No Fair!

Pentecost 16 – September 20, 2020 – Just Peace Sunday

Does this parable seem strange to anyone else? I know, most of us have been conditioned to accept all of Jesus’ teachings at face value, or at the very least, to incorporate them into our consciousness after deeper consideration, but this one might challenge that way of thinking. It’s just strange. It doesn’t sound like “Jesus the champion of justice” to which we’ve become accustomed. It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t the guys that worked all day get more pay than the ones who worked for only one hour? What’s going on here?

I remember being very confused and disturbed by this parable the first time I heard it. And it turns out I wasn’t alone. In a Bible Study that a friend and I were leading about 20 years ago, we asked the group to let us know what passages of scripture challenged them the most, and then we would prepare a study-session those passages. Remarkably, out of the ten or twelve responses we got, three of them asked about on this parable. And to a person, they chose this one because it seemed, “so unfair.” And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of this parable. Fairness.

It seems to me, however, that the challenge that this passage presents exposes something about the culture in which we live.  I think we may be suffering from an over-developed sense fairness. What does that mean? Well, as a people, we tend to define fairness in terms of merit. In other words, we decide if something is fair or unfair based upon whether a group or an individual deserves what they received.

Here’s what I mean. There was a meme on Facebook sometime back that really illustrated this well. The first frame showed two people, one tall and one short, standing by a fence. The tall one could see over and the short one could not. The second frame was labeled “Fairness” and each person was standing on a box. The tall person could still see over the fence, but it still wasn’t high enough for the short person. The final frame was labeled “Justice” In this scene the tall person had no box and the short person stood on both boxes and, like the tall person, could now see over the fence. The point here is that fairness isn’t always just and that justice cannot always be accomplished through fairness.  

Another example. Little Johnny runs to his mother and says, “Timmy hit me in the arm,” to which she responds, “what’d you do to deserve it?” This is an example of a response based on fairness. Timmy wouldn’t have punched Johnny without a good reason, right. The flip side of that coin, however, is justice. The mother’s response if it came from a place of justice might go something like, “Timmy, don’t hit your brother, hitting is wrong.” And please don’t misunderstand me here, it’s not that fairness isn’t a good thing, sometimes, but fairness and justice are not the same thing. We think we sometimes confuse the two.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus shared a parable about a vineyard owner who paid his workers on the principle of justice rather than on one based upon merit. Theologically speaking, this story illustrates what Matthew called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now, a grandiose phrase like Kingdom of Heaven might lead us to think that about some otherworldly realm, but that’s simply not the case. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place, rather it’s a way of living, in this world, in the here and now. It’s a way of living that puts God’s justice and peace and liberation for all people into practice. It’s finally the goal toward which everything in Scripture is moving. It’s the hope that continues to inspire our faith as we seek to live as the people of God.[i]

Having said that, however, I think we need to circle back around to my first thought on this passage and consider the cultural “strangeness” of seeking such an existence as it relates to fairness.  I mean, the vineyard owner in today’s text realized that his first hiring of day-laborers wasn’t going to be enough, so he hired more people to harvest grapes a various times during the day. So far so good. But when it came time to pay them, this is where things got a little strange. The vineyard owner paid all of them the same wage! Those who worked only 1 hour get a full day’s wage, just like those who put in the full 12 hours! [ii] 

And again, this makes no sense if we only view life from a perspective of fairness. But if we were to expand our perspective to include justice, then the meaning of this passage begins to emerge. The story of the workers in the vineyard insists that the kingdom God envisions is a realm in which God’s justice and peace and liberation is for all people and, here’s the key, we cannot earn it. God’s grace isn’t based on a merit system. Grace is a free gift offered to everyone. Whether we’ve been at this faith thing for a long time or we’re just getting started, God’s grace is a gift. We don’t have to be better in order to ensure that God loves us, because God loves us completely already.  It’s like Desmond Tutu said, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”[iii] 

My friends, God loves us. And we are all invited to express our gratitude for that love though acts of lovingkindness, through caring about others and creation, and by sharing hope, the hope that this kingdom, that God’s Realm here on earth, may someday become a just place for all.  May it be so. Amen & amen.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             


[i] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-99.

[ii] Alan Brehm. Nothing to Earn (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2011

[iii] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32

Seventy-Seven

Matthew 18:21-22

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather seventy-seven times.” 

Today’s lesson teaches us that forgiveness is the only faithful Christian practice for settling moral debts. Let me say that again because it’s so important! … forgiveness is the only faithful Christian practice for settling disputes or disagreements. Not an eye for an eye nor a vengeance is mine mentality, but forgiveness. Now, I know, this can be tough to hear, particularly in the context of all the strife we’re experiencing right now, both individually and as a nation, and especially considering the political climate in which we find ourselves. But Jesus has been pretty clear over the course of these past few weeks that peace is only possible through forgiveness.

But how does that work? Well, there was a wonderful novel written a few years back that really puts this narrow understanding of forgiveness into perspective.  It’s called The Shack by William P. Young.  As the novel begins, Mack, the main character, has sunk into a depression he called “The Great Sadness” Mack is depressed because his youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted and murdered four years prior. And in the darkest moment of this sadness, Mack received a note in his mailbox from “Papa”, saying that he would like to meet with Mack that coming weekend at the shack. The shack being the place where Missy’s body was discovered. Mack was puzzled by the note, but in his grief, decided to the shack, unsure of what or who he might see there. Mack arrived and initially found nothing, but as he was leaving, the shack and its surroundings were supernaturally transformed into a lush and inviting scene. He entered the shack and encountered manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God “Papa” takes the form of an African American woman; Jesus is a Middle Eastern carpenter; and the Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman.

Now, The bulk of the book narrates Mack’s conversations with Papa, Jesus, and the Spirit as he comes to terms with Missy’s death and his relationship with each of them. [i] The primary undercurrent of this story, however, is forgiveness. Will Mack be able to forgive Missy’s killer? And as we attempt to navigate our own “sadness’s”, and as we seek peace in these turbulent times, we too must come to terms with the nature of forgiveness.  

