Monday, July 24, 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A/Lectionary 16A] - July 24, 2017 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25)

There is a woman in our congregation who loves to engage in all kinds of friendly competitions with her husband, and he with her. It’s all in good fun, but I hear that things can get pretty cutthroat, and they love to have bragging rights over each other. For example, they really got into competitive horseshoes a few years ago and put together a professional-grade horseshoe pit in their backyard. They played every single day, husband versus wife.

This year I was informed they have engaged in a pretty intense gardening competition. Each of them got to select a part of the yard they thought would produce the best results for vegetables. I’m sure not about all of the plants they’ve grown, but I know tomatoes are involved, and I know that the winner will be decided by a taste test. The woman told me back in May that he had been talking a little smack about her plot, saying he was sure it wouldn’t get enough sun. But she had a little glint in her eye and muttered something about soil quality and afternoon sunshine.

My own tomatoes have started to come in, so I checked in with her the other day and asked her how it was going. She informed me that the Great Garden-Off was definitely still on, but that she might have to forfeit one whole plant because a warbler built its nest in it and it doesn’t like to be disturbed. Some people just let tomatoes grow and leave them alone. Sounds like she might be doing some pruning or weeding, staking and caging to get the best results possible. I suppose if taste is the sole criterion for winning, then size and color aren’t important. She just wants a tomato that tastes better than her husband’s.

I’m not sure about all the methods and criteria for growing good wheat in Jesus’ day, but it’s clear that there is a gardening competition going on, and it’s not just limited to someone’s backyard. The whole world seems to be engaged somehow. Someone is trying to sow and grow good wheat and someone else is clearly trying to sow weeds. And what’s worse is they haven’t staked out separate garden patches for this. It’s all mixed in together, the unwanted weeds growing right in there with the wheat. How are we going to know who’s winning?

This parable of the wheat and the weeds is how Jesus chooses to explain to his disciples the presence of good and bad in the world. Jesus has just finished explaining in private to his disciples about the purpose and meaning of parables and how sometimes the word of God finds good soil in people and takes root and grows. Sometimes, however, the seed hits rocky ground or a place where thorns will choke the plants as they come up. It’s not the fault of the word that faith doesn’t appear in some people, and it’s often not the fault of the person who does the sowing of the seed, the sharing of the word. Some people at certain times just aren’t receptive to it.

Now Jesus uses another common image to explain why Jesus and disciples can work and work and still not get results that are 100% good wheat. The advancement of God’s kingdom among the people of this earth is affected not just by the receptiveness of all kinds of people to hear it and understand it. It is also affected by the presence of those who are actively working against God’s goodness.

This isn’t rocket science. We look out at the world and we can see plenty of good, plenty of examples of people showing forth godly love for one another. And yet we look out at the same world and can be overcome by the sight of lots of evil.

I remember years ago in one confirmation curriculum we used, back when people were still reading newspapers to get their news, we gave groups of confirmation students newspapers and two big pieces of posterboard. Their tasks was to cut out all the headlines that seemed like good news and paste them to one sheet of posterboard and the bad headlines on the other. Year in and year out when we did this, they always filled up the bad headline posterboard first. Granted, news media generally makes more money on bad headlines than good, so it probably wasn’t the most statistically fair exercise for this, but the point was still clear: there is such a mixture of good and evil in the world, and yet God still loves it. We have faith that God is still working to bring about the day when all will be good and new in Jesus Christ.

Until then, however, we are often left with this sense of frustration and confusion about so much of it. Like the slaves in the parable, we wonder how it all even got to be this way. If God is so powerful and so loving, why would God let the weeds continue to grow like this, especially when they can do us such harm? We wonder is there something we can do about getting rid of the weeds before they spread too much. The challenges and problems that lie before us in any day and age—the debate over health care and health insurance, terrorism, drugs and narcotics, care of the environment, immigration—are all so complex, riddled with deeper issues that are difficult to unwind and untangle.

And that’s just what we see in the news about the world. The church is not immune to the power of the evil one. If you think that those who follow Christ are 100% whole wheat, dream on! Although the church is the community called out to proclaim the good of Jesus and to embody his mercy and love, there is still an issue of weed control in the body of Christ, too. We had a seminary professor who liked to remind us of the danger of harboring the fantasy that the church was free from all sin and wrongdoing, and to be on guard against running to the church or to seminary to be free from the problems of the world. He said that the devil’s favorite place to build his own seminary and conduct his business is right next to one of Jesus’ seminaries.

This is all what the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, calls “groaning in labor pains.” That sense of despair and dread mixed with hope, sorrow and pain tinted with optimism, and anger jumbled together with promise that so many of us grapple with is a sign of that longing that all of creation is dealing with a longing to be made completely new.

And the reality of this all, of course, is that the line between wheat and weed, ripe and rotten, good and evil, goes right down the middle of us all. The frustration and confusion we feel about the presence of all this in the world, the challenges and problems of thorny issues is really a frustration and confusion with ourselves, isn’t it? To uproot and destroy evil is somehow going to involve shredding ourselves apart. The creation groans with longing, and we groan inwardly, too, for our redemption.

It’s easy to listen to Jesus’ parable and get the impression that this Master, this wheat farmer, is distant and removed from this complicated mixture of good and evil because it will all just get worked out in the end. What really happens, of course, as the story continues is that Jesus, the master, the one telling the parable, plants himself right in the middle of it all. On the cross, he offers himself up to the tangled weeds and the wheat. In his own death, God’s judgment upon evil reaches its harvest. He lets himself become part of the tangled mess of this world, and bears the brunt of a system that thinks it can weed out all the bad, a system that thinks, wrongly, it is able to successfully root out the wrongdoing and crucify it so it won’t be a problem anymore. This way of dealing with evil dies with Jesus and something new rises in its place: the triumph of forgiveness…the victory of mercy…the supremacy of love. Jesus’ own resurrection from all that evildoing is God’s down payment on the glory that is about to be revealed to us.

As we wait, we pray for patience and the grace to understand that the issue is not that God is content to let evil run loose. God just doesn’t need us to go about dealing with it in the amateurish ways we’re prone to. God is ultimately concerned that no good be harmed. The master doesn’t want any wheat uprooted! So, if we’re interested about how to counter evil in the world, the answer is to plant more wheat. Do more good. Point to Christ as often as we can. As the 105 children at VBS proclaimed at the top of their lungs each day this week, all of them in their best superhero poses: “Do good! Seek peace! And Go after it!” In fact, we call can try this. Striking a superhero pose does something to your sense of well-being. (Thumbs up: “Do good!” Peace signs: “Seek peace!” and superhero pose: “And go after it!”).

They weren’t exactly those kinds of superhero poses, but we did see this week a powerful sign of planting more wheat out of Iraq. It was more like the poses of praying hands. The city of Lourdes in France sent fifteen statues of the virgin Mary to Erbil in northern Iraq to replace ones that had been destroyed by ISIS. They processed with them around the city, singing hymns and praise to God, as they placed them in each church where they will stand. Beginning in 2014, when terrorists gained control of a region of northern Iraq where Christians were the majority, churches, monasteries and schools have been bombed and the population decimated. Now that ISIS has lost ground and retreated, Christians and other groups are starting to move back into the rubble and rebuild. They could, I’m sure, rebuild with revenge, uprooting what they find evil, but instead they are cautiously, but optimistically, putting a peaceful foot forward. May those statues and the people who worship around them be a sign that God is replanting the area with wheat.

And may all of this—our congregation’s ministry, our personal pointing to Christ, our superheroic compassion—be a sign of the new creation that God has in store for us all, a sign of hope and joy amidst the groaning, because, don’t forget, the days of the weeds are numbered! As it turns out, they’ve chosen the bad garden patch. They’ll lose the competition. And we, the heirs of God, will get to taste the harvest that God is tending, and it is promised to be delicious.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10A/Lectionary 15A] - July 16, 2017 (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

As many of you may know, our family just returned from a week of vacation down in South Carolina and while we were down there I took my daughters to the OD Pavilion, a very ramshackle, old school amusement park in North Myrtle Beach. Our youth group has gone there a few times for a night of fun while they’ve been on service trips in that area, and I have memories from my own early childhood of the OD Pavilion and its larger counterpart down in Myrtle Beach, which closed several years ago. It’s very much a place time has kind of forgotten or skipped over by choice. It consists of about a city block of some very basic county fair-grade rides like a ferris wheel, a carousel, Tilt-a-Whirl…But what makes the OD Pavilion famous, of course, is that it is the birthplace of the Shag, a laid-back version of the swing popular in the southeast. The dancefloor, open to the air, backs right up to the dunes, but adjacent to the dance area under the same roof is a very rudimentary arcade, and this is really what I wanted them to see. In an age of high-tech, personalized video games, arcades like that are hard to find. You purchase tokens out of a machine—four to a dollar—and those become your currency at the SkeeBall tables and the dozen or so other games of chance and borderline skill they have in there.

I gave my daughters each one dollar worth of tokens and told them they could choose how to use them. They treasured them as they held them in their hands, but I could also tell they knew those tokens held great, new power. I was initially hoping to see some SkeeBall action but instead they settled on those machines where you insert a token down a track which leads to a flat, rotating disc where an arm slowly sweeps it to the edge. If enough tokens get swept to the edge they start to accumulate there and hang on precipitously until one more—who knows which one?—nudges all of them over. And they’re all yours. There’s also a bonus hole in the flat level—a small opening about the circumference of a token—and if your token goes down that, which is highly unlikely, you win big.

I’ve always thought those machines were the number one way to throw away your token because I’ve never seen those coins get pushed over the side, but I had told my girls it was their choice, so I had to submit. Right as Laura was about to stick her token in the slot, this young boy appeared out of nowhere and inserted himself between us. He was wearing a neon green shirt and he said, “I know the secret to that machine. I know how to put the token in so it will get the bonus.” His presence kind of caught us off guard, but then he got quiet for a second, staring at the machine, then suddenly he nudged Laura and said, OK, drop it…now! And she did, and we watched that token go down the track, plop out onto the rotating disc in front of the arm, and then begin to get pushed by that arm…and doggone it if Laura’s first little token on her first night at the OD Pavilion didn’t drop right into the Bonus hole! 40 tickets shot out of the machine.

In awe, I asked him his name and he said, “Kendall. And I know the secret to the other machines too.” We bent down to tear off our tickets and when we turned back around, Kendall was gone, as if he had come out of the salty air and disappeared right back into it.

Kendall knew the secret to getting a good return with that one token. He knew just how to aim it and time it. If he can apply that wisdom and diligence to other things, along with his generosity, he’ll go far. And yet if Jesus were in the OD Pavilion arcade and had appeared out of the salt air he might explain how to play the game God’s way. That is, you don’t wait for the perfect time or figure out the right “trick.” Rather, you just keep plunking in token after token—

over and over again, back and forth from the change machine with more tokens, night after North Myrtle Beach night, without any kind of skill or care about where they might land on that disc with the rotating arm.          It’s not exactly the example I’d like to leave with my daughters, especially when I’m the one buying the tokens. Too wasteful, too careless.

That’s probably exactly what other farmers would have thought as Jesus told this parable about the sower. Seeds are valuable. They are to be treasured and protected and only used wisely and judiciously. A wise farmer, one with lots of experience, probably named Kendall, would figure out exactly when and where to concentrate his seeds so that he’d get the best result. But when it comes to the fruit and harvest of his kingdom and all its righteousness, Jesus explains that God is not going to go about it like that. God is going to model grace when he spreads his word. God is going to demonstrate lavish love when he pours forth his kingdom. In other words, Jesus means to say God’s doesn’t look at the world and think, these people over here are ready to hear about my goodness and these people over here aren’t. As he goes out to establish his kingdom, God’s not going to consider the hearts of different people and decide whether or not they’re worthy of it. He’s going to blanket the earth. The whole world is his planting ground, and each and every person that God has made will receive in some way, over and over again, whether or not they realize it, the token of his love in Jesus Christ.

As important as that message is to hear, Jesus is also trying to explain to his new disciples that ministry in this God’s name is going to involve the same kind of grace. Since God himself is lavish with his word, letting it fall wherever it may, even among the people who don’t show receptiveness to it, we should be, too. I believe Jesus told this parable in part as a way to prevent some frustration among the disciples as they went about their ministry. He knew that oftentimes they were going to bust their rear ends to share God’s love, to make the world look more like how God wants it to look, and they’d feel like nothing was happening.

Jesus knows that we are prone to make just about everything about us, and that applies to our mission as well. It is so tempting to do God’s work because we want to get a feeling of reward out of it, a feeling of satisfaction a feeling that we have the power to “make a difference in the world.” That feeling is so seductive, but it runs the danger of making us cling to our token of faith a bit too much, to count it as valuable only as long it’s in our hearts. That is to say, we forget that this message isn’t about us. It’s about God’s kingdom, sharing it freely, and letting that kingdom spring up wherever it may. After all, who knows where the good soil may be? From the cross Jesus may know, but he dies anyway, letting his forgiveness and mercy grow for all and in all.

Jesus’ parable is a good one to hear on the Sunday before over 100 young children will enter our doors for Vacation Bible School. Our songs this week may be the catchiest ones ever. The games we play may go better than they ever have. The system our volunteers have spent months setting up may flow better than ever and people may feel a part of something special, that, like Kendall, we’ve figured out the exact way to pull this off. But all of that will be secondary to the spreading of the Word that happens. Some will fall on rocky soil this week. And there will be some thorny patches. But there will be some bonus holes in there, some good, rich soil waiting to experience God’s love. And that will be the reward. And here’s the thing: you may never know it. You may never see that precious yield.

I was reminded of this aspect of the ministry of God’s Word last month when I met Mona. Mona was one of the Bible study leaders Melinda I and were paired with up at Lutheridge. We shared ideas and bonded over funny and cool things we were experiencing with our campers.  On the last day, after we had spent a week sharing meals together, Mona explained that she had lived in Richmond for a brief spell. As it turns out, it was actually a turnaround time when she went through a brief period of homelessness, although they were never actually out on the street. Mona and her children were served through the lunch feeding program that several downtown Richmond churches hosted. (These were the days before CARITAS and Family Promise). They briefly found shelter at the Capitol Hotel before a few members from an area Lutheran church stepped in and helped pay rent on an apartment in order to get them out of the vulnerable situation they were in.

Mona now serves as the director of a women’s shelter in South Carolina where women who are escaping abusive relationships and other personal hardships can come and turn their lives around. She is flourishing and pouring God’s love out on so many more people, leaving a trail of promise and hope wherever she goes. She graciously and willingly gave me permission to share her story with you knowing you are a congregation engaged in all kinds of gospel ministry, trying in your service and evangelism to toss tokens everywhere, working in the community and sharing God’s love, as thankless as it sometimes feels. She said it was the grace of people in that congregation going out of their way that allowed her family to eventually be engaged in the ministry she is now in, people of God who sowed some seed not knowing how it might go.

Or, as Jesus himself says it, ‘Other seeds fell on good soil and it brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.