won’t worry much about what the soil is like or what the ground conditions are – they will just drop the seed everywhere.

That’s the way the sower in Jesus’ parable operates.  Seed is scattered all over the place.  When Jesus talks about sowing seed, the seed to be sown is grace.  The seed to be sown is God’s love.  There is an endless supply, and it is free.  This crazy sower scatters the seed everywhere, even when it appears there is little chance of good results.

When we were in Indiana, a little over a week ago, we had dinner with our friend Cheri and some of her family.  Her son Paul and his wife Lauren were there – they had just announced that they were going to have a baby.  We have known Paul for a long time.  When he was a lot younger, like maybe 12 years old, he found a tiny little maple tree, just sprouted, growing in the yard.  He asked his parents if he could plant it in the backyard.  They told him that would be fine, and he planted it right by their deck on the back of the house.  The deck is off the second floor, and Paul planted the little tree next to the bottom of the steps.  It was a terrible place.  The ground wasn’t good, there were rocks in this little border by the steps, and it would be right up against the deck.  The Grizzards thought it was kind of fun and sort of cute that Paul planted this tiny little tree.  The tree was even given a name, Tony, but nobody really gave it a chance. 

But guess what?  Tony grew up.  And Tony kept on growing.  Tony is now a huge tree in a great spot, providing wonderful shade for the deck, even though when he was planted, anybody would have told you that Tony was a weed tree in a terrible spot.    

A frugal, cautious, responsible grower would never have planted Tony.  But sometimes, wonderful growth happens in unlikely places.  And in unlikely people.  All because someone sowed the seed.

If we think back on our lives, there are all kinds of people who sow seeds that take root and grow.  Teachers, friends, youth leaders, neighbors, counselors, pastors, mentors, colleagues.  We may not even be aware of the influence some of these people have had.  But we are who we are today because others cared enough to sow seeds.

Think for a minute: who was Michael Jordan’s grade school coach?  Who was Billy Graham’s junior high Sunday School teacher?  Who was Albert Einstein’s third grade math teacher?  Who gave Eric Clapton guitar lessons?  Who got Bill Gates interested in technology? 

Who plants the seeds of future greatness?  It could be anybody.  It could be us.

The story has been told before, but it’s worth telling again: a number of years ago, the men’s breakfast group was at Perkins, like we are on the first and third Tuesday of every month.  On that day, the group went to the front to pay after the meal, but they were told that someone had already paid the bill for the group.  And there was a note signed by a former student of Ross Talbot.  He had noticed Dr. Talbot and his friends at a table.  He said that Dr. Talbot had had a big influence in his life, because he had taught him to love books, and he wanted to buy Ross and his friends breakfast as a way of saying thanks.  He didn’t sign his name.

We may not always see the results, but the seeds we sow will bear fruit.  For many years, Mary Taylor Previte was director of the Camden County Youth Center in New Jersey, one of the largest juvenile detention centers in America.  If the kids there are going to turn their lives around, she says that they have to be able to identify something positive to strive toward.  Mary asked one of her really tough juveniles one day, “Who's been a positive force in your life?” The boy first mumbled, “Nobody.”  Then he changed his mind.  “Well,” he said, “I guess, maybe, Mr. Mike.”  She asked, “Who’s Mr. Mike?”  He explained, “Oh, he’s the guy who runs the neighborhood market.”  Mary found that little neighborhood market, along with its proprietor.  She introduced herself and said, “Mike, I just wanted you to know that you have saved a life.”

She continued, “I was told that you would always say to my ‘boy,’ whom you knew was into drugs, ‘Hey, why’s a decent kid like you doin’ drugs?  You ought to be in school!”  You said it to him again and again, telling him he was a good kid and should aim for something higher.  It was the one and only positive thing in his life that he can remember.  And that is what is helping him to change his life.”

A simple act of human concern and kindness from an everyday, ordinary person made a real difference.   

Most of us will not have someone from our past buy breakfast for us at Perkins one morning.  For most of us, Mary Taylor Previte will not just show up one day; it is unlikely we will know which of the seeds we have sown resulted in harvest.  But then again, how many of us have gone back and thanked those who sowed the seeds of our life?

Jesus calls us to be completely reckless in scattering seed.  We are called to share the seeds of God’s Good News with everybody - even when there may not be high hopes for response.  We are called to care for people regardless of how much potential they may seem to have.  We are called to be faithful in scattering the seed and leave the results up to God.  We just need to sow the seeds.

God is a recklessly gracious and generous seed-sower.  May we be as well.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

“Jesus the Coach” - June 22, 2014

Text: Matthew 10:24-29

A time honored tradition in coaching is the locker room speech.  These used to be largely a mystery to those who were not athletes, but with cameras allowed in locker rooms more and more, we can often listen in on a coach’s instructions to the team before the big game.  In the NBA Finals, for example, those who were watching could listen in on what Coach Popovich or Coach Spoelstra said to their teams.