In our lesson for today, Peter said, “Lord, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times? Doesn’t that number seem kind of random? Arbitrary even? What gives? Why that number? Well, this is where we once again turn to context. Seventy-seven wasn’t arbitrary. Jesus used an ancient figure of speech here that meant “an uncountable numbers of times.” (seventy times seven or seventy seven, both are correct translations from the original Greek) And this choice of phrase is important in another way as well. It’s meant to remind us of another biblical figure who also used this same figure of speech but in a very different way. Lemech, descendent of  Cain, was a tribesman who lived by a code of blood revenge. It’s Lemech who boasts in the book of Genesis of the moral warrant to avenge wrongdoing with unlimited violence. In the “Song of Swords” Lemech sings, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lemech will be avenged seventy-sevenfold.” Lemech’s practice of settling disputes is that of seventy-sevenfold or unlimited vengeance toward one who had wronged him.

But, in polar contrast, we have Jesus. If we were to tease-out the full meaning of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, it would go something like this. When it comes to conflict and to moral offenses, forgiveness is to Christians as vengeance was to Lemech. As unlimited and unrestrained as Lemech was in wielding violence as a way to right wrong, so will the Christian wield forgiveness in unlimited, unrestrained, and even indiscriminate fashion. For this is God’s way of curbing the lethal tendency in us all.

Lemech vowed to avenge unlimited times. Jesus commanded his followers to forgive unlimited times. This is to be our practice, our way of being in the world. We are to spread it wherever we go. The power of God is in love and forgiveness, not in vengeance and bloodshed.[ii]

Now, this concept of non-violence is vital as we think about all the troubles we’re experiencing today. It would be easy for us to adopt the mindset of Lemech – an eye for an eye mentality as it were – especially as we find ourselves mired in a contentious election season. But it’s a much greater thing, a more noble things, a more faithful thing to accept and then live-into the endless forgiveness that Jesus espouses.

Two weeks ago I invited all of us to explore the possibility of Being a Blessing to others rather than cursing them, even when we disagree. And today, Matthew takes us even deeper into that concept. Maybe think of it like this. If we bless rather than curse, if we forgive rather than hold a grudge, it will lead us toward the peace we’re so desperately seeking. Both an internal sense of peace, well-being, but also an ever-widening peace that transcends political, racial, or ideological lines.

But how do we do that? How do we go about becoming a blessing by letting forgiveness nurture our health and well-being in these troubled times? How do we go about choosing Jesus’ difficult way forgiveness over Lemech’s easy way of vengeance?

Well, theologian Thomas Longsaid it like this. “We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.”[iii] …a fire hose!

Mack ended up needing to dispense a “fire-hose” kind of forgiveness. Not because his daughter’s killer deserved it, but because there was no other way to overcome his “great sadness.” Forgiveness literally saved Mack’s life. And forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, saves us as well. This is the foundation of what it means to be a blessing to others. This is the core of peace. There can be no peace without forgiveness, a fire-hose of forgiveness, for others and ourselves.  

Let me leave you with this today. Henri Nouwen once said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”[iv]

As we move into this time of community prayer, may we share the forgiveness, the “love practiced” that we’ve received; may we be a reflection of all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us; and may we, as a people of faith, find a way to begin to practice the peace that we desire for all people, for all nations including ours; may we finally, become peacemakers, and assume the title, Children of God.[v] May it be so… Amen & Amen.


[i] Synopsis of The Shack found in Wikipedia.

[ii] Courtney Cowart An Exhortation to Forgiveness (www.Day1.org) 2011

[iii] Thomas Long Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion.

[iv] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) September 13, 2020

[v] Matthew 5:9

Peace As A Way of Life

  Matthew18:15-17, 20(A Paraphrase) Restoration within the Church

If your brother or sister insults or disrespects you or commits a transgression against you, go and correct them when you are alone. If they listen to you, great, then healing has begun. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others with you and confront them so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, bring it to the attention of the leadership of the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

This is the quindecinnial passage about church discipline, right? This is the one that gets dragged out when we have a dispute. This is the passage we hold up when someone in our congregation misbehaves. And this is a passage, I would contend, that often gets abused and misused. How? Well, first of all I’ve seen this formula used to beat-down the other side. It get used as a proof-text that I’m right and your wrong… Oh, and by the way, God’s on my side. In short, it’s been used to exclude people from the fellowship of a congregation. But what was Jesus really trying to do here? Is this passage really about exclusion or is there a better more theologically appropriate way to view this important teaching?

The answer to that final question is yes. There is a better way to understand this passage. Jesus’ guidance about settling disputes within the church is finally about restoration and not punishment.

How do we know this? Well you all know it’s important to look at the setting of the passage, its context within the larger canon. And here it’s especially important. Just before these verses, Jesus had spoken of God’s great care and concern for “the little ones,” and, although we have often heard these words in reference to innocent, lovable little children, contextually, they can be better understood as describing the newest members of the faith community. But it doesn’t end there. It also applies to those of us who have been around for a long time, a lifetime even, because we too get off-track once in a while.

That’s why we need a higher power, something beyond our own intellect and desire to guide us. God’s persistent and tender care, Jesus says, is like that of a shepherd who leaves the flock in search of just one little one who is lost, because it’s all about finding and seeking (think about the parables of the lost coin or the treasure in the field) and restoration (think Prodigal Son, and each one of us).

If God wills that not one little one should be lost, then the process outlined by the earliest church in this gospel passage is not about punishment or or proving that I’m right or exclusion; it’s not about one person or faction of a congregation having power over another. Rather, it’s about a methodical, respectful, earnest, and always hopeful, movement toward restoration.[i]

You know, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”[ii] And that in a nutshell is what lays at the core this text. Acts of love verses fear of punishment. The former invites us to move toward a place where a church community can heal and begin to move forward. The latter, fear of punishment, only stalls a congregation. Fear paralyses while love liberates.

