Does Jesus Care About Divorce?/Sermon: Oct. 5, 2015

Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas, Oct. 5, 2015

This week, you and I are beginning our third year together as priest and congregation at St. Paul’s. For the last two years, I’ve been out and about in my clergy collar here in Woodville – I don’t talk about it a lot, but it hasn’t been easy. And some days, it’s hard.
Judging by the stories many of you shared with me when I first arrived here, you can identify, having had your own challenging experiences as Episcopalians here in East Texas. As one of our parishioners pointed out, walking around with ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday gives a good taste of what being different in Christian community is like, how assumptions and misunderstandings can make our common life more difficult, without opportunities for conversation.
Last week, I was out at lunch with a couple of friendly folks when a lady at another table started glaring at me. I thought maybe she just had bad depth perception, but since she glared harder at me after I smiled and nodded a hello, I’m guessing that wasn’t it! Most of the time nobody responds to me in stores or restaurants. I mean, I get it – I’m a triple threat in our small rural town: I’m a newcomer, I’ve got a clergy collar on, and even worse, I’m a woman with a clergy collar on. I’ve experienced worse in my collar, and I know that, unfortunately, you and others have had similar experiences over differences in Christian belief.

No, I don't dress like a Swedish stewardess from 1965.

No, I don’t dress like a Swedish stewardess from 1965.

This is more like the clergy girl life in East Texas. Just to be clear, I'm the one on the right.

This is more like the clergy life in East Texas. Just to be clear, I’m the one on the right.

Differences in what we believe are difficult things to process. Our Gospel from Mark today is packed with difficult things to process. But let’s be brave and look at it together:
On the surface, this is a recording of Jesus teaching the crowds gathered around him, in an area of Judea near the Jordan, when he is confronted publicly by a group of Pharisees putting him on the spot about Jewish law and divorce.
This is going to be a familiar process. We’re going to hear the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner again in Mark 12, by asking another dangerous political question, “Do we Jews have to pay taxes to the Roman emperor?” and later in the same chapter, with a question one of them must have stayed up all night coming up with, “If a woman marries seven brothers in a row, whose wife is she going to be to in heaven?
Where and how this confrontation on divorce law happens is important to understanding the conversation. Where have we seen this before? Who else besides Jesus was in Judea near the Jordan, angering the Pharisees? Who else, like Jesus does in Mark 1, has been declaring “the kingdom of heaven has come near?”
John the Baptist, in Matthew 3. And what happened to John the Baptist? He was thrown in prison and had his head cut off. Why? Because he dared to criticize Herod about divorcing his wife to chase after his brother’s wife.

This is what happens to guys who criticize Roman tetrarchs when they're trying to dump their wive's for their brother's girl. But doesn't her daughter's dress sure look spiffy?

This is what happens to guys who criticize Roman tetrarchs when they’re trying to dump their wives for their brother’s girl, using her daughter’s help. Does her dress say, “My dancing convinced the king to give me anything, and all I got was this guy’s head?”

Think this confrontation might just be a trap? Most likely. Jesus knows the Pharisees are working for his imprisonment and death. But it’s not yet his time to die, and God’s son won’t put himself into their hands until it is the right time.
So Jesus is in public, a crowd of witnesses listening, and he flips the question around on the Pharisees: “You want to know if it’s lawful? Ok, you tell me. What does your own law say?”
They’re not going to let him get the better of them, or pass up a chance to show off their knowledge of the law, so they answer right back: “Well, Moses allowed a man to dismiss his wife in writing, and divorce her.”
Ok, so the question on Mosaic law is answered. A guy can put his wife out and divorce her.
This is the point where the Pharisees should have walked away, because it’s about to go down. Jesus says, ok, you want to open up this can of worms, here we go:
The reason why Moses allowed that concession to the law, is because of your hard-heartedness. From the beginning, my Father’s dream for the life of the world was for wholeness. For you to live and work together in perfect creative union, one new life together in God.
Divorce is a sad thing. God wants what he creates to grow and flourish – not to suffer division and destruction and death. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer, or be hurt, or shoved to the margins. But he also understands that we are human, and we struggle to be our best selves.
After the public confrontation and they are gathered, probably around a meal, in a private home, the disciples are still caught up in the law, so they ask for more conversation. What we hear is a very candid, private discussion with the disciples, that wouldn’t have taken place in the public forum just before this. Jesus reflects to them God’s serious response to breaking the covenant of marriage – those who are bound together as one before God, but leave that union to join with someone else, are breaking a sacred covenant. At the same time, in naming both men and women as equally responsible and equally accountable, he upends the patriarchal Mosaic marital law. Imagine if he had said that in front of the Pharisees!
God’s law of perfection is tough, but at the same time, God is full of grace and love for his people. Sin and forgiveness. Unquestionable perfection and unlimited grace. These things co-exist because of God’s holy mystery. This mystery also holds the foundation of our salvation: we are called, despite our brokenness, to be reconciled to a holy and perfect God, who loves us so much that we are also given the grace of Jesus Christ in order to do it.
This is what Jesus is focused on, the divine mystery that is being revealed. This is the kingdom that is here. Jesus is the Messiah, and he is re-introducing God’s dream for the life of the world to a world that is suffering outside of God’s wholeness. They couldn’t live out God’s perfect dream for the world, so they needed concessions in the law under Moses. Jesus has come to overturn, to supersede the law, with his compassion for us. “Love the Lord your God with all heart and all your soul and all your mind – and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two things hang all the law and the prophets.”

No, God doesn't like divorce. Divorce means there has been pain and brokenness in our covenant with him and one another. His vision is for wholeness - but his Son came because we are sometimes broken instead.

No, God doesn’t like divorce. Divorce means there has been pain and brokenness in our covenant with him and one another. From the beginning, his vision is for our relationships to reflect God’s love and wholeness. His Son came because we are hardhearted, and more interested in hurting each other in growing together for the peace of the world. Jesus came to remind us what perfect sacrificial love looks like.

This is revolutionary. This is subversive. This is what will get him killed.
As the Pharisees confront him, Jesus is about to make his turn toward Jerusalem and his trial, crucifixion, and Resurrection – as Charles Campbell puts it, “the kingdom trajectory builds toward greater equality and radical hospitality for the oppressed.”
Yes, Jesus cares about divorce. But he is less concerned with issuing public opinions on divorce law then he is in completing his mission, declaring the Good News that he is the ultimate concession to the law, so that in him, we may live the redeemed life and enter into God’s perfected dream for the world.
As David Howell writes, “Jesus has declared that the kingdom of God has come near, and that meant that everything was changing. So the answer to the Pharisee’s question is not what was permissible under the law, but what is now possible in this unfolding kingdom of peace, and love, and justice.”
In the kingdom of God, justice and a way forward in peace is revealed in the Gospel of Jesus – men and women are given the same rights and with them the same responsibilities. Children, the least powerful among us, are given the ultimate power positions – welcomed and blessed by God himself, and made examples of the entry requirements into his kingdom.
Whenever I go out into town here in my collar, despite the difficult experiences, there is one group of people who never fail to welcome me. They not only welcome me, they run to welcome me – they embrace me with a love that overlooks my shortcomings, and isn’t concerned with our theological differences. This group is only concerned about how excited they are at being together again in our shared love of Jesus.

