Sermon: Big Dreamer

Sunday 13 August 2017
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

We come here to worship today in the wake of horrific violence and hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s the number one story on ABC, CBS, and NBC. It’s the number one story on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. It’s also the number one story on the BBC and The Guardian in Britain, on the CBC and The Globe and Mail in Canada, on the ABC in Australia, on Le Monde in France, on Der Zeit and Deutsche Welle in Germany, and even on Al-Jazeera, both the English and Arabic editions.

Earlier this year, the city of Charlottesville voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park in the middle of town, a park whose name has been changed from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. Since then, Charlottesville has been the focus of white nationalist protests. The event this weekend, called “Unite the Right,” is a pro-white rally called by right-wing blogger, Jason Kessler. In an interview, he said, “This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do.” In attendance were a mix of Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups, and alt-right activists.

On Friday night, they marched with torches through the campus of the University of Virginia, and again on Saturday morning, they marched, carrying Confederate flags, swastikas, and other racist symbols, and chanting slogans like, “White lives matter,” and “You will not erase us.” One of the protestors, former Imperial Wizard of the KKK David Duke, said, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said we’re going to take our country back, and that’s what we’re going to do.” Many activists were armed with guns, clubs, helmets, and shields. On numerous occasions, they engaged in violent clashes with counter-protesters. A state of emergency was declared, and the National Guard was called in to restore order.

Then on Saturday afternoon, a man drove his car into a crowd of non-violent counter-protesters, killing a 32-year old woman and injuring at least 19 others in what appears to be both a hate crime and an act of terrorism.

President Trump said in a press conference, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” He stopped short of taking a side or of condemning white nationalism.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner wrote in response, “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terroristm.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio wrote, “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.” Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote, “White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites are the antithesis of our American values. There are no other “sides” to hatred and bigotry.” And Republican Senator Orin Hatch wrote, “Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society. We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”

Both liberals and conservatives, both Republicans and Democrats, both Clinton and Trump voters have condemned the hatred and violence of the so called alt-right. And we are saddened to see what many of us feared: that we have a president who will not denounce the racism, bigotry, and violence perpetrated in his name.

This is not what I planned to talk about this morning, sisters and brothers. I was going to talk about Joseph, and his fancy coat, and his dreams that he would be worshipped by his family, and his brothers who were so irritated by his special privileges that they conspired first to kill him, but then settled on selling him into slavery.

And maybe I should still say something about that. It is a story that is just as messy as our world today, a story that is tied up in the mistakes and injustices of the past. Before there was Joseph, there was Jacob, who took the birthright of his brother, Esau. And before there was Jacob, there was Isaac, whose brother, Ishmael, was forced out into the wilderness after Isaac was born. And before there was Isaac, there was Abraham, who sold his own wife to be a concubine in Pharaoh’s harem.

In the family we read about today, we have eleven brothers born to four different mothers. Jacob had wanted to marry Rachael, but he had been tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. So he married both of them. And they promptly started competing over how many children they could give him. The sisters even got their slave women, Bithah and Zilpah, involved. And so Jacob ended up with twelve sons. Six of them were the sons of Leah, four of them were the sons of slave women, and the two youngest, Joseph and Benjamin, were the sons of Jacob’s favorite, Rachel.

There is history behind the conflict in this family. There is history behind the hatred. And the conflict will continue for generations.

In fact, one of the main points in having this story is to explain the continuing violence between the different tribes of Israel, the children of the different sons of Jacob. Even the other people in this story, the Ishmaelites and Midianiates, are both enemies and family. Ishmael was the son of Abraham by Hagar, the slave. Midian was the son of Abraham by his second wife, Keturah. This is a story of people fighting over the same land, fighting over the same birthright, fighting over the same promises. Who are the chosen people? Who gets to have the promised land? Who is God’s favorite?

We have our own history. Charlottesville was the home of Thomas Jefferson, who also founded the University of Virginia. He wrote the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He also owned hundreds of slaves. He freed eight of them, four of whom were his own children with his slave, Sally Hemings. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the grievances he names is that King George III had incited American slaves to rise up against their white masters.

We have our own history. We live in a country that is nominally founded on freedom and democracy, liberty and justice. And yet that same country has systematically deprived many of its people of that liberty and justice for the benefit of people like me: straight, male, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant.

For black folk, taken from their homes and land, shipped to America to be brutalized and enslaved, there were three centuries of living as property. And even after emancipation, there was not liberty and justice. There was the promise of forty acres and a mule that never materialized. There was Jim Crow, that deprived black people of the rights they supposedly now had. There was segregation, and the lie of separate but equal. There were thousands of lynchings and rapes and other crimes against African-Americans that went unpunished, a never-ending campaign of terrorism. And even after the Civil Rights Movement, there was redlining, the systemic refusal of banks and realtors to provide service to black people or in black neighborhoods. There was employment discrimination, voter suppression, and inequality in education. And all of it was justified by appealing to Christianity and the bible.

And even today, institutional racism remains. Eighteen percent of preschoolers are black, but half of the preschoolers who are suspended are black. In K-12 schools, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to get harsher sentences than white people. People with black-sounding names have to send out twice as many job applications to get the same number of callbacks as a person with a white-sounding name of equal qualifications. I could go on.

And of course, it’s not just black folk. Our country has systematically oppressed and disadvantaged all kinds of different people. Native American Indians have been stripped of their land and culture and restricted to undesirable reservations and in-lieu sites. Women have had the vote for less than a century and are still payed only 70% of what men make. Wave after wave of immigrants have been discriminated against, whether they be Irish, or German, or Scandinavian, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Slavic, or Mexican, or Arab, or or or… There have been campaigns of fear and violence targeting each of them. In a country founded by people who were trying to escape religious persecution, we have consistently demonized religious minorities, whether they be Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim, or otherwise.

This is not what I was going to talk about this morning. And yet here I stand, I can do no other. I know that most white Americans do not support an ideology of racism or bigotry. Most of us don’t actively hate people who are different from us. But that does not mean that institutional racism isn’t real or that we don’t benefit from it. And as we have seen this weekend, not only is institutional racism real, but good old-fashioned torches and swastikas racism is still much more prevalent than many of us have cared to acknowledge.

And I know that life isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for all white people, either. Poor whites, particularly in rural and industrial areas, have seen their prospects diminish in recent years and decades. There is real pain there. New technologies have rendered many factory and agricultural jobs unnecessary. And that economic depression has been fertile ground for those who want to whip up outrage and grievance.

My sisters and brothers, we must not allow ourselves to be reduced to tribalism. It must not be Israelite against Ishmaelite. It must not be Joseph against Judah against Reuben against Dan. It must not be red against blue. It must not be white against black against Asian against Latino against native. We all deserve better than that. We must not succumb to the petty bigotry that tore Jacob’s family apart and eventually consigned them all to slavery. It doesn’t just hurt some of us; it hurts all of us. I am not free so long as my neighbor is not free.

The same book that tells us the tragedy of Joseph and his brothers, Genesis, also tells what our most important identity marker is. It is not Israelite or Moabite or Edomite. It is not our tribe or clan. It is not our color or ethnicity or nationality. Our most important identity marker comes in Genesis 1:27—“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

Our differences are important: we are not all the same. Our diversity is not a liability; it is a strength. And yet, through that, every person is a human being, every person is made in the image and likeness of God. Every person is made in the image and likeness of God. None of us deserves to be the target of hatred, bigotry, and violence.

I’ll close with the words of preacher and R&B singer, Solomon Burke:

And there are people still in darkness,
And they just can’t see the light.
If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.
We got to try to feel for each other, let our brother’s know that we care.
Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.

None of us are free.
None of us are free.
None of us are free, if one of us is chained.
None of us are free.