And this understanding is important! It’s important because if we read this passage in terms of reconciliation over and above punishment or exclusion, we are free to replace the word “discipline” with the word “restoration” as we seek to settle our disputes and move toward peace within our congregations. This concept frees us to convert this passage into a marvelously humane and even compassionate process that translates something of Jesus’ teaching into the workings of the life of the early church in a way that we can also use in our shared congregational life today.[iii]

But how do we go about converting this passage when our human temptation is to punish or exclude those with whom we disagree? How do we find the peace we seek?

Well, perhaps there’s a clue right here in our lesson. Consider the line, If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I mean, this line invites us to ask ourselves the question: How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?

Well, as you all remember, he broke bread with tax collectors and invited them to change their ways and become his followers. (remember one called Levi, who became Matthew the disciple or Zacchaeus, the wee little man who scrambled with a Sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of the Messiah as he passed by, he welcomed Jesus into his home and promised to return, with interest, all that he had extorted from his community) And as for Gentiles, those of other nationalities, religions, Jesus treated them as equal human beings. Think about the Canaanite Woman or the Tenth Leper or the Good Samaritan. These are all examples of how we should treat others, even when we disagree.

This is how God calls us, all of us, to seek restoration, to adopt “peace as a way of life.” And, my friends, that’s the bottom line here. We must walk that path of peace in our interpersonal relationships first, before we can even hope to spread peace beyond our church, or beyond our borders.
Now, as we move into this time of sacrament and prayer, I invite you listen to these words from the late Marcus Borg; words of liberation, words about God’s will for our shared journey, words about what adopting peace as a way of life might look like, and feel like, from a perspective of faith. Borg writes, “God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God’s beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being–not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”[iv]


[i] Katheryn Matthews A Reflection on Matthew 18 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

[ii] Gandhi quote found at (www.azquoted.com)

[iii] Ibid Matthews.

[iv] Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (Quoted found at (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) Sept. 6, 2020

Be A Blessing

Romans 12 (The Message)

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.  Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.  Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy people; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.

I shared a message on this very passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans this past spring, and today, it’s come back around in the lectionary. I considered leaving this text alone, since I’ve preach on it so recently, but as I thought about it further, I came to realize that the words of Paul, as interpreted by Eugene Peterson, could still be mined for more wisdom for these troubling times and as we approach a contentious election season.

Paul begins with the words, “Love from the center of who you are” and concludes his thought with, “discover beauty in everyone.” And in between, …in between, the meat of the sandwich if you will, is this invitation to think of the other before self.

And this is where I will focus our energy today. As the election draws near, there will be an ever-increasing tension in the air. I dare say that supporters of the president and his detractors, that Democrats and Republicans, couldn’t be further apart in their platforms, their ideology, or their perspective on the best course for the future of our nation. However, no matter which side of the isle you’re on, the challenge for us all is to be a blessing. We are called to be a blessing not only to those with whom we agree, but to those with whom we disagree.

Now, I know in the political climate that’s a big ask. So, to help us along I’ve ordered signs to put in front of our churches. They are intended to look like political yard signs, but instead of endorsing a candidate, that offer the following invitation. “BE A BLESSING. Pray often, be kind, have courage, lead with love, practice peace, be the light, work for justice, encourage others, and be joyful.”

Now, I’m struck, as I read these “acts of blessing” out loud, by how similar they are to Paul’s message to the Romans. Paul’s words and our list of blessings give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. Our buildings can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.

And that “something more” the meat of Paul’s sandwich, describes his vision of what it means to be a “blessing-centered” kind of church. He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that’s realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies (both political and otherwise); laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, we should get along with each other and whenever possible and live in peace with everyone. (even those on the other side of the isle)

You know, When I spoke about this text last, I referred to an interesting book with a somewhat different take on the Christian faith. It’s called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. In this book the author uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and this re-framing, I believe, is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “blessing-centered” vision.

Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté has the unique connotation of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness within them that we believe we have within ourselves. All humanity, according to this teaching, has the capacity for goodness. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]

So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to those with whom we might disagree? I mean, if we’re challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his disciples to follow a pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who were different, or those opposed them, with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.

It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. It’s the way Gandhi responded to his detractor and oppressors. It’s the way Dr. King and those with him during the civil rights movement withstood the brutality, and the firehoses, and the dogs. And it’s the way Jesus responded to being spit upon and flogged, beaten, and executed. Non-violent resistance; over-coming hatred with good, over-coming shouts of vengeance and chaos with whispers of peace, over-coming the partisan name-calling by naming our common humanity. That’s the common thread running through all of these instances and it’s the common thread running through our list of blessings and Paul’s center of loving kindness.

My friends, these examples are meant to inspire us, as communities of faith, to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even when we’re under oppression. These historical moments, and Paul’s invitation, invite us to begin to discover deeper, hidden blessings in every single person, even the person with whom we disagree. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly find peace, inner peace and a peace that expands across this nation, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]

So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember to Be a Blessing, and to live-into Paul’s vision to “Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone.” If we can do that, it will enable us to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher calling. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love and by becoming a blessing to all.

May it be so. Amen & Amen

——————————————————

[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009

[ii] ibid. Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.

A Beautiful Vision

Romans 12:3-8 – Transformed Relationships

Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is to prophesy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

Our nation is deeply fractured. And these divisions have reached the point that we view those who differ from us not as compatriots but as people who live in an entirely different country. In protests and counter-protests, on social media, and even in our choice of news channels, these fractures entrench themselves. Even basic public-health guidance has become a flashpoint. And I’m afraid we’ve moved beyond the point where a return to “normal” can be achieved by symbolic gestures or speeches or prayer-vigils. The divisions among us can only be resolved by real, substantial change.

And thank God for that!

When tens of millions are unemployed and yet the stock market soars, things must change. When policing methods, the wealth gap, and a lack of access to affordable health care continue to disproportionately brutalize and kill black and brown and native people, things must change. When more than a hundred and seventy-four thousand people die from a preventable illness, and for a hundred seventy-four families who are grieving as a result, things must change.[i]

But how will change come? And from where will change come? Well, as I thought about these questions I remembered the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this exhortation, Paul challenges the individualism that is apparently plaguing this “new church start” in Rome. He told the congregation to use their God-given talents, their individual gifts for the benefit of all.