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This group is the children. The children from our little rural church school, a mixture of age, culture, race, and church backgrounds – my “Chapel friends,” as I call them. When I run into them in town, they never fail to smile, to run over excitedly and hug me, to share with barely-contained excitement what new and wonderful things are happening in their world. They aren’t worried yet about who is and is not worthy enough to share in the love of Jesus that is so brightly shining in them.
These little ones are precious to God. And they are our models, our examples of how we should be conducting ourselves as members of his kingdom – overlooking our differences, even our theological ones, to come together around our shared love of God. The kingdom of God IS near. Are you ready to receive it? Are you willing to be the ones – maybe the only ones – who run to embrace others into the kingdom, including those who nobody else will welcome?
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. …whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
To such as these belong the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Missional Communities and God’s Dream/Sermon for Aug. 23, 2015

This has been the week that a lot of parents are sending their children off to college, many for the first time. Our son is already in college and now soon to go back to school, and tomorrow our daughter is continuing her high school career. It hit me this week that my husband and I in being there for the big starting days of our son’s academic career, stood as witness to the days that began to change his worldview. As we dropped him off at preschool for the first time, and later dropping him off at college for the first time.

The big experiences change our worldview, but we still see them through the lens of our choosing. Image: iStock.

The big experiences change our worldview, but we still see them through the lens of our choosing. Image: iStock.

The big transitions in your life may have involved sending a child off to college, or maybe it was something else, like moving away from your parents, getting married, or going off to boot camp. Whatever your big events have been, they sparked a change in your worldview – for better or for worse, you never looked at things quite the same way again.
Other times our community worldview changed, globally or nationally or locally. The Renaissance, Industrialization, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Internet, Smartphones. All changed our worldview. And you can’t change your worldview without spinning the globe around a bit. These experiences are new, and unsettling, and scary. And different, and exciting, and – new.
The worldview was changing fast for the disciples of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading from John. It must have felt a little like their globe was spinning. Jesus is teaching in the Synagogue at Capernaum, and guess what, like us deep into Pentecost, they are getting yet another lesson on bread. Bread, bread, bread. But not just any bread – Living bread! And Jesus is asking them to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
There’s an interesting story about King David described in First Chronicles and Second Samuel. David and his army are fighting the Philistines, who have overthrown David’s home town of Bethlehem. At one point David starts talking about how good it would be to have a nice long, cool drink of that great Bethlehem well water – a well currently under siege by the Philistines. So three of David’s best soldiers go out and break through enemy lines, sneak into Bethlehem, hit the well, and bring their king back a big cup of his favorite water.
According to N.T. Wright, David knows that he can’t drink the water – because it would look like he was profiting from the death-defying work of his soldiers, who risked their life-blood for him, and that would be tantamount to drinking their blood – breaking a Jewish law against it, while at the same time making him look like one spoiled ruler. So he poured the water out onto the ground as an offering to God.
Jesus goes David one better. Jesus hopes that those around him will profit from his blood sacrifice. He invites us into the profit, into drinking his blood so that our life may be in him, and that he will raise us up on the last day.
The bread and the wine we take together in the Eucharist are a foretaste of the ultimate moment when our worldview changes, when into our vision is the fully revealed Kingdom of God. This is our peek into the eternal banquet already in progress around the throne of God. This is our reminder of the power of the Holy Spirit that is in us – of our Communion with God, the source of all power and love, and with the angels and archangels and the saints who have done their good work and gone on before us. This is the worldview we share, and are called to share with the world.

Worldview changes are unsettling. But God's Creation thrives on the unsettled messiness of searching, discovery, and growth.

Worldview changes are unsettling. But God’s Creation thrives on the unsettled messiness of searching, discovery, and growth.

Exactly how that communion happens is one of God’s holy mysteries. But we know this is where we encounter Jesus Christ, because this is where he asked us to meet him. The disciples didn’t have it figured out any better than we do. And they weren’t too happy about it. “Eat your flesh? Drink your blood? Eternal bread? This is hard stuff!” they said, complaining. “Who can deal with that?”
Jesus gives them a little something to think about – “Oh, you think accepting that is tough? What if you saw the Son of Man going right back up to where he came from?”
He’s telling his disciples that if they think wrapping your brain around what he’s said so far is hard, they’d better pace themselves, because there’s a lot more coming – his trial, death, resurrection, and his astounding ascension are still ahead.
Jesus calls them to quit trying to rationalize what he is staying to the exclusion of their faith in what he is doing. It is our spirit that gives us life, the eternal part of us God has created in us and through which Jesus reconciles us to the Father. Our spirit is what feels the authenticity of the love of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The flesh by itself won’t get you anything, Jesus says. God lives in you through the Spirit.
A number of disciples, following Jesus in addition to the original twelve, can’t accept his teaching, and they leave. This Messiah they encounter is not the stuff of their legend. He is not the Mosaic superhero King of the Jews casting down the Romans, and restoring the Jews to political power. The words and actions of Jesus offer a worldview they refuse to consider. And so they leave.
Jesus, knowing full well what is to come and how each of the twelve disciples will act, ask those remaining whether they will also go, offering them a chance to affirm their belief. “We won’t. You hold the words of eternal life,” they say.
The transforming, eternal worldview is God’s dream for us. A dream of the Word of God made flesh and walking among us. A dream that we will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and walk humbly, and carry his peace and grace and mercy into the dark places where hope and love and justice live outside the door.

The re-Evolution of God's Kingdom happens in and through relationships.

The re-Evolution of God’s Kingdom happens in and through relationships.

More than 2,000 years later, his Church the Body of Christ continues to wrestle with accepting God’s worldview. As our communities change shape and evolve around us, we struggle to adapt. We are losing our vision for how to live into God’s dream for his world, and the question before us is this: Will we have the courage to adjust our worldview, and keep working toward that Kingdom dream, or will we walk away because it’s too hard?
Yesterday, three members of our congregation and I attended a Missional Community Workshop with Bishop Doyle in Houston. If you’ve never heard the term “Missional Community” before, you will. It is in short, a satellite faith community of a larger sending Church, a community of Christian service that exists completely outside the main Church. Missional Community offers people a different place to plug in and experience the love of Jesus, and to discover what it means to serve him together right inside their own neighborhood.
Our bishops and our new Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry are on fire to move the Church ahead quickly into the future so that we can unleash the power of the laity and the clergy that God has already given us through his Holy Spirit. We have to have the courage as a Church to get out of our own way. This worship space we are in today is sacred and beautiful – but it was never meant to be the end. We are meant to take what we experience here and go out and make more of it, and on and on.
What does that look like? How are we going to do that? If you’re confused by it all right now – that’s ok. One of the first things to understand about Missional Community work is that it can’t be tightly defined. God’s work cannot be boxed in to a definition because he is always doing a new thing.
Here’s the important thing to know today: if St. Paul’s wants to be a church that does the best we can for our congregational vitality, if we want a future where we don’t just survive, but thrive in God’s dream for us, then it is going to take some courage to take a good look at who we really are, and who our neighbors really are. We need to listen to them and with them about what they need, and what missional work makes sense for us in our community. It will take courage to adjust our congregational worldview, and transition our church culture according to those truths.

Image: Missio Dei Church.

Image: Missio Dei Church.

I want to be really authentic and very vulnerable with you, and say that right now, I don’t know what this means for us. I don’t know if this is something we are going to be able to do – or something enough of you will want to do. I don’t have any agenda or pre-conceived notion of what this kind of future would look like for St. Paul’s. This is very new to me. I don’t know where Missional Community will take us. I don’t know where it will take each of you. I don’t know where it will take me.
I do know one thing: God is with us. And knows our hearts. He knows the uncertainty and the excitement that the calling of the Holy Spirit causes in us. He know how it sounds when he asks us to live on his flesh and blood. But he knows how we benefit from life in him, and he asks us to have faith Because if you think where he’s taken us already is really something, wait until we see him lifting us up into God’s dream for us.