We know a little bit about locker room speeches here at Iowa State.  Football coach Paul Rhoads, after a big upset of Nebraska in Lincoln in his first season, told his cheering team in the locker room after the game, “I am so proud to be your football coach!”  This carried even more weight because the previous coach didn’t seem so proud and in fact seemed pretty eager to get out of town at the first opportunity, but Coach Rhoads’ obvious love and passion for his team shone through, and the video went viral.  And then we had Coach Hoiberg dancing – if you could call it that – in the locker room after the Cyclones defeated North Carolina in the NCAA tournament, which endeared him to ISU fans even more, if that is possible.  We occasionally get such glimpses of coaches’ locker room communication with players.

The most legendary locker room speech ever given belongs to Knute Rockne, the great coach at Notre Dame.  It was popularized in the movie Knute Rockne, All-American.  It was halftime of the game against Army in 1928, and his team was losing badly.  To inspire his players he told them the story of the greatest player ever at Notre Dame, George Gipp.

The scene begins in the Notre Dame locker room. The players are seated with blankets draped over their shoulders.  They are dejected and silent when the door pushes open and Rockne enters.  They look at Rockne and then turn away in order to avoid his eyes.  He looks over his team for a full moment of unbroken silence. Then, quietly, as if the game didn’t matter to him, he says:

“Well, boys ... I haven't a thing to say.  Played a great game...all of you.  Great game.  I guess we just can’t expect to win ‘em all.”

And then he paused and said quietly, “I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years -- None of you ever knew George Gipp.  It was long before your time.  But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame... “

There is a faraway look in his eyes as he recalls George Gipp.  He talks about Gipp on his deathbved and continues, “And the last thing he said to me – ‘Rock,’ he said – ‘sometime, when the team is up against it -- and the breaks are beating the boys -- tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper...’”

The coach's eyes are misty and his voice is unsteady as he finishes.  “’I don’t know where I'll be then, Rock,” he said – ‘but I'll know about it - and I'll be happy.’”

Rockne slowly leaves the locker room.  Finally, one of the players says, “What are we waiting for?” and with a single roar, they throw off the blankets, rush onto the field, and of course they come back to win the game.

The phrase “Win one for the Gipper” came to be a part of our American lexicon, and was heard in political campaigns because the actor who played George Gipp in the 1940 movie was none other than Ronald Reagan.

Now, historians doubt whether Rockne’s version of George Gipp’s last words was true, and Rockne was known for inventing such scenarios in order to motivate his team, but that is beside the point.  Whether he quoted George Gipp accurately or not, Rockne’s words are the gold standard for locker room speeches.  He knew how to fire up and motivate his team.

Why do I bring this up?  Our scripture this morning includes instructions Jesus gave to his disciples before they were to go out in ministry – before they were sent out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick and cast out demons.  This is what he told his followers before they were to go out on to the field, as it were.  This is his “Win One for the Gipper” speech.

Except that as such speeches go, I would take Knute Rockne’s any day.

In our scripture this morning, we join Jesus’ locker room speech already in progress.  Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission by reminding them of how hard it was going to be.  They would be persecuted.  They would face danger.  They would be arrested.  They had to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 

If they malign and slander me as the leader, you can expect at least as much as my followers, he says.  Sure, they can do you harm, in fact they very well might kill you, but no matter what they do, they cannot do anything to your spirit.

Now, a coach might prepare the team for an opponent who is taller or faster or stronger, but this is another order of difficulty altogether.

Can you imagine this being used as a recruiting tool?  Think of Jesus as a coach on a recruiting visit in a high school athlete’s home.  “We’d love to have you on our team.  Sure, you will be vilified, slandered, betrayed.  You may be disowned by your family and you might even be killed.  How about it?  We’re offering you a full-ride scholarship.”

On first reading, this comes across as very intimidating.  This is certainly not an easy passage.  But remember, Matthew is not only telling his readers about the life of Jesus; he is writing for a community who were themselves smack in the middle of persecution and oppression.  Some of those original hearers were people who had been rejected by family and friends because of their faith.  This wasn’t just an abstract, hypothetical idea.

And so while it comes across as very challenging and very strong, Jesus is simply holding up reality.  And as he does so many times, Jesus says, “Do not fear.”  They are not to fear their opponents because while their opponents may be able to hurt them physically, they can do them no spiritual harm.  God, however, is the one who has power over both body and spirit, and God has promised to guard and protect them and bring them to eternal life.  The God who created and tends every living thing, values them more than anything.  God cares for the sparrows; how much more does God care for us. 

Lord knows, our situations are far, far different from those earlier followers of Jesus.  Although in some parts of the world, in parts of the Middle East, in parts of Africa, it may be very much like the situation of the early church, and one can face danger and even death simply for being a follower of Jesus.

We thankfully do not live in that kind of environment.  But what we do have in common with the early church is this issue of fear.  We all have to face fear.

Now at times, Jesus’ sayings are in the category of hyperbole.  At least, when he says he has come not to bring peace but a sword and to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother, I certainly hope it is hyperbole.  But he is addressing a very real issue.  There is a cost to being a disciple.  It is not simply that becoming a follower of Jesus could mean drastic changes for family relationships; Jesus is getting at a core fear of most of us, and that is the fear of conflict.  Nobody wants conflict, and we want it least of all in our families.

