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Proper 13, Year A

Nehemiah 9:16-20 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 78:1-29 - link to BCP text
Romans 8:35-39 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 14:13-21 - link to NRSV text

Have you ever wondered why it is that, when we gather as the church to remember Jesus, we do it with a meal? If you think about it, it could have been anything. We could have built statues to remember Jesus, or held a dance. We could have made it a poetry reading, a teach-in, a weekly golf tournament -- but we didn't. When we gather as the church, our central act together in remembrance of Jesus is to have a meal -- the Eucharistic meal.

I know, it doesn't seem like much. I have a friend who likes to say that when he receives one of those communion wafers, he finds it easier to believe that it's really Jesus' body than he finds it trying to believe it's really bread. But this is supposed to be a meal -- a feast, even. An abundant and lavish one, held in remembrance of someone -- Jesus of Nazareth -- who had a reputation for being, as the Irish scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it, "a party animal." We have a feast to remember Jesus, complete with breaking out the wine (which really ought to be our best stuff) before noon on a Sunday, because Jesus was remembered as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 11:19 -- and by the way, I've already lodged with my next of kin that if I have an epitaph of any kind, it's going to be that verse) -- in other words, a party animal.

This is not the Jesus a lot of us grew up with, whose hair may have been a little long for our parents' taste, but whose name came up mostly when our parents wanted us to behave, hang out with the right kind of people, behave like the good citizens they may have (rather naively) thought we were. So how could I justify saying that Jesus was well-known as a party animal?

For starters, there's Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34, the source of that quote I gave earlier calling Jesus "a glutton and a drunkard" in the company of the wrong sort of person. And then there's this Sunday's gospel as a case in point.

I know that this isn't what people usually talk about when they talk about the feeding of the five thousand. When people talk about this story, they usually talk about the miracle, by which they mean the multiplication of the loaves. Admittedly, that part of the story is pretty impressive. Not only did God's power produce enough food to feed five thousand people -- not counting the women and children, as Matthew emphatically points out (Matthew 14:21) -- but there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Twelve baskets, like twelve tribes of Israel -- in effect, this story tells us that there was such plenty represented in this feast that there were enough leftovers to fill doggie bags for all of God's people. Truly impressive stuff!

But I'm not going to say much more about that miracle of the multiplying loaves because there are a couple of miracles in this story that I think are even more impressive, even more miraculous demonstrations of God's power acting in Jesus' ministry.

To set the scene for those, it's important to know that in Jesus' culture, people really took seriously the old maxim that "you are what you eat," and not from a nutritional viewpoint. I'm talking about purity, about keeping kosher. You are what you eat; if you want to be seen as a kosher kind of guy, the right kind of person, you've got to eat the right kind of food. This might initially sound like a fairly simple matter: if it's pork for dinner, you just keep passing the plate. But if you've ever had a serious food allergy -- or if you've ever had a guest who did -- you know just how complicated things can get. Who knew that peanut oil was in some brands of ice cream?

If it's really important to you, there are only two ways to be sure that what you're getting is kosher. One is to be in the kitchen, not only hovering over everything on the ingredient list, but making sure beforehand that no surface has been contaminated. The other is dicier: if you know your host family very, very well, and if you know for SURE that they know how to keep their kitchen and what you can and can't eat, you just might be able to trust them to prepare a meal you can safely eat.

So there it is: keep a close eye on every ingredient and how it's prepared, or at the very least make absolutely sure that you don't eat with anyone who really knows how to prepare it all AND who really understands how important it is to do it right, and you just might be able to share a meal.

And then think of this with respect to the story in this Sunday's gospel:

NOBODY KNEW WHERE THE FOOD CAME FROM.

Imagine those five thousand people at Jesus' spontaneous dinner party whispering: does anyone know who baked the bread? What kind of fish was this? Was it cleaned? This was some kid's lunch??! Does anyone know who his mother is? That would say something about whether the food is OK ...

But that didn't happen. Five thousand people took one guy's word for it -- not a family member, not their best friend, not even someone they knew well, and sat down to eat food when -- I mean this literally -- God only knows where it came from. That's what makes me say that this Jesus wasn't just some guy, and breaking bread with Jesus isn't just a midmorning snack. Jesus is someone who changes lives when we encounter them. Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them.

Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.

But that isn't the end of it. There's one more miracle in this story, and I think it's the most impressive one of all. The first miracle was the one we usually talk about -- the mutiplication of the loaves. The second one was the kind of miraculous trust Jesus inspired in those who came to him, the trust that made everyone there willing to forget about years of "you are what you eat" conditioning to accept bread from Jesus without knowing or asking about where it came from and whether it was safe or kosher.

The third miracle is in some ways an extension of the second one, from a rule extended from the rule that the second miracle made moot. In Jesus' culture, it wasn't just "you are what you eat"; it was also "you are who you eat with."  Some of that was just a logical extension of purity observance. Imagine the scene of that spontaneous dinner party in this Sunday's gospel, and imagine that you'd just experienced that second miracle of being able to trust Jesus to provide you with food that's good. But Jesus isn't the peanut vendor at the ballpark; he didn't hurl individual portions with miraculous accuracy directly to you. Strangers brought the bread to Jesus, who blessed and broke them ... and handed them to the disciples, who handed them to others in the crowd, who handed them to others, and so on across countless pairs of hands before it got to you. Take that bread, and you're taking into yourself not just whatever was in the field where the wheat was grown and in the kitchen when it was baked, but also what was on the hands of every other person in that crowd.

That's reason enough to be skittish about who you eat with, but that's not all. There's also the business of honor, crucial in Jesus' culture. People's perception of how honorable you and your family were determined whether were willing to do business with you, to consider allowing their daughter to marry your son, to acknowledge you as a person worth acknowledging. And "you are who you eat with" was the operative rule that said that your character would be assumed to be the same as that of those you ate with. Eat impure food, and you're impure. Eat with a rebellious son or a tax collector and you're not going to be seen as being any more honorable than they are.

But along that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector -- indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers -- just didn't count any more.

And I'm not just saying that in the kind of naive way that lets a college-educated white person wear a t-shirt that says "Love Sees No Color" because the privilege accorded to her because of the color of her skin means she doesn't have to pay attention to race. I'm talking about that radical force that turns mountains and valleys to plains, bringing down the mighty and raising the lowly. I'm talking about real change, a world in which a child from any neighborhood in Baltimore has the same chance at education, self-esteem, and all of the privileges we so often take for granted as a child from the suburbs. I'm talking about a world in which a child from any village in the Sudan has access to the running water and lights to read by at night that children from across Baltimore take for granted.

That's what I'm talking about when I talk about a world in which we experience that third miracle from Jesus' lakeside feast. We have been called to Jesus' table to meet and trust Jesus, to accept all of the gifts offered and blessed by Jesus, and then to take in all that Jesus offers us -- the bread that not only heals and nourishes us as individuals, but binds us indissolubly with everyone whom Jesus calls to the feast. We're called to trust that God's power has blessed us with not only the gifts we need to build up this community, but with the power to see that ALL of God's children are fed.

That's what we're doing when we come to this table, and it gives us the strength and courage that we need to be bread for the world, the Body of Christ given for the world. One sermon can't lay out how each one of us is called to live into that mystery, that miracle. It may be in working for racial reconciliation and real empowerment for the poor in Baltimore, banding together with Christians across the city to use the power that privilege gives us to end some of the injustice of white privilege. Perhaps we're called to learn more about what we could do to further Millennium Development Goals, calling on our government to deliver on promises to provide what's needed -- less than ONE percent of our nation's budget -- to end extreme poverty in this generation -- or to Make Trade Fair for farmers in developing countries who aren't allowed to compete on even ground.

Of course, that would take a miracle. But we break bread in remembrance of Jesus, who with God's power, with every time he broke bread, and with his life and ministry brought people together in miraculous ways. Five thousand people, not counting the women and children, experienced that miraculous power in the breaking of the bread. In our breaking of the bread at Jesus' table, we are made one with and called out not only for the hungry thousands counted, but for the ones not counted by those in power. This feast is for every woman and child and man, and it's happening NOW.

Thanks be to God!

