Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Farming 2.0 a week late.

This is the sermon from July 20 that I preached at Bethel Lutheran Church.  I got behind in posting as I prepare for surgery on my rotator cuff tomorrow. Last week besides trying to get office things in order and worship preperation for several weeks' out, there were numerous pre-op things that needed doing.

The text is Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.


Last week I admitted my lack of skill when it comes to growing plants. I have a black thumb rather than a green thumb. I have another confession to make. I have a hard time telling weeds from plants and flowers. After all, some of the weeds are beautiful and look like something you might want to keep in a garden. And some plants don’t look as beautiful as the weeds. After all, are the wildflowers we see growing in fields along the side of the road weeds or flowers? 

In last week’s gospel, we heard about different types of dirt and how the planted seeds were affected by the ground in which they were planted. That was Farming 1.0. Today, the issue is that of wheat and weeds that look alike in the early stages of growth or Farming 2.0.

There are several astonishing things about this parable that would have made the hearers of it scratch their heads. First, as we find out later in the story, the sower is a wealthy man of status who has slaves to do his work. Does it seem a bit odd that the householder himself should be the one sowing the seed into his field rather than the slaves doing it?

Nevertheless, the seeds are planted, but then there’s a problem. There are weeds in the garden. 

What’s our response when we see weeds growing in our gardens? “Pull them out” or “Quick get the Round Up!” However, the master told his slaves to leave the weeds alone. That too seems a bit odd. It was a common practice to uproot weeds before the roots got entangled with the wheat. That makes sense, except the type of weed in this parable is darnel, which was nearly impossible to distinguish from wheat in the early stages of growth. 

Darnel is organically related to wheat and is also known as “cheatgrass” or “false wheat.” It has a vigorous root system, which spreads deeply and widely, intermixing its roots with the roots of the wheat and greedily sucking up the water and nutrients of the soil. Darnel produces bad fruit and bad seeds which can kill humans and other animals. If you are a farmer, you really want to separate out this weed from the wheat. However, by the time the difference between the wheat and darnel could be seen, it was already too late. At this point, uprooting the weeds would damage the wheat. 

Once the wheat and darnel had fully matured, they were easily distinguished from each other. Reapers would gather the darnel, which could be burned as fuel. Then the wheat would be gathered into sheaves to be transported to the threshing floor. 

In talking about seed, wheat and weeds, Jesus was not teaching a course on farming, but was speaking allegorically. Jesus again is the sower of the good seed as he was in last week’s parable. However, rather than the seed being the word, the good seed is the children of the kingdom, believers in Jesus. The wheat and weeds are people. The task of judging between good and evil belongs to Christ. We are not to judge, but rather work at reconciliation and to forgive. That is why the Master directed his workers not to remove the weeds. The householder cared so much about the wheat that he did not want any of it to be damaged.

Sowing describes Jesus’ ministry of proclamation and demonstration of God’s empire and saving presence. The image of slaves is one Jesus used to describe his disciples earlier in Matthew’s gospel (10:24-25).

This is a parable about a field—the world, the church, ourselves. It is about a collective experience. There is always an inseparable mixture of good and bad, wheat and weeds together. We should not expect that God is going to come and take out all the bad things and make everything and everyone completely good and pure. That is reserved for the last day and is not something we will see in this lifetime. This is not to say that God doesn’t change hearts and turn weeds into wheat and make the wheat mixed with weeds wheatier.

Jesus identified the field as the world, which was the realm of everyday political, economic, social and religious life. At that time, it was dominated by Roman imperial power. Jesus’ sowing of the good seed concerned another empire, the kingdom of God, which worshipped a different king and God. Jesus formed the distinct community of his followers right in the middle of the weeds of the Roman Empire.

Don’t we find ourselves in a similar situation today? We struggle with choices we have to make like deciding between: getting a job to support our family or staying at home to spend more time with the family; or between supporting someone who struggles at work and pulls down the quality of our team or firing that person; or between the best school your child has been accepted to or one that is affordable; or between two different treatment options for a severe illness; or between giving into peer pressure because you can’t stand being left out or choosing to stick to your values and risk isolation. You get the idea.

So…are we wheat or weeds? The answer is “Yes.” We as a church and individually are both. It goes back to Luther’s teaching about us being simultaneously sinners and saints. 

What makes us weedy? How about when we are upset with someone because of something they have done and we won’t forgive them. Sometimes the person is unaware of having done anything hurtful.  Another is talking behind someone’s back when we’re upset with them. Scripture tells us to go to the person who has offended us and make it right with that person. Then if the person will not listen, we should bring others into the situation. 

What makes us wheatier? Spend time in the presence of God in prayer and reading scripture. You know how good friends or couples become more alike the more time they spend together?...the more time we spend listening to God’s voice and in fellowship with him and one another, the more we become like Jesus. We get wheatier! Sharing our faith with others is another way to get wheatier. We should not keep the good gifts and blessings of God to ourselves! We become wheatier, healthier Christians through the bread and cup of the Eucharist as well.

We are a mixed bag of wheat and weeds, much the way we were one or more types of soil last week. We cannot so easily divide the world into Christians (the righteous) and non-Christians (evil doers). “Both the Gospel and our experience tell us that such categories are fluid, co-existent, and difficult to discern at best” (David Lose). Earlier in Matthew, Jesus declared that his family was composed of those who do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 12:50). That description could include a wide and surprising variety of people. Do we always do the will of the Father? No.

We are tempted to judge others though, aren’t we? Aren’t we pretty sure where some will spend their eternity because they don’t act like we think they should act? 

Our presence and job in this world is not one to eradicate evil wherever we see it. God is the judge. At the end of the age, the Son of Man will send his angels to collect evil doers. Remember, God is God and we are not. The final victory belongs to God despite all appearances. God will bring history to a close with justice and the saints will be freed from abuse and oppression. This is good news. 

This parable is not a threatening word, but a comforting word. What a relief that God does not call us to judge all the peoples of the world. 

What is God calling us to? God is calling us to be: to be wheat rather than weeds, to BE the good in the world, fully aware of how we will be resisted, to live the Gospel, to be the light when the darkness seems overwhelming, to be the salt when blandness and conformity are the easier paths. 

Do you hear the promise, the good news in this parable? In confusing, challenging situations, we have the promise that God will sort things out. Think of yourself as the field. At the harvest, the weeds in us are removed and what is wheat in us is gathered into God’s care and keeping.

Let our growth be that of moving from being weeds to being wheat.

Let us pray: 

Dear Lord, our lives are colored by ambiguity and we do not always know the right or best thing to do. But we do know that your love is guiding us and that you have called us to live as your people in the world. When we face hard choices, give us eyes to see the best path forward and the courage to follow it. When we make mistakes, forgive us. When we are hurt by our choices, comfort us. When we hurt others, help us to reach out to them in love. And above and beyond all these decisions, remind us that you still love us and call us back to this place that we may be forgiven, renewed, called, and sent forth once more as your beloved children. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
(David Lose)

Resources:
M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII: Matthew.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.
Intervarsity Press Commentaries
Rev. Nanette Sawyer, Greedy Weeds, questionthetext.com


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why Are We Here? | Holy Soup

I don't know about you, but this really makes me think, especially as the pastor of a small church.



Why Are We Here? | Holy Soup

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Farming 1.0


It's been a long time since I have posted anything. I've been traveling. First for vacation, my husband, Ray, and I went to Rhode Island. It was my joy to participate in a classmate's installation service as pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Woonsocket, RI. We were in RI about a week and a half and connected with many friends. Our pace was more leisurely than previous visits.

Then I was home for one week followed by a week of continuing education at my alma mater in Gettysburg. Class time and conversations were stimulating. The fellowship with old friends and new was amazing. I am finally home for a bit.

Below is the sermon I shared with the congregations of Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY and Bethany Lutheran Church in Olean, NY. The scripture text is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.



          From our conversations together, I know a number of you have farming or at least gardening experience. The parable of the sower likely raises different questions for you than it does for those like me, who have no knowledge about what it takes to make things grow. I do have some observations however.

          I noticed a couple of things about the sower. Doesn’t it seem like this man was careless? He threw seed everywhere he went. In Jesus’ day, they did not use fancy seed spreaders like those that we have today. Instead, they took a handful and threw it as they walked along. That is fine, but the sower did not pay much attention to where he threw it. The seed landed on all kinds of ground whether or not it was any good. He had the results to prove the differences.

The sower did not hold back any of the seed, but generously threw it.

After telling the story, Jesus ends this parable with this appeal, “let anyone with ears, listen (13:9). This kind of listening involves more than literal hearing. It is about discerning and discovering the importance of Jesus’ words. One word is repeated numerous times throughout this passage—“hear.” How well the seed grew depended upon the quality of hearing of the recipients of the word. 

Jesus describes four kinds of soil representing four different responses to God’s Word. The path represents those who hear the Word and don’t understand it, so the evil one takes it away. Their response is “I don’t get it and I don’t want to spend the time and energy to try to get it." They gave up when they didn’t understand.

          The rocky ground is those who hear, get all excited, yet do not let the Word go deep into their hearts, so they fall away. Their response is, “Wow. This is amazing. I never felt like this before.” Then after a few weeks or months, their response changes to “You mean I have to do this every day? I have to go to church during the summer?”

          Those who are thorny ground hear the word, but let day-to-day worries and wealth distract them. This prevents them from bearing fruit. Their response is, “I really wish I could be at church on Sunday, but I’m going to a football game. Or I’d really like to help out with the food pantry, but it interferes with my bowling league. Or I really wish I could give to the building fund, but I just bought a new Jaguar convertible. 

          The good soil is people who not only hear, but also understand God’s word and take the time to learn the disciplines and practices of the Christian life. In this way, their lives individually and corporately yield a bumper crop. 

  Everyone heard, but not everyone discerned the importance of Jesus’ words.

          Where did you find yourself in Jesus’ parable?

          By talking about the seed as the Word, Jesus already identified himself as the sower. However, it is not uniquely Jesus’ position. We too may sow the Word. Sometimes we are the seed. And we are always some kind of ground or a combination of various kinds.

One of the things I appreciate most about being a Lutheran is that we acknowledge as a church that things are not always so black and white. Even when we love the Lord with all our hearts and endeavor to please him with our actions, we stumble and fall. That is because although we are saints because of what Jesus has done for us, we are also sinners who mess up and let things get in the way of our relationship with the Lord. Martin Luther called this being simultaneously saints and sinners. In other words, we are all a mixed bag who are in a process of learning and growing.

What is God saying to us individually and as a congregation through today’s gospel? Are we listening and understanding?

          Let’s face it, we don’t always understand God’s written or spoken word. Do we give up then or do we spend time with the Lord in prayer until we understand? It takes perseverance.

          More often however, I think as a small congregation we need to take care that God’s Word is not choked out by our anxieties about the concerns of daily life, especially when it comes to family or church finances. If we allow these or other things to get in the way, we will dry up and die without bearing fruit.

          Jesus words to us here are so radical. "Jesus takes our hand, opens it up, and as he does so, we notice his hands are not only callused and bruised; they’re also pierced, with seeds in the holes left by the nails. Then he pours some of that precious seed from his pierced palms into ours, and we send seeds everywhere that cost God everything. Amen."

(Jason Byassee: Scattering seeds, http://m.faithandleadership.com/sermons/jason-byassee-scattering-seeds?page=full)

Comic: www.agnusday.org
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Friday, June 6, 2014

God Is Still On The Job

This text leaped out at me as a continuation of God's word to the congregation I'm serving, Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY. It's from First Peter

Here's the message:



Our world is full of suffering. We see it in the senseless deaths of university students in California. We see it in the abduction of 200 plus Nigerian schoolgirls by extremists. Parents send their children to school every day fully expecting them to return home safely. But these children in countries separated by language, customs and many miles did not.Many in our own congregation are suffering physically or emotionally with diseases of all kinds. Suffering is pervasive in our world.

The letter of First Peter frequently addresses this aspect of the Christian faith. Both ancient and modern interpreters consider this letter to be one of exceptional clarity in the way it articulates the gospel. Martin Luther ranked it among “the true and noblest books of the New Testament.”

There are three basic kinds of suffering.The first is suffering that comes as a result of our humanity, when we experience disability due to age or disease. 

The second kind of suffering is the result of sin. I do something stupid in my life and there are painful consequences because of that. This is best exemplified by man’s inhumanity to man. Look at the civil wars being fought around the world and the way we take care of the mentally ill, the homeless and the poor. 

            There is a third kind of suffering that is Christian suffering because of following Jesus. As Peter wrote, “You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world” (5:9). Christians have always been persecuted, ridiculed and have suffered because of their faith. 

The cost of discipleship was much higher for early Christians than it is for the average Christian in this country. Early Christians were ostracized from their families. They were martyred for the faith. Simply bearing the name “Christian” was a criminal offense. This is not our experience today here in the United States, but it remains the experience of God’s people in other parts of the world.

Suffering is pervasive and is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. Peter let his readers know that they were to be under no illusions regarding what it meant to follow Jesus. The community of faith would suffer as their Lord did. But they would also share his glory as well. 

Peter did not write, “IF life gets really difficult,” but “WHEN” it gets
difficult (4:12). This is a description of the experiences of God’s community of faith and a reality check for any that thought they might get off easy in this life. Simply becoming a Christian doesn’t mean everything is going to be peaches and cream, hunky dory or totally awesome! We are going to suffer. 

The sufferings of believers come from real and powerful sources. Not only did the early church experience persecution from those who did not believe in Jesus, but from the devil, who would cause suffering. God’s people were experiencing satanic opposition which would destroy them if it could (5:8). However, Christians had no need for anxiety because such suffering was the universal badge of followers of Christ (5:9).Christians trusted in God’s strong hand to protect them against this very real adversary.
 
How are we to respond to suffering in our lives today? Our response should be one of joy because it provides us with an opportunity to identify with Christ and to share in his sufferings. God is refining us to make us more like Jesus. Normally we see suffering as a sign of failure and loss. We wonder where God could possibly be in the midst of such difficulties. As Christians however, we know the reality of evil (just read the paper or watch the news). 

How can we have such hope? As we heard in last week’s gospel, God does not abandon his people. There is a great future in store for us.
The only proper response to anything God brings our way is, “Bring it on!” One should praise the God whose gracious and redemptive dominion over all his creation will finally be revealed—whether or not it includes suffering for the sake of the gospel.

            But why shouldn’t we be anxious when all hell is breaking loose in our
lives? After all, who is really looking forward to the pain of suffering? Peter said to “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you” (v. 7). Literally, this means, “it matters to [God] what happens to you” (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock). We are not left on our own with a far off God who is uninvolved in the lives of those he created.   
 
Look at the verbs in the second half of today’s reading. How many of them describe God’s action? The vast majority tell us that in the midst of the sufferings we may experience for the faith:

God will promote us at the right time (5:6).
God is most careful with us (5:7).
God has great plans for us in Christ (5:10) and
            God will have us put together and on our feet for good (5:10).

            The present realities of suffering will not endure forever. Enduring the sufferings of this present life brings us the promise of future reward. However, this is not some pie in the sky future. Our life in God in today’s world has meaning in and of itself.

What is God saying to us as a community of faith at Bethel? I think Peter said it best, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner” (4:12-13).

            We are not alone. “Whatever happens in this life, God’s promises revealed in the glory of Christ and his resurrection are sure. God will continue to restore [us] with creative gifts, to establish us firmly when we stumble, to give [us] strength in times of weakness, and to build us up on the firm foundation of the community of faith” (5:10) (James Boyce).

We are not alone because God is with us. This is true, but we also
are not alone, because we are a part of the community of faith, the body of Christ, the church. The life of faith is a team sport. When we are struggling and weak and cannot walk, our brothers and sisters carry us.
 
Last Thursday we celebrated Jesus’ return to his Father, his ascension. Jesus would be with his disciples and us through the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the church at Pentecost. Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the birthday of the church. This could not have happened if Jesus did not return to his Father. There would be no power for the early followers of Jesus and for us to share the gospel. Would there even be a church today?

As we draw close to God in prayer, study scripture, partake of the means of grace at the table and fellowship, we will experience God’s presence with us no matter what we are going through. 

Later in the service, we will be praying the Lord’s Prayer. We ask that we not be led into temptation. Remember, we have an enemy that Peter describes as being “poised to pounce” (5:8). As Luther explains:

... we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory. (The Small Catechism)

Amen!

References:
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary.
James Boyce, workingpreacher.org.
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism.


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