Visit St. Paul’s Episcopal Church online here.

McChurch and Community Engagement

Advent 1 Sermon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

It’s almost a given on the first Sunday in Advent, this first Sunday after Black Friday, that many congregations are hearing sermons today railing against greed and consumerism. For weeks we haven’t been able to get away from Black Friday advertising, or news stories on people fighting over big screen TVs or camped out in front of stores. I was determined not to be that priest who came in here and laid an Advent sermon on you about how this time of year we all spend too much time thinking about buying stuff, and not enough time thinking about God. Consumerism bad – God good. Sermon done.

But then I saw a story about a church branding agency trying to raise $1,000,000 to partner with any church willing to let them build a McDonald’s inside of it. It’s called – get ready for this – the McMass Project.

The project logo, believe it or not, and a link to the indigogo website, in case you're still struggling with whether to believe it, or not. (Image from indiegogo.com)

The project logo, believe it or not, and a link to the indigogo website, in case you’re still struggling with whether to believe it, or not. (Image from indiegogo.com)

Honestly, when I first read about it I was a little McNauseous. For us as Episcopalians, let alone for our sister Eucharistic tradition churches, to take the name of a sacred rite like the Mass and to use in a commercial venture mixing Happy Meals and the Holy Sacrament, seems like an abomination. For a while, I mourned the loss of people’s value for the sacred.

The prophet laments in Isaiah 64 that in our perception of God’s absence we have turned to sin. We have failed to call on God and to take ahold of him. Is it God’s fault for not showing up in the way we want him to? This Advent we’re not waiting for God to show up and shake the mountains. We’re waiting for a helpless infant in a manger. That hardly seems like a reasonable answer to our world’s desperate need for a visible God. And it didn’t seem like an answer for the nation of Israel, searching for hope after their sacred Temple is destroyed and their people are scattered to the winds.

The prophet’s cry in Isaiah resonates in its desperate call to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

That’s the kind of Old Testament presence of God you get hungry for when you’re thinking about today’s Christianity determined to act as if in into exile, melting down its gifts and trading them in for a golden calf – or in this case, the Golden Arches – while violence and suffering surround us and God seems silent and busy on his mountain.

It’s never good to get worked up about something that you haven’t bothered to read all the way through, so I kept reading the McDonald’s project’s proposal. According to them, the problem is that churches are failing at an alarming rate across the country – as many as ten thousand churches a year shut down. People are leaving churches in droves – three million people a year in the United States walk out the door after failing to find something to which they feel a connection. The solution, according to the project developers, is that churches need to innovate. The idea for what they call a “perfect partnership” is to combine churches, well-known for being community-centered organizations, with McDonalds, well-known for bringing in droves of people. A store in a good location becomes more valuable over time the more money it makes. Put the two together, this group claims, and you will create a self-sustaining, community-engaged, popular church.

The project's recipe for keeping churches sustainable, community-engaged, and popular. (Image from indiegogo.com)

The project’s recipe for keeping churches sustainable, community-engaged, and popular. (Image from indiegogo.com)

As much as I hate the idea of a McChurch – I have to admit they’re not completely wrong: churches ARE dying off, and people ARE leaving. And churches are known for being community-centered organizations. Or at least, they used to be. This is where the road divides between us as the Church, established by Jesus as his Body in the world until his return, and those who would package and sell our Christian identity like so many boxes of chicken nuggets.

It is our Christian identity of the church as community-engaged that we need to reclaim for God, in every way we can. Not by selling ourselves into a profit-making business partnership for financial survival, but by partnering in the community, serving and engaging so deeply and so consistently that our identity becomes indistinguishable from this community. When that happens, no one will be able to think of Woodville without thinking of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a community dedicated to living for God.

That is the kind of relationship the people leaving the church in droves are hungry for, not for French fries. They are hungry to learn about and experience a kind of spirituality that is molded into a deeply meaningful and deeply satisfying Christian lifestyle. As it says in Isaiah: Still God, you are our Father, you are the potter, and we are the clay. We are hungry to be molded more and more into the image of God in which he has made us. In Advent, we learn to wait not for the mountains to shake, but for the manger to be filled. Faith is trusting not in huge signs from God, but from a God who knows about the strength that is found only in being vulnerable to each other – to risk everything we are to love someone else.

Advent is the time for waiting. But I can’t hardly wait because we’ve got a new church year in front of us. We have a new year with new opportunities God will be asking us to take him up on! But first, we have four weeks to ponder, to hope, and to recommit ourselves to living our identity as Jesus followers, and as his community-centered Church. It may seem like a long wait, but in just four Sundays Christmas Eve is coming, and it won’t be Mac-This or Mac-That. It will be the Mass of Christ, when we celebrate the ultimate moment that God became engaged in our human community.

 

On Ferguson, the Church, and What We Believe

“We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but I think we stand a chance if we are willing to be open to what we say we believe.” – Catherine, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Morrow, Georgia/Episcopal News Service

What follows is a sermon I preached to my rural East Texas community Episcopal church in August, at the height of the racial uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. As the nation waits tensely again this week for legal decisions, and Missouri communities gather offering peace and shelter, I encourage all pastors to redouble their efforts to preach peace and unity from their pulpits, and for all Christian people, particularly my Episcopalian brothers and sisters, to live what we say we believe:

Twenty years ago while a student journalist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis I became familiar with racism, and with Ferguson, the neighborhood located directly north of campus. Ferguson has stayed in the national eye these last few weeks as racial tension, violence, and calls for peace continue to be heard in that neighborhood. Twenty years ago, the racism I witnessed was also deeply troubling. The Missouri Ku Klux Klan was by its own description attempting to get stronger and more powerful by attracting more affluent and well-educated members by attempting to sponsor programming on the university radio station. The station refused to cooperate, and so the klan sued the state of Missouri in federal court to try to force the station to take its money, and read a promotional underwriting statement for the klan on air. At the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis I had the opportunity to interview the leader of the Missouri klan. Someone might be tempted to be sympathetic to his cause, as long as that someone hadn’t bothered to educate themselves on 150 years of klan history. When listening to voices in controversial moments in time, people of good faith should be careful to listen and feel for the presence of that deeper grace generated through the love of Jesus Christ. That grace will reveal the sinful from the just.

From a St. Louis art exhibit promotion/maatology.blogspot.com

From a St. Louis art exhibit promotion/maatology.blogspot.com.

The most telling thing in that interview happened in the last couple of minutes of our conversation. That’s when it became clear that what he was saying and what he was doing were two very different things.
Jesus talking to his disciples in Matthew 16 asks them to describe who the people of Caesarea Philippi are saying he is. Caesarea Philippi is an interesting location for this conversation to take place. Located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea was the center of worship for a number of pagan gods, the local community attraction being a huge natural spring feeding the Jordan River. Jesus and his disciples traveled there after an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had teamed up to trap him, demanding he show them a sign to back up his claim of power. Instead, he makes a bold move for justice, confronting them in return, naming them as evil and unfaithful followers of God, who could understand the signs of impending weather, but who failed to recognize all the signs of their own hoped-for Messiah. And so into this atmosphere of blindness and accusation by God’s own people, into this town filled with pagan worshippers, Jesus puts the question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The response varies – some say Elijah, some say John the Baptist, or Jeremiah. Then Jesus asks Simon directly, “Who do you say that I am?”