If one’s gift was to proclaim the hard truth, to challenge the status quo, to lay bare injustice… then that person should become a prophet. If another person’s gift was serve those who were struggling or hungry or sick or in prison, that person should devote them self to service. If still another person was gifted as a teacher, they should devote themselves to teaching. If encouragement was one’s thing, then become an encourager, a cheerleader, a confidant. In other words, Paul wanted them to “stay in their lane” as it were, to take the time to discover their calling, and then fulfill that calling to the best of their ability.

And notice something here. None of these “gifts” we’re meant to be used for individual gain. Paul said, “…individually, we belong to each other.” That’s profound! “…individually, we belong to each other.” And I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. There’s something deeper going on here. You see, Paul wasn’t only talking about those within the Roman Church; later in this letter Paul says, “…each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up.”[ii] So, that means that these “gifts” that Paul was talking about (challenging injustice, service, teaching, and encouraging) these things are to be used for the benefit of all people, for betterment of the church family and beyond, out in the wider community. This is what I call, “Paul’s beautiful vision of possibility”

And this same vision still exists in the world today. God is calling us to recognize, in a very profound way, the beauty and workings of a body whose parts function together. Each of us have our own role and importance, each of us bring our own gifts and abilities to the table, each of us play an important role in the unfolding of the Present Realm of God.

This is important to understand! It’s important because the progress and the spiritual growth, and the strong sense of community that we’ve enjoyed in our churches, didn’t come from one or two or even three individuals. We have these things because many, many people, across many, many years, have taken these words of Paul to heart. Many hands make easy work, especially when each hand is doing what it does best.

Now, there’s a challenge in all this as well. We, like the Romans, live in an age of individualism. We live in a culture that values wealth and power and winning above all else. And we’re all a part of and participate in this cultural norm. There’s no way to escape it. But what we can do, what we must do, is put wealth and power and winning into proper perspective. And that perspective allows us to be countercultural. Countercultural in the sense that we recognize these norms, and because of that recognition, we don’t allow the lure of wealth, power, and winning to outweigh our capacity for empathy.

Empathy. That’s an important concept. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. I’ve often hear empathy likened to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Now, not that all of our experiences are the same, not that all of our grief, not all of our broken places, are the same, they’re simply not. But empathy suggests that we as human beings have the capacity to suffer with, to share brokenness with each other, and, we have the capacity to begin to move toward wholeness, together. It’s like Paul suggests, each of us has a calling, a gift, whether it be teaching, or encouraging, or service, or seeking justice; collectively, we have the necessary tools to continue to be and to become to an even greater degree, congregations grounded in empathy.

Which brings me back around to my original supposition that “our nation is deeply fractured.” So, here’s my question. If we were to ground our shared calling in this concept of empathy, how might our view of mission, of ministry, be transformed?

I don’t  know. Maybe an empathy-based church could help to begin to heal divisions within our community and beyond, across our nation and the globe, by addressing our collective pain and by acknowledging our shared brokenness. It seems to me that a church grounded in empathy would dedicate itself in the work of justice and peace and equality for all people, because that’s what Jesus taught and lived over and over again in the gospel stories. Jesus himself was a living example of how empathy could and should be the root of our faith.

I mean, can you imagine what beautiful, healing work hundreds of thousands of faithful empathy-based people of faith might accomplish? Systems of oppression named and dismantled. Educational disparities acknowledged and addressed. Hunger revealed and alleviated. Hatred within and beyond the walls of the church relegated to history and the doors, both figuratively and literally, swung open wide, inviting all people, welcoming all of God’s beloved. What a beautiful vision that would be!

One final thought before we come together in prayer. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, once said, “Every day, at home, I have the astonishing and humbling opportunity – together with my wife Sophie – to nurture empathy, compassion, self-love, and a keen sense of justice in our three kids.”[iii]

My friends, when a church grounds itself in empathy it becomes an example for generations to come. I think that’s the final piece of this beautiful vision that Paul had in mind. He implored his hearers to put aside prejudice and racism and nationalism, (he called them stumbling blocks) in favor of walking a mile in the shoes of another. He encouraged his audience, time and again, to be open to the possibility that each of their individual gifts, when combined, would create what we in the United Church of Christ have articulated as “a just world for all.” And finally, I think Paul knew, that to share Christ, to really share Christ, that couldn’t be done from some lofty throne of judgement, but rather, from a place of empathy.

May each of us, as we continue to discern and discover our gifts, use them to transform Paul’s beautiful vision of possibility into a beautiful vision of reality. May it me so. Amen and Amen.

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[i] John Edgerton Fractured (www.stillspeaking.org) 2020

[ii] Romans 15:2 Common English Bible (CEB)

[iii] Quote found at (www.brinyquote.com)

Scraps of Justice

Matthew 15:21-28

From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly.” But he didn’t respond to her at all. His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” But Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs, …is it?” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.

I would like to begin today, as we consider the persistence of the Canaanite woman, by sharing a devotion I read this week by Cameron Trimble. She writes, “Some years ago I had the chance to visit Israel. We toured the entire country, studying archeology, learning about the history and seeing first-hand the strain of so many years of conflict and violence. We met many people whose stories of loss, pain, hope and faith will stay with me for a lifetime.

One woman I met changed my view of life. She was an old woman when I met her in the old city of Jerusalem. She made stoles for a living. As I was browsing through her store, I asked her how she started making them, supposing that she was some poor woman who spotted a niche in selling stoles to American pastors who are always looking for some good “bling” for their robes.

Instead, she told me about her life. Many years before, her three children had been with her in the market one day and had the bad luck of being too close to a suicide bomber. She was off buying some vegetables for their dinner that evening when she heard someone scream. She looked back just in time to watch her children – her life – as they were blown from the face of the earth. Can you imagine the horror of this? Can you imagine the sheer unspeaking, crushing pain of this?

She spent the next year of her life in a numb fog, trying to understand how and why this could happen. Until finally, she stopped. She awoke one morning realizing that there are no good answers to these questions. What would answers bring her anyway? What she had to do was to decide how to live.

Her way of living in the midst of her woundedness was to start making these stoles. To her, they became signs of peace and symbols of God’s unfailing love.  She has a vision of clergy all across the world wearing them as they stand in pulpits, march in protests, and sit with the sick. In her brokenness, she turned to love, gifting us all with her testimony, her handmade art, and her unfailing grace.

When I found the stole I wanted to buy, she placed it over my shoulders. Looking me in the eyes, she said “This is a symbol of peace that I give to you this day. May every day of your life bring peace to our earth and love to all people.” It was the most powerful commissioning I have ever known.

Were I to suffer such terrible loss in my life, I pray that I would have the faith and strength that she has. She could have become deeply bitter. She could have sought revenge. She could have lived with biting anger. But instead, she decided to live believing that God is love and grace is true.”[i]

Now, turning back to our gospel passage for today, the Canaanite woman also persisted, in spite of her grief, she also chose to believe that God is love and that grace it true. How do we know this? Well, she, a woman, a gentile, someone from outside the religion, came before Jesus and begged for justice, she pleaded for her daughter to be restored to wholeness. Remember now, in that time and culture, she had no right to even speak to Jesus, let alone ask him for anything.

And perhaps it was these cultural considerations that lead Jesus, first, to ignore her, and then he seemed to give in to the pressure of his disciples who were urging him to send her away. And when she refused, when she continued to overstep the culture norms and plead for her daughter’s mental health, Jesus called her a dog.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Does this passage make anyone else uncomfortable? I mean, doesn’t feel at all like the welcoming, inclusive Jesus we’ve come to expect, right?[ii]  It doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’ve been taught to emulate. As a matter of fact, I read a reflection from a scholar this week, who out it this way: He said, “…Jesus was caught with his compassion down.”[iii]

Maybe that was the case. But there are also other theories about why Jesus disrespected this woman. One popular one, in trying to make Jesus look “less bad”, suggest that Jesus really wasn’t being mean, but that he was simply testing the woman. Others suggest that he didn’t really mean that she was less than human, it was all a misunderstanding, or even that there was more to this story that didn’t make it into the Gospels. [iv] And while these are all plausible ways of approaching this text, my theory is a little different. I contend that Jesus changed his mind. And I think he changed his mind because of her persistence. I believe that this passage was included in the gospel text to help us to understand that change and growth beyond the limited view of what our society has taught us is acceptable. It here to show us that a foreign, non-Jewish, woman actually affected the way Jesus viewed the world.  She helped him to become more inclusive in his life and teachings.

You know, I shared this contention a number of years ago in a message on this very text to the congregation I was serving at the time. And all was well, at least on Sunday. But Monday rolled around and a got an unexpected visit from a church member who was livid about my message. And by livid, I mean he came unglued! Now, mind you, he wasn’t in church the previous day, but his wife had told him that I said, “Jesus was wrong.” I explained to him that I didn’t say he was wrong, but instead that I had said, “Jesus changed his mind.” But, unfortunately, that didn’t matter to him and he proceeded to air every grievance he had with me and the church and especially our movement toward becoming more inclusive.

Now, over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that encounter and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. First, I concluded that for some people change is frightening. You see, his anger, I believe, was fueled by his fear of change. Not only that we were attempting to welcome people who didn’t look like him, or share his political views, or necessarily share his traditional understanding of morality, but that we were poking at the very fabric of what he had always been taught about the nature of God; that God is unchanging. Immutability is the 4 dollar theological word for this understanding of God.

And I know, I understand …there are many people, like me, who have been taught that God is unchanging. Immutable. It’s one of the core tenets of our faith. And since we hold that Jesus is God incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, or at the very least, that Jesus had a unique and unparalleled connection with the divine, it makes sense that Jesus would be unchangeable, just like God.

But here’s the thing. I’m not going to argue the finer points, the pros and cons if you will, of immutability. I’m not going to argue because whether or not God changes is beyond our purview, it’s above our pay-grade so to speak. But what we can know, I believe, is that the human perspective of God, our concept of the divine, does change. Morality, ethics, what constitutes right and wrong, for better or for worse, these things have changed over time and continue to change as humanity evolves and progresses as a species.

So, I think, it’s perfectly natural to conceive of a human Jesus who can grow, and learn, and even can change his mind. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t diminish his divinity, it enhances it! The ability to adapt to the situation, to replace old ideas with a new and more inclusive perspective, that makes Jesus closer to the nature of God in my book.

And it’s this understanding that our perception of God can change that leads us to my second conclusion from that Monday morning encounter, and it’s a conclusion that ties directly back into our text for today. It seems to me that we all persist in some ways. It seems to me that we all, like the woman who made stoles, and like the Canaanite woman from our gospel narrative, we all seek the scraps of justice that fall from the table of life. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s been my experience, that no one is beyond grief. No one can escape at least some suffering during their lifetime. We all, my friends, especially in this time of pandemic, have to deal with the temptation to simply give up. We all, in the face of the racial injustice we’re beginning to face as a nation, are sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the change that’s necessary to being about equality. It only human to feel this way. And this is where our faith enters the picture.

Our faith tells us to persist, even when it seems like a long-shot. Our faith asks us to hang-in-there, if not for ourselves, for the sake of others. And our faith, my friends, invites us to be and to continue to become a better version of ourselves, both individually and as a people, by changing our minds about the things that hold us back. Even those things we once held dear. Our faith challenges us in these ways because in the end, this time of change will lead us to become, to an even greater degree, a reflection of the true, inclusive, welcoming, non-judgmental, nature of God.

May it be so for you and for me.

——————

[i] Cameron Trimble Plotting Faith (cameron@convergenceceus.org) Aug 11, 2020

[ii] David Lose, The Canaanite Woman’s Lesson, Dear Partner in Preaching, August 20, 2017.

