Monday, July 28, 2014

"If God Is For Us..." A Sermon on Romans 8:26-39 & Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“If God Is For Us…”
Year A Proper 12, July 27, 2014
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

One of my favorite passages about prayer is the words of Paul in Romans in today’s lectionary reading.  Unlike the other writings of Paul, where he is reaching back to churches he founded to correct or encourage, in Romans he is reaching forward to a gathering of followers of Jesus who are in a place he has not been, and he is putting all his theological stuff on the table so that they can be on the same page when he arrives.  Or at worst, they will know where he is coming from so they can work it out when he gets there.  Paul here is at his most theological, convoluted on some points, but we have more glimpses into the heart and soul of the man and what his faith means to him.
At this passage, he speaks of the Spirit “interced[ing] for us in sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  Think of it, as we do not know the words to say, or the thoughts to think, we pray.   The Holy Spirit, moving in us and through us, is mingling and pleading with God the Father on our behalf according to God’s will.  Our sacred grunts and groans are enough.  Words fail, but we are known.  Words are not needed.
Then we get to a very problematic Scripture, where it seems a wrong statement at best, or a lie at worst.  “We know that all things work together for good for those that love God, and are called according to God’s purpose.” 
Do we know that?  Do I know that?
Some pretty horrible things are happening to Christians right now, in Iraq and Syria.  Are all things working together for good?  I heard on the radio yesterday that Secretary of State Kerry said that he had never seen the world stage in such a bad condition.  Is the world working together for good?  As Rabbi Kushner’s book was titled, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, we could very well say the same thing.
And the bad does not have to be global.  Like Jacob in the Genesis reading, we can do everything right and there is still a bait and switch.  We do not get what is promised.  Things are not fair.
Before we come back to the theodicy of Romans, this question of the bad happening to those who seem to be the good, I do want us to make note of today’s Gospel reading, and use that to help us illumine what Paul may have meant.
Jesus is preaching is using simple metaphors of the agrarian and fishing variety.  Both would have been common and pervasive in Galilee during his day.  Mustard seeds, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl of great price, nets pulling in the good and the not-so-good.  These are all metaphors of the kingdom.  They are all surprises, as well.
Mustard seeds, itty-bitty.  Mustard plants, not so much.
Yeast, nigh invisible.  Yeast in dough, all pervasive.
Treasure in a field, hidden and desperately sought.  Purchased field with a treasure to boot, worth every penny.
A priceless pearl, once again worth every penny.
A net pulling in fish of every kind, the wonderful and the awful.  The good are retained, and the not-good are disposed of. 
Now what do all these have to do with the Kingdom of heaven?
These metaphors give handles to the intangible.  They let people grasp the ephemeral.  The Kingdom of Heaven may seem small, but its potential is hidden.  The Kingdom is pervasive and all-encompassing.  The Kingdom is worth the cost, no matter how steep the price.  The Kingdom cannot be avoided.  It receives all.  It encompasses all.  It embraces all.
The Kingdom itself is a metaphor, if you have not realized it, for the work of God in the world and in the hearts and lives of Christ’s followers.
And that is how Paul can say that audacious line, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”  God’s Kingdom is all-pervasive.  Like the yeast and the fishing net, nothing is separate from its influence.
An old story goes that has a man stopping for directions after getting hopelessly lost in the country.  After describing where they are supposed to be going, the local on the porch says, “Well, you know, you can’t get there from here.”
Thanks be to God that we are not in that same situation.  There is no one so far to be unable to get to God, or vice versa. 
I am not saying the cliché here, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  That would be naïve and false.  Bad things happen.  Evil exists.  There are events that are beyond redemption.
I know many people read this passage and make God the causative agent.  “It was God’s will.”  I do not and cannot say that.  Remember the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)  There are things and events that break the very heart of God.  We live in a universe where some of the things that transpire, they cannot be redeemed.  Broke is broke.  But, no matter what we have done or what has been done (to us or someone else), we can be redeemed.  
God had a choice to make.  It is in the earliest of our stories.  We were not made a creature like any other.  God saw all of the created order and declared it was good.  But when God got around to creating us, male and female, we were created in the very image of God, the imago Dei.  And when we were created, out of all creation, God declared that we were tov vetov, VERY GOOD.  But as Spider-Man reminded my daughter and  me at the Byrd Friday night, with great power comes great responsibility.  We bear the precious and dangerous gift of Free Will.
Abraham Lincoln was asked in the midst of the bloody Civil War, if God was on the Union’s side.  He responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”  This is very close to how I hear Paul’s, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  It is not that God steps into our history to rescue us.  That would be the word “miracle.”  And today, I am not speaking of miracles.  
Today I am speaking of yeast working its way through the dough of our lives.  The slow and steady kneading of our souls.  I want to be so identified with Christ that when people think of me, they think of him; I hope; I pray.  I do not want to be a pita for Jesus; I want to be a big fat yeast roll for him where the yeast of the Kingdom has worked its way into all the aspects of my life.
In my faith, I want to be on the side of justice and peace at work in the world.  Is the world just?  No.  Is there peace?  Hardly.  Watching the news the last week has been horrific, and I see no peace in sight.  But I do not look to the now, and neither did Paul.  He wrote ahead to Rome, doing his best to encourage and support fellow believers in the way of Christ trying to live out their faith in the dominant capital city in the world at the time.  Take the long view, he seems to say.  If we have latched onto the Christ, who has paid the ultimate price to redeem the world, we are on the prevailing side though there are many battles ahead.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  and also, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  …No, in all this we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
There is nothing from without that can take away what we hold within.  Our precious hidden treasure in the field, we have claimed.  The pearl of pearls we have claimed.  And not only that, it has claimed us.  As the old hymn declares, “In a love which cannot cease, I am his and he is mine.”
Paul again: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And that is the essence of our faith.
It empowers us and strengthens us.  We look to what should not be do-able, and we think to how and worry not about the “if.”  We are the yeast permeating God’s creative and amazing grace throughout the world.  When we see more and more people begging at street corners, when the line gets longer on Thursday mornings to get a few bags of food at our Food Pantry, when the news is horrific, we have faith.  This is not the end.  If God is for us, who or what can be against us?  Situations might be bigger than you, but God plus you is greater than anything you will ever face.
Frederick Buechner said of our call of God, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.”  In other words, what brings you the greatest bliss comes up against the world’s great needs is where you are to be at work in the world.
That does not mean that the bad will *poof* disappear.  We still have our brokenness and hurts.  But what will we do with our brokenness?  What of our deep sorrows?  Dan Allender, a counselor and president of a seminary in Seattle took Buechner’s quote and reframed it.  “The place where God calls you is where your greatest hurt and the world’s greatest need meet.”  And in this I hear the truth of Paul.  When I in my weakness bring that to Christ, my brokenness is transformed and becomes a thing of beauty and glory in Christ.  Christ did not cause it.  I do not believe Christ wanted it to happen.  But like a child whose precious item is shattered, and brings it with outstretched arms to the loving parent, we bring the broken bits of ourselves and come with trust to Christ.

Why?  Because, as Paul said, “We know that all things work together for good for those that love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  In that, even the worst parts of our lives are brought into the Kingdom, and are wrought into the agents for justice, peace and grace.  Because, “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sermon: "Fertile Ground and the Call of God"

“Fertile Ground and the Call of God”
Year A Proper 10
St. Thomas’ Church, July 13, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: 

"Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.  6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  9 Let anyone with ears listen!"

18 "Hear then the parable of the sower.  19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.  20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;  21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.  22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.  23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."

I have heard, and even preached, on this passage many times.  So often the parable is used in the idea of evangelism, with the word of God’s kingdom going out.  The question is all about how the word is received.  If we see the sower as one of us, then it is easy to interpret it that way.  But today, I am going to ask you to rethink this passage, and see the sower as God.

If God is the sower, then this parable becomes a look at the Call of God.  God’s love energies are constantly coming down.  As the mystical poet William Blake wrote, “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.”  The call of God is constant, and universal.  I believe the Call of God comes to us all, all the time.

Now you might be saying, “Rock, we cannot all be priests or deacons.”  My response to that would be, “Thanks be to God!”  But let us be clear, Call and Vocation are different.  We are all called by God, a general Call to follow Jesus in our lives.  Vocation is a specific call, and the two are different.

I could say, “We could all really use some help in the Food Pantry this Thursday from 10-12.  If people could show up, that would be great.”

Specific calls are different and more deliberate.  Bob, where are you Bob?  Bob, can I count on you to help in the Food Pantry this week?  [Wait for response, which will be yes because he runs the Food Pantry.]  Doesn’t that way work better?  But for that to work, I have to know Bob, and Bob has to know me, and Bob needs to know and understand the Food Pantry.  The General Call must come first before the Specific Call can be heard and for it to be able to be responded to.

This parable is a recognition of the fact, that not everyone is going to respond, as it says, to the “word of the kingdom.”  There is the hard-beaten path.  There is rocky ground.  There is thorny ground.  And there is good soil.  This general Call of God is cast out, to everyone, all the time.   The premise of the parable is a Sower went out to sow.  God’s very nature is to seek and save that which was lost.  We all have the opportunity to respond.  Our condition is how it will probably be received.

The hard-beaten path, the busy way, gives no opportunity to the seed to grow.  The comings and goings of life make it hard for us to receive the Call of God.  We’ll get to it tomorrow, but tomorrow gets filled before we can listen.  And then the flighty, the birds, come and eat it up.

The rocky soil is different.  There is a clear and quick response, but conditions are such that despite the initial springing up, there is no way for the roots to get down deep and the grain to flourish.

The thorny soil allows for the seed to germinate, but the thorns be the systemic ills, conditional, or addictions, they choke out this call to the kingdom life so that it does not have a chance.

Then finally we arrive at the good soil, where the seed can both spring up, and go deep.  That is where I want to spend the rest of the time today.  How do we cultivate good soil?  How do we create an environment for the best receptivity of the Call of God?

If you think about it, that is what Christian Formation is all about, or to use an older word, Discipleship.  When we care for our children and our youth by providing them opportunities to start their lives of faith well, and let those roots get down deep before they have to confront the busy-ness of the world, then their faith can get a head start.

But what about the adults?  We have to be a place that is set apart.  We have to be a wayside to the frenetic pull of our culture to busy-ness and consumption.  We have to help people get off the beaten path.

Also, we have to be about helping people get rid of the rocks in their soil.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs talks about the basics we have to have taken care of before we can focus on the “higher” needs.  It is no accident that Jesus has us pray for our daily bread, and their is no accident that we give food to those that come to us on Thursdays.  Jesus understands that if we are hungry, thirst, or naked it is hard to hear the call of God.

We also have to be about the Thorns.  There are systemic thorns that choke out the hope of people, societal ills that choke out the life of folk.  This could be racism or its byproducts.  Two conversations in our city remind me of this: where to put a baseball stadium, and where the public transportation is allowed to go.  These are more than thorny issues, the are thorns that distract and choke our hope.

The thorns can horrible home conditions or addictions that prevent us from being still and quiet enough to hear that subtle Call of God.

In our Formation, we need to focus on removing the rocks and thorns, and slowly tilling the soil of receptivity both for ourselves and those that come to our doors.

So, what do we do with those that are receptive, and the seeds of the Call of God are growing?  We nurture them.  And when we do, we can see 100, 60 or 30 fold growth!  This is where the Specific Call of God comes in!

One of my favorite St. Thomas moments so far was the Speed Dating day with the ministries a few weeks ago.  People heard a few minutes of many of the ways they can share their faith and their growth.  My 7-year-old was there.  She heard them talk about what SHE could do!  She believed and knew that she could do something, and responded.  I have seen her pledge card.  In her block letters at name she scrawled SOJO.  And on the back, she circled Coffee Hour.  She has a passion for Coffee Hour.  Now, can the call of God come through a 7-year-old’s love of cookies?  YES!  Resoundingly yes!  Her passions, or at least her interest, were piqued.  She heard the call and responded.  She can make a plate of cookies.  And if I remember right, she is doing one in August.  Will it take help from mom and dad?  Of course, but that this environment, and the fertile ground that we are trying to create for her at home, she heard that general call of help, and that specific call of “I can do that!” and she responded.  

That is what Jesus was talking about.

Don’t be confused.  Last week’s lesson in the lectionary, while comforting, was openly telling us that there is work involved in this spiritual journey.

Matthew 11:28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  29 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.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Christ’s call to take on his yoke is a Call to those in the fertile soil to walk beside him, doing what he has done and is still doing at work in this world, and learn from him.  Notice that the rest is for our SOUL, but there is still work involved.  When we are at work in the world doing God’s work in our setting, then we go to sleep at night, we sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Our response to the Call of God is not to think that we have arrived, but that we have begun a life of co-laboring with Christ to change the world.

The place where I learned the most about ministry was a camp for inner-city Richmond children called Camp Alkulana.  In the kitchen where we were allowed to hang out after hours, there was a poster, and its words stay with me to this day.

This is a little story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job.
Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
There is a lot of Truth in that.  That general call of God calls all of us to do what we can as we are able.  Remember, the Good Samaritan was not called to medical missions!  He was called to respond to someone there in his path.  And so are we.

You were put on earth, a little space, to learn to bear the beams of love.  Open yourself to those beams, and as you grow and learn and share that love, you bring glory to God.  Hear that General Call of God, and when you hear it, you may begin to get a clear vision of that vocational call, that piece of the puzzle that only you can fill.

The Call of God is so often more the “still small voice” that Elijah heard, instead of the “blinding light” of St. Paul.  Till your soil.  Get rid of the rocks and thorns as you are able, and get help for those things that you cannot, and be ready for a life better than you can imagine.  Amen.