"Who do you say I am?"  - Jesus

“Who do you say I am?” – Jesus

Simon’s answer is you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This very interesting answer brings together both Hebrew and pagan traditions to claim Jesus’ kingship, the titles acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In Hebrew that is the royal title of “anointed one” and the Son of God, another Hebrew title for royalty. Son of God was also used by Greek leaders, including the first Roman emperor Augustus, as a title of divine authority. Of course, we have inserted here that Jesus is son of the Living God. Not a cold pagan statue, or some pagan God in some undead netherworld who has to be charmed into appearing – a living God who walks among his people and gives them eternal life.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." - Simon Peter

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” – Simon Peter

Jesus renames Simon as Peter, a play on his name, which means rock, and names him as the rock he will build his Church on. To be more exact, Jesus proclaims not Peter himself, but his faith, as God-inspired. Not the result of any experience Peter has had of his own effort, but that his faith is built by the work of God himself. The kind of faith God establishes in Peter is the faith that Jesus names as the foundation of the Body of Christ, the living Church that will remain on earth after his death, resurrection and ascension. The living Church that is charged with loving in his name and building the kingdom until Jesus returns to complete his work in the remaking of Creation.
To his Church represented by Peter, Jesus leaves the keys of the kingdom and the authority to act in his name with heavenly power. The keys of the kingdom is the knowledge inspired by God in Peter, the understanding Jesus leaves with us that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one through whom we are reconciled to God in his sacrifice and through whom we have access to eternal life.
Our authority is the power of God lived through the Church to the world. The keys and the authority – these are the tools of our Gospel mission. What we say, and what we do. Holding the keys to the kingdom means we have a responsibility to say to others that there is a saving grace in knowing Jesus Christ. Having authority means that we have a responsibility to do actions that build up the kingdom – to do acts of love, mercy and justice in the world in his name.
As members of God’s holy, catholic and apostolic Church, what we say is as important as what we live. What we live is as important as what we say – because in both of those things, as representatives of the Church, we are speaking for Jesus Christ. We are living for Jesus Christ. In all places, at all times.
With the events in Ferguson and what seems to be a growing racial divide around the country, there is a growing call from within the Church for us to use our voices and our actions to live what we claim to believe – the love of Jesus for everyone, everywhere. Some of the hardest conversations we have and most challenging actions we take are in the course of race relations here in East Texas. Yet Jesus calls us to say and to do words and actions of justice, mercy, and grace – in all places, at all times. This week there were a lot of words and actions in Ferguson, words and actions of hate and peace.
Be reassured that God is with us in these difficult days – he never leaves us nor forsakes us. I want to close with some encouraging words of grace I came across in an Episcopal News Service story this week. It is a quote from a woman named Catherine who is a member of St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Morrow, Georgia, near Atlanta:
“My hope lies in the fact that I believe in the church we have a chance. Celebrating Holy Communion is so important because it reminds us that we’re committed to something bigger than ourselves. I believe the church is the place where we can develop real dialogue, real trust and model a different way to be with one another. We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but I think we stand a chance if we are willing to be open to what we say we believe.”
May what we say, and what we do, be what we believe.

Read, mark, and inwardly digest.

Dear fellow Episcopalians: Read, mark, and inwardly digest.

 

 

Forgiveness and the Everlasting Gobstopper/Sermon Sept. 14, 2014

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
This is my favorite Willie Wonka movie quote, from the 1971 version with Gene Wilder, not the newer version with Johnny Depp. Sorry to any Johnny Depp fans out there, but he just can’t hold a candle to Gene Wilder’s version.This line happens at the very end of the movie, after a little kid named Charlie Bucket from a desperately poor family loses a contest to own Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory on a technicality, and gets yelled at good by Wonka to boot.

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On his way out of the factory, Charlie gives up his one last chance to save his family. In his hand is the Everlasting Gobstopper, one of Wonka’s new secret formula candies. Charlie could easily sell that candy to Wonka’s rival and ruin his business. But Charlie doesn’t do it. Even though he’s been treated badly, Charlie refuses to take revenge – he sets the gobstopper on Wonka’s desk and walks away, forgiving the anger and the injustice of the technicality. Wonka picks up the candy and says in a quietly moving voice – like only Gene Wilder could pull off – “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
– Interesting side note, that quote is actually a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice about one lone candle burning in a dark hallway: “How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

In this long season of Pentecost following the birthday of the Church, we move today into Jesus’ teaching on Christian forgiveness. This is the last in the series of teachings to the disciples at Capernaum that make up a kind of employee manual for the kingdom, on the life and relationships within faith communities, and how Jesus expects those who follow him to behave toward each other. Last week, we talked about the community guidelines for handling sinful behavior between Christians, and the power God gives to the Body of Christ to make those decisions when we gather in his name. We follow that up today with Peter, coming to Jesus with a challenging question about sinful behavior and forgiveness, “Lord, how often should I forgive another member who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “77 times,” or as some ancient manuscripts say, “70 times 7.” Either way, whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a crazy number that realistically would never happen – Jesus is making a point by using this ridiculous number to say that our forgiveness should have no limit. There is no end to God’s forgiveness, and so there should be no end to ours.

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Last week, we heard a very structured and tightly numbered process on church discipline and accountability in community. But our call to forgive each other has no limitations. The same Church empowered with accountability has its power checked and balanced with a requirement to offer forgiveness – a reminder that the love of God guides every single part of a faith community’s life. The love of God guides even our struggles with one another.
Jesus underlines the importance of this requirement to forgive in telling his disciples the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A king forgives his servant a ridiculously large debt, 10,000 talents. 10,000 was the largest Greek number, and a talent was the largest currency unit. That ridiculous amount of debt was something the servant couldn’t pay back even after working thousands of years. This servant who was forgiven a massive amount of debt fails to show any mercy to a fellow servant who owes him a comparatively tiny amount – 100 denarii, or about 100 days wages, and throws his fellow servant into jail. The king hears of it, and throws the unforgiving servant into jail. This is the same thing, Jesus says to the disciples, that my heavenly father will do to you if you do not forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.

Evidently, forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. Jesus makes a couple of things clear here: as sinners redeemed by God, we have been forgiven a debt that is bigger than we could ever hope to repay; so God expects us to be forgiving to others, and to really mean it, and if we don’t, he will hold us accountable. This is evident in the prayer of all the faithful that we say every Sunday, and in the Daily Office every day, the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount explains it in a little more detail, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. How many of you want to be forgiven by God – show of hands? Yeah, that’s pretty much everybody. We know that we do, but HOW do we about forgiving each other, especially when someone has never apologized for their behavior, or who has done something really terrible to us? Maybe that person’s not even alive anymore.
We are called simply to forgive. But forgiveness is not simple. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean pretending like what they did didn’t happen. In fact, it’s the opposite of that – forgiving someone means being honest about what has happened, then choosing to let go of the power that someone’s else’s sin has over you, by letting go of your anger and the desire for revenge. This can take time, prayer, and if the hurt is traumatic enough, we may need the help of a professional to guide us toward healing.

We are called by God both to forgive and to enact justice in the world. But forgiveness and letting go does not mean giving up justice. Jesus was very clear on the dangers of an unforgiving heart, but he was also clear about consequences for those who deliberately endanger the faith of vulnerable Christians, and those who continue to willfully sin against others in the Body of Christ.

We are empowered by God’s forgiveness. Because he forgave us first, our ability to forgive is therefore not dependent on the other person. We don’t have to wait for them to apologize. If they do it’s definitely nicer for us, and good for their soul if they do – as Jesus said, if they respond to accountability, then we have regained the one back into our faith community – but whether they are ever sorry or not does not matter to our call to forgive them. They don’t even have to be alive for us to forgive them. Forgiveness is a choice that is completely dependent on us discovering our own freedom in being a servant of God’s grace to others. When we make the choice to forgive, we are empowered by the healing grace of God at work in us.

Forgiveness is a spiritual practice, and like all spiritual practices, it takes time and regular work to get good at it. If you’ve been through something really difficult, and you don’t feel comfortable facing forgiveness in that right now, start by practicing forgiveness in smaller things. As you strengthen your forgiveness practice, you can begin to work on forgiving the big stuff. Don’t worry, God will make the journey with you. It is your willingness to have a forgiving heart he is looking for, not how perfect you can be at forgiving.

Charlie Bucket discovered that while he may have lost the contest, he ended up winning the chocolate factory and saving his family. Because he was able to let go of the way the world expected him to react, instead holding on to a commitment to doing what was right, he ended up getting everything he needed. Each time we let go and embrace the choice to forgive, we receive the grace of God that we need, and a sin-weary world sees a little more of the shining light of Christ.

"So shines a good deed in a weary world." - Willie Wonka

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.” – Willie Wonka

Christian Jenga: Building block or stumbling block?/Sermon Aug. 31, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, a little boy about 10 years old asked me to play a game of Jenga with him. If you’ve never played Jenga, it’s a game where you take turns pulling wooden blocks about the size of your finger out of a stacked tower of alternating trios of blocks and playing blocks on top, one at a time, until someone’s move brings the tower crashing down. The name Jenga comes from a Swahili word meaning, “to build.”

All the staring in the world won't help you figure out what piece to move next. You've got to make it a hands-on experience if you want to succeed. (Getty Images)

All the staring in the world won’t help you figure out what piece to move next. You’ve got to make it a hands-on experience if you want to succeed. (Getty Images)

We work really hard to be friendly and welcoming to the kids in need coming to the Children’s Advocacy Center where I work for my paying job (I’m a bi-vocational priest), so I said to myself, “I’ll pretend like I’m really trying at this game, so I won’t beat him too fast, and that way it will be more fun for him.” I needn’t have worried. A couple minutes into the game, this kid was giving me tips on how to play, and I needed the help. This kid I thought I was going to have to go easy on was slowing down to wait for me to catch up. And not only that, I could tell that he was holding back so he wouldn’t beat ME too fast. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot. The best part was that he taught me his best Jenga strategy, which was very nice, because there’s one person in my house who has two mechanical engineering degrees, and it isn’t me. (It’s my husband.) This really smart kid taught me that instead of using my technique of eyeballing the tower and trying to guess from its form where to pull a block out, while hoping the tower didn’t crash down, it worked much better if you tapped gently on the end of the blocks until a light movement indicated a loose block that was much safer to move. His technique worked so well that we ended up playing the longest game of Jenga I’ve ever played. The best part was that through the whole game, we kept helping each other instead of hoping the other person would mess up and lose. That wasn’t quite playing by the rules, but we were more excited about building the tower than we were about winning the game, and that made the experience much more fun.
“From that time on…” This is our opening phrase in today’s Gospel reading, and with it Matthew is giving us a large signpost that we’ve entered a significant turn in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Now that the disciples have finally understood Christ’s divinity and his kingship as God’s Messiah – now that they know WHO Jesus is, they are going to begin in these next Gospel readings to learn WHAT he is, what his purpose is in relationship to who he is as the Messiah.

20080504-mideastFor the people of Israel, the concepts of both an atoning sacrifice and a prophetic Messiah would be very familiar to them. What would not be familiar to them, what they and the disciples will witness and struggle to understand, is the combination of those two concepts into one Messianic atoning sacrifice. Jesus has come to save his people not by overthrowing a government, not by defeating the Roman Empire and stopping the oppression of the Jewish people, but by giving himself to be turned over to those same Romans, so that in dying he would overcome evil and sin and death for all us, and become our doorway to eternal life.
This is what Peter couldn’t face, no doubt because he couldn’t see past the pain of swinging from his God-given revelation of Jesus as triumphant Messiah-king to the next revelation Jesus has just begun to teach his disciples: their same Messiah, the prophetic hope of the people of Israel, is the same Jesus destined not for an earthly throne, but for a Roman cross.
That last, critical part – the Resurrection, Jesus rising to life again on the third day – seems to escape Peter’s attention. The keys to the kingdom are still fresh in Peter’s hands when he hears from Jesus that he is destined to lose his friend and mentor, and more than that, his Savior, in a terrible death at the hands of the Roman rulers they were hoping he came to conquer. We can probably all identify with Peter’s fear, and sympathize with his struggle at the same time to remember that if Jesus truly is the Son of God, then what he says about his own destiny is a God-ordained event, despite how hard it is for Peter to accept.

Poor Peter. He just got the keys to the kingdom, and he's already put a dent and scratch in it.

Poor Peter. He just got the keys to the kingdom, and he’s already put a dent and scratch in it.

It is important to note that the disciples following Jesus as Messiah likely assumed at this point that his mission was to restore Israel to power, with Jesus on the throne as their Davidic King. They did not yet understand the Kingdom that Jesus was sent to save was much, much bigger – that he is the Savior for the entire world.
Just last week, Peter was a building block. This week, he’s a stumbling block. This same Peter that Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom to, this same rock on which Jesus is going to build his Church, is the same disciple who Jesus sternly holds accountable for his actions, naming in him his fall into the temptation of Satan to turn away from godly discernment and to tune in to the devil’s fear and anxiety, and for Peter allowing himself to be used by the devil to try to tempt Jesus away from his mission by feeding into the fear and anxiety that he was vulnerable to in his humanness. We will later see him struggling with anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane.

A question to ask ourselves, "Am I being a building block or a stumbling block to those around me?"

A question to ask ourselves, “Am I being a building block or a stumbling block to those around me?”

Peter and the disciples are struggling to make the turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem. And Jesus honors that struggle with truth. He loves the disciples too much to give them anything less than a full picture of the reality of following him: to be a disciple of Jesus means to share in his suffering. To follow Jesus means to give up what they want for what God wants. To follow Jesus is to give up earthly values for what the world sees as God’s upside-down values – where the sick and poor are first in the kingdom, widows are loved and cherished, people in prison are remembered and visited, the needy are given food and care, and everyone is loved. Those and the values that God honors. But the world doesn’t honor them, and sometimes the world, or the worldliness in others, like the devil working in Peter, attacks us with the temptation to fall prey to fear and anxiety. That’s when we can call on God to give us strength, to be like Jesus and turn away from that temptation and look toward the cross. Today, we have the blessing of looking at the cross from the other side, of knowing it has been used for its purpose, and is now in its emptiness a source of strength and hope in the Resurrection for all of us.

We have an advantage the disciples. We can see the promise of the empty cross having already fulfilled its purpose for our hope in the Resurrection of Jesus.

We have an advantage the disciples didn’t at that time in their journey to Jerusalem. We can see the promise of the empty cross having already fulfilled its purpose for our hope in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Rarely in our part of the world will we be called as Christians to lay down our lives for our faith, although there are places where Christians do just that every day. We pray for them every week in our Prayers of the People. Here in our day-to-day life we rarely face death for our faith – but we are often challenged to die to self. To take up the cross of Jesus means to do the difficult work every day of laying aside our personal, fallible human mission so that we may work together on the mission of Jesus by working through the Church he established – to bring all people into relationship with God and each other through the love of Jesus.
Finding our way in God’s mission is like feeling for the right pieces to move in that Jenga tower. It’s hard to know what the right move is until you’re willing to get our hands on it and get a feel for it. But the good news is that we don’t do it alone – God has given us lots of brothers and sisters united in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to act together as the Body of Christ, to be the hands and feet, the ears and eyes, the heart of Jesus in the world. Jesus has left his Church the keys to the Kingdom. When he returns, we will be held accountable for how we’ve continued the ministry he started.

Focus on the mission to love everyone for Jesus, and don't forget to have fun in ministry!

Don’t worry if things don’t go as planned in ministry. Stay focused on the mission to love everyone for Jesus, and trust God to work out his purpose.

That is a pretty intimidating thought. But as we go forward in our ministries, serving this community, let’s keep the truth of Jesus in front of us: the beauty that comes from a life lived for God is not about how easy or how perfect it is – it is never easy, and it is rarely perfect. The beauty of a life lived for God is based in the rich spiritual life found in our deep relationship with him and each other through the love of Jesus. That is our mission. Anyone remember their Catechism? I see some worried faces! Don’t worry, this is not a pop quiz. But that’s what our Catechism says is the mission of the Church: to bring everyone together with God and one another through the reconciling love of Jesus Christ. If we are working together to build on that mission, and can stay more interested in that mission than in anything else, then we can focus on having a great time together in ministry, and trust the outcome to God’s guiding hand.

Get Out and Start Walking – Sermon Aug. 10, 2014

Yesterday, Steve and I had the chance to take a tour of a B-17. During World War II, my grandfather flew on one of these airplanes. I’d heard about B-17s all my life, and seen them in photos and the movies and on old news reels, but I’d never actually been in front of one in person. For some reason, I’d always thought they were pretty huge, but they’re not. You know it couldn’t have been too big, because this one landed at the Angelina County Airport in rural East Texas, not exactly a military or commercial-length landing strip.

The "Texas Raiders," a B-17 in the Commemorative Army Air Forces that we toured when it visited Lufkin, Texas.

The “Texas Raiders,” a B-17 in the Commemorative Army Air Forces that we toured when it visited Lufkin, Texas on Aug. 9, 2014.

My grandfather was a second lieutenant and the navigator on a B-17, and I got to go underneath the cockpit area and stand for a while in the little space overlooking the windows toward the nose, where he would have sat during missions on the left side at a small wooden desk, working with his maps to keep the plane on course.

My grandfather's "office" space, the navigator's desk.

My grandfather’s “office” space, the navigator’s desk.

What struck me as I stood there was how he and the crew must have felt as they got into that plane day after day, facing this hard, and uncomfortable, and dangerous work, knowing they were going into harm’s way. They were all so young, men in their early 20s, mostly. There were pretty much ordinary guys, with families waiting for them back home. So, how did they do it? Where did they find the courage?
In Matthew 14 we have twelve disciples who Jesus has compelled to get into a boat and go around to the other side, while he breaks up the huge crowd they’d fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes we heard about last week. I’m sure the disciples didn’t want to be parted from him, or to leave him alone without any support. But the Scripture doesn’t say he asked them politely, or begged them, or gently hoped they’d get into the boat. It says he made them get in. The crowd goes home and the disciples are in the boat, and he gets back to the solitude and prayer that he’d been heading for when the crowds found him. He spends the better part of the night on the mountain, and meanwhile a storm has whipped up and blown the disciples’ boat from the shore out into the sea, and they can’t get back to Jesus because the wind is against them.
This is like their experience in Chapter 8 when the disciples are together in a boat in a storm and their ship is getting swamped and they all think they’re going to die – but Jesus is with them, although he’s asleep, and they wake him up and he said then, like he says in today’s story, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he calms the wind and the sea with a command, and the disciples wonder what kind of man he is, that he can control the elements. Did you catch that? They wonder what kind of MAN he is. Not whether he’s God, but what kind of man he is.
In today’s story Jesus blows any kind of doubt about who he is out of the water – literally. The disciples spot him walking toward them across the water through the storm. They are terrified. It is storming, but they’re not afraid of the water. They think what they see is a spirit of some kind, Jesus’ ghost, or possibly some kind of evil that is heading toward them, and they’re stuck with no Jesus to wake up and help them this time. Jesus calls out to them, immediately, “Take heart.” In some versions it reads “have courage.” Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. This “it is I” phrase Jesus uses here is the same translation of the Hebrew name God uses for himself in Exodus 3 with Moses in the story of the burning bush when he says “I AM who I AM,” “tell them it is I AM who has sent you.” Jesus is in the storm, telling the disciples exactly who he is and who has sent him. “I AM God. This is who has sent me. Don’t be afraid.”

My favorite wall hanging in my office space at church. Jesus, walking on the water toward his disciples in the pre-dawn light, perhaps already calling to Peter, "Come!"

My favorite wall hanging in my office at church. Jesus, walking on the water toward his disciples in the pre-dawn light, perhaps already calling to Peter, “Come!”

Peter, always the one to push the envelope, asks Jesus to further prove who he is. If that’s you, call me out into the water, he says. And Jesus says, “Come.” Peter gets off to a good start, but as soon as he pays more attention to the situation than to the Savior, he starts sinking, and calls out for Jesus to save him. Jesus immediately reaches out a hand and pulls him up, asking, like he did before, “Why do you doubt, You of little faith?” They climb into the boat together and the wind dies, and the disciples, finally, understand – at least at this moment – and worship him as the Son of God.
We live our lives in an ocean of change. One day things are calm, and suddenly, without any warning, we may find ourselves in the midst of a storm. There are storms we face on the outside, caused by circumstances or people beyond our control, or storms happening within ourselves. There are storms that happen in our families, our church, our community, and sometimes, you may feel like you’re sinking. How do we handle that? How do we get up every day and keep doing this hard and uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous work of living in this stormy world? God is always with us, and we can be sure that when we cry out to him, Jesus hears us, immediately. And his Holy Spirit comes to comfort us, immediately.
Those men on that B-17 – they did it because they shared a common goal. They were ordinary guys, who were bound together in a mission to fight for freedom and to make the world a better place, especially for the families they were hoping to get back to. Some of them made it, and some of them, like my grandfather, didn’t. Surely some of them, probably most of them, were scared at times, but they still answered the call to serve. God was always with them.

The disciples were ordinary folks who answered an extraordinary call to serve, and God empowered them for ministry.

The disciples were ordinary folks who answered an extraordinary call to serve, and God empowered them for ministry. He still calls – and empowers – his disciples for extraordinary things today, if we’re willing to get out of the boat.

The disciples were ordinary people – fisherman, tent-makers. They were regular guys who had families waiting for them back home, but they were bound together in a common mission. They had all answered Jesus’ call to ministry. They were at times also called to face ridicule and even death. They had to go out into real storms, more than once, and they were scared, and some of them handled it better than others – but they were never abandoned by God.
We are the Body of Christ. We are the Church. We all have gifts for ministry, but we are also all ordinary people, people who come from regular jobs and regular lives to answer God’s call to serve, and this binds us together in a common mission to love others in the name of Jesus. Sometimes we handle our mission to love others well, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves faced with heading into a storm. Even then, God is with us.
Notice in both storm stories that Jesus doesn’t make everything peaceful first and then says, “Everything’s all right now, I’ve fixed it. You can look.” No, it’s still storming and the wind is still blowing when he reveals himself and says, “Don’t be afraid, I am God, and I am here with you.” It’s not until after he immediately comes to comfort us that he calms the storm. God is sovereign over all creation, and nothing will stop him from working out his purpose – even the worst of storms.

The truth is that sometimes we don’t have the courage to get out of the boat. Years ago, a pastor named Ernest Campbell said “the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”
Like Peter, Jesus is calling to us to get out of the boat and to start walking. He calls us to walk into places and situations in our church and community ministries that require faith, because they require us to be uncomfortable, and to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. The key to finding peace in the storm is in understanding that we don’t take our comfort from situations. We don’t take comfort from trying to keep everything perfect. We take our comfort from God. We have a God who reveals himself to us when we are scared, who hears us when we call out to him, and who reaches out and pulls us back up to safety first, before he ever stops to calm the storm.

I read something interesting this week on the phrase “you of little faith.” When Jesus said in both disciples’ storm stories, “Oh you of little faith, why do you doubt?” what if we look at the phrase not as a negative, not as saying they don’t have much faith, but as a positive, like the story of the mustard seed. True faith is so powerful that all it takes to do a great thing is to have a “little faith.” Peter had just enough faith to step out of that boat and start moving toward Jesus, and that’s the same guy, this guy who started sinking, who became the rock that Jesus chose to build his church on. That gives me a lot of hope, because even if we fail in our faith at times, just getting out of the boat can make a difference in God’s Kingdom. If we will focus on having just a little faith, then we have all we need to start walking.

I told you it was my favorite. Look again: Could this be Peter, walking toward Jesus? Is it you, answering Jesus' call to get out of the boat? Have courage, start walking!

I told you it was my favorite. Look again: Could this be Peter, walking toward Jesus? Is it you, answering Jesus’ call to get out of the boat? Have courage, start walking!

The Letter N and the Growth of God/Sermon July 27, 2014

In 1933, the Nazis began a very public campaign to destroy the Jewish people – their livelihoods and their lives. As a hallmark of that systemic violence, they began to paint a yellow Star of David, the six-pointed star that had become a symbol of Judaism, onto the front of Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany and beyond. Over the next 10 years, the Nazis would target and brutalize various groups of people including the Jews, eventually forcing those living in towns and concentration camps to wear garments with that same Star of David.

"Jude", or "Jew" and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

“Jude”, or “Jew” and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

By contrast, the Nazis used the symbol they adopted, a swastika, so much that it became synonymous with their particular brand of evil. Despite the Nazis best efforts to destroy the Jews by using their own marker of heritage against them, the Star of David is still very much in use by the Jews, while the swastika remains buried with the Nazis.
All of that happened 70 to 80 years ago. When so much time passes, when things become so far distant from what we are experiencing today, it’s hard to feel a connection to important events in the past, even if our shared experiences were once very fresh, and very sharp. It may have been difficult at times to find a way to feel connected to the parables of Jesus that we’ve been reading in Matthew over the last few weeks – parables that were spoken by Jesus 2,000 year ago. Wrapping up this section on parables we get five parables thrown at us in rapid succession. But they are connected to each other, and to the audience who would have been listening to Jesus speak, as they were facing very sharp and difficult times as the opposition to Jesus and his movement was growing.
These are parables about power and growth, about the precious value of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God it proclaims. This was a message of hope and worth to the people following Jesus who had given up everything in his name, and for others who were wondering if it would be worth for them to do the same.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed  the first parable in Matthew 13 begins … Being agricultural people, they would have been familiar with the size of a mustard seed. For most of us, me included, mustard is that stuff you get in the yellow French’s bottle on the grocery store shelf. But the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with both the seed and its tree, and how how remarkable it is that such a tiny seed contains all the information, all the life necessary, to grow into a tree large enough for birds to nest in.

Seriously, how does is all that mustard tree-buildin' information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

Seriously, how is all that mustard tree-buildin’ information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast – or leaven – all it took was a little bit of fermented material mixed in to change the entire makeup of a huge amount of dough. For most of us, bread is that stuff wrapped in plastic we pick up off the shelf at the grocery store, like the mustard. But for the people listening to Jesus, they would have been very familiar with the process of baking bread, and that three measures here meant enough to feed an entire banquet.
We can take a couple of things from these two parables: The Gospel is powerful. It is the Living Word of God contained within a simple message – but this simple story holds within it the information, the power that can change the world. The second thing we learn from these parables is that once God sets the growth of his Kingdom in motion, there is nothing anyone can do stop it. Nothing. The power of God is evident in his ability to choose something seemingly small and weak and to grow it into something massive by his own will. There are those who will try to grow their own kingdoms on this earth, but they will all eventually fail. God is the only true Creator, with the only real ability to resurrect, and his Kingdom is everlasting.
The mustard seed parable and God growing it into a tree that nests birds touches on a prophecy the prophet tells as recorded in Ezekiel 31. God had allowed the nation of Assyria to grow like a huge tree that the birds nested in, more glorious than any other trees, but it had become proud of itself and forgotten God, and so he cut it down, and sent it to its death. And in a great expression of his power tinged with humor, God points out that now his birds are standing on the once mighty tree’s fallen trunk, and his creatures are crawling around on its fallen branches. Nothing can grow so great that it outgrows the Creator – and God will even make use of the failure of the proud. The sound of this tree’s fall terrified the nations. And God goes on to tell Ezekiel that this same fate will happen to the Pharaoh of Egypt, who has been acting out evil against God’s people.
The memory of those events nearly 80 years ago in WWII have come rushing forward over the last few weeks as an extremist group taking hold in Syria and Iraq has begun a campaign to persecute Christians. And in an eerily familiar experience, they have started painting a symbol on the walls of Christian homes in the northeastern Iraq capital of Mosul in order to mark them for persecution – they are painting the Arabic letter “N”, the first letter of their term for Christians, “Nasrani,” taken from the word Nazarene, for those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Nasrani. The Jesus Followers. Churches have been desecrated and shrines sacred to both Christians AND Muslims both have been blown up. Everyone living in the city of Mosul has been terrorized, and Christians have been robbed of all they have, and have been told to leave or convert, or they will be put to the sword. Read more about this here.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term "Nasrani," from Jesus the Nazarene - Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term “Nasrani,” from Jesus the Nazarene – Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The Arabic letter "N," the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

The Arabic letter “N,” the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

It might seem like all is lost, for those Christians in Mosul. But God has them in his special care – as Jesus is quoted in several places in Scripture, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
We are half a world away, and that kind of test of faith seems very foreign – thankfully – to us here in America. Yet we are connected to these Christians because as fellow followers of Jesus, we are their brothers and sisters. They are our family. At the end of our reading in Matthew, after he’s finished telling the parables, Jesus talks to the disciples and asks them, “Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. And his response is to give them one more parable. “The scribes trained for the Kingdom of heaven are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus is telling the disciples that every person who is has heard and understands his message, all those who are trained to spread the Gospel, everyone who is taught to tell the Jesus story, is standing on the rich foundation of the long history of the people of God, in partnership with the new Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what gave the disciples hope in a time of rising conflict, when they were facing persecution, and even death. The same God who guided and lived in covenant with his people from the beginning, and in Jesus’ time, is continuing to work out his Kingdom among us here today.
Woe to any person or any movement who believes that they and their symbols can grow bigger than God. And the same to any of us Jesus Followers who don’t understand how much strength there is in the Gospel message we have been given, or if we think that there is anything – ANYTHING – that can stop the power of God to grow his kingdom.

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God's Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on...

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God’s Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on…

In one of many such gathers documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice their religion in Mosul.