[iii] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009

[iv] Rev. Louise Kalemkerian. Nevertheless, She Persisted. (www.stpaulsnorwalk.org) 2017

In the Midst of the Storm

Matthew 14:22-33 (a paraphrase)

Immediately, the disciples jumped into a boat, and went ahead of Jesus to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. But in the twilight, a strong wind came up. It battered their boat with high waves and pushed them far from land. Early the next morning Jesus came walking towards them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him they were terrified. And they cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost!” But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and beginning to sink. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “Why do you doubt Why did you let your fear diminish your faith?” When they got back into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the chosen one of God.”

Becky and I have seen our fair share of rough waters. When we were first married we lived in Bellevue Iowa, right on the Mississippi River. So, it wasn’t unusual for us to go fishing after work. One evening, we decided to try a little further downstream than usual, pretty far from the launch. You can see where this story is headed, right? Yep, a storm suddenly came up and we were suddenly caught in a torrent of rain and lightning. We were too far away to make it back, so we pulled up to an island, got out of the boat, covered ourselves with raincoats, and waited the storm out. It was only after the rain subsided that we discovered we were surrounded by poison ivy!

You know, it’s funny, we’re more likely to remember these “rough water” experiences than all the times the sailing was smooth. Perhaps it’s because facing difficulties, overcoming challenges, creates within us a sense of confidence. A confidence that will serve us well when the next storm arises. A confidence that helps us to overcome our fear. It’s kind of like the old proverb says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”

In our gospel message for today, we find the disciples experiencing  one of these “confidence building moments.” You see, they were afraid because their boat was being battered by waves and they were far from the launch. Now, the story tells us that Jesus understood their fear, so he went to them, and said, “Hey, look, it’s me! Don’t be afraid! But notice something important here in Matthew’s telling of this story. Jesus didn’t calm the waters until after Peter was back, safely, in the boat. The sea was still raging under his feet when he began to doubt, when Peter let his fear take over the situation.

Let stop here for a moment and think about how an old story like this one might be relevant to us in these troubling times? Well, as the turbulent seas of this pandemic rage on, claiming the lives of so many of our fellow Americans; and as the prospect of significant changes in how we as a nation treat all people with dignity and equality and justice, looms on the horizon; and as our entire planet, and so many species of plants and animals, continue to be decimated by climate change… Jesus continues to symbolically walk with us and toward us. And we as people of faith… we instinctively walk towards him, like Peter, knowing we are called to leave the safety of the boat and traverse unsettling waters as well.

However, we share more than just Peter’s faith; we share his fear. You see, sometimes the stepping-out-of-the-boat-part isn’t what’s most frightening. The scariest part comes when you realize that you’re actually out of the boat; that you’re standing on the precipice of change; standing amid the waves of uncertainty, and your next step isn’t all that clear.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. During the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century, a man named John Lewis stepped out of the boat and into the turbulent seas of civil unrest. The following story was told by President Barack Obama during John’s funeral service this past month. President Obama said, “…just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. …John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans. Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate — he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mugshot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.”[i]

Now, there’s no way John Lewis could have known the outcome of this movement. He didn’t even know if he would survive the beating he took on the Edmund Pettis Bridge as he marched with Dr. King on that fateful day we all remember from our history books. He couldn’t have known he would become a statesman, a congressman, and shining example of the American ideal. He couldn’t have known these things. But what his faith told him, what I suspect fueled his confidence, was that non-violent resistance and peaceful protest was right way to attempt to usher in change. And don’t tell me he wasn’t afraid as he sat in the front seat of that Greyhound. Don’t tell me he didn’t experience at least a fragment of doubt as he was being beaten and arrested. But here’s the thing. John Lewis didn’t let his fear overcome his faith.

I’ve said many time that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, but rather that fear is the opposite of faith. Paul Tillich reinforces this sentiment when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith.”[ii] An element of faith! I like that! James wrote to his followers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

Matthew thought along these same lines as well.  Right here, in this narrative, he reinforces the place of doubt as an element of our faith journey. Peter doubted. He began to sink. But notice that he didn’t drown. In the midst of his doubt, Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter to safety.

That’s what it means to be saved! That’s the core, the very fabric of the nature of salvation! It doesn’t have anything to do with handing our tracts or being born again or getting others on our team. As a matter of fact, those understanding of salvation often are fraught with fear-mongering. My friends, salvation, being saved, is a free gift from God. A free gift for everyone. It’s a free gift illustrated wonderfully right here in this text. God is inviting us to overcome our fear with faith. God is reaching out to each of us, our community, and our nation, with a saving hand.

And then in turn, God is calling each of us to extend our hands to others who are sinking. We are being challenged in these troubling times, my friends, take any doubt we might be experiencing, and use that doubt to ask questions. Questions that will finally fuel our faith. Questions that will challenge us to reach out beyond ourselves and our personal fears. We’re being invited, my friends, to reach out with a hand of compassion, helping those who are homeless, or lonely, or hungry. And we are being invited, as communities of faith, to reach out with the hand of justice to our black, brown, and native sisters and brothers who have been sinking in a society that devalues them. And finally, we’re being invited, as individuals, to find our footing in these troubling, pandemic waters, even as the storm continues to rage all around us. A footing that takes us back to the basic core value of the gospel itself: to love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.

And do you know what? We can do this! We can overcome any fear we may be experiencing, because we are being invited, again and again and again, into the saving love of God. It’s a love that’s all around us, a love that indwells our soul, and it’s a love that interconnects all living things.

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[i] Barack Obama’s full eulogy of John Lewis found at (www.cnn.com) July 30, 2020.
[ii] Quote found at www.ucc.org/sanuel/sermon/seeds) August 9, 2020

Wouldn’t It Be Easier?

The Israelites complained to Moses, “Isn’t this the very thing we told you about while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’ because it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’”               – Exodus 14:12 (paraphrase)

“You would cut off your own nose just to spite your face.” This is an old saying that I didn’t really understand when I was young. I mean, it sounds kind of silly, right? Who would mutilate themselves in order to make a point? Actually, I hadn’t thought about it for many years. Just the other day, however, as I was thinking about the great changes that we as a society are undergoing, this saying came back to me. And I began to wonder how many people “would cut off their own nose” just to avoid change? How many people would “spite their own face” just to keep the status quo?

Well, that seemed to be the sentiment among the Israelites as the reality and the cost of liberation became apparent. So, they complained to their leader, Moses, about the condition of their freedom. In essence, they wondered out-loud if it wouldn’t have been easier to have stayed in Egypt? Moses challenged them later in this passage, however, when he said, “…overcome your fear and stand firm, and you will see the deliverance that God will accomplish for you today.” Moses was reminding the Israelites, that while deliverance from bondage could be a frightening in the moment, the reward for standing firm, the prize for their steadfastness, would be greater than they could possibly fathom.

Now, in these unsettling and unusual times we too may wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to keep the status quo. But here’s the thing. The Covid-19 virus and the Black Lives Matter Movement have forever changed our society. Change is here whether we like it or not. And that being the case, it seems to me that we have a few choices to consider. I mean, will we accept the new normal of this pandemic? Will we forego some of our former activities, follow the CDC guidelines, and save the lives of as many people as possible, or will we let the fear of change lead us to cut off our own noses? And moving forward, will we accept this emerging transformation in how our differing races relate to one another or will we “spite our own face” by resorting to old stereotypes or racial slurs?

My friends, in these uncertain times, as we ask ourselves these difficult questions, and as we push-down our fears, rest assured that God is with us on the journey. We have example after example from Scripture calling us to fearlessly choose the difficult path by faithfully pursuing justice, by offering kindness, and by seeking wholeness for all of God’s people. This is the more difficult way, but in the end, it is the better way. May we find our way through the wilderness of these times, together.

Shalom and Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

A Broken Center

A Gathering Prayer

Blessed are they who fall in the mud, who jump with gusto and rip the pants, who skin the elbows, and bruise the ego, for they shall know the sweetness of risk.

Blessed are they who make giant mistakes, whose intentions are good but impact has injured, who know the hot sense of regret and ask for mercy, for their hearts will know the gift of forgiveness.

Blessed are they who have seen a D or an F or C or any letter less than perfect, who are painfully familiar with the red pen and the labels as “less than,” for they know the wisdom in the imperfect.

Blessed are they who try again, who dust off, who wash up, who extend the wish for peace, who return to sites of failure, who are dogged in their pursuit, for they will discover the secret to dreams.

Blessed are they who refuse to listen to the naysayers, for their hearts will be houses for hope.

Blessed are they who see beyond the surface of another,

for they will be able to delight in the gift of compassion.

Blessed are they who stop running the race to help a fellow traveler, who pick up the fallen, who stop for injured life, for they shall know the kindness of strangers.

Blessed are they who wildly, boldly abandon winning, for they shall know the path of justice.[i] Amen & Amen.

Scripture Reading  Mark 4:30-32 (A Paraphrase)

Once Again Jesus said, “What shall we say the Realm of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It’s like a tiny mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, as a matter of fact, it’s branches are so expansive, that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Our world feels like it is falling apart. We don’t know what to count on. We don’t know who we can trust. We don’t know what to believe. We don’t know where to go or how to be safe getting there. We don’t know if we’re infected with a virus. We don’t know if our companies will survive. We don’t know what this trauma is doing to our children. Where to we turn in these trying times?

Well, William Butler Yates might help us out here a bit. He once penned these famous lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere […everywhere]  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

My friends, the center is not holding. All that we trusted – institutions, leaders, corporations, multinational agreements, democracy, capitalism; it all seems to be falling apart. But here’s the thing. When the center is broken, we instinctively turn to the Center that’s always whole. We seek God, the One that was, is, and will always be. [ii] But as we do that, as we turn once again to the center of our faith, as we once again look to the church for reassurance, we come with new questions and with the same old questions; we come longing to begin to put the pieces together.

Now, for as long as I’ve been active in the church, people have been telling me it’s dying. With charts and graphs and data, I’ve been told many times that the center of my life, the church, used to be the right size but now it’s too small. But that’s not what I see. I view churches like mustard seeds – looking to all the world like something too small to matter but with room enough for so many in their shade. [iii]

Consider our church buildings. Some people might look at both of our beautiful church buildings, Cable and Delta United Churches of Christ, and simply see places to gather on Sunday mornings. And until this past spring, that was a big part of our identity as faithful congregations. But if this pandemic has shown our on-lookers anything, it’s that we’re more than just two well-maintained church buildings. When we say we are the “Church” we’re not talking about the buildings’ we’re talking about the people. Our congregations, our members and friends and visitors are the body of Christ on any given Sunday or Wednesday or Tuesday. We are the Church because the Church is anywhere the love of God is demonstrated through acts of compassion or justice and the Church is present anytime we seek to bring wholeness to humanity or creation.

And yes, before this virus hit, we participated in countless outreach ministries and creative mission opportunities. And in the United Church of Christ and in both of our congregations, we’ve always been a little ahead of the curve in our openness to a variety of people from many different walks of life. We’ve been, and continue to be, churches who offer an extravagant welcome by sharing God’s invitation to all people, no matter where they find themselves on life’s journey; an offer to fully participate in the life, worship, and sacraments of the church. God’s invitation is not reserved for an exclusive, righteous few, but it’s extended to all people – all people – no exceptions.

Now, with all of that being said, the fact is we’ve had to cancel or modify or postpone a whole bunch of things that define who we are as Delta and Cable United Churches of Christ. These opportunities to gather for worship or bible study or fellowship are dearly missed. I get that! This is another aspect of that broken center that Yates and I mentioned earlier. But… but here’s the thing. Out of brokenness comes an opportunity to discover wholeness, perhaps even a greater wholeness than we had before.

I mean, consider our parable for today that Jesus shared so many years ago. He looked around at those gathered there, in the dusty arid wilderness, and he struggled for a story to which they could relate. “What shall we say the Realm of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?” Notice here in Mark’s account that Jesus says nothing about faith. You see, for Mark the mustard seed represents the Kingdom or the Realm of God, a realm that was present all around them. Jesus was the center of that realm and his life was defined by love and grace and forgiveness and compassion. These attributes of Jesus, then, create for us an image of what the realm of God should look like here, in our time. An image meant to bring us peace amid chaos, justice instead of oppression, and wholeness in the midst of brokenness.