This includes church families.  We can get so afraid of conflict, so worried about disagreements that our witness is muted, our voices are quieted, and new, fresh, creative ministry is limited for fear of upsetting the apple cart.  Jesus invites us to remember that there are worse things than conflict and that following him will in fact have costs – including at times conflict, even among families.

Jesus’ pep talk, if you want to call it that, invites us to acknowledge how much fear has influence over our lives.  You might be thinking that no, you don’t spend a lot of time or don’t use up a lot of emotional energy being afraid.  But after reflecting on it, I think fear is bigger in our lives than we might at first believe.  We have just gotten so used to it that we may not notice very much.

I’m no financial expert, but it seems to me that if you want to buy stock in a company, you could do a lot worse than investing in a company that has something to do with security.  Security cameras, car alarms, home alarms, insurance of all sorts, radon detectors.  Security against identity theft, computer viruses, malware.  I’m not saying there is no cause for concern, I’m just saying that fear is definitely a growth industry.  Fear has everything to do with the proliferation of guns in our country.  And lucky us, it is already campaign season, and there will be one political ad after another playing on various fears. 

There is a huge fear of not having enough.  We learn to have an attitude of scarcity about life in general.  Not enough money, not enough resources, not enough wisdom, not enough skill, certainly not enough love and kindness and goodwill.  And we come to believe that somehow we are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough.  These messages are reinforced every day.  Watch a few commercials and it is striking how much of our advertising has to do with fear – fear of not fitting in or not being attractive or not having the latest and greatest.

Rather than focus on the abundance that God offers us, we focus on what we lack, or seem to lack.  It is a form of fear.

We could go on and on listing the ways that fear affects us.  We fear for loved ones – for their safety, for their future, for their success, for their happiness.  We have fears about an uncertain future – for ourselves, for the ones we love, for our church, for our community, for our country, for our world – there is no limit on those kinds of fears.

There are all kinds of fears over being accepted – whether we are moving on to middle school or high school or college or a new job, or whether we are entering a retirement community, we never really lose those kinds of fears.  And we can certainly have fears about losing our health.  The list just goes on and on and on.  The news brings a daily dose of war, terrorism, natural disasters, human suffering, disease, abductions, and economic upheaval.  That, and Donald Sterling and the Kardashians.  It can be downright depressing.  There is a lot to fear.

This week I was at the ISU Orientation for new students and their parents.  The Religious Leaders Association has a table at an activity fair that students and their parents attend toward the end of orientation.  We had information on churches and other places of worship in Ames and religious groups on campus – we were not just representing our own faith communities but providing information on whatever group a person might be interested in.

It was very interesting watching the students and their families.  Of course, it was the end of a tiring event, and I noticed a lot of different attitudes and emotions.  Two stood out to me: excitement and fear.  Some moved through the room and took in all of the variety of opportunities and had a sense of excitement about it all.  You could just see that they were excited about coming to ISU.  It wasn’t just students – parents were excited too.  But others seemed a little bit intimidated, kind of overwhelmed by it all.  Often, it was the parents.  Parents would come by and want information on churches and ministries while their son or daughter went to a display on Recreation Services or Greek Life.  Or, a family would approach our table together, but it was clearly the parents who were more interested.  They were afraid that their child would come to school, get in the wrong crowd, get involved in all sorts of things, and they wanted to steer them toward a church or campus ministry.  Not a bad strategy, but it has to be the stduent's idea.

We all know about fear.  Rather than ignore the fear that is just kind of in the air, both then and now, Jesus comes right out and names some of those fears facing the disciples, from whether their message will be received to whether their families will still accept them to whether they can stay out of jail and for that matter stay alive.  And his answer is this: “Do not fear, for you are of great value to God.  God cares for the sparrows; how much more does God care about you?”

Do not fear.  Three different times during his talk to his “team,” Jesus says, “Do not fear.”  If you spend your life trying to drive away all of these fears, he says, you will lose your life in the process.  If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.  But if you forget about yourself and look to me, if you jump right in and invest your life in following me and living by my way of hope and grace and peace and abundance, then you will find yourself and you will learn what living really is.”

To truly follow Jesus can be a hard thing.  To do justice, to act with kindness, to walk humbly with God is not easy.  To do what is right rather than what is expedient, to take a stand that may be unpopular, to live by faith in God rather than faith in money or power, to strive for faithfulness rather than success, to love our enemies, to be willing to offer forgiveness - these can all be very scary.

It can be easy to give in to fear.  It can be easy to feel downtrodden.  It is easy to feel like that Notre Dame team, getting beat up by big bad Army, blankets over our shoulders, nursing our wounds.  But that is not the way we are meant to live.

We all face fears, but those fears do not have to define us.  Ultimately love is far greater than fear, and the love of God in Jesus Christ can lead us to rich, abundant, joyful living – even in a challenging world.  Amen.