July 26, 2005 in Eucharist, Honor/Shame, Justice, Matthew, Miracle stories, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Purity, Year A | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Proper 12, Year A

Romans 8:26-34 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a - link to NRSV text

AdirondakchairI'm writing this entry in a little slice of heaven, courtesy of some good and very generous friends who have given Karen and me a little over a week in their house outside Woodstock, New York.

Our friends work in Manhattan and recently bought this house as a weekend retreat, and it is a WONDERFUL retreat, open and airy and solid and simple. By happenstance (our friends haven't had much time to decorate) and intention, it's furnished with an aesthetic that people have come to call wabi-sabi. I deliberately avoid the word "style" with reference to wabi-sabi, as "style" connotes something added and put on, but this place seems to be much more about paring back, letting things be as they are. The woods are mostly unfinished and fabrics unbleached; metals have touches of rust and the fronts of the bookshelves bear worn paint and nail-holes from the hinges the planks bore when the wood was part of something else. The overall effect is the kind of simple and graceful beauty of the Adirondak chair I'm looking at -- good wood made into something simple, practical, and comfortable, weathered from years of sun and rain and gentle use -- and the kind of tranquility of surroundings in which there is nothing that is neither beautiful nor broadly useful.

The house is not opulent or spectacular, and little besides the location suggests big-budget. It's not what I expected when I heard that its previous owner was a major film producer. And I think that's why it's more like heaven than anything I'd expect in a major film on the subject. Pop-culture visions of heaven that I know about have tended toward the rococo in style. Pop heaven has lots of marble, lots of velvet, lots of very ornate carving and painting with lots of movement and drama; everything looks expensive, and there's nowhere to put your feet up. And pop-culture visions of that decisive turn in history that we sometimes refer to as "kingdom come" are even more expensive big-budget productions: the explosive special effects (and awful dialogue, incidentally) of Jerry Bruckheimer's Armageddon or the overblown and fireball-ridden drama (also with utterly ridiculous dialogue -- could it be a coincidence?) of the Left Behind series.

This Sunday's gospel gives us a very different vision of what "kingdom come," the inbreaking of heaven on earth, is like: a seed planted, dough kneaded, farmers farming and trading, a merchant's selling and buying, fishers fishing. To make a film about it, you wouldn't need a special effects budget, and the cast is mostly unknowns, ordinary people doing what ordinary people do. And yet this is the process through which we believe the world, the whole of Creation, is being transformed.

It may not be spectacular in the way of summer blockbusters, but it's a much more powerful vision. If we believe that the kingdom of heaven is like kneading dough, we're likely to look for heaven's coming in our daily bread, in the making of it as well as the sharing of it. If we believe that the kingdom of heaven is like herbs growing and farmers farming, we're that much more likely to be mindful of where our bread comes from, and to seek justice in our own buying and selling. Oscar Wilde's observation that "what your people need is not so much high imaginative art but that which hallows the vessels of everyday use" may not be true of all art, but it's true of those who would render a vision of apocalypse, the revealing of God's kingdom among us. We need visions of the kingdom that inspire us to work as healers and reconcilers in Creation and among all God's children, not ones that shrug off the world and people God made with "it's all gonna burn."

Yes, the King of the Universe, the judge of the nations, is coming, as Paul was quick to remind Christians. But as Christians, we believe the one who is coming is none other than Christ Jesus -- our judge is our intercessor and our servant. When we follow him, when Jesus' vision shapes ours, we find humility with dignity, treasure that is old and new (Matthew 13:52), the integrity of being wholly and simply who we are. It's a wabi-sabi that, since it is the wholeness in which Creation was born, is accessible from anywhere in Creation, on city streets and in soup kitchens as much as mountain retreats, and by anyone who intentionally enters into Christ's reconciling work.

Thanks be to God!

Bookshelf

Wabisabi

[For a brief, practical, and Westerner-friendly treatment of wabi-sabi, try The Wabi-Sabi House.]

