Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Monday, July 28, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Jesus said, "The Kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood this?" They answered, "Yes."
I have only been preaching for about seven or eight years now, but I've never preached on hell or damnation. Being an Episcopal priest, that's understandable. We don't really talk much about hell, as Anglicans. We have a healthy fear of it. Certainly none of us wishes to end up there, but we don't really talk much about it.
In the Anglican tradition, we tend to emphasize holy living in preaching, while in the liturgy we pray fervently for deliverance from hell. We pray that "we may continue in...holy fellowship," "that we may find our inheritance with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints," but we don't really talk about what happens if we don't make it. We have a natural aversion to those ideas. We entrust our lives to Christ, and hope for the best, and that--frankly--is about all we can do. We believe in the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come," but we don't really know much about it.
We have a lot of images of hell. It's almost always depicted as a fiery place, which is very biblical. Have you ever put a new log in a wood stove or in a fireplace, and the new log didn't sit right? So you had to get a poker or a set of tongs and manoeuvre the thing into place. And if you did that without gloves, you felt the fire start to braise your hands a little bit, right? Until it got so hot that you had to move away? Imagine not being able to move away. That's hell. Torment. Pain.
A man I know tells a story about what his minister told him when he was a boy about how long eternity in hell would feel. He said, "Imagine a mountain ten times taller than the highest mountain in the world. The mountain comes all the way up to a peak, and every thousand years a tiny, little bird flies past and brushes just the tip of that mountain. Now, when that bird has worn that mountain down to ground, that's the end of eternity. (Pause.)
I wonder if I haven't preached on hell because so much of my early life I was absolutely scared stiff of it. It wasn't that I heard a lot of sermons about hell. My parents never warned me about hell. But I grew up--mostly through my own fault--believing that Jesus came to save absolutely everyone, except me. Well, that's not strictly speaking true. I did believe in forgiveness, but I had difficulty believing that God could be so tolerant of repetitive sins. If I had done it before, and did it again, how could he extend the same grace? I don't know. I still don't know.
I believed that I would understand that better as a parent, but when my son does something again and again, and I keep extending grace, I can't tell you that it's without counting the number of times. I can't tell you that I don't hold on to the memory of his previous errors and sometimes have to put him in "time-out" before grace can be extended again.
Punishment is part of discipline. And we get that. But hell? It's so...final. So..."that's all, folks!" Eternal separation from God? Eternal nothingness? It seems so opposite of God. So far away from the God who is better than we can "either desire or deserve." So contrary to the assurance of the Cross.
But there it is in this earthy metaphor of the fish. Last week it was the weeds and the wheat, remember that? That we can all live together in this life, in the Kingdom of God, and at the end, the Angels are going to sit down with us, and some are in, and some are out. Righteous come in. Evil go out. That's it. Turn off the lights. Put the cat out the door. Leave a note for the milkman. We're closed. (Pause.)
I don't like this text. There. I said it. I don't like it. I don't know anyone who does. The only people I know who like these texts are smug, self-satisfied Christians who think they know weeds from wheat, or fish from snakes, and I have become very tired of that kind of attitude, and I think you have, too. Just like good soil and bad soil, weeds and wheat, you don't know one from the other.
A friend of mine once interviewed at a church to become their new rector, and after he preached for them, the committee sat down to grill him. The worst question they asked was, "Are you willing to see yourself go to hell for Jesus?" He took a minute to consider the question. It was a loaded question. It was a question that—no matter how you answered it—it could get you in trouble. So my friend responded, "Sir, I'm willing to see this whole committee go to hell for Jesus!" Yeah…they didn't call him. But this kind of "gotcha" Christianity about who's in and who's out is everywhere.
Have any of you ever gone to a tent meeting, or maybe watched one of the old Billy Graham crusades on TV? They're simply amazing. Billy Graham is something else. He's probably the best preacher the world has ever seen. I remember one night at seminary I found myself listening to him preach at one of his old crusades. And I'm telling you...sitting there--in seminary!--he had me asking myself if I was going to heaven, or not. Powerful preaching. At the end of the sermon he had an altar call, and he said, "Even if you're a pastor or a priest...you've been functioning as a "born again" Christian for years, but still...you just want to be sure.