In one of many such gatherings documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice Christianity in Mosul.

Nothing can stop the growth of God's Kingdom, lived out by the people of the "N."

Nothing can stop the growth of God’s Kingdom, lived out by the people of the “N.”

The Bad Seed (Spoiler: God Wins)

Sermon on July 20, 2014 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

In the late 1950s the “Bad Seed” was one of the most famous scary movies of its time, and it has become a classic. Based on a book and play about a child who seemed to be a sweet little girl with pigtails and ribbons who was from a nice family, but in reality she was a serial killer from a scary family. That phrase, the “bad seed” entered popular culture as an expression to describe someone who was trouble, an evil person mixed in and growing the-bad-seed-posteralong with the good seeds, but who wasn’t going to produce anything you would ever want. One of the creepiest things about that movie was during the ending credits, a voice came on and could be heard asking moviegoers as they left not to reveal the surprise ending to folks who hadn’t see the movie yet.
We’re still making our way through the rows of planting parables. Last week we heard about the Parable of the Sower and the different kinds of ground where Jesus was planting the Gospel seed. Today we have the Parable of the Weeds growing among the wheat. Jesus gives us another example to help us understand his kingdom and how it works: The Kingdom is like a landowner who plants good seed for wheat, but weeds are discovered growing with the wheat revealing that an enemy has sneaked in and mixed bad seed in with the good seed. The master’s servants wanted to go pull the weeds out, but the master won’t let him. He points out that the act of pulling the invasive plants will damage the good crop. The weed Jesus uses as an example is a grass that grew all over Israel, called darnell. Darnell would tangle its roots around the roots of the good plants, making it impossible to remove without damaging the wheat. And it was hard to separate them because darnell mimicked wheat – when they first start growing together, it was really difficult to tell them apart in the field. Darnell starts out wheattares1looking just like wheat, until it comes to harvest time, when the darnell puts out a lightweight seed head that stands straight up. Harvest time is when you can really tell the difference between the darnell and the wheat, because the wheat produces a much more robust and ripened seed head full of grain that is noticeably heavier and bent over with the weight of its fruit.
The second reason the landowner wouldn’t let his servants pull out the darnell was because it wasn’t their job. That was the work reserved for the reapers, the professional harvesters who would know how to collect and separate the darnell and the wheat properly for a good harvest.
Two more planting parables go by before Jesus’ disciples who are trying to absorb all this come to him and ask, Ok, what the heck’s up with this Parable of the Weeds? Jesus quite plainly describes it for them: he is the sower, the field is the world. In the world there is good and evil, and evil is caused by the devil; the harvest is the end of this world as we experience it now, when Jesus will send his angels to do the job he had given to them – weeding out all the sin and those who are evil, and casting them out, leaving the good and righteous resurrected in God’s perfected Creation – which will be so glorious to see that the people in it are described by Jesus as “shining like the sun.”
Our nice agricultural series seems to have taken a turn to the dark side, suddenly, we’re in a biblical version of The Bad Seed. Things that are sweetness and light, the children of God and God’s work, are all mixed around and tangled up with evil brought about by the devil’s work. We get a somewhat frightening vision of the end times, of angels going about the grim side of angelic work – sorting out the evil from the good, and shucking out the evil to be consumed in God’s fire.

This is the point that I'm hiding behind my popcorn.

I’m 43, and this is pretty much what I still look like when watching scary parts of movies. Everyone knows you’re safer behind the popcorn.

This would be right about the time in the movie that I’d be hiding behind my popcorn, because I’ve discovered over that years that during a scary movie, you’re much safer if you watch the bad scenes from between your fingers.
But this is not a movie. This is Jesus using a story to tell his disciples, and us, that for those who choose to follow him, and who practice Christianity as his Church, will not have it easy. This parable is an acknowledgement that as we go about our work for God in this world, we will encounter evil. One of the hardest questions we may struggle with, and certainly unbelievers ask and use as an excuse to reject God – is, why would a loving God allow bad things to happen?
This is not heaven, this world is not yet the full and perfected Creation. Jesus in his incarnation and resurrection began the work of the Kingdom of God, and is continuing that work in us every day until he comes back to complete it. Until that time, until our resurrection, we are transformed souls that belong to God, yet we live in bodies that age, in a world where things go wrong, in a place where sin exists, and evil happens. Until Jesus returns to separate out evil from God’s creation, we will continue to be mixed up, the good seed and the bad. We struggled with that reality again this week as the world witnessed the tragedy of nearly 300 violent deaths on a Malaysian airliner, and the war and conflict that continues to surround that tragedy, may they rest in peace. As Jesus told his disciples then, and as we hear his words today, we co-exist with evil, and it will continue to be with us until the end of the age. This is why his Gospel of love and reconciliation is So. Desperately. Needed.

This is also a warning not to overstep our bounds as Christians. We are to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to work for righteousness and justice, and to be godly in our life and work, holding each other accountable in love to those standards.But following in the steps of Jesus can become a slippery slope if we give in to evil preying on our sinful, prideful nature, when we forget ourselves and our mission, and slip across the line from justice into judgment – and we must be careful because judgment is God’s territory, not ours. Jesus is very clear in describing his parable to the disciples – he will decide what is righteous and unrighteous, and he will assign the work of pulling the weeds to his angels, not to the children of God.
When you think about it, there is a lot of mercy in that. Primarily because God relieves us of the burden of deciding who are his children and who have turned away from him, and he gives us freedom by assigning us a mission to love everybody equally in his Name, and to let him worry about the rest. There is also mercy here because while we Christians belong to God, we remain a part of this sinful world, and while we may be quick to judge others, we are not God, we do not know the mind of God, and we might get it wrong. And unfortunately, we all have plenty of experience adding to the “causes of sin” that Jesus describes the angels removing like weeds, in addition to those evil-doers. While we know we are children of God sanctified to him through the sacrifice of Jesus – we have not yet become fully who God originally created us to be. We still look forward to that great Day when Jesus will fully reveal his kingdom.
Until that time, we still live in a broken world, and we will continue to wrestle with our own sin. Scripture describes that battle within us in several places, Matthew included – in Chapter 18 Jesus warns us that there will be temptations growing within us, bad seed that we will have to identify and cut out like the darnell weed, because at times we are at risk through our own behavior of becoming a stumbling block to the Gospel work of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Matthew 18 even one of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter,

Everyone knows you're safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands.

Everyone knows you’re also safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands. Photo: SparkLife

becomes a stumbling block to him, and Jesus calls out the evil in him, saying “get behind me Satan!” That makes me want to hide behind my hands again, worrying about what God thinks of me when I mess up. But what gives us courage and hope is that Jesus did not condemn Peter for that slip of faith – in fact, he went on to use Peter and the other disciples to found and grow his Church. So we can be confident as Christians not to be too quick to judge others, or ourselves. God is our judge, and in his mercy, he continues to love us, forgive us and reconcile us to himself – Jesus said in John 10 that he has given us eternal life and no one will snatch us out of his hand. In our theology we believe salvation is not just one single event in time, but it is an ongoing process – beginning when we become a Christian at our Baptism, continuing throughout our life until we stand before Jesus in our resurrected bodies.

 

No surprise plot twist at the end - Jesus wins.

No surprise plot twist at the end – Jesus wins.

That is why no matter what evil we encounter in the world, even within ourselves, no matter how thick the weeds get, we don’t have to hide our eyes or even to be scared, because there is no surprise ending – we know how this all ends – God wins. God wins! And that’s why we can say with confidence, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. Amen.