July 18, 2005 in Eschatology, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 11, Year A

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 - link to NRSV text
Romans 8:18-25 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - link to NRSV text

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while have seen me blog about what anthropologists mean when they talk about an "honor/shame culture," and that Jesus' culture was one of them. Among other things, it means that in the culture in which Jesus told his parables, a "good" man was a "real" man, someone who would retaliate when someone attacked him or his family (and hence his honor).

However, Jesus consistently taught that retaliation is never appropriate, even when one is attacked and no matter how brutal or unwarranted the attack is. In many ways, that went even harder against the grain of Jesus' culture than it does against ours -- but it still goes against the grain of our culture in at least some ways.

I'm thinking right now about September 11, 2001. I was volunteering at a polling center during a political primary, so I was standing outside an elementary school with other volunteers when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. With the other volunteers, I got news as drivers slowed down when they saw us, rolled down their windows, and shouted news or their personal response to it. Bits of information and misinformation came to us this way: "Another plane hit the World Trade Center!" "A bomb went off outside the State Department!" Bits of prayers did too. And many drivers shouted resolutions, most of which were like that shouted by one young man as he drove past:

"I'm going out right now to kick the first Arab @ss I can find!"

When I heard that shouted with such conviction and urgency, I found myself thinking back to the 2000 presidential election campaign, and specifically to George Bush's much-maligned comment that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus of Nazareth. And an image came to my mind of a press conference, in which now-President Bush would say something like this:

"You all remember during the campaign, when I said that my favorite political philosopher is Jesus. You remember how I said that I do my best to think about what Jesus would do when I think about decisions I need to make. I've also made clear that I'm an evangelical Christian, and this guides my decisions in office. And I'm a man who means what he says, so I hope you'll understand when I tell you about a very hard decision I've had to make. The attacks against our country, against innocent people of all faiths in Washington and in New York were inexcusable and ruthless -- evil, even. But I follow Jesus, and when Jesus was attacked by evildoers, he responded by going to the cross they prepared for him, and by forgiving those who drove in the nails. There are those who say that the blood of the victims of these terrorist attacks cries out for blood, that those who took lives must pay with their own. But as an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' blood shed was and is the sacrifice for all the sins of the world. And so my response, my only response, will be to pray for those who perpetrated this evil. May God bless our those who make war against us as God blesses the peacemakers. I am not America's sovereign; God is, as God is sovereign of the whole world, and will one day sort the sheep from the goats, the healers from the evildoers. And to evildoers, I urge you to accept the mercy of this God while God offers it, and to thank God for it. Were it not for the mercy I've seen, I would be vowing to hunt you down wherever you are. Were it not for this mercy, I would dismiss the deaths of any who stood between you and me as 'collateral damage' and the necessary cost of justice. But because God has shown me mercy, I will bless you through my tears and my anger. May God have mercy on your souls."

That's where my imagination went on September 11, 2001. I guess that means I have a pretty wild imagination, because a president who said such a thing would not have been reelected. Too many of us were too frightened that if were were seen as being anything but resolute, if we showed any hesitation before striking back, we would be attacked again. We were afraid of that because, I think, we knew in our heart of hearts that we WOULD be attacked again, no matter how we responded. We were even more afraid of that than we were of breeding even more terrorists in the terror of war. (Please see this short Flash movie on the subject, if you haven't already.) And so we tried to identify the evildoers so we could punish them, so we could kill them.

Please don't misunderstand me; it's totally understandable to want to do that. We want to protect ourselves and our children. It's only fair that those who want to kill innocent people might end up dying violently themselves.

That's exactly my point. In this Sunday's gospel, Matthew speaks to a community of people who KNOW what terror is. At any moment, they believe that someone -- anyone, even a brother or a father -- might haul them before a governor to be tortured, or worse. I've blogged about that before. The following week, I blogged about Jesus' advice and Matthew's to those terrified of that possibility, that likelihood. It's the traditional word of the angels, in scripture and even in many pop-culture angelophanies: Don't be afraid. God loves you. The words sound cheesy and lame. But the EXPERIENCE of that has a power that's unmatched.

That's the power of Jesus' name, of Jesus' character, of Jesus' ministry.