See that's the thing...being sure. In the strict, evangelical culture, it's about being sure. We can't get our hands on God. We can't tell if we're weeds or wheat, good fish or bad We've been following Jesus; we need to be sure. So maybe this will do it, see? Maybe this confession of faith, at this moment, with these people...maybe that will do it. And we can be sure.
I don't mean any disrespect—I completely understand the thinking there. We do it, too, but in a different way. As Episcopalians, we believe that Holy Baptism is the means by which we make sure. Baptism is a Sacrament. It is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." You remember that from Confirmation class?
"A sure and certain means." It's a done deal! The water comes over your head, and that's that. Right? Remember those immutable words when the newly baptized are anointed with the oil of chrism, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own for ever"? That's got to be it, right? Are we sure then? Or are those just words, just hopes that when the angels sit down to poke through the fish that they'll take kindly to us?
I remember talking about this in theology class in seminary, during a conversation about Baptism, and the professor turned to us and said, "So, if you're baptized, you're going to heaven, no questions, right?" And someone bit on that like a fish on a hook and said, "Absolutely." And the professor said, "Adolf Hitler was baptized. What are you going to do with that?"
You can't treat the human soul as if it's just a parking lot ticket that gets validated when the waters of Baptism come over it. And yet, at the same time, I do believe that the Sacrament is effective, even when it's offered to people who go on to do terrible, terrible things. I guess it's because I essentially believe that "everyone rides."
I don't like the thought that some are in and some are out, because as soon as I start thinking I'm in, I feel I should be, rightfully, out.
What do you think? I mean, by now you know that I'm not an authoritarian kind of priest. I like to think of myself as a fellow pilgrim with my flock. I get that from a mentor who once told me that ordination is not being raised up, it's being pushed down. Pushed down into the big questions of the faith. Pushed down into the cracks and crevices between our fallible humanity and the divine, eternal Majesty. I don't have all the answers. I don't even have half of the answers, but it's my job to wrestle with what we've got.
Hell is a terrible subject. I was talking about this with Karin, and she said that a friend of hers once said, "If anyone goes to hell, then the devil wins." I like that a lot. In my mind the Cross and Resurrection mean that God loves us that we're going to be okay. "But even still," I asked Karin, "How do I square that with this text?" And Karin said, "I don't think you can. I don't think you can square all that we've heard about these things. We simply don't know."
With God, there is justice and mercy. Forgiveness and punishment. Somehow grit and grace come together in God. Somehow he knows what people really deserve, and I'm glad of that, because it's an impossible job for the human mind. It's not our business who gets in and who doesn't. It's God's business.
This text is not comforting in the slightest bit, but I come back to the character of the person who said it: Jesus, who offered his life for the life of the world. I don't think Jesus went to the Cross believing that his sacrifice would only take care of some of the people—and that those "some people" would be uptight, frightened Christians who have been scared into God's arms, fearing the alternative.
I think Jesus went to the cross because he couldn't bring himself to turn his back on what the Father wanted him to do, and at the same time, he couldn't stop loving us.
And that might not be enough for some of you. Some of you might feel that the Bible is very clear that God's justice had to be wrought in human flesh—that God needed a sacrifice. Well, okay. I can go there, too. But, it sure changes the way we read the Prodigal Son.