And here’s the good news!  We don’t need to have all the answers. We need but a tiny understanding of this present realm, a mustard seed of the attributes of Jesus will be sufficient to center ourselves on God and the work of compassion and extravagant welcome to which we have been called!

And here’s the better news! Even when the world seems like it’s falling apart, even when the centers of society seem broken beyond repair, we can find our center God because God is always faithful.

And finally, here’s the best news of all! God is love and each of us are loved by God. And we as God’s faithful are called and challenged to be the Church beyond our buildings by sharing God’s love with all people and by loving all of creation with that same passion.

May it be so. Amen and Amen.

 

 

 

 

[i]  A Blessing for Risk-Takers and Failures By Robin Tanner

[ii] Carmen Trimble Plotting Faith (carmon@congergenceus.org) 2020

[iii] John Edgerton Small But Spicy (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2020

Guerrilla Gardening

Matthew 13:24-30 – The Parable of the Weeds

 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared. The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’ An enemy has done this,’ he answered. The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’ But the landowner said, ‘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. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.’”

I learned a new term this week. Guerrilla gardening. What is guerrilla gardening? Well, an article I read defines it as “…the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land. It is usually done in the name of improving urban space and as an action against urban blight. It can be very politicized, and it can also be informal. Sometimes it is a short-term gesture, as in throwing a seed bomb over a fence into a vacant lot. Other times it can grow into something much more permanent, like the garden plots in my neighborhood.”[i]

Now, let’s think about guerrilla gardening in light of the parable of the weeds that we have before us today. To me, it sounds like a guerrilla gardener is the opposite of the “enemy” in Jesus’ story.  The guerrilla gardener spreads “wheat” in places where only weeds had previously existed. But how might these contrasting examples of gardening speak to us today? How might we, as people of faith, spread the seeds of compassion, of grace, of justice to the “vacant lots” of our community, to the forgotten spaces in other corners of this world? How might we overcome the evil that exists all around and within us? Under what conditions might we become guerrilla gardeners?

Well, many of the same questions that trouble us also troubled the earliest Christians, including the community Matthew addresses here, in his Gospel. Now, Matthew often used language of judgment, decision and division, sometimes producing terrifying scenes of condemnation. In response to our ancestors’ struggle with the presence of evil in their midst, Matthew provided them with pictures and promises to help them endure and persist, even if their little community, and the big world beyond it, seemed infected and flawed by  the “weeds” sown by an unseen power at odds with God’s vision for the world.

Barbara Brown Taylor shares that parables are not direct answers to the questions that we want clearly and specifically answered. But instead, she says, they deliver “…their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious. Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding”[ii]

Parables are mysterious, and as I said last week, if we take them to literally or if we think we’re certain about their meaning, the parable and thus the message is in danger of become irrelevant. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we’re probably getting a little closer to the heart of what we’re meant to gain from it. You see, “Parables are short stories that often teach by criticizing bad behavior and calling for hearers to reform their lives. These are not simply reflections on the kingdom of heaven; these are directions for how to create the kingdom of God here on earth.”[iii]

Now, like last week’s lectionary reading, our passage contains a parable with images of sowing seeds. Last week’s sower liberally spread seeds on every kind of ground, with mixed results. This week’s sower presumably uses good ground, but also gets mixed results because of the actions of an unnamed “enemy.” And this is important. It’s important because as in any good storytelling there’s tension and conflict. The enemy here actively resisted the work of God the sower. Perhaps those early Christians had a sense of their own powerlessness. Perhaps they felt small and vulnerable in opposition to the powerful enemies of their society.[iv]

But what about you? Are there times when you feel powerless or vulnerable in the face of the evils of this our society? But while this parable and the subsequent explanation seem to look forward to a final judgment day, it’s intent, in reality, is better understood in how we build up the reign of God in our present circumstances. As we work toward a society in which all people are treated with dignity and respect we will have to contend with the weeds that choke justice, literally and figuratively.

Now, I’ve seen his parable misused to justify complacency as the weeds and wheat grow together until final harvest; a “just let God sort it out” kind of thinking. But telling people who are presently suffering victimization to wait for a future reckoning only causes further harm and fails to promote God’s vision of justice. God’s eschatological justice cannot be an excuse for inaction, comfortable ignorance, or outright denial of the need for change.[v]

And this is where we come back around to guerrilla gardening. I believed with every fabric of my being that we are being called, during these most trying of times, to become “guerrilla gardeners of God’s love.” What does that mean? Well, It means continuing the process of finding ways to be sowers of wheat among the weeds of this world. But it also means considering the places where we’re the ones sowing the weed seed. We’re simultaneously represented by both the weeds and the wheat in this parable. We’re the ones who have stood up against racial injustice, for example, but at the same time we’ve also, perhaps unwittingly, participating in passive racism by utilizing social structures that advantage white-straight-men over all others.

So, what a parable like this one challenges us to do, first of all, is to become aware of these systems and then, to use our new-found awareness to influence social change. Real and lasting social change that can be realized if we are willing to lend our voices, our wallets, and our vote to insure that equality and justice is real for every single one of God’s children.

Yes, in the end, we are both weed and wheat. But we can choose to become something more, we can choose to become sowers of justice, propagators of peace, channels of God’s grace; we can, my friends, choose to become guerrilla gardeners of God’s love. And isn’t that finally, something worth considering?

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[i] David Tracey, Guerrilla Gardening: A Manual-festo (BC: New Society Publishers, 2007).

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor “Learning to Live with Weeds,” in The Seeds of Heaven (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

[iii] Jaime L. Waters How the Parable of the Weeds Compels us to Fight for Justice  (www.americanmagazine.org) 2020

[iv] Katheryn Matthews’ reflection on Matthew 13 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

[v] Ibid. Waters