Sermon: Kingdom-Like

Sunday 30 July 2017
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

4.2.7

4.2.7

In seminary, the toughest professor was Prof. Edward Antonio. He had been educated at Cambridge in the old school, and he seemed to assume that everyone was just as intelligent and well-read as he was. We were not. Every day at the end of class he would assign one or two hundred pages of the most difficult theological writing you can imagine: Barth, Kierkegaard, Descartes. And every day at the beginning of class, he would ask, “Are there any questions on the reading?” Now, some of had done all of the reading, some of us had done some of it, some of us, no doubt, had done none of the reading. None of us, though, completely understood the reading. But we were intimidated by it. And we were intimidated by Prof. Antonio, who in addition to having photographic memory, was also just brilliant. And so, when he asked, “Are there any questions on the reading?” the entire class would just sit there in stunned silence. None of us wanted to be the first person to say, “Um… actually, I have about a thirty questions on the readings.” He would take our silence to mean that we had understood everything perfectly, and then he would go on to lecture on a completely different topic.

And I wonder if that isn’t something like what the disciples experienced hearing all of those parables. Jesus asks them, “Have you understood all this?” And they answer, “Yes.” No, not very likely. First of all, parables are designed to be hard to understand; that’s the way they work. If they can be easily deciphered, then they stop being parables and become allegories or metaphors or morality tales. Parables can’t be easily boiled down. They are meant to read you, as much as you read them. And that is what makes them stand the test of time, because they keep having new meaning as people read them from different perspectives.

But secondly, we know from all the available evidence that the disciples aren’t all that smart. They never seem to understand what Jesus is talking about, even when he isn’t speaking in parables. How likely is it that they actually understand now? It’s much more likely that, like those students in Prof. Antonio’s class, they were simply terrified of looking foolish in front of the master. And so they answered, “Yes, of course we understand.”

So what makes us think that we can understand these parables now, some 2000 years after they were uttered? The truth is that we probably can never completely understand them. Even the most skilled Bible scholars still struggle with and debate their meaning. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study them. If fact, that is precisely what they are meant for: to be studied, to be engaged. Like riddles that can never be fully unraveled, they keep working on us, teaching us new things about the life of faith.

The five parables that we have today are all about the same topic. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure in a field, a seeker of fine pearls, a drag net. Very common things in their day. Simple, everyday examples to explain the mysteries of God’s kingdom.

But before we explore the parables themselves, we should stop a minute and consider what this kingdom of heaven is that Jesus is talking about. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, as it is called in both Mark and Luke, is a central topic of the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus. “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” they both declare.

Sometimes people think of the kingdom of heaven as that thing that is coming at the end of time, the afterlife, where God is in complete control. And that is at least partially true. But if we leave the kingdom of heaven there, then we will miss the point that both Jesus and John are trying to make. For them the kingdom of heaven is imminent, right here, right now, not far away at the end of time or in some distant, unreachable heaven. The kingdom of heaven is God’s imperial rule on earth, God’s earthly sovereignty, which both John and Jesus tell us is already breaking into our present reality, already setting up shop here in our world.

So with that in mind, let’s look at these five parables of Jesus one at a time, and see what we can learn. First, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetables plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” Mustard is a common plant in Palestine. It’s more of a weed than a crop, though it is sometimes cultivated as a condiment or for medicinal purposes. It’s an annual, and in just one season it grows from a very small seed to be a rather large bush, about 6 feet tall, sometimes as high as 12 feet. Despite what we are told in Matthew’s gospel, it never becomes a tree, and it is not a suitable habitat for nesting birds. Those are details left out of Mark’s and Luke’s version of the story, but Matthew does not seem uncomfortable with a bit of hyperbole.

What seems most important in this parable is that mustard grows from a very small seed to become a very large plant. It has tremendous potential. Something that seems very inconspicuous as a seed, sprouts to become very conspicuous as a plant.

And perhaps that is the way with the kingdom of heaven; it only needs a tiny foothold in our world in order to grow into something quite large. God’s reign seems inconspicuous at first, but before you know it, the kingdom of heaven is growing out of control. In fact, we would probably prefer at times that God would take things a little slower. But instead, God’s imperial rule can show up just about anywhere, with very little warning, freeing the captive, liberating the oppressed, healing the wounded.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.” This parable seems to be a pair with the previous one. Just a very little bit of yeast can grow and bring leavening to a whole batch of dough. Three measures of flour, by the way, isn’t just three cups of flour. In fact, it equals about fifty pounds of flour and would make enough bread to feed more than one hundred people. Again the emphasis seems to be on something very small becoming very large.

I like this parable even better than the first one. The idea of the kingdom of heaven slowly seeping its way through our world, growing, multiplying, until it has leavened all of the earth seems very appropriate. It is insidious, in its way, pushing its way into every corner of life. That is like God’s rule, always breaking through into our world, finding ways to grow and thrive out of what seems like nothing.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.” In ancient Palestine, people were used to invasions. In not very long Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. You never knew when some new army might be invading, or when there might be a local uprising. And of course, there weren’t any banks. Consequently, burying one’s treasure in a field was a fairly common method of trying to keep things safe.

In this parable, the idea is that the owner of the field doesn’t know that the treasure is there. Someone in the past buried it and for whatever reason never got around to digging it up, and it was forgotten. Then, one of the workers in the field accidentally discovers it. He buries it again, and then puts together all the money he can in order to buy the field, without, of course, telling the owner that there is treasure buried there. Consequently, he makes a great return.

The point is about how precious the treasure is, how it found in an unexpected place, and the singleness of purpose that the person puts into acquiring it. This hidden treasure is so precious that he is willing to sell everything else that he has it order to get it, and he does so joyfully.

The kingdom of heaven is like that as well. Even though most people don’t see it at all, it is so precious that we would be well advised to give up everything else we have in order to attain it.

The next parable furthers the point. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.” Though this time the treasure is sought after rather than accidentally found, the point still seems to be about the preciousness of the find, the preciousness of the kingdom, which is to be sought above all other things. Seek ye first the kingdom of God.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away.” This is actually a pair with the parable we heard last week about the wheat and the weeds. The kingdom of heaven casts its net wide. It is not picky, not discerning about who or what it will pick up. It takes all comers. And it is not for us as kingdom workers to decide who should be in and who should be out. God takes in all people, and it is only later that sorting will happen, and those that are kosher will be separated from those that are forbidden.

The kingdom of heaven is like… It is like a mustard seed or yeast, growing forth with unexpected proliferation, breaking into our world in unexpected ways. It is like a hidden treasure or a pearl, worth seeking and giving up everything else in order to acquire it. It is like a net thrown wide, accepting of all and dealing with both the clean and the unclean. The kingdom of heaven is like…

Sermon: Let Both Grow Together

Sunday 23 July 2017
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 16A

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

This morning we have another parable about planting seeds. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Sower. A farmer plants seeds. As they are thrown out, some seed lands on a path, some seed lands in shallow soil, some seed lands among weeds, and some seed lands on good soil. God just throws seed everywhere. Even though it can’t grow everywhere, seed is still planted everywhere. We don’t always know where the good soil is ahead of time, and sometimes the seed of God’s word surprises us. Today we have another parable about a farmer planting seed.

As you may have heard before, Mark is the oldest of the four gospels we have in the bible, probably written about 70 CE. Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source. They’re both written about ten years later, around 80 CE. Interestingly, about 90% of Mark is duplicated in Matthew. Matthew uses Mark as a framework and adds a few more stories and a lot of Jesus preaching and teaching.

Now, at this same place in the gospel of Mark there is a parable about a sower. It may be the basis of the parable we are looking at in Matthew this morning, but it is much simpler. Here it is: This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.” (Mark 4:26-29)

This parable shares much in common with our parable today. The sower sows. Things happen in the day and in the night. We wait until the end of the season, and at harvest time we find out what has grown. The point of the Mark parable seems to be that while we are doing the work of the kingdom of God, we never quite know what effect it’s having until much later. Any teacher knows this. You may teach a classroom of children today, but you never know exactly how it’s going to be processed and learned by your students. Only much later do you see the fruit of what you planted in the past, and the way that it comes to fruit sometimes remains a mystery.

Matthew takes this simple parable and reworks it extensively. Once again we have a farmer scattering seed. Matthew makes sure to tell us that it is not just ordinary seed, it is good seed. In the night, an enemy plants the field with weeds. Specifically, the enemy plants lollium temulentum, known commonly as darnel, poison darnel, darnel ryegrass, or cockle. Darnel is a common weed in wheat fields. It looks a lot like wheat, especially as it is coming up. It’s also hard to distinguish between wheat seed and darnel seed. In some places, it is called false wheat.

In addition to just being an annoyance to wheat farmers, darnel is a health hazard. Darnel can be host to a ergot fungus. You cannot tell by looking whether a particular darnel plant is infected. When eaten by humans, it can cause a number of different reactions, including a burning sensation in the hands and feet (called St. Anthony’s Fire), gangrene, miscarriage, hallucinations, and even death. So this dirty trick played by the enemy is not just obnoxious, it is noxious. It is potentially a matter of life and death.

Next, the parable takes a strange turn. It had been quite clear that one person, the farmer, does all of the planting. But after the planting is over, suddenly the farmer is transformed into a landholder with slaves. As the crop is coming up, the slaves notice that there is both wheat and darnel growing in the field, all mixed together.

The slaves ask the master, “Didn’t you plant good seed?” It seems like a rather impertinent question, coming from a slave, but they ask it all the same.

The farmer-turned-master responds that an enemy has planted the darnel. How exactly the master knows this, we are not told. Interestingly, the word translated here as enemy, ἐχθρὸς, has a better translation in contemporary English slang. It literally means “hater.” Someone who hates me is an enemy. The slaves ask why there is so much darnel in the wheat field, and the master essentially says, “Haters gonna hate.”

So the slaves ask a very reasonable follow-up question: “Do you want us to go pull the weeds?” That would be the impulse of most gardeners, wouldn’t it? If you find weeds in your crop, you pull them out as soon as you can. You don’t want the weeds drawing away resources from your crops. Sunlight, water, nutrients: weeds can steal them all from the plant you are trying to grow. So the normal practice is to pull the weeds and leave the crop. This was no less true in the ancient world than it is today.

And so it is very strange when the master responds “No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest.” Again, that statement would have been just as strange in the ancient world as it is today. Every wheat field grew with some darnel, and it wasn’t uncommon to try to weed it out. This parable isn’t drawing on the common wisdom of 1st-century Palestinian farmers, it is making its point by defying that common wisdom. No farmer lets weeds and wheat grow together. But, according to Jesus, this farmer does. Why?

We can actually do quite well without the heavy-handed, allegorical interpretation that Matthew offers in verses 36-43. It is one possible interpretation of the parable, but it is not the only one. Parables, by definition, resist having a rigid, unbending interpretation. What makes parables powerful is that they can never be fully solved. They gnaw at the mind. They mean different things at different times and in different situations. If they could be easily explained with one, never-changing interpretation, they would not be parables.

The kingdom of God is like a farmer who lets the weeds grow along with the wheat because to pull out the weeds might cause harm to the wheat. What does this mean?

The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is not pure. Mark and Luke talk about the kingdom of God, but Matthew doesn’t want to run the risk of using God’s name in vain, so instead he talks about the kingdom of heaven. He means the same thing by it, though. But Matthew’s language—the kingdom of heaven—gives the distinct impression of something other-worldly, something away and apart, something that is completely separated from the world. The kingdom of heaven sounds like white-robed angels and streets paved with gold. It sounds like the afterlife. It sounds like a place with no conflict, no change, no argument, no struggle, no pain.

But that is definitely not what Matthew’s Jesus is talking about when he talks about the kingdom of heaven. There is no doubt about it: the kingdom of heaven actually happens on earth. The kingdom of heaven is what happens when God’s rule encroaches on the rest of the world. As we’ll explore next week, the kingdom of heaven is insidious; it is always working its way through the world and popping up in unexpected places.

This parable reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is all mixed up with the evil of the world. They grow together. They are intermixed with each other. Sometimes they even look quite similar. Sometimes they can be hard to tell apart, hard to separate.

And that is the way we experience the kingdom of heaven. The joy of life is all mixed up with the pain of death. They cannot be separated. To lose one would be to lose the other. Without the pain of death, the joy of life has no meaning. And although we would rather weed out the pain of death, if we did, we would destroy the joy of life.

Likewise, good and evil grow up together. They are intertwined. The same hands that do good can also do evil. The same mouth that speaks blessing can also speak curses. The same heart that loves can also hate. We are such complex beings, and even when we try to do good, sometimes we fail. Sometimes, even, with the very best of intentions we try to do something good but it ends of causing more hurt.

Brown vs. the Board of Education, a landmark supreme court case. It recognized that in a segregated school system, the white schools always got more resources than the black schools. And so, in order to remedy that inequality, the court ruled for the desegregation of public schools. And yet, as a result, many black students found themselves getting a far worse education in a desegregated school in which they were systematically treated as inferior trespassers than they had in the segregated black schools where they had black teachers who cared about and understood them.

Good and evil mingled together. In fact, as C. S. Lewis argues, evil is not a force unto itself. Evil is a good that has been twisted. As in that field, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two until the fruit has actually started to appear.

The kingdom of heaven is not pure. We who would follow Jesus do not have the luxury of keeping our hands clean of the hurt and sin and death in our world. In fact, it is often in those places of pain and suffering where God’s presence is most powerfully felt. It is often in the places of evil and pain and death that the power of the kingdom of heaven is most efficacious. Christians are not immune to the hurt of the world. And if we really are following Jesus, we will find ourselves seeking out hurt in order to offer healing.

The hurt and the healing, the pain and the joy, the death and the life: they grow together. And we are not able to separate them. One day, God will sort everything out, but that is not something we need to be concerned with today. It is not our job to make those kinds of judgments. It is not our job to try to weed out the people that we don’t approve of, or even to weed out the experiences that we would rather avoid. We can’t. They grow together.

And in that, there is grace. God does not expect perfect automatons. God uses our faults to make us more empathetic. God uses our failures to give us wisdom. God uses our weakness to make us strong. And God is there in the midst of it all, amongst the wheat and the weeds alike, offering guidance, offering grace, offering love. Thanks be to God.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon!

Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection   Genesis 28:10-19a What are some of the places you found God where you didn’t expect?

++           Come celebrate the birthday of Blanche Donahue! This Friday, July 21st from Noon to 3pm in the FISH Community Room. No gifts please. For more info call Janice (Blanche’s daughter) at 541-279-5459.

++           Food on the 4th this Sunday. You may bring food items to donate to FISH Food Bank.

++           Our special giving on Sunday, July 30 will be for Peace with Justice Sunday. Equipping the church to do Justice in Jesus’ Name. Peace with Justice Giving.
In Arizona border towns, communities facing social challenges are dramatically divided. In Liberian villages, citizens’ human rights are being violated. In local U.S. communities, women and girls are being bought and sold against their will. Moved by Christ’s love to pursue reconciliation and peace, honoring the dignity of every individual made in God’s image, The United Methodist Church is unwilling to turn a blind eye to injustice.  Although you, and possibly even your congregation, may lack the resources alone to effect change in a broken world, your giving is vital for the UMC to continue its global ministries of reconciliation. Because of the Peace with Justice Sunday offering, the people of The United Methodist Church are able to make a difference together by sowing seeds—and yielding fruit!—of peace.

++           It’s time to send in news & information for our August newsletter.

 

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Indiscriminate Farmer

Sunday 16 July 2017
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15A

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

We spent the Fourth of July with my grandmother in Haines, Oregon, near Baker City. As we were driving out of town on the third, we knew we wanted to avoid Oak Street downtown, so we took State over to Highway 35 and down to the freeway. As we were on State Street, crossing 2nd, I happened to look down the hill, across the freeway bridge, to the waterfront. It was absolutely packed. Cars parked everywhere, pedestrians walking everywhere, surfboards covering the water and kites crowding the air.