And that's our power. I've seen the pop-culture pictures of power as a warrior who blasts away in his anger, shouting "Kill 'em all -- let God sort 'em out!" That's not power. That's fear. That's terror. The truth that Jesus has for us is that there's something far more powerful than that: the Son of Man, the judge of the nations with all the power of the angelic hosts behind him, saying "Have mercy on them all. Love them all. Let them all grow, and their fruits sort them out."

Inept gardeners may think they know the weeds from the wheat. Wise farmers know that these tares (weeds) can't be pulled out from the wheat; only when they all reach maturity can they be distinguished. The more we think we know about who can safely be called an evildoer beyond redemption, the more we prove ourselves to be not only inept gardeners, but immature weeds. But those who are mature know who they are, and they know who they're not.

The mature know that they are not the judge of the nations because they know the judge personally. It's Jesus. And we're not Jesus, as we know when we're following him. So Matthew's word to us, even when we're under attack, even -- or especially -- when the attacks are brutal, is that we're not to usurp the role of judge. That's a role God has given only to the Son of Man, to Jesus. And when we fail to remember that and start trying to sort out the evildoers from the righteous, God's people from dispensible people, we are to remember at least what the approach is of God's appointed judge to the nations.

For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
-- Wisdom 12:13, 16

God's judgment, God's righteousness, God's perfection is perfect love and mercy: blessings of sun and rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Like Father, like Son, as they say. This Sunday's gospel tells us that when we're wronged, we're to look to Jesus' teachings and, most importantly, how Jesus behaves when he's is treated with contempt as pointless as that of the enemy sows weeds among his neighbor's wheat (wouldn't the enemy really have the best revenge if he had spent that energy sowing crops in his own field and left his neighbor envying his harvest?). We're to look to Jesus' behavior in going to the cross and forgiving his tormentors from it. And we're to remind ourselves and one another:

Don't be afraid; don't give in to fear. Give in to love. We're not called to serve as judge, so judging will only make us more anxious as we try to maintain constant vigilance, always eyeing our neighbors to try to pick out the enemies. Our vocation, our destiny, is better than that.

... the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. ... For in hope we were saved.
-- Romans 8:18, 24

Jesus is the judge, so we don't have to worry about how to do his job. Jesus is the judge, and so we have access to an unshakable hope, the blessed assurance that we will be judged with the same infinite mercy as will our enemies.

God is still in charge. God and Jesus are still and always of the same character, the same love. And we are the charges, the children, of the same God Jesus proclaimed. Let all who have ears hear this blessed assurance, this Good News!

Thanks be to God!

July 13, 2005 in Atonement, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Matthew, Nonviolence, Parables, Righteousness, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Year A | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Proper 10, Year A

Those of you who also read my sermons page may have noticed that, while I've preached in other congregations, I haven't preached in St. Martin's, the congregation where I work, since early April. When the rectors (senior pastors) left the parish on April 17, I was removed from the preaching and liturgical rotas to give the congregation to hear less familiar voices in the pulpit until the parish's interim rector arrived. That won't be happening until September, so it's clear that I won't be in St. Martin's pulpit again. St. Martin's has been so important to my developing my voice as a preacher, though, and I've so valued each chance to preach there as an opportunity with what's Good News for this particular community, that as a goodbye present, I wanted to offer one last sermon, though I won't be able to preach it outside of this corner of cyberspace. Since a cyberspace sermon doesn't make anyone's Sunday morning service longer, and since it's my last sermon for St. Martin's, I hope you'll indulge me in one that's longer than usual.

Thank you, St. Martin's, for letting me walk with you on this leg of your journey. I'll miss you!

– Dylan

God is a Foolish Farmer: A Farewell Sermon for St. Martin's

Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13 - link to NRSV text
Romans 8:9-17 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 - link to NRSV text

"Listen!" It's a word from this Sunday's gospel that stood out to me the moment I scanned the passage. It's a word meant to prick up your ears, a word meant to jolt us out of whatever else we're doing, whatever else we're thinking about or worrying about, and get us to pay attention.

Listen! In this parable, Jesus has a word for us today that feels particularly important, particularly urgent to get across. It's a word that's central to the gospel Jesus preached and lived out among us, and it's a word that I'm glad to leave as one last charge, one last encouragement, and one last blessing to you.

I'm glad that the text for this Sunday contains a parable, because Jesus' parables illustrate three things that I think are true about the Bible in general.

First, it's that the bible isn't always easy to interpret. Often, it's pretty hard. We're talking about texts written thousands of years ago by people who didn't speak our language and are from a completely different culture. Sometimes people say that Jesus' parables are simple truths put in simple language that anyone can easily understand, to which I say, have you read Jesus' parables lately, and closely? They say things like "therefore, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal tents" (Luke 16:9). I don't think that anyone's doing me a favor in telling me that this is easy to understand. If I believe them, when I come across something that I don't understand easily, I'm likely to feel like a particular dolt when it comes to the bible, and that's likely to make me want to avoid picking up the bible, like I want to avoid a gym when I feel like I'm the only person there who hasn't stepped right out of a fitness video.

So if you sometimes find the bible to interpret, take comfort: it IS hard to interpret sometimes. Often, actually.

Here’s a rule of thumb that I use for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret it in such a way that there is nothing surprising or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. Jesus’ parables serve a purpose a little like that of a Zen koan – those ‘riddles’ like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The point of a koan isn't that there's a correct answer that springs instantly into mind. A koan isn't supposed to inform you; it isn't supposed to give you information that will increase your feeling of mastery. If anything, it's the opposite of that. It pulls our minds in to confound them, and that kind of dislocation from our usual ways of thinking helps us to open up and let go of our usual ways of thinking. A koan doesn't inform; it transforms you as you wrestle with it.

Jesus’ parables work kind of like that; each one ends in a shocking reversal of his listeners’ expectations. With that reversal, the story pulls us out of entrenched patterns of relationship and ways of being in the world; it dislocates us from what’s comfortable to free us to establish new kinds of relationship, new ways of being. If the first thing I want you to remember about the bible is that it's often not easy to interpret, then the second thing I want you to take away about it is that the hard work of wrestling with scripture is more than worthwhile. It's not a product of our culture, so I find there's nothing like it to challenge our cultural assumptions about who God is, what God wants, and what things like love and success and freedom really are. Anne Lamott likes to say that if what you get out of the bible is that God hates all the same people you do, you're in trouble. I'd put it more positively, in saying this: God calls each and every one of us to conversion, to amendment of life so that our life looks more like the wholeness of the life God offers. If I come away from the bible feeling that the problem with the world is that there aren't enough people like me in it, this is a good cue to keep reading, and to keep asking how God is calling me to conversion. And no, saying that God wants me to stand up more loudly and firmly against everybody else's sin doesn't count.

I am NOT saying that the point of reading the bible is so that you can feel bad. If your previous exposure to the bible and to how people use the bible makes you think of it as a book that's boring at best and oppressive at worst, then believe me -- I know exactly what you mean. I've seen people try to use the bible as a weapon more times than I can count, as I think many of you can imagine. I hope that knowing that lends even more power to what I have to say when I say that the bible is Good News for God's people -- news of justice, peace, of true freedom and abundant, joyful life. When I say that each one of us is called to conversion, what I'm saying is Good News: there is room in your life and in my life for God to work more deeply. There is room in your heart and in mine for more compassion, more peace, more freedom than we'd thought. I get that Good News in large part from all of the time and energy I put into studying, praying with, and reflecting on scripture, and I hope that in the midst of all my flaws and flubs, some of that Good News has come across. The Good News we experience as we wrestle with scripture in community is well worth the hard work we put into it. That's the second thing I want you to take away from this sermon about the bible.

And if you'll indulge me, I want to say a little about why. Wrestling with scripture intently, prayerfully, and together regularly throughout our lives is worthwhile because, while scripture isn't the only medium through which we find the transformation to which God calls us, I will say that it's one of the most important. When I read scripture, and especially when I come to the bible again and again alongside other people who want to read it carefully and prayerfully, I find myself called to decision. God calls to each one of us, and each one of us makes a decision about whether to respond and how. The choice that Jesus prescribes for us, the choice that Jesus promises will bring true freedom, real love, real peace, lasting justice, is a decision to follow Jesus, to make Jesus' version of "family" -- God as our father, and the only one who gets that title, and God's children as our sisters and brothers -- the source of our identity and our only permanent loyalty. Some people call that choice being "born again," and I want to take the liberty in this last sermon for St. Martin's to go on record as saying I'm entirely in favor of it. You and I need to be born again -- not once, but for every time that someone tries to tell us with words or actions that we're not God's child, for every time that we're tempted to substitute our culture's vision of respectability for God's dream of the mighty being brought low and the lowly raised up, for every time we forget that God's blessings, love, and justice are for ALL of God's children.

In other words, we need to be born again, and again, and again. In my case, several times a day. Maybe you're quicker on the uptake than I am. But for as many years I've spent intently studying the scriptures, and for as many times as God has, in communities like this and in my travels around the world, given me a glimpse of God's kingdom, I find all of the time that the richness of God's dreams for the world and for each one of us in it is so great and so profound that every further glimpse of it takes my breath away as it takes me by surprise.

A case in point: this Sunday's parable of a farmer who goes out to sow seed. What's so surprising about that? Farmers sow seed all the time. And anyone who knows anything at all about what a plant needs to grow won’t be surprised to hear that seed cast in the middle of a road, or on the rocks, or among thorns doesn’t grow. But this parable contains not one, but two surprises to jolt us into openness to the work of God’s Spirit among us and in our world.

Listen!

It’s not at all surprising that most of the seed didn’t grow. What’s surprising is that the farmer chose to sow it there. This isn’t a rich man we’re talking about here: this is a poor farmer, a tenant farmer who can only eke out a living for himself and his family if he not only makes wise choices about where to sow, but also is blessed with good weather and a great deal of luck. Good seed is hard to come by; the wise farmer makes sure to entrust the precious grain he has to the best of soil. But this one tosses seed about while standing in the closest thing he can find to the parking lot at Wal-Mart, where the pigeons will eat it if thousands of feet and truck tires don’t grind it into the pavement first. In short, this farmer behaves as though that which were most precious was available in unlimited supply. What on earth is he thinking?

But here’s the real corker: God blesses a farmer like this beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Normally, the farmer who reaps a twofold harvest would be considered fortunate. A fivefold harvest would be a cause for celebration throughout the village, a bounty attributable only to God’s particular and rich blessing. But this foolish farmer who, in a world of scarcity, casts his seed on soil everyone knows is worthless is blessed by God in shocking abundance: a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what he sowed.

There's been a lot of talk at St. Martin's about scarcity, about guarding closely what's precious because it seems to be rare. Money is tight; time is hard to spare. Even when we're looking at less tangible and measurable  qualities we value, like love and blessing, there's sometimes a sense that the good things God has for us are in such limited supply that the only kind of good and responsible stewardship is to guard it very carefully, give it only to those we're sure are worthy, protect it like the last egg of the rarest endangered bird. Predictions of peril and doom provoke a great deal of anxiety, and living on a knife edge like that not only causes constant unrest, but also tends to shut down the kind of creative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live more deeply into God's dreams for us as individuals, in community, and for the world. That's not the Good News God has for us:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
-- Romans 8:15-17

Listen! What does this morning's gospel say to us, in a story that suggests that God is like a farmer who tosses seed into parking lots for the pigeons to eat, and in the surprising harvest that grows? It says that Isaiah's prophetic word is coming true:

Ho [in other words, Listen!], everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy? ...
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace ...
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
-- Isaiah 55:1-2, 10-13

The kingdom of God has come among us. God has blessed us richly, and God’s people have been entrusted with that which is most precious in the world. But ironically, these priceless commodities only gain value – the seed of God’s word only bears fruit – when God’s people scatter it absolutely heedless of who is worthy to receive it.

Listen! We are called to treat God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s blessing, precious as these are, as if they were absolutely limitless in supply for one simple reason:

They are. They really are. I believe that with all my heart, and I want to leave you with that as something to hold on to. Thank you for listening.

And thanks be to God!

July 6, 2005 in Inclusion, Isaiah, Matthew, Parables, Pastoral Concerns, Personal Notes, Romans, Scripture, Year A | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack