Thursday, July 14, 2011

Making Room for the Good Stuff: Proper 10 Year A

I find it slightly intimidating to be surrounded by so many talented gardeners and farmers. I’m a pretty awful gardener. I’ve always had a skill for killing healthy, beautiful plants. I’m only now learning to channel this gift towards the killing of weeds. That is the first step, I think, to get rid of the weeds and make room for the good stuff. Despite my intimidation, I am thankful that I know so many talented gardeners and farmers. They fill our lives with good food and fill our world with beauty. 
  
Today’s parable is written for those who know and understand farming. Indeed, in Jesus’ world, this is a primary experience of his community. To those of us who are foreigners to seeds, plants and harvesting this parable can be a bit of a challenge. Yet somehow, no matter our experience of farming, the parable speaks to us. 

At its basic level, it reminds us to get rid of the weeds and rocks, to make room for the good stuff. 

It reminds us that at the core of beauty and goodness is the abundance and grace of God’s kingdom.

The parable of the sower is, perhaps, the most well-known of the parables.  We begin teaching it to our children at a very young age. One of the gifts of the story is the many ways we become a part of the story.

There is the character of the sower. 
Maybe the sower is God, the one who scatters the Word throughout the nations. 
Or maybe the sower is the disciples spreading the Word. 
Either way, there is always plenty of seed. 
God’s Word is never hoarded or saved. 
Instead, it is scattered all over creation.

Now, the farmers here know that this is no way to scatter seed. Typically, seed is carefully planted in rows.  I’ve never known a gardener who carelessly threw seed on the ground. Yet, what we see as carelessness, is indeed generosity:
God’s reconciling Word given to all.

And what about the seed? 
There is one thing I know about gardening and I learned it in High School biology: seeds adapt and seeds produce more seed. 

The other day I noticed a seed on our porch: it had two butterfly wings and two pods.  It was amazing to behold: a seed with wings. 

And as seeds produce fruit, the fruit produces seed. This is the cycle of life. With their adaptability and desire to grow, seeds use every method to flourish produce abundant fruit. 

The parable reminds us that seed seems to flourish  no matter the circumstance. Despite the losses, the harvest is always plentiful. God’s Word, the seed, remains reliable and true amidst every circumstance. And every effort to spread God’s Word brings forth fruit. 

Which leads us to the harvest;
it is the ultimate sign of God’s generosity, God’s abundance. 
A good harvest may be ten times what is planted, each plant yielding ten pieces of fruit. Imagine one plant yielding thirty, sixty or even a hundred pieces of fruit: that is the abundance of God. 
The Word scattered across creation yields fruit unimaginable. 
It points to the reality that God’s Word is greater than all that threatens it.

And then there’s the soil. 
As we hear the parable, this is where we are most likely to let our minds wander.
We might wonder,
“Which one am I?” 
Am I good soil? 
Or am I rocky ground? 
And we find it often depends on the day, the circumstance.  
When all is well, we are hopeful and strong. 
And when we are threatened, we become weak and choked. 

Soil, when left to its own devices, will always return to its natural character. Even good soil, though, is susceptible to weeds and animals.  The soil is dependent on the sower to clear the rocks and weeds, and provide nutrients and water; to make room for the good stuff. 

This parable is great because it points to the entire life of the disciple, the whole story of God’s people.

The story could be told this way:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

Thus the first seed was scattered. 
At the end of six days, God sat back, took a rest
and reveled in the beauty of creation. 

Then, despite the love and faithfulness of God, creation went a different direction. 
Evil appeared on the horizon and God’s people were torn.  
Sometimes they thrived bearing much fruit. 
Other times they struggled and withered. 

And so, God scattered more seed. 
And each time some flourished while others withered away. 

Each time the harvest was plentiful:

Abraham and Sarah, became the ancestors of all nations;
Moses and Miriam prophets of God, bearers of the law;
Paul, a servant of the Lord, taught the Word to all nations. 

And, then: the Word traveled to Danville, Kentucky, 
“a village of fewer than 900 inhabitants.”
The Word bore ample fruit as the people established a church. 

This fruit produced a lavish harvest, 
including the growth of the Diocese of Lexington. 
It also faced some rocky soil including disease, war, fire and financial losses.  
No matter, the harvest was abundant. 
The vestry was formed, an organ purchased and the women added a “small, neat vesting room.”   

The church grew. 
Generations of families stayed. 
New families came. 

The church remained faithful. 

Parishioners gave generously, even sacrificially, to ensure the financial stability of the parish. 

Today, this seed is a hearty and strong plant producing more seed, ready for an abundant harvest. 

Jesus comes to us as the bearer of God’s reconciling word.  It is God’s will that we live in fullness of life to the glory of His name. It is God’s desire that, for God’s glory, all of creation is reconciled to God. God is the sower. The Word is the seed. The soil is the hearts of those who hear the Word. Some seeds flourish, others do not. Even so, the fruit is bountiful and more seed is scattered.  God’s mercy is the abundant harvest.  Despite every circumstance, God’s glory is revealed, God’s mercy is known. 

We must allow the seed planted within us to grow.  We must live the life set before us by God.  God’s word is steadfast and reliable. When we are weak and joyless, doubtful and tired, we return to the sower. God, who is faithful, helps us remove the rocks and weeds offering us food for our soul;  making room for the good stuff. And despite everything, by the grace of God, our lives bear much fruit.  Indeed, our faith becomes seed scattered ready to bear fruit for God’s abundant harvest.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rest for Our Souls: Proper 9 Year A

“Come to me,
all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest.”

These are some of the most beloved and well known verses of scripture. 
In our Rite I liturgy, they are known as the comfortable words. 

Isn’t that why we love them? 
Aren’t we all in need of a little rest, a little comfort? 
And who better to hear these words from than the one we call Lord? 
It is the invitation to lay our worries at the feet of God. 
It is God’s promise of deliverance.

Yet, there is an irony in today’s Gospel. 
The next verse reads:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” 
Jesus seems to say:
Lay your burdens down here and pick this up on your way out. 
Like the salesman who offers you two quarters for one dollar
saying, “Two is better than one.” 
But Jesus does not offer empty promises. 
There is something else at the root of Jesus’ words.  

In the context of the Gospel,
these sayings are a response to strict interpretations of the law.  
At this point in history, rabbis referred to the Torah, God’s holy law, as a yoke. 
It is a yoke
that steers and guides God’s people towards holy living. 
However, some of the rabbis,
particularly the Pharisees and scribes,
                                 complicated the law. 
The law became less of a guide
and more of a burden. 
Holy living became more about how you practiced 
and less about what you bore in your heart.   

Enter Jesus who teaches a different way. 
“Give in secret,” he says,
“Pray in secret and pray simply. 
Hide your fasting.”  (Mt 6: 4, 6, 18).  

Jesus’ teaching liberates us
from the burden of perfecting our faith
pointing to the heart of our faith. 

It is what is in our hearts as we give, pray and fast that matters not that we give, pray or fast. 

Over and over again, Jesus makes this point. 

As the disciples travel on the Sabbath,
they pick grain from a field to satisfy their hunger. 
The Pharisees denounce this as work. 
But Jesus denounces them as unmerciful and misinterpreters of the law (Mt 12).  

Or what about washing hands before eating? 
As the Pharisees denounce the disciples for breaking this tradition,
Jesus denounces them again:
“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ 
but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’’ (Mt 15). 

The words of the Pharisees have betrayed them. 
By making the law complicated and intimidating,
they reveal the hardness of their hearts. 
They are proud and unmerciful. 

Yet Jesus reminds all those who follow him
the heart of the law is gentleness and humility:
“… I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls...”

This is the root of our Gospel. 
The written law, the Torah, is given as a guide, a way to live. 
It is a revelation of the law written on the heart of God
and within our own hearts. 
At the depths of this law are gentleness and humility. 
From these two fundamental qualities,
we find the heart of God. 

They are the qualities that God asks us to take up, to learn. 
For once they are embedded in our hearts;
we find they are not burdens. 
Instead, they ease the weight,
the burdens,
of our lives. 

As I was preparing this sermon, I also had July 4th on my mind.  More than that, I had soldiers on my mind. 

The most popular war story right now is Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand
I will immediately confess that I have not read it;  I have skimmed it. 

It is the story of a soldier,
Louis Zamperini,
who, at the brink of young success, goes to war. 
He becomes a pilot’s bombardier and, one day, his plane crashes.
He and two of his comrades float on a raft
for forty-six days. 
They have no food or water. 
Sharks circle their rafts and they are shot at by Japanese forces. 
And one of the soldiers, Mac, dies. 

It is Louie’s ingenuity and bravery that leads to his and Phil’s survival. 
They capture and eat birds and fish. 
They use one raft as a cover from the sun. 
They tell stories, stare at the stars and imagine when they will find land. 
They survive the water. 

Their survival, though, leads to two POW camps,
where they are tortured for two and a half years. 
Despite unimaginable suffering, Louie survives the war. 
He returns home
and finds he has no purpose. 
He lives in a pit of despair:
aimless, tormented by memories, drunk and wanting revenge. 

Louis Zamperini, once an Olympic runner, finds himself in the depths of darkness with no hope. 

His story, though, does not end here. 
Instead, he meets Billy Graham. 
Graham’s sermons turn Louie’s tormenting nightmares
into moments of salvation. 
He never had another flashback. 
He stopped drinking. 

Years later, Louie wrote a letter to his captor. 
This is a portion of what he wrote,
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare…The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ.  Love replaced the hate I had for you…” 

Christ met Louis in his darkest moment. 
He lifted the burden of hate and revenge. 
In their place,
Christ yoked Louis with forgiveness, love and compassion.
With this yoke,
Louis found peace and made a commitment to serve Christ.

“Come to me,
all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 What burdens do we carry? 
Illness?  Broken Relationships?   
Anxiety? Depression?
Anger?  Fear? Pride? Shame? 
Jesus invites us to lay them down,
whatever they may be;
to bring them right here to this altar. 

Then,
as we open our hands,
something happens. 
We discover Christ’s life within us
and we are now bound to Christ,
guided by His life.  
This is the yoke of gentleness and compassion, humility and service. 

Our lives, then, are not about us:
our pride,
our desires,
our anxieties. 
They are about Christ and serving God’s kingdom. 
This is discipleship. 
It is the path to peace in the loving arms of our Creator
and 
Rest for Our Souls.