Let me just say this. Every story in the Bible gives us a little glimpse into the character of God. And when Jesus came, his job was to reveal once and for all what God was really like. Now you tell me. From everything we know from Jesus about who God is, do you really think it's in God's nature to let us wind up in hell? Do you? Well, I could be wrong, but I sure don't.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Jean-Paul Sartre dit, le « enfer est juste d'autres. » Je n'emploierai pas cela dans mon sermon d'enfer, parce que je ne le crois pas, et parce que Sartre était simplement fou, mais j' ai pensé à lui. C'est réellement une chose très ironique pour dire, parce qu'orthodoxe, l'enseignement chrétien catholique dirait que le ciel est d'autres. C'est la communion des saints, du groupe final de soutien de la prière et de l'amour. Sartre était tout à fait erroné. Et j'attends avec intérêt l'audition qu'il admettent cela… dans le ciel.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is just other people.” I won’t be using that in my hell sermon, because I don’t believe it, and because Sartre was just crazy, but I have thought of it. It’s actually a very ironic thing to say, because orthodox, catholic Christian teaching would say that heaven is other people. That’s the Communion of Saints, the ultimate support group of prayer and love. Sartre was quite wrong. And I’m looking forward to hearing him admit that…in heaven.
Don't get your hopes up about the hell sermon. This'll be the last one till August 29th (vacation), and I feel as if I may be limping over the finish line. I gave it the old (Bridgewater) college try.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
How many times have you had this experience? There's a knock at the door while your children are (finally) taking a nap. Despite the fact that there is a sign on the door saying, "Children sleeping, please knock gently," you hear the old traditional "shave and a haircut" rhythm knock. You go to the door, and it's someone trying to convince you that their visit is expected. They ask, "Surely you've seen our vans. We sell steaks and other foods..."
Politely, you decline her offer. But she has the audacity to seem skeptical, as if you've just told her that you don't actually eat anything. The baby starts crying, as if on cue. You say, "Did you not see the sign on the door...knock gently?" "That's what I did," the saleslady says. "Apparently not gently enough," you respond. "Sir...God bless you," she says in a deeply ironic tone. And now you're left in an emotional stalemate. On one hand you're annoyed by the visitor, yet, somehow the visitor has made you feel bad for holding her accountable.
I thought door-to-door salespeople went out with the rotary phone.
From now on, I'm not answering the door during naptime, so...Lord Jesus, if you plan to stand at my door and knock, please come before 1:00 or after 3:30.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.
Whenever I read this text—even though I know it's just a parable, just an allegory—I still have to ask the question: why in the world would anyone sow weeds? It gnaws at me. When I go out walking, I see these immaculate gardens that are either lovingly tended to by people who live in the house, or by people who are paid serious money by the people who live in the house. I look at those flowers and herbs, and I don't know about you, but I can violate the Tenth Commandment twelve times just walking around Woodstock—I covet some of these gardens.
But no matter how much I envy, it would never even cross my mind plant weeds in them. It would be like visiting a museum and spraying black paint on all the paintings—you don't do that. But there are people who would.
For some people, people who are hurt by the slings and arrows of life, people who have walked the dusty path with not much to show for it—they can't bear that someone is getting—what they assume to be—a better life. A better garden. A nicer home. More friends. More money. And they take it out in some kind of way.
Did you know that some people become weeds? In almost any organization. In churches, in businesses, in charity organizations, bowling leagues, in colleges. In almost any group of people that's been around for more than just a couple of years you'll find weeds. And the interesting thing about them, is that usually they don't start out that way.
I know a priest who is in a parish where he's got a small group of weeds. Whenever one of the "new people"—you know what new is? A new person, typically, has only been coming for ten years. But whenever a new person is going to stand for vestry, this group starts growing weeds. "Well, he doesn't remember when we started out." "This is the only rector she's ever known." Weeds, weeds, weeds.
One of the new people decides they want to start a ministry in the church, maybe a food pantry, or an outreach program for immigrants, and the weeds go to work. "It'll draw in the wrong kind of people." "Who does she think she is she can just waltz into this church and start a ministry?"
Now, you don't know what this is like here at Emmanuel/ St. Andrew's, because we don't have any weeds here. But let me tell you how these weeds started off. They started off as wheat—the people who held the church up when virtually no one was coming, they gave money, and countless hours of hard work. They were out mowing the grass long before you ever knew this church existed.
