Sermon: Faithful Women

Sunday 27 August 2017
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21A

Exodus 1:8-2:10

wading-in-the-water-from-adamBack when I was in college, there was a popular t-shirt slogan. I still see it around from time to time. “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” We know, of course, that women of all persuasions have been tremendously important to history. However, overwhelmingly, the histories that survive have been written by men, men who either did not know the stories of women or who actively suppressed them. And for that reason, we are left with a terribly slanted, incomplete accounting of things. Women and their important acts have been, for the most part, left out. Or, when they have been included, they have been so marginalized as to make them utterly forgettable. The Bible is no exception to this systematic suppression of women’s voices, and it is a shame that so much of the story of our faith has been lost to history.

From time to time, the stories of faithful women beat the odds and make it onto the pages of the Bible, though probably still in a muted form. We are lucky to have one of those instances today. This lesson from the Book of Exodus tells the story of not just one faithful woman, but five of them, who together participated in a criminal conspiracy to save the life of a baby who would later become the liberator of the people of Israel. Without them, there is no Moses. Without them, there is no Exodus. Without them, there is no nation of Israel.

It happened in Egypt. After Joseph had forgiven his brothers for selling him into slavery, and after he had saved them from the great famine, his father, Israel, and all of their family settled in Egypt under Pharaoh’s protection. But after a time, they were no longer invited guests, but servants. And after even more time, they were slaves. And, as Exodus tells us, after about 400 years, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” And as he saw it, the people of Israel living in Egypt had become a threat to the security of his nation. He declares them to be dangerous illegal immigrants, and he decides to beat them down by working them to death. He sets them to hard labor, and they build for him the spectacular treasure cities of Pithom and Rameses. But Pharaoh’s plan doesn’t work. The more Pharaoh oppresses the Hebrew people, the more they multiply and become strong. He keeps working them harder and harder, but they only become stronger and more numerous.

So, eventually Pharaoh comes up with a new plan. He calls the first two faithful women of our story to come before him. He calls Shiphrah and Puah, whom are told are the midwives of the Hebrews. They are rather interesting characters in this story. One interesting detail is that we have their names. You may have noticed that apart from Moses, none of the other characters in the story are given names in today’s passage, and that includes Pharaoh and his daughter. But these two Hebrew midwives are given names. Shiphrah is a Hebrew name that means beautiful. Puah, is a Canaanite name that means little girl. It is unreasonable to think that two women could have done all of the midwifing for the Hebrew people, but they can stand as representative of the others who must have shared the role.

In any case, Pharaoh gives Shiphrah and Puah strict orders that when they attend the Hebrew women giving birth, if a girl is born, they should let her live, but if a boy is born, they should kill him. Pharaoh is asking them to commit genocide so that the Hebrew people can be weakened. Presumably, he assumes that Hebrew girls could eventually be married to Egyptian men, at which point, they would cease being a threat to him.

Shiphrah and Puah, though, revere God. And so, they disobey Pharaoh’s orders. When Hebrew boys are born, they don’t kill them. Instead they let them live. This may actually be the first recorded instance of civil disobedience. These women refuse to obey a law which they believe is unjust. It is that same kind of refusal to affirm unjust laws that has been at the center of many successful civil rights and liberation movements.

This, of course, does not sit well with Pharaoh. He is not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. He is, as Pharaoh, not only a sovereign king whose orders are to be obey unquestioningly, he is considered to be a living god. The Egyptians worshipped their Pharaoh. They believed that after death, Pharaohs travelled to return to their place among the other gods. The idea that two Hebrew women would disobey him was unthinkable.

And so he summons Puah and Shiphrah before him, and he asks them why they had disobeyed his orders. And these faithful women act faithfully again. They lie to Pharaoh. They tell him a tale about Hebrew women being more vigorous than Egyptian women, that before the midwives can even make it to the birthing stool, that the Hebrew women have already given birth. It was complete fabrication. Not only was it a lie, it doesn’t actually explain why they didn’t kill the newborn boys once they got there, even if the boys had already been born.

Of course, Pharaoh is a man. He doesn’t know any better.He doesn’t know anything about women’s matters. So, he seems to take their word for it. Shiphrah and Puah are faithful to God by lying to Pharaoh, and because they lie to Pharaoh, the sons of the Hebrews escape death, at least for the time being.

Pharaoh, though, is not done. He has tried to keep the Hebrew people down by working them to death. He has tried to keep them down by killing all their sons on the birthing stool. But neither of those plans has worked. It is time to move to Plan C. Pharaoh makes a general decree that every every Hebrew boy should be thrown into the Nile River, but that the girls should be allowed to live. It is an order given to every Egyptian. If they see a newborn Hebrew boy, they should summarily drown him in the river. The Nile, whose seasonal floods were the source of life for all Egypt, is now to become the source of death for all Israel.

At this point in the story, we are introduced to our third faithful woman. She is not named in the verses we read today, but elsewhere we find that her name is Jochebed, which means “Yahweh is glory.” She is from the Hebrew tribe of Levi, and so is her husband, elsewhere named as Amram. Levites would later be set apart as priests in Israel, and so saying that both the father and the mother are Levites is a way of beefing up Moses’s priestly credetials.

Exodus tells us that they had a son, unnamed at this point. Jochebed keeps him hidden for three months, but by then it is impossible to keep him hidden any longer. She takes a basket made out of papyrus reeds, and she uses pitch to make it watertight, the same way that the ancients sealed their boats. She puts her three-month-old boy in the basket, and she puts the basket in the river with faith that God will take care of him.

Of course, she also provides God with a bit of a helping hand. The boy’s older sister, who elsewhere is named as Miriam, is sent out to look after the boy and to make sure that everything goes according to her mother’s plan. And Miriam, is the fourth faithful woman of our story, though she is more of girl at this point. She watches her infant brother as he sits among the reeds of the River Nile, until our fifth and final faithful woman comes on the scene.

Pharaoh has a daughter, whose name we do not know, and as was her custom, she comes down to that particular spot in the river to bathe. While she is in the water, she sees the basket, floating there among the reeds. And she sends one of her maids out into the water to fetch it for her. When the basket is opened, inside there is a baby crying.

Now, Pharaoh’s daughter knows right away what this baby must be. She knows that he must be a child of the Hebrews. And she knows that her father, the Pharaoh, has ordered that every Hebrew boy be thrown into the river and drowned. She knows all of this, and yet, we are told, she takes pity on him.

Right on cue, the boy’s big sister, Miriam, reveals herself. And she tells Pharaoh’s daughter, “If you’re going to adopt this baby, you’re going to need a wet nurse. Do you want me to find one for you?”

It must have been quite obvious to the princess when this Hebrew girl shows up to offer to find a Hebrew wet nurse for this Hebrew infant. But the she decides to play along. “Yes,” she says, “Find me a wet nurse.” Miriam goes home, and she gets her mother, and she brings her to see Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess gives the baby back to his own birth mother, and she promises to pay her to take care of the young boy for her. The princess names the boy Mosheh, which is actually an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one. But but Exodus gives a Hebrew gloss for it anyway, from the word mashah, which means “to draw,” because she had drawn him up out of the water, drawn him up, in fact, out of death, and made him her son, Moses.

These five women broke the law.  They lied to the authorities.  They conspired together to subvert the government. Five very different women. Two slaves, two medical professionals, and a princess. They all collude to defy the orders of their rightful leader, Pharaoh.

Well-behaved women rarely make history, but sometimes faithful women do. It is their faith that leads them to break the law. It is their faith that causes them to protest the unjust action of the government. It is their great faith that brings them to conspire together in an act of civil disobedience. They do so quietly, without fanfare. They acts behind the scenes. But in this case, the consequences of their actions are so momentous that they can not be ignored, not even by the men who write history. Without them, there is no Moses. Without them, there is no exodus. Without them, there is no promised land, no Torah, no prophets.  Without them, there is no Jerusalem, no temple, no Israel. Without them, the story of God’s chosen people stops dead in its tracks, before it has even begun. Well-behaved women rarely make history, you see. But these faithful women do.


Good afternoon!

Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection  Matthew 15:24-27
Have you ever felt alienated from God or church? How? What brought you back?

++  This Sunday 27th is Food on the 4th. You can bring food donations to church for the FISH Food Bank.

++  Giving Statements will be available in the narthex for pick up.

++  Sept 3rd and 24th are open for Coffee Hour signers.

++  Women’s Spirituality will meet Sat Sept 9th , 9am in the church office.

Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Crumbs from Your Table

Sunday 20 August 2017
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 20A

Matthew 15:21-28

I have always found the story from Matthew today to be one of the most disturbing in the Gospels. The version in Mark is about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Here in Matthew it is the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. I’ve researched the version in Mark quite a lot. I’ve written three different papers on it. And yet, I have never fully figured it out. It still gnaws at me. It makes me uneasy. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on either version before, but today I am, so here we go.


Jesus is far outside his usual area of operation. According to the gospels, Jesus spends most of his time right around the Sea of Galilee, with occasional trips south to Jerusalem. Galilee, where Jesus came from, was primarily Jewish, though it was considered a backwater by the people to the south in Judea and Jerusalem. There were gentile cities on the lake, though. And even in Galilee, there would have been a mixing of different kinds of peoples.

In the story, though, Jesus is far to the northwest near Tyre and Sidon. Both cities are in modern Lebanon, on the coast of the Mediterranean. This was well outside the Jewish homeland. But, as in any port city in the Roman Empire, there was likely a community of Jews there, also.

Matthew gives us no clue as to why Jesus might be there. He is not visiting anyone in particular. He has no business. He has never, so far as we know, been there on any other occasion. And the transitions at the beginning and ending of this episode are written rather clumsily. There’s no indication of how Jesus got to a place so far afield of his usual area of operation, and at the end, it is as if he never left Galilee at all.

While Jesus is in Tyre and Sidon, he encounters a Canaanite woman. That is a strange detail. There really isn’t such a thing as a Canaanite in Jesus’s time. There is no Canaan. There hasn’t been for a millennium. It would be as if I said I visited Scotland and met a Pictish woman, or that I went to France and met a Gaulish man, or that I went to Austria and met a Gothic woman. It is quite anachronistic. Canaan is the name of the land that would become Israel and Judea, but before the Israelites took it. The Canaanites, were the people who lived there before Joshua led the Israelites on a campaign of invasion. They were polytheist, whose main God was Ba’al, In this time period, their descendants would more appropriately be called Phoenicians. In the Hebrew Bible, they are always the enemy, always unclean, always the people who are responsible for leading Israel astray. There is a lot of xenophobic baggage between Israelites and Canaanites. The fact that Matthew uses this anachronistic term indicates that he whats to evoke all of the old prejudices and hatreds.

The woman approaches Jesus. Inexplicably, she knows who he is. Even more inexplicably, she calls him Son of David. Son of David is a Hebrew way of talking about a Judean king or messiah. Why on earth would this “Canaanite” foreigner refer to Jesus as a Jewish messiah, especially since very few of Jesus’s followers even call him that? It makes no sense. Whatever else it may be, though, it is at least a term of respect.

The woman asks Jesus to show her mercy because her daughter is suffering from demon possession. Somehow she knows of his reputation as an exorcist and healer, and she asks him in a very deferential way to consider healing her daughter.

Jesus’s response is shocking. He doesn’t say anything to her at all. He acts as if she doesn’t exist and makes no acknowledgment of her request or even of her presence. He simply ignores her while she continues to plead with him for mercy.

She must have continued begging for quite some time, because the disciples finally get annoyed with her wailing and tell Jesus that he should send her away.

Finally, Jesus responds to her, though indirectly and rather rudely. He says, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Without actually acknowledging her request, Jesus says that she is not worth talking to because she is not an Israelite. She is not a part of the same tribe that he is.

This is both troubling and puzzling. It is troubling because this is not the way we expect Jesus to treat people. He does not ignore or spurn people who sincerely ask him for help. It is puzzling because Jesus also seems to be lying here. He has already helped people who aren’t Israelites. Specifically, back in Matthew 8 Jesus cast demons out of the Gadarene demoniacs, the two men who lived in a graveyard until Jesus cast their demons out, the demons who went into pigs that ran off a cliff. If Jesus would heal them even though they weren’t Israelites, why would he not help this woman? The demoniacs didn’t even ask to be healed, and here this woman is begging Jesus for help. If Jesus really were sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he wouldn’t have healed the two men in the tombs. Inexplicably, Jesus dismisses this woman and her requests.

Nevertheless, she persisted. She kneels down in front of him and begs, “Lord, help me.” She submits herself to him, addresses him with respect, and begs for his assistance. But he won’t give it.

Instead, he says something truly horrifying. Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” Jesus says that. The Jesus who said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” the Jesus who told the story of the Good Samaritan, the Jesus who has pity on the crowds and helps them even when he is trying to get away from them. That Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” (T. A. Burkill, “Historical Development of the Syrophoenician Woman,” Novum Testamentum 9:173 (1967).

There is no way to get around the fact that this is a dehumanizing insult. In a Jewish context, in a Phoenician context, in a Greek context, in a Roman context, it is insulting to compare a person to a dog. They were considered scavengers and unclean. The word Jesus uses here is the diminutive form: it means little dogs. But, of course, that doesn’t help matters. In English, we use the same sort of word to insult women. You know the word; it starts with a ‘B.’ And in English or in Greek, “to call a woman a little [dog] is no less abusive than to call her a [dog] without qualification.”

And here is the crux of the problem. Who is this Jesus who uses abusive language with someone who speaks respectfully with him? Who is this Jesus who seems entrenched in racial hatred? Who is this Jesus who refuses to help someone who humbly asks? I do not recognize him. He bares almost no resemblance to the Jesus I know. It is one thing for me or you to hold prejudice. It is quite another thing for Jesus the Christ.


We everyday humans always hold prejudice, whether we try to or not. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last weekend was a reminder that even in a society that espouses freedom and justice for all, there are still those who actively hate people who are not like them. There are those among us who’s conception of America is of a white, Christian nation and who see no place for people who are not white, except possibly as servants. They stoke fear of the other. The Jew who is trying to swindle me. The immigrant who wants to take my job. The illegal who takes from the system and gives nothing back. The black man who wants to hurt me. The Muslim who wants to kill me.

These are, of course, all lies and distortions. But facts make little difference in such arguments. It is enough simply to suggest that the other is out to harm me, to take what is rightfully mine. And then any misfortune I suffer can be blamed on someone else. And once I am distracted by fear of the other, I can be convinced to give over my power to the people who stoke that fear. I can be convinced to act against my own morals, to act even against my own interest, if it means that some harm will come to the person I have been conditioned to fear.

There are some who preach such hatred openly, who will stand up in defense of hate. But we do not have to choose to fear in order for fear to live inside us. Some of it comes with the innocence of fearing something we have little experience with; we seem programmed to fear things that we do not know or understand. Some of it comes to us unacknowledged in our culture. I have had the experience several times recently of going to share with my kids a television show or movie that I enjoyed as a child, only to find as I watched again that it was filled with negative stereotypes and shaming of women and minorities that I had no awareness of at the time. And yet they are operative on me, below the level of consciousness, in the unexamined, shadowy corners of my mind. We do not have to choose to fear in order for fear to live inside us.

And we do not have to acknowledge our privilege in order to benefit from it. Part of the reason it is so easy for someone to stoke racial resentment in a person of privilege like me is that I have no direct experience of what it is like to live in this world without my privilege. I haven’t had the experience of being followed by security in a department store. I haven’t had the experience of being cat-called while walking down the street. I haven’t had the experience of having a stranger touch my hair without permission. I haven’t had the experience of being abused because my immigration status means that I cannot report a crime that is committed against me. And I have rarely seen any evidence of such behavior against others, because such things are done only when there are not bystanders like me to witness them. A woman walking with me will not receive cat calls precisely because I am there. And because I cannot witness the things that happen when I am not present, I have no reason to know and believe that such crass and demeaning things are possible.

I may not even be aware when the things I do and say myself are hurtful or harmful to others. I think that I am only joking. I assume that if no one calls me out on my bad behavior that I have not done anything wrong. And then when someone does finally call me out, I become defensive because this is something I do or say all the time and no one has called me out before. I do not need to be aware that my actions are hurtful in order for them to actually cause harm to others. I do not have to be intentionally prejudiced in order for prejudice to act in me.

Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” These words dehumanize a desperate mother and the child for whom she asks for help. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” She does not stand up and point out Jesus’s cruelty. She does not insult him in return. She does not argue her equal worth as a person. She does not spit at his feet and turn away.

Instead, she does what she hopes will heal her daughter. She bends Jesus’s words in such a way that he can grant her request without losing face. She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She chooses to quietly accept the crumbs. But we should not be content with offering only crumbs.


This very strange story of Jesus, a Jesus we can hardly recognize, tells us something important about ourselves. Because there are times when my words and actions, if I could see them from another perspective, would shock me. There are times when, if I could see myself through another’s eyes, hear myself through another’s ears, I would not recognize myself.

Matthew is not clear about what happens to Jesus once his mind is changed? Does he recognize that he was being cruel, that his ideas of who is in and who is out were insufficient, that he was not drawing the circle wide enough to include all of God’s people. We don’t know, exactly.

What we do know is that this story opens the door. This is what convinces those early Jesus-followers that Jesus’s message is not just for the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel. This is what convinces them to tear down the walls of exclusion. This is what convinces them to open the doors of the church to people of all ages, nations, and races. Through this, and through the continued movement of the Holy Spirit, Christ does indeed break down the walls that we put up to divide ourselves from one another

I still don’t understand this story. It still leaves me uneasy. But it also leaves me hopeful. It makes me hopeful that if there could be transformation in Jesus, there can certainly be transformation in me; that if I am able to listen to others and accept that I may have blind spots in my moral thinking, that God is able to change me for the better; that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it does indeed bend toward justice. And I pray that when I find myself living contrary to the values I espouse, that God would grant me the grace to listen, to confess, and to be changed by the transforming power of Christ, which leads to ever greater love for God and for all God’s people, the people Christ came to save.

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



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.


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.


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.