Monday, July 11, 2011

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 10 July 2011

Genesis 25:19-34;Psalm 119:105-112;Romans 8:1-11;Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Preached by Reverend Lou Scales

I once heard it said that the reason God created human beings is that God just loves good stories. In fact, God loves good stories so much that he gave Jesus the gift of being the Master Storyteller for us. For the next three Sundays, the Lectionary gives us Jesus’ parables from Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

Parables were Jesus’ favorite way of teaching. According to many scholars, the parables revealed the religious experience of Jesus and his insight into God in Heaven. Parables demand thought, and are often difficult to understand. Both today and next Sunday, in the two parables of the Sower (which may be different versions of the same parable) are part of a tradition of parables of reassurance, of encouragement, of confidence. They are paralleled by another tradition of parables of warning, of challenge, of urgency.

The trouble with parables is that they are disturbing, baffling, and puzzling. That Jesus intended them to be like that, as a tool for thought and insight, should go without saying. In fact, Marcus Borg tells us that the parables of Jesus “function in a particular way: they are invitational forms of speech. Jesus used them to invite his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. As evocative forms of speech, they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and invite a transformation in perception.”

It is significant and important for us to hear, and tell, these stories over and over again. In the telling and the hearing, time and again, we find new insights into ourselves, into those around us, and into God’s kingdom. Some times we’ll use the metaphor of God as Farmer to help us understand the way God seeks to grow us into the kingdom of his love and grace, and the patience God exercises in that effort. Hearing this parable again in these terms helps us to see how we can grow and mature in faith, depending on the kind of grounding we have in Word and Sacrament. We’ll use the metaphor of how the seed is planted to help us understand what happens to our efforts in evangelism. Same story, different insights for different times and circumstances in our lives. Different glimpses of the same loving God who continually calls us to a deeper knowledge and acceptance of grace and love.

And in that sense, today is no different, because you are not going to hear about either of those. Instead, you are going to hear, and, I trust, think and meditate, about what this parable tells us of how we deal with failure. In a world that seems to be consumed by the effort to succeed wildly in everything, we inevitably face that reality of not winning them all. We will not make a perfect score on every exam. We will not be the prime candidate for every job we want. We may not be admitted to the best university because there are others deemed more successful and having more potential that we do. In attempting to support our friends, spouses and children in their efforts to succeed, we will offer sound advice and guidance, based on our best intentions and considerable experience, only to have that advice and guidance graciously (and sometimes Ungraciously) rejected or ignored.

When it comes to facing failures in life, the farmer in Jesus’ parable sounds a lot like you and me. We work hard, and we only sometimes succeed. A lot of the best things we give to others are not well received by them. Much of what we want to plant in the lives of those around us doesn’t “take”…doesn’t become rooted and permanently planted in their lives. All of us have to deal with failure. All of us know those areas in our lives and the lives of those around us, where the best we give or attempt for ourselves comes up lacking, falling short of our hope, our dreams and our great expectations.

Some biblical commentators suggest that this parable of Jesus is somewhat autobiographical, and that well could be true. Jesus certainly had to face a great deal of apparent disappointment. He knows full well the pain of failure.

Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth, and his own hometown folk rejected Him. The people of Israel rejected both Him and his message. His handpicked twelve apostles? Well, one of them sold Him out for thirty pieces of silver, and the others fled when He was arrested, tried and crucified. Moreover, Peter was not too swift to take His message to heart. Thomas was the Doubter, and the others were not much better, either.

He died a criminal’s death, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

Elijah, long before Christ, along with Jeremiah and other prophets as well, were notable failures, most of them ending up against the outside wall of Jerusalem on the receiving end of deadly stone throwing attacks.

The Apostle Paul would not make the “short list” of aspiring rectors anywhere in this area – what with his contentious relationships with authorities, his numerous arrests and convictions, his unwillingness to stay in one place for any length of time; his candidacy could not possibly survive the background check.

We know about missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams and unmet expectations. We know the pain of giving it everything we had, and coming up short. We know the terrible agony of moving along, minding our own business, and then being devastated by a disaster of sickness, death, betrayal or catastrophe. What this parable invites us to re-discover is the goodness and strength that come through surviving and enduring the trials and disappointments. The parable of the Sower invites us – challenges us - to look again at how we deal with our losses and disappointments, and whether we allow them to beat us down, or choose to grow from them and become stronger because of them. Over the centuries there are marvelous stories of those who, when faced with the overwhelming option of quitting, refused to give up, refused to be beaten. I will remind you briefly of three:
John Milton wrote the classic Paradise Lost at the age of 60 – after he had been blind for 16 years.
After years of progressive hearing loss, by age 46, German composer Ludwig von Beethoven had become completely deaf. Nevertheless, he wrote his greatest music, including five symphonies, during his later years.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio at the age of 39, yet went on to be elected President of the United States – four times.

The stories of people who learned and grew and overcame obstacles and refused to quit go on and on. And Jesus knew those stories when he told his parable, and tried to let us discover for ourselves the liberating and challenging truths that only failure, disappointment and hardship can teach.

Some of our efforts will fall on the path, and will amount to nothing but birdfeed. Other efforts will fall on rocky ground, come up quickly, and wither just as quickly. Still other efforts will look, sound and feel good, only to be cruelly choked off before they really produce. But other efforts will find their way to success and faithful completion, not because we are lucky, but because we are faithful, persistent, and trusting in God’s never ending love for us and presence with us.

Listen to the words spoken by God through God’s servant Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return until they have watered the earth, making it blossom and bear fruit, and give seed for sowing and bread to eat, so shall the word which comes from my mouth prevail; it shall not return to me fruitless without accomplishing my purpose for succeeding in the task I give it.”

Hope, encouragement and reassurance, spoken when we need it most. Jesus’ followers from then on, even to today, have needed to hear the same good news, and be reminded that our courage and persistence is born of hope in the risen Christ, and the complete trust in the reality of the risen Christ in our world and in our lives now.

As we come to the Eucharist feast, we may be coming bloodied, bruised and almost beaten, possibly disappointed and dejected. But coming to this feast is the renewal the parable calls us to remember. While our disappointment and frustration may be great, the goodness of love that is before us is absolutely overwhelming. Saint Paul reminds us, again and again, that we are the daughters and sons of God, and forever receive the indescribable gift of God’s love and grace. Again, Isaiah calls us to hear the words of the never ending promise of God who loves us: “Come to me and listen to my words, hear me, and you shall have life.”

So come to the feast, buy bread and wine without price, without cost. Know you are comforted and challenged, renewed and called to be the sons and daughters of the risen Christ.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 3 July 2011

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

In a scene from the movie “Julie and Julia” (released 2007?) Julia Child and her French cooking colleague, Simone Beck are waiting for their American hostess, Avis DeVoto, to meet them at the train station when they arrive in Boston. Simone asks Julia what Avis looks like, and Julia refers to her last letter from Avis: “Look for a middle-aged woman in a plaid jacket.” Simone realizes from this that, in fact, Julia has never met Avis in person, despite having been in regular written contact with her for many years. Julia is in the midst of explaining how this is possible when, in the background, a very short and petite middle-aged woman in a plaid jacket and hat (this is the late fifties, after all) comes running into the station, looking around the waiting room with great excitement. They see one another, and realize that yes—there she is, that’s the one. They stand face to face at last, and the viewers are simultaneously touched at this joyful meeting and amused at the disparity between their heights—Julia towers over Avis by at least a full head or more in stature.

“What are you looking for?” In this case, a plaid jacket, worn by a middle-aged woman. That was all she knew to look for.

In some respect, all of our lessons this morning are dealing with that question, What are you looking for?
The story from Genesis is almost a children’s bedtime story. “Once upon a time, in a far-away country, a man went on a long journey in search of a wife. Not for himself, but for the son of the man he worked for.
He sat at the place near the town where the young women would come in the evening to draw water for their families and animals, and there he saw her for the first time. But he didn’t know if it was really her, at first…he had to find out for certain.”

All he knew for sure was that he was looking for a wife for Isaac, from Abraham’s ancestral family. But who? Who was she, the one who would leave family and home and everything, and travel such a distance to live with someone she had never seen or met? Isaac, back home with Father Abraham, was still mourning his own mother Sarah, who had died some time before this. How could Rebecca know that this was a good thing to do?

But it happens…Rebecca goes with the man all that great distance, to become Isaac’s wife. I wonder what SHE was looking for, when she saw him walking in the field at evening, coming out to greet the travelers as they arrived. What did she think, when she saw him for the first time? Did she walk directly up to him and look right at him at once? Or did she hang back, watching and waiting to be introduced to her husband for the first time? I wonder.

In our gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist is in lurking in the background. He needs no introduction, Jesus’ hearers all knew who he was. This morning John the Baptist is in prison, locked up for his criticism of King Herod. (By the way, this is not Herod the Great…more like Herod the Inadequate. Or Herod the Neurotic.) In a few chapters John will be executed, but for now he’s merely out of circulation. He has sent some of his own disciples to talk to Jesus, to ask him “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?”

This is the same John the Baptist who, at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized, says in no uncertain terms, “I need you to baptize ME! What are you doing here?” (Matt. 3:14) This is Matthew’s version of the story, wherein the theme of Jesus’ impeccable qualifications to be “the one, the Messiah, God’s chosen servant and messenger” is always front and center.

“Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” And Jesus, rather than answering the question directly, sends them back to John with the instructions “Go tell John what you yourselves have seen: The blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (11:5-6)

“What are you looking for?”

Jesus asks the crowd standing nearby the same question. “You all went out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist—why? What were you looking for? Lovely scenery? A celebrity press conference? No…a prophet. And what a prophet, like none other ever before!

“What are you looking for, even now? John came to you as a prophet, a stern austere ascetic preacher of the straight-and-narrow way and you said “Oh he’s nuts. He’s possessed. Don’t worry about him.”

“The Son of man came, eating and drinking and gathering people in convivial community and you say “Look at him—carousing and drinking and hanging out with THEM PEOPLE—what a lousy example of moral rectitude!”

What are you looking for? Dear God in heaven…these people are impossible!

And indeed, Jesus turns to God in prayer—and a strange and complex prayer it is. We’re still in Matthew’s gospel, but this sounds like something out of John. “No one knows the Son except the Father/No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son reveals the Father.” That interpenetration between God and Jesus, the inseparability of them, is given a tiny bit of explanation here.

“Come to me, all you burdened and troubled ones, weighed down with your own struggles and troubles and worries, and I will give you rest.” We love that passage.

But here’s the funny thing of it. Jesus tells them to take another burden, another weight. To exchange their own heavy yoke of struggle and difficulty for a different one—a lighter one, perhaps, but another one nevertheless. The exchange is not “Sit down here and rest and don’t move any more.” MY yoke is easy; MY burden is light. This, only verses after he has told the disciples “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

There is a price to all this.
What are you looking for?

Paul, in the passage from Romans, is in a rough patch of theological weeds this morning. I would advise you to go home and read the passage in context, because what we’ve got in front of us is a dense and somewhat frantic extract from a larger argument that Paul is making.

Grace—God’s unearned, unmerited gift and favor—is over all. And Paul wants to insist on this throughout. But Sin (and that’s Sin with a capital S, again…not just individual misdeeds) is still interfering. Or trying to interfere…showing up in the individual misdeeds of which Paul is currently obsessing just a bit. At the end of it all (“I do not do the thing I want to do, but the thing I do not want is the very thing I do…”) he exclaims “Who will save me from all this dreadfulness? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Immediately followed by “Therefore, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

No condemnation. No condemnation whatsoever. In Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection from the dead, Death itself has been put to death, and we are caught up into the Resurrection even now. It may not feel that way some days, we may struggle to believe that that is the truth of it, but it’s not about how we feel on a given day. It’s much bigger than that.

It just may be that insisting on our own limited ability to perceive and understand—what Jesus describes as “sitting in the marketplace refusing to either mourn or dance” is a refusal to see, or to be pleased, with anything at all. Neither mourning nor feasting, but sitting in a pouty attitude with our arms across our chests and our lower lips thrust out. “Come to me” he invites…and that invitation to release our own burdens and struggles is not compulsory. We can hold on to our own “Stuff” for as long as we like—He will not force us. But then we’re stuck with it all.

The wisdom of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God are open, not to the wise and understanding, but to “little children”…for they themselves are open to receive them.

What are you looking for?