But, the years rolled on, and they can't do that stuff anymore. But, you see, they used to, and it's a painful reminder that those days are passed when someone walks into the church, or the office, or the civic group, and seems to get instant respect, instant results, and instant friends. All of which it used to take years to achieve.
So envy kicks in, and they become weeds, because they don't know how else to even things out—to remind people that this organization wouldn't even be here today without their hard work. And if you confront the weeds, they will begin to rattle off all the things they used to do for the organization—making it impossible to say that they are not being supportive. (Pause.)
It's a tricky thing to talk about, isn't it, because on one hand the weeds are deeply, deeply aggravating. And yet, on the other hand, you can understand precisely why they're behaving the way they are.
The reaction most people have is to start pulling them up. That's what the parable says. The slaves come back and say, "Hey, someone planted some weeds out here…you want us to go out and pull them up." And the master says, "No…you can't do that. If you pull on the weeds, it'll uproot the wheat." (Pause.) And that's true.
There were one or two weeds in my last parish. I used to have people coming up to me with advice on how to pull them up. I had one person come into my office regularly and say, "You need to sit down and write up letters of transfer for these people, invite them into your office, and tell them to hit the bricks…get out of here…don't let the door hit you on your way out." And I wouldn't do it.
Oh, I wanted to do it. But see, if you start pulling on those weeds, it will get around, and before long, your hand will slip and you'll pull up some wheat. And then it's all over.
In a business you can just fire them, right? Well, yes, but it still damages the wheat, even though you think it doesn't.
Some people say, "Oh you just need to spray them with Round-Up. Tell them that they're doing bad things. Preach some pointed sermons at them. You know: Let `em have it when you're alone with them." I once got that advice from a very senior church official. He said, "Just get them alone and tell them to shape up or ship out." But it doesn't work that way.
If you've spent any time at all with herbicides you know about drift. No matter how careful you are, some of that spray is going to fly on the wind and get on the good plants. You spray the weeds, and some of it will fall on the wrong ears, and suddenly the good plants start to die. No. The only way to handle it is to let those weeds grow. (Pause.)
I remember when I was a boy talking with a man who lived a couple doors down. He was a nice man. A couple times a week, he'd go out weeding the front flower bed. One day he said, "You see that plant right there?" I said, "Yes." He said, "It's a weed." Well, it was a beautiful flower. I think it was a zinnia. I said, "No, it's not a weed…it's a flower!" He said, "You want to know the truth? The only difference between them is that we like some more than we like others. But they're all weeds."
I have thought about that conversation occasionally for the last, I don't know, twenty years. Some days I think he was right; other days I think he was just grumpy. Maybe he couldn't tell weeds from wheat. I know I can't.
You see, despite the fact that we know weedy behavior when we see it, quite often weeds really are wheat. That's why it's God's job to sort them out. Because God can look past the pettiness of human behavior in ways that we can't. He can see the places in our hearts that ache from years of unnoticed sacrifice. He can see the hours of selfless giving that no one else saw.
And what's even more amazing… God can take a weed and make it wheat. God can take someone who has been formed in absolute chaos and uncertainty, in and out of detention at school, a truant, and a heck-raiser, and spin them around into one of the finest examples of wheat you ever saw. Ask the Apostle Paul. Ask St. Francis of Assisi. Ask St. Augustine of Hippo.
We like having a bead on things, don't we? Nice easy divisions between good and bad. And we're so good at it. Republican and Democrat. From here, and not from here. And once we've got them pegged, we think we know all there is to know.
Emo Philips, a Christian comedian, said, "I had a conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! What kind?" He answered, "Baptist." "Me too!" I said. "Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" "Northern Baptist," he replied. "Me too!" I shouted. We continued to go back and forth. Finally I asked, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?" He replied, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912." And I said, "Heretic! Heretic!"
Oh, we can play this game in our denomination, too, you know we can. And we think once we've got a couple of experiences with someone, a couple conversations, sizing them up, that we know pretty much where they're coming from. And we make the decision to think of them as either weed or wheat. But we don't really know. And even if we did know, do we even know ourselves which one we are? (Pause.) You don't know. When it comes to human beings, you do not know a weed from wheat—you don't even know yourself!
When I was about nine or ten, my parents and I went to Camp Swatara, one of the Church of the Brethren camps. I was going to a week-long church summer camp. My parents were there to be counselors for some of the older kids. On the first day, I met this boy—I don't remember his name now, but I'll call him Johnny.
When Johnny and I met we became instant enemies. There was nothing about him I liked, and nothing about me he liked. We couldn't have been more different. He was athletic, I was sedentary. He was out-going, I was shy. He was tall, I was short…you get the picture.
And we bickered and fussed with each other for the entire week. He wanted to go climb the rock pile, I wanted to take a nap. He wanted to go swimming, I wanted to read a book. And the other boys loved him, which really egged things on.
We fussed and we bickered and we bickered and we fussed until the week ended and all the parents started coming to pick up their knee-scraped, foot-sore, poison ivy infected children. (Yes, I still have issues…)
We had all said our good byes at the vespers service the night before. A man named Clarence—I'll never forget him—had hand-made little wooden candleholders for each of us during the week, that we got to take with us. He teared up when handing them out, telling us that we were the light of the world, the faith of the future church. It was a moving service. Yes, we sang Cum Baya. Yes, there was a bonfire. Yes, marshmallows were involved.
In my mind, the goodbyes were all said. The few boys I actually got along with had shaken my hand, and left with their parents. And I don't know quite what the circumstances were, but Johnny and I were the last kids left. I sat on the steps in front of the lodge, and he was playing with a little rubber ball on the basketball court right there.
We didn't speak. We didn't even acknowledge that the other was present. Finally, his mother arrived, and as they were about to leave, Johnny walked over to me. I was scared out of my mind. What was he going to do? I was ready for a final insult, a final punch on the arm, a final indignity to a humiliating week.
He got right up close, and then suddenly he reached out his arms and hugged me. And he said, "I'm going to miss you."
As I look back, I have to wonder: During the course of that week, when we were all supposed to be learning how to be better Christians, was he weed, or was he wheat? Was I weed, or was I wheat? When he hugged me, did he become wheat right there? Or was it just for show? I don't know. You don't know. Only God knows.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008
What amazes me about children's shows these days (on the channels Nick Jr. and Noggin) is that they now begin with a little briefing for parents about what the show teaches. I can't reproduce here the exact words, but for instance the briefing might say, "Dora the Explorer teaches relationship and problem solving skills, while promoting interaction, and bilingual education," or some such pedagogy-speak.
It makes you feel--as a parent--like a co-conspirator...you get the inside scoop on the show's purpose. And while I do think that instruction with amusement is very effective, I also somewhat bristle at the idea that kids shows need to justify their existence by claiming to teach more than just entertain.
I suppose, one could say, that TV should be as educational as possible, given that kids are more interactive than ever with TV and other technology, but the pedagogical briefings seem to enable the über-parent mentality that seems in vogue right now, i.e. everything a child experiences must be educational, contextualized, safe, happy, sanitized. A child must be shielded from unpleasant things that might "hinder" them in some way.
I simply don't agree. I think kids should be allowed to experience life as a total educational experience, and have to sort through things--with a bit of help--but pretty much on their own. Maturity is the ability to think, reason, and accommodate new things. A child's brain should be shielded from extremes, but I think they need to be given the intellectual freedom to explore. Everything is educational, if you're a kid. Even Bugs Bunny was educational at some level.
I suppose what I'm worried about, more than anything, is the idea that über-parenting (constant hyper-awareness of context and shielding kids from every conceivable danger) is going to raise a generation of basically shallow people: people who only think in two categories, pleasant and unpleasant. Things I want to do, and things I don't want to do.
The real enemy to intelligence is shallowness, surface understanding, surface thinking and relating.