I was reminded of that scene when I read the gospel lesson for this week. It starts with Jesus leaving his house in Capernaum to go and sit on the beach. But he is almost immediately thronged by crowds. They aren’t there for the wind and the water, though; they are there for Jesus. It becomes so overwhelming that Jesus decides he needs to get some space. So he climbs into a boat to put some distance between him and the crowd. Fortunately for Jesus, ancient Galilee didn’t have stand-up paddle boards, because then he never would have been able to get away.

Once Jesus gets some breathing room, he tells them a story. The Parable of the Sower, we usually call it. It appears in Mark, in Luke, and here in Matthew. And in all three of them, Jesus tells the parable, then discusses the purpose of parables with his disciples, and then gives a mini-sermon interpreting the parable. But scholars are nearly universally convinced that while the parable comes from Jesus, the interpretation in verses 18-23 was written later by someone else. And we actually have some good evidence for this. The Parable of the Sower appears in another ancient gospel, one that is as old or older than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but didn’t end up making it into our bibles. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells this same parable about a sower, and different kinds of soil, and a bountiful harvest, but it doesn’t include the later interpretation of verses 18-23.

All that is just to say that I want to spend more time on the first part of our gospel lesson today than on the second part. It is a perfectly good interpretation of the parable, but it is not the only one. In fact, parables are by nature difficult to interpret. They have several meanings and change over time and in different circumstances. The way we have it now, with the allegorical interpretation tacked on at the end, squeezes some of the life and mystery out of the story.

But back to the farmer. The farmer scatters seed on the ground. And there many different kinds of ground where the seed lands. Some lands on a path, some in rocky ground, some amongst weeds, and some in good soil.

Now, we don’t grow much wheat around here, but you don’t have to be an agricultural expert to notice that this seems like a very careless farmer. Why are they throwing seed around just any old place. If you’re going to plant something, you prepare the soil first. You weed, you till the soil, you add fertilizers, you plant carefully, you water. Sometimes you even start plants in a greenhouse to make sure that everything that makes it into the ground will have a good chance of growing. So what is this indiscriminate farmer doing, just throwing seed around any old place without any preparation or care? What a waste!

There a few different things going on here. First, farming technology has changed quite a lot in the last 2000 years. For one thing, they didn’t have chemical fertilizers. They couldn’t just run over to Good News Gardening for some Triple-16. They didn’t even know about the existence of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. So the sorts of soil amendments that gardeners take for granted today would have been impossible then.

Also, the standard practice at the time was to scatter seeds first and then plow them into the soil. So that may explain a bit of the farmers behavior. They don’t prepare the soil before seeding, they tend to do that afterward.

But even by the standards of the ancient world, this farmer’s actions would seem to be careless. A farmer would normally not try to plant seeds in a place where it would not grow. So why is this farmer planting on the path and on the rocks and among the weeds? What is going on here?

There are a couple of possible explanations. Maybe the farmer isn’t really as careless as Jesus implies. Maybe it’s just a little bit of seed that accidentally falls on the path and the rocks, but the vast majority of it actually falls on good soil. Perhaps, but then the parable seems to lose its meaning.

Or maybe the farmer is quite desperate. Maybe there is only a little bit of land, and there is no fertilizer, and so the farmer is willing to take a chance that the rocky soil will at least produce something. That might be getting closer, but it still doesn’t explain why the farmer doesn’t first tear out the thorn bushes and pick out the rocks to try to make the soil as fertile as possible before planting.

In truth, the logical reason that the farmer scatters seed everywhere is very simple: there is no logical reason. It doesn’t make sense. It would seem to be very inefficient. It could not be counted upon to maximize profit. It is indiscriminate. It is careless. It is even wasteful. There is no good reason why a farmer would do it.

And yet, in Jesus’s story, this farmer does. They throw seed everywhere, even places where they know it won’t grow. This farmer throws seed on good soil and poor soil alike.

And that is actually a surprisingly difficult message to deal with. Many of us like to be in more control than that. If I’m a gardener, I can do more than just till the soil and add fertilizer. I can run tests on the soil to determine its chemical profile, and then I can provide just the right soil amendment to make sure that the soil is exactly the way I want it to be for a particular plant. If I’m a parent, I can read all of the books and decide on the perfect parenting style, sign up for all of the best camps and classes, organize all of the correct extra-curricular activities to ensure that my child has the absolute best opportunity to succeed. If I’m a photographer, I can control the light to get the best picture. If I am an engineer, I can check systems for inefficiencies and make my products more and more effective.

I can systematically control my diet to make sure that I am healthy, and if it doesn’t work, I can change to another diet that promises better results. I can choose my clothes so that I am making the precise fashion statement that I want to make. I can cultivate just the right online presence so that the world sees just the version of me I want them to see. I can spend hours online researching just exactly the right kind of backpack that I want, or exactly the right phone case, or exactly the right pair of toenail clippers. I can choose the town that I live in, the people I spend time with, the clubs I join, the jobs I apply for, the car I drive, the companies I invest in, the doctor I see, the grocery store I shop in, the flavor of ice cream I eat, the place I go on vacation, the books I read, the television I watch, even the news that I get. I can control it all.

And here we have a parable about a farmer who doesn’t try to control anything. The seed just goes everywhere. God’s word of good news just goes everywhere. The invitation to repentance and renewed relationship with God just goes everywhere. Grace just goes everywhere. It even goes to the people who don’t deserve it. It even goes to the people who haven’t asked for it. It even goes to the people who are looked down upon. It just goes everywhere, with no thought for what might be wasted.

Because, of course, we don’t always get to control how our actions actually play out in the world. The teacher doesn’t get to choose which students they will inspire on any particular day. The nurse doesn’t get to choose which patients will actually be compliant with their treatment plan. The orchardist doesn’t get to choose which year will produce the bumper crop. The mechanic doesn’t get to choose which cars will go 100,000 miles without an accident. We don’t have control over everything.

And I think the Parable of the Sower invites us to embrace that lack of control with a spirit of abundance. If you don’t know which student you’re going to reach today, you’d better give your best effort to all of them, even the ones who seem hopeless. This might be the day when things finally click and they get it. If you don’t know which patient is going to follow through, you’d better give your best to each of them, even the ones who have been incompliant before. This might be the time they turn things around.

Sometimes we don’t know where the good soil is ahead of time. Sometimes we can’t tell in advance which of our ideas is actually going to be fruitful, is actually going to make a difference. Sometimes we don’t know which stranger we meet will end up being one of our closest friends.

And if we don’t know those things for ourselves, how can we know them for God? Sometimes we think we can. We think we can look at someone and tell whether they are honest or not, whether they are responsible or not, whether they would be receptive to us or not. And then we decide that some people really aren’t worth our effort. They’d only waste it. They really don’t need it. They’d never listen to me. People like that are really hopeless anyway. I don’t want to plant my seed here; it might be too rocky.

And when we think like that, we deny God the chance to act. If we don’t try to be welcoming because we are afraid of rejection, we deny God the chance to build a lasting and meaningful relationship. If we fail to try because we are afraid of failure, then we deny God the chance to do something remarkable with us. If we don’t speak up because we are afraid of being laughed at, then we deny God the chance to say something profound through us. If we don’t plant our seed because we are afraid it won’t land on good soil, we deny God the chance to bring abundant life.

Jesus says that even though the farmer threw seed extravagantly, without concern for where it might fall, the harvest was amazingly productive. One hundred to one, sixty to one, thirty to one. Scholars think that the average Palestinian farmer could only expect a harvest of five to one. And yet this wasteful, indiscriminate farmer had a yield of one hundred to one.

Being kind is never a waste, even if sometimes your kindness is not appreciated. Welcoming is never a waste, even if sometimes people don’t come back. Prayer is never a waste, even if sometimes they don’t seem to be answered. Sharing your insight is never a waste, even if you sometimes get it wrong. Loving is never a waste, even if sometimes it doesn’t seem to be returned.

We do these things not knowing what their effect will be. Sometimes we hear years later that something we did, something we said had a profound impact on someone. Most of the time, though, we never know for sure. But we are invited to give anyway, to give abundantly. We are invited to share our hope, our forgiveness, our empathy, our passion, our talents, our love, to give our best, just as God does, with a wild abandon, knowing that whether we see it or not, God will bring about an abundant harvest. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Law and Grace

Sunday 2 July 2017
The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14A

Romans 6:12-23

The Epistle to the Romans, generally considered the greatest of the letters of the Apostle Paul, has often been interpreted to say that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed salvation history forever, abolishing the old covenant with the Jews, the covenant of the Law, which was guided by the laws Moses received on Mount Sinai, and establishing the new covenant of grace, in which anyone who believes in Jesus need not bother with any rules or regulations, because they are saved by grace, not by the law. Some reformed theologians were eager to denigrate the law at every opportunity and to promote the doctrine of sola fide, faith alone. They took this idea to the extreme, arguing that everything to do with the so-called old covenant was completely bankrupt, that the new covenant in Jesus Christ had virtually nothing to do with the old. They were also so interested in promoting the doctrine of faith alone that they were exceedingly suspicious of good works, believing that performing them could lead to works-righteousness, the idea that doing some sort of work or deed could bring someone some sort of righteousness or salvation. They argued that all Christians were completely free from the law, that there was no obligation to act with justice and righteousness.

This line of thinking draws from Martin Luther. He wasn’t that extreme, but his theology was later developed into anti-works program. It’s just that he was so obsessed with the idea that salvation came through grace and not through works, that the weight of his argument always seemed to stack up against good works. He was right, and he was making a much needed point for the time. But as time went on, the argument got more one-sided, suggesting that works were never a good thing. And that is the way Luther’s theology has often been interpreted since then. There are entire segments of Protestant Christianity that are suspicious of ever performing good works because to do so might cause one to forget that salvation comes by faith. It has led many to believe that Christianity is only about belief, that it is not about action at all. Under this view, all a Christian needs to do is to say that they believe in Jesus, that their sins are forgiven, and that is the end of the story. Nothing else left to do except wait for the end of the world. We’ve already been assured of salvation, so no need to do anything else in the mean time

And it’s true, Paul does say that those who are in Christ are not under the law, but instead are under grace. He thought that Gentiles, peoples new to the family of God, had racked up so much sin over the generations that they could never hope to work it all off using the normal means that were prescribed in the Law of Moses. God knew this, and so God devised a new and special way that Gentiles could become justified and become part of the family of God. He sent Jesus, who through his faithfulness was able to justify even the hopelessly sinful Gentiles. Thus, Gentiles would be saved through faith: the faith that Jesus had shown through his life, death, and resurrection. It was not by works of the law that Gentiles were justified, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.

But that did not mean that the Christian journey was over once a Christian accepted justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith, for Paul, was not just about securing eternal salvation. Faith was about a continuing relationship with God that would lead not just to justification, but to sanctification. It was not just about being made blameless before God in some technical sense, it was about the work of the Holy Spirit within each believer to make their lives ever more holy, ever more righteous, ever more sanctified.

“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” he asks, a bit sarcastically. And without even a beat, he answers his own question. “By no means!” Absolutely not! If you think that sinning doesn’t matter once you have received the grace of God in Jesus, then you have completely missed the point.

Instead of talking about Christian faith as a ticket to heaven, a get-out-of-hell-free card, Paul uses a very different metaphor, the metaphor of slavery. The way he sees it, everyone is going to be a slave, one way or another. There’s no way of getting around it. Everyone is a slave. The only question is, who’s slave are you? Who is your master?

The way Paul figures it, his new Gentile converts had previously been slaves to sin. The choices they made, the actions they took, the ways that they lived all showed that sin was their true master. Whatever it was they were doing—worshipping idols, cheating their neighbors, straying from their marriages, neglecting the poor—it all added up to doing the work of sin. Sin set the agenda, and they followed sin’s orders. And, as Paul warns them, the wages of sin is death. If they keep on following sin’s commands, sin will pay them just exactly what they have earned for all of their faithful obedient service on sin’s behalf, that is, death.

In order to be free from sin, the answer is not to simply become some sort of free agent, able to do whatever it is that they want. That is simply impossible under Paul’s conception of the world. People cannot become free unto themselves. In order to become free from slavery to sin, they must become slaves of a new master. They must become slaves of obedience, slaves of righteousness.

To become slaves of righteousness, they will need to do the things that righteousness commands. They will need to love their neighbors and their enemies, they will need to deal justly and peaceably, they will need to be faithful to their promises, they will need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, set the oppressed free. And if they follow these commands, if they do all of the work that righteousness sets for them to do, then they will receive the wages for their work, they will receive sanctification.

The idea of sanctification was especially important to the founder of the Methodist Movement, John Wesley. Many of his contemporaries were interested only in justification, only in the process of achieving salvation. Wesley, though, understood that the journey of faith did not stop the moment that someone accepts Jesus Christ into their heart. Having received the assurance of salvation, the Christian believer then begins the process of sanctification. Sanctification means the process of being made more holy. Wesley believed that after believers had accepted Jesus, the Holy Spirit would work within them, molding them, directing their actions and motivations, making them progressively more and more holy, more and more righteous, more and more the disciples that God wanted them to be. That is the process of sanctification. Wesley thought that if this process were allowed to continue, that believers would eventually “go on to perfection,” and that they could achieve perfection in this life. He meant that those who had entered a state of perfection would not purposefully sin. He did not think that he had achieved perfection himself, but he thought he knew some people who had, and he thought that it should be the goal of every Christian to strive for perfection, following Jesus’ command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Wesley did not believe that this sanctification, that this striving for perfection, was what earned a Christian salvation. Neither did Paul or Luther, for that matter. What they all seem to have believed is that once a Christian had received forgiveness and salvation as a free gift from God, that in response to that free gift they would do the works of God, not in order to earn salvation, but in gratitude for the salvation they had already received. Thus, they would become slaves of righteousness, devoting their entire selves to the work of God in the world. And, in fact, they understood that these good works were themselves a gift of God. It is God’s Spirit, by grace, that does good works in us. Justification is from God by grace alone, and also sanctification is from God by grace alone.

Paul has a clever line in verse 20, when he says, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” Those who are slaves from sin are free from righteousness. It’s sort of a backhanded way of making his point that all people are slaves either to sin or to righteousness. Those who are slaves to sin can celebrate that they are free from righteousness. But that isn’t really a celebration at all, is it? Conversely, those who are slaves to righteousness should be able to celebrate that they are free from sin. Wesley comments on this verse in Paul, saying, “In all reason, therefore, ye ought now to be free from unrighteousness; to be as uniform and zealous in serving God as ye were in serving the devil.”

God offers us salvation as a free gift of grace. But our accepting that gift has a consequence. When we accept God’s grace to us in the faith of Jesus Christ, we also accept God’s continuing claim on our lives. In being freed from sin and death, we are made slaves of righteousness, but slaves who work joyfully for our just and beloved master. To simply rest on our laurels is to waste God’s gift, and it is to resist the ongoing work of God’s grace in our lives. God calls us to something more than just salvation. God calls us to discipleship. God calls us to follow the example that he has set for us in Jesus. God calls us to serve faithfully, and through our service to be transformed, so that we no longer work for sin and its wages of death, but that we work for righteousness, in the gift of eternal life.

Sermon: If We Died with Christ

Sunday 25 June 2017
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13A

Romans 6:1b-11

Just over a week ago, United Methodists from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska gathered in Portland for an Annual Conference, the Methodist equivalent of a Lutheran Synod Assembly. I always think the highlight of Annual Conference is the commissioning and ordination worship service.

There’s nothing quite like it in the Lutheran tradition. Prospective Lutheran pastors, once they have finished seminary, wait for a call to a congregation or other ministry. If they don’t receive a call, they can’t be ordained. If they do receive a call, then they are usually ordained by a bishop all by themselves.

But for Methodist clergy, it’s a little different. Prospective clergy persons are first reviewed by their home congregations, then by their districts, and then by the annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry to determine their fitness for ministry. If they have managed to pass through all those levels of review, once they have finished seminary, they come to Annual Conference. There is one last level of review: the Clergy Session, a meeting of all of the clergy of the conference. If the candidate passes, then they move ahead to be commissioned. Commissioning is kind of like a provisional ordination. The person becomes clergy, at least temporarily. Once they have proved themselves for at least three years in ministry, they go before the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Clergy Session again before being ordained elder or deacon in full connection.

So at the beginning of every annual conference, these candidates face the Clergy Session, not knowing for sure if they will pass. But if they do, then a few days later they are commissioned or ordained. All of them are commissioned and ordained at the same worship service. Nearly every United Methodist clergy person is commissioned and ordained in June at a regional gathering of the church, not in a local congregation. This year we commissioned 14 provisional members and ordained 2 elders and 1 deacon in a joint meeting of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and the Alaska Missionary Conference.

It is always an exciting worship service to be at, with all of the clergy and many of the laity of the conference gathered together to affirm God’s call to ministry. For me, it was especially exciting this year. Alyssa Baker, who has been the pastoral intern at the United Methodist Church in The Dalles this year became Rev. Alyssa Baker as she was commissioned a provisional elder. She will be serving Keizer Clearlake United Methodist starting on July 1. And someone you know, Rev. Jill Plant from Madras, who has preached here and whom I’ve been mentoring for the last three years, was ordained a deacon in full connection. I was honored to be the one to place the stole over her neck.

The task of preaching at the service fell to Rev. Jeremy Smith, Associate Pastor at Portland First, who starting July 1 will be Senior Pastor at Seattle First. Some of you may know him from his popular and influential blog, Hacking Christianity. At one point in the sermon, Jeremy recalled the words of the pastor who had preached at his own commissioning service. He said, “This is not a kind thing we are doing to you.” This is not a kind thing we are doing to you. “He talked about the cost of discipleship and the way that r-e-v in front of your name sticks with you no matter where you are, and that you are afflicted with the awareness of the call of God on your life…. It is not a kind thing, but it is enough for all that is ahead of you.”

It is not a kind thing we are doing to you. Those words came back to me this week as I was preparing for the sermon, as I was reading through the sixth chapter of Romans.

Romans is considered by many to be the Apostle Paul’s masterpiece. Most of Paul’s letters are written to address the particular concerns within particular community of Christians at a particular time. When we read them, we are reading other people’s mail. And sometimes some of the things Paul writes don’t apply well to us in our particular time and place. But Romans is the closest Paul gets to a systematic theology. Paul is writing to a community that is not his own, trying to lay out for them the heart of his theology.

Martin Luther was a particular fan of Romans. You remember his axioms: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia—by scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. Sola scriptura means that scripture must be the ultimate ruler by which all doctrines are measured. Sola fide and sola gratia both come from Romans. From Paul in general, but most clearly stated in Romans.

Faith alone is the teaching that justification is received by faith alone, without any need for good works on the part of the believer. Grace alone is the teaching that salvation comes by divine grace only, not as something that is merited or earned by the sinner.

Paul is in the middle of his argument about justification by grace through faith when we pick up with our reading today. And he starts off by quoting an imaginary opponent. Paul had just said, “Where sin increased, grace multiplied even more.” And that’s when Paul’s imaginary opponent chimes in, “What then, should we continue sinning so grace will multiply?” You can tell the question is a bit sarcastic. Paul has been saying that no matter how much sin there is, there is always more of God’s grace. When there is more sin, then there is an even greater increase in grace. And so Paul’s opponent says, Well by that logic, we should all start sinning more. If we sin more, then God will be forced to produce more grace, and more grace is a good thing. If we don’t sin more, then we aren’t giving God the opportunity to offer more grace. That’s ridiculous, Paul says, and he begins the argument we have to deal with today, the argument about death to sin.

Here it goes. Christ Jesus, even though he was without sin, took on our sin. He became like a slave to sin. But then he died. And when he died, the claim that sin had over him ended, like a slave contract. Once he was dead, the slavery was broken. And then, Jesus was raised from the dead, which broke the power of sin and the power of death. Having been raised from the dead, he could never die again. Death didn’t exert any authority over him anymore.

Well, that is all very well and good for Jesus, but what does it have to do with us? Jesus is no longer a slave to sin, but that doesn’t say anything about our condition.

Here’s how Paul explains it. God’s saving power works through baptism. Paul says, when we were baptized, we died along with Christ. Through baptism, we die. That sounds rather strange. After all, we usually associate baptism with birth, not with death. It’s babies that we baptize most of the time, not hospice patients. How can baptism be death?

We have to imagine a full immersion baptism in order to understand the theology. In baptism, a person is plunged under the water. It is as if they died, as if they were drowned. In fact, the oldest surviving Christian baptismal font, from Dura-Europos in Syria, is shaped like a coffin. And as the initiate approaches it, they walk along a fresco of three women approaching Jesus’s tomb. In baptism, the new Christian dies, dies along with Christ, shares in Christ’s death.

That’s part of the reason those words from conference came back to me. This is not a kind thing we do to you. So also, bringing someone to baptism, as if bringing them to die—that does not seem like a very kind thing to do, either.

But it is through that participation in Christ’s death that we die to sin. We were ruled and owned by sin, but by dying with Christ, through baptism, we die to sin. The slave contract is broken. We are freed.

But, Paul says, if we die along with Christ in baptism, we are also brought back to life with Christ. We participate not only in the crucifixion; we participate in the resurrection. As we emerge from the water, we are brought to new life, as if being born again.

And of course that is a wondrously joyful thing. Of course that is reason for exceeding celebration. It is the very heart of our faith. It is the promise of God’s grace.

And at the same time, it is not an entirely kind thing. Ordination marks one out as different, having to live to a different standard. And that distinction was particularly noticeable when most Christians lived in mostly Christian communities. Everyone was baptized, but only some were ordained.

That is not the world we live in now. Most are not baptized. Baptism marks us all out as different, as strange.

And in fact, that brings us much closer to the early church and to the historical understanding of baptism. It is a key feature of both Lutheran and Methodist theology. The priesthood of all believers. The ministry of all Christians. We affirm that every baptized Christian is set apart for service to God. We affirm it in our baptismal vows. In accepting our baptism, we accept the call that God places on our lives. We cannot escape the identity of servant of God.

This is not a kind thing we are doing to you. There is a cost of discipleship. There is a way that name, Christian, sticks with you no matter where you are. There is a way that you are afflicted with the awareness of the call of God on your life. A call that will not let you go. It is not a kind thing, but it is enough for all that is ahead of you.

Through baptism we participate in Christ’s death. Through baptism we are born into Christ’s resurrection. And so, as Paul says, we also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. And that is what carries us through. That is what allows us to walk ahead in faith, to put our beliefs into practice in the world. That is what empowers us to live as we are, as Christians, with all that that means. It may not be a kind thing, but it is enough. It is enough for all that is ahead of us.

Sermon: Sarah Laughs

Sunday 18 June 2017
The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18:1-15
Genesis 21:1-7

Sarah has had a long and difficult time of things. She has been married to Abraham for quite some time now, and he has dragged her all over the known world with him, thousands of miles, far from home and family. Once, when there was a famine, he took her with him to Egypt, where the Nile ensured there still was food. But Abraham forced Sarah to say that she was his sister, not his wife. And because of that, Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s harem and Abraham received a huge dowry for her. If God had not cursed Pharaoh, Abraham might have left her there. But as it was, they left Egypt together, along with the dowry Abraham had gotten for her. That is how he started his fortune.

Time went on, and though Abraham and Sarah were trying, she did not become pregnant. Issues of fertility can be extremely emotional. It can bring up questions of worthiness, fairness, faith in God, faith in each other. In the ancient Middle East, if anything, it was even more difficult. Women were seen as property and their worth was determined by their ability to produce a male child, an heir. Failure to do so was a great shame. And to make matters worse, Abraham kept telling Sarah that God had promised that he would be the father of a great nation, that he would have more children than the stars in heaven or the sand of the seashore. No pressure, though.

By the time she was about 75, Sarah had had enough. Enough of the shame and unmet expectations. Enough of God’s promises that never came to be. She had a slave girl named Hagar. Hagar had been a part of that enormous dowry that Abraham had gotten from Pharaoh in exchange for her. And she was so tired of not measuring up to expectations, so tired of not being able to give Abraham what he wanted that, in her desperation, she told Abraham to have a child with Hagar.

And what seemed like a good idea in that moment of desperation turned out to be a whole new mess. When Hagar had Ishmael, everything turned into a soap opera, a telenovela, a reality show: The Real Housewives of Ancient Palestine. It did not turn out well. Sarah became jealous and abusive. Abraham became distant, refusing to take responsibility. Hagar suffered alone.

It is 15 years later now. Sarah is 90 years old. She has long given up her dream of ever having children, biological or otherwise. She has given up on ever being close to Abraham. After all, he already has the son that he wants. No, Sarah has gotten used to the idea that she is irrelevant, useless, just waiting to die. There is nothing left for her.

So when those three visitors show up, and Abraham asks her to prepare a feast, she does it, in the same way she always has, from the seclusion of the tent. What else is there for her but to keep kneading bread until her arthritic fingers finally give out?

And when she overhears one of those strange visitors telling Abraham that the two of them are going to have a child in the next year, what else can she do but laugh? Sarah laughs. If for no other reason than that she has been past menopause for decades now. We have quite a few ladies in the congregation who are at or near 90 years old.. I’m guessing that it’s been a while since any of them have tried on maternity clothes. So after all of these years of trying, of praying, of hoping against hope, now after it has become impossible, someone she doesn’t even know tells her that she’s going to give birth to a child. I would say that laughter was a rather gracious response on Sarah’s part.

I just returned last night from a gathering of United Methodists. It was the clergy and lay representatives of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference meeting along with the clergy and laity of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. There were even several representatives from the Alaska Missionary Conference. United Methodists from all over Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, coming together for our annual gathering. It is a time to celebrate the joys of ministry in our various places, a time to reconnect with old friends, a time to struggle with the important issues facing our society right now, a time to do the administrative work of the church.

Each year, we hold a memorial service at Annual Conference. We remember the clergy and clergy spouses who have died in the last year. This year we memorialized 25 clergy persons and 16 clergy spouses.

But we also memorialized ten churches that have closed or been discontinued in the last year. Clatskanie, Fern Hill in Tacoma, Grace in Walla Walla, Jason Lee in Salem, Korean in Olympia, Rocklyn Zion in Davenport, Spirit of Grace in Everett, Whitebird, East Anchorage, and Pine Grove-Odell. There were United Methodist congregations in all of those places a year ago, but not now.

It’s not just The United Methodist Church. Every year the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America closes congregations. Every year Presbyterian churches close, along with Episcopal churches, Disciples, UCC… I could go on. We might be tempted to call it a crisis, except that it isn’t anymore. Now it is normal. Church decline has been the norm for my entire lifetime.

Some of you have longer memories than me. Some of you can remember when church was at the very center of the community, when people’s social lives revolved around church. Some of you can remember when church was the place to see and be seen. Some of you can remember when every church was wondering how it was going to manage to build a new sanctuary big enough to house all of the new people who were showing up for worship. Now most churches are wondering how they can manage to keep up with the routine maintenance on buildings that are much too large for the current congregation.

And so it’s no wonder that so many Christians feel like Sarah. It’s easy to start thinking of ourselves as a dying church. It’s tempting to just settle in for the decline and the inevitable closures that must be coming sooner or later. We start to feel like Sarah, who was once a queen of Egypt and now feels rejected, abandoned, and worthless, just waiting for time to pass us by. It will never be like it used to be. And sometimes we feel so withered that it is hard to imagine hope for the future.

That’s not just a church thing, either. There are other big societal issues that can leave us feeling hopeless. A changing economy in which it is hard to feel any sense of certainty or security. The grinding pain of never-ending wars. The escalating political polarization in our country—I was preaching about it 11 years ago when I was commissioned for ordained ministry, and it just seems to be getting worse and worse. The ever-growing threat of climate change and our reluctance to take it seriously. Immigration, inequality, refugees, housing markets, education funding, health care, racism, sexism, prejudice… It can become overwhelming. It can be hard to have hope.

If someone were to suggest that we could give birth to something new, beautiful, liberative, transformative, healing, wouldn’t we be tempted to laugh? If one of God’s messengers told us that we were going to be the mother of a great movement that would bless all people, wouldn’t that deserve a chuckle?

It’s interesting to see how God deals with Sarah’s laughter. If you look closely, you’ll notice that there is no condemnation.  Remember, Sarah had only laughed quietly to herself, but God must have been listening to her soul, because the messenger let’s everyone know that Sarah’s laughter has been perceived. Sarah is frightened, and quite rightly so. It’s more than a little disconcerting to come across someone who can look into your soul like that. And so she lies. She denies that she laughed. But God simply says, “No, you laughed.”  No harsh words, just an honest statement of God’s awareness of her shock and surprise. And God says, “Is anything impossible for me?”

Is anything impossible for God? Sarah’s doubts were entirely reasonable, entirely justified, and yet ultimately unnecessary. A year later, at 90 years old, for the first time, Sarah gave birth to a child.  Sarah, the old woman who had pretty much given up on life, who had resigned herself to her unhappy and fading existence, who was just waiting to die and be forgotten—Sarah gave birth to a child.

And do you know what she named him? She named him Isaac. In Hebrew it means “he laughs.” And she said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” God turned her laughs of disbelief into laughs of joy; and Sarah laughed at the incredibility and absurdity of what God’s grace had done.

When someone first suggested that Our Redeemer Lutheran and Asbury United Methodist could come together and form one congregation, there were a variety of reactions. One of the more generous reactions was laughter. Okay. That seems impossible, but let’s give it a try. When someone suggested that we could raise the money and build a million-dollar food bank on the property, there were a variety of reactions. One of the more generous reactions was laughter. Okay, that seems impossible, but let’s give it a try. And yet, God turned that laughter of incredulity into laughter of joy.

Right now, we are listening for what God has in store for us next. If God is anything like the God we have come to know, it will probably be something that sounds just as absurd as a congregation that relates to two different denominations, or a church that gives over it’s land for a community food bank, or a 90-year-old woman giving birth to a child.

And it makes me wonder. I wonder if when we are visited by God’s messengers, and when they tell us that we are going to give birth to something new, that we will be the mothers of something that will be a blessing for the world, I wonder if when we are offered that kind of absurd news if we will have the grace that Sarah had, not to resist, not to deny, not to despair, not to give up, but simply to laugh… to laugh with Sarah at the absolute absurdity of God’s miraculous and surprising plans for us? I wonder if we will be able to carry on and see to what kinds of unbelievable places God will lead us? I wonder if we will be able to laugh with God until God turns our laughter of disbelief into laughter of pure and inexplicable joy at what God has done in, and with, and through us?

Are we ready to have God create something new in us? Are we ready to let God make a way where there is no way? Are we ready to hear those words, “Is anything impossible for God?”

Sermon: Seven Days

Sunday 11 June 2017
Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

seahorse

This morning we are reading the creation story. Seven days. God speaks, and it becomes so.

But in fact, this is not the creation story. This is only one of many different creation stories in the bible. There are even two different creation stories in just the first two chapters of genesis. This is the first one. The second one starts right after it, the one that features Adam and Eve.

If you read them literally, they are incompatible with each other. In the Adam and Eve story, God forms Adam out of the ground. Then God plants a garden and puts Adam in it. Then God starts forming other animals out of the ground, to make a companion for Adam, but none of them are right. Finally, God forms Eve out of Adam’s rib.

In the ‘let there be light’ creation story, God doesn’t form anything out of the ground. God speaks things into existence. And the order of creation is different. In Eden, it’s Adam, plants, animals, Eve. In the ‘let there be light’ story, it’s plants, animals, then human beings, both male and female at the same time, as the crowning work of creation. The two stories cannot be reconciled with each other. They describe God’s work very differently, and they characterize God very differently.

But there aren’t just these two creation stories in the bible. There are, in fact, dozens of them. Psalm 33 talks about how God “gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle and put the deeps in storehouses.” In Psalm 104, the psalmist says to God, “You stretched out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters… You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.” Jeremiah 10 says, “God made the earth by his might; he shaped the world by his wisdom, crafted the skies by his knowledge. At the sound of his voice, the heavenly waters roar. He raises the clouds from the ends of the earth. He sends the lightning with the rain, he releases wind from his treasuries.” Isaiah 40 talks about God’s creation in the form of questions: “Who has measured the waters in the palm of his hand or gauged off the heavens with a ruler or scooped the earth’s dust up in a measuring cup or weighed the mountains on a scale and the hills in a balance?” Five chapters later, God says, “Are you questioning me about my own children? Are you telling me what to do with the work of my hands? I myself made the earth, and created humans upon it. My own hand stretched out the heavens. I commanded all their forces.” Job 26 says, “God stretched the North over chaos, hung earth over nothing; wrapped up water in his clouds, yet they didn’t burst out below; hid the face of the full moon, spreading his cloud over it; traced a circle on the water’s surface, at the limit of light and darkness. Two chapters later, it says, “When God gave the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when God made a path for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw wisdom and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.” In Job 38, God’s asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars san in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” In Proverbs 8, lady wisdom declares, “I was there when God established the heavens, when he marked out the horizon of the deep sea, when he thickened the clouds above, when he secured the fountains of the deep, when he set a limit for the sea, so the water couldn’t go beyond his command, when he marked out the earth’s foundations. I was beside him as a master of crafts.” Even the New Testament has creation stories, like John 1: “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.”

There are some common themes the go through many of these stories. Many of them imagine God as some kind of architect or construction worker. Some describe God as a tent maker. Some even describe God as a cook. Some describe God being assisted by other beings. Some tell how God sets boundaries. Some even describe God creating by conquering the forces of chaos, as in Psalm 74: “God, You split the sea with your power. You shattered the heads of the sea monsters on the water. You crushed Leviathan’s heads. You gave it to the desert dwellers for food!”

All of these stories tell us something about God’s creation, about the relationships between God and humans and the rest of the created world. They are different, though. There is no way to harmonize them all into one seamless story. They come from different sources and have different understandings of God.

And of course, none of them are scientific descriptions of creation. They were never meant to be. Humans didn’t even start thinking scientifically until more than a millennia after the most recent writings in the bible. They are not really meant to answer the question, “How did God make the universe?” They are meant to address questions like, “Why did God make the universe?” “What is the significance of God’s creation?” “How are we as humans related to the rest of creation and to God, the creator?”

With all that being said, what does this story from Genesis 1 have to tell us about these questions. It is not the oldest creation story in the bible, but it is the one that appears first in the edition of the bible we now have. What is interesting about its unique telling of the story of the origins of the world?

The first thing to notice is that God’s creation is all about life. Nothing is said about mountains or valleys or even rivers. Everything in God’s creation is something that is alive or something that is directly related to supporting life.

Did you notice how many times seeds are mentioned in this passage? “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seed and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it.” There is something mystical, something magical about being able to take an inert seed, put it in the ground, and have a living thing emerge. That is something that can only be explained by the action of God.

And it’s the same with all of the animals. God tells them to be fertile and multiply. It’s all about the generation and regeneration of life.

Things like the sun and moon and stars—we don’t think of them as being alive—but the ancients did. Those were living beings. And God says in Genesis 1 that their purpose is to mark out seasons and festivals. Times for planting and harvesting and celebrating. They are alive and they contribute to the continuance of life.

Another thing that is important in Genesis 1 is order. God is constantly bringing order out of chaos. It’s almost as if God suffers from OCD. God separates light from darkness, makes sure that they stay in their places. God separates the heavenly waters from the subterranean waters, keeps them apart. God separates the water from the land, makes sure everything is where its supposed to be. God makes order out of chaos.

And that’s because order is needed to allow for life, at least human life. If the world is a constant thunderstorm, a constant tsunami, a constant hurricane, or a constant drought, then life can’t flourish. Things need to be in their place if life, particularly human civilization, is going to grow. And so God brings order out of chaos.

Another thing to notice is that everything in God’s creation is good. This story doesn’t explain the existence of evil. It explains the existence of life. And life, in all of its many shapes and forms, is good. God makes it, and God declares it good.

Which brings us to human life, and our role in creation. Humans are made as the capstone of creation. And we are made in a special way and for a special purpose. We are made in order to tend creation on God’s behalf. We are made to look after the created world in the way that God would.

And in order to be able to do that, we have to be made in the image and likeness of God. “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

All humans are made in God’s image. People of every sex and gender and orientation. People of every skin tone and every national origin. People of every language and ethnicity. All are created in the image and likeness of God. All are needed in order to tend the earth. All are blessed by God. All are commanded, “Be fruitful and multiply.” There are no distinctions here. None are excluded. None are placed above or ahead of anyone else. Every person is marked with the same core identity. Every person is made in the image of God. And when God sees that great diversity, God does not just call it good, God calls it very good, exceedingly good, supremely good.

This is a famous passage of scripture. It’s even famous to people who aren’t Jews or Christians. It’s famous in large part because of the political controversy that surrounds it. In the modern world, real truth is defined as scientific truth. And so, in the face of that, Creationists, knowing that the bible must be true, began to insist that the bible must be science. And so, we end up being faced with questions like, “Is the bible true, or is science true?” “Do you believe in science, or do you believe in the bible?” “Do you believe in Genesis, or do you believe in the Big Bang?”

Every one of these questions is a false dichotomy. It’s like asking “Do you believe in history or in poetry?” “Do you believe in technical manuals or in music?” Those are absurd questions. History books are not trying to do the same thing as poetry, even if they are written on the same topic. The technical manual for this keyboard is not trying to do the same thing that the music that comes from it is trying to do. Creation stories from the bible are not trying to do the same thing that scientific theories are trying to do.

The bible does not care in the least how old the universe is. Genesis 1 doesn’t say the earth was made in six days because it is trying to give an accurate measure of the time involved. How could it? The sun and moon aren’t even created until day four. Genesis 1 says the world was created in six days because it wants to teach a lesson about keeping the sabbath. It wants to say that even God rests from work on the seventh day.

Likewise, the bible does not care about how the universe was made. It uses metaphors to talk about why the universe was made, what the significance of the universe is. Did God stretch out the sky like a tent or did God hammer out the sky like a giant metal bowl? The bible says both. Did God measure out the boundaries of the sea with a ruler, or did conquer the sea like a warrior fighting a sea monster? The bible says both. Did God create humans before animals or animals before humans. The bible says both. These are not the questions the bible is asking.

Why did God make the world? In order to nurture life. Why did God create humanity? In order to bridge the gap between God and the rest of creation, in order to tend the world on God’s behalf. How are humans related to God? We are made in the image of God as God’s own children. What does God think of the world? God declares that the world is good. These are the questions of significance, the questions of meaning, the questions the bible is addressing.

Is the bible scientific? No, it most certainly is not. Is the bible true? Yes, most definitely it is. It is as true as the seed that sprouts new life. It is as true as the fish that fill the sea and the birds that fill the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth. It is as true as the poetry that changes our consciousness, as true as the music that lifts our hearts. It is as true as the love a parent has for a child. It is as true as the life God has given us, as true as the love God has for us, as true as the dreams God plants in our hearts. It is as true as our joy, as true as our pain, as true as our care for one another.

Do you believe in science or in the bible? I reject the premise of the question. Science can explain how things work, how chemicals interact, how long it takes for light to get from the sun to our eyes. But it cannot explain who you are. You are a beloved child, made in the image of God, placed here as part of God’s family in order to live and to love. And that is the truth.