I write this realizing that it's pretty much what every generation of parents says. But still...
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
I grew up in these parts. Actually one county to the south, Rockingham. In fact, my home parish, the Rockingham Parish, Emmanuel Church in Harrisonburg once boasted its inclusion of all the land to the west of it, all the way to the Mississippi River. Delusional. But that's not what I want to write about.
I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, but I am still, in fact, more than I have ever been, hopelessly, madly, passionately in love with it. As I drove around the tight corners of Conicville Road, down the Old Valley Pike, up Route 42, I felt that feeling. It's a feeling that comes over you again and again in waves of pleasure can only be compared with that of the first exciting tingle you feel when the person you think you might be in love with might actually love you back. That's the feeling.
I grew up here. I grew up not realizing that I was in this cradle of beauty, a cradle of mountains that hug and release, and then hug again. I twisted around one road, and on to the next, which splayed out a vista of trees and distant hills that quite literally took my breath away. Looking up into what John Gillespie Magee, Jr. called "sun-split clouds" I felt as if I could breath more deeply than I have in years.
You see, I grew up here, but I have now known what it is to live in other places. Okay, yes, I've always lived in Virginia. But within this great Commonwealth, there are so many Virginias. There is the old world money and class struggle of the Piedmont. The standoffishness of the Northern Neck, the fluidity of the Beltway area cities and counties, the crustiness of Richmond, the weariness of the Tidewater, the poverty of the southwest.
But here. Here in the Shenandoah Valley... This place was settled by humble people. People who saw, and continue to see, the beauty around them, and know that they are blessed.
I didn't leave because I wanted to. I left to go to seminary, and I lived in exile for those following six and a half years. God brought me back. He brought me home.
If you want to know the full story well...I'm afraid I still can't tell it. There are still wounds to be healed. Things too painful for me to communicate. The smile on my face is real. But there is pain behind it. And the worry that one day I'll wake up and the last seven months will all have been a dream...the best dream I have ever had.
But suffice it to say for now that the love I feel for this demi-paradise is inseparable from my love for God. Because it wasn't just "a nice thing," or a "happy coincidence," that brought me back. I was saved. Like the icon of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of hell by the wrists, it was God who yanked me out.
I was dead, and lo! I have come back to life.
There are many other beautiful places, but Dorothy was right: "There's no place like home."
Monday, July 14, 2008
It has been a guilty pleasure of mine, whenever the children are asleep and there's nothing else pressing in immediately on my attention, to close my own eyes for a few minutes. Sometimes it's what people like to call "a power nap"--meaning only ten or fifteen minutes--and sometimes, not being able to gauge my own weariness, I have awoken two hours later feeling like a Mack truck has rolled over my head.
Medical science is telling us more and more about the benefits of sleep. In fact, they've started referring to it as being just as important to our health as exercise and eating healthy foods, yet it still seems as if folks think of napping as something about which to be embarrassed. I've even known someone who was so embarrassed about taking naps that she got her doctor to prescribe naps (she's in her late eighties!) so that she could have a defense of her habit. As if anyone was going to criticize!
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Every year since I got out of seminary, I have planted seeds. I love them. We planted vegetable gardens when I was a little boy. My grandfather always put in a garden. Maybe its in my DNA. Long about mid-April Karin and I will be pushing our cart through the produce section and I'll see the seed rack and I'm like a moth at a flame.
Sometimes I'll stop in the Southern States, or Valley Heritage just to smell the place. And I'll buy little things. But I have to plant seeds. Usually flower seeds—marigolds. And I run home like a thief in the night and I pull out some potting soil. And then I start checking every five minutes. I can't wait to see them come up. There is something about seeds.
Do you know what a seed is? A seed has three parts: an embryo, the nutrients surrounding the embryo, and a shell. When dormancy passes, and a seed soaks up enough water, it will break open and sprout. And to me, that is exciting. You bury the seeds in the ground, water them,
a couple days later these little green heads start to pop out of the ground.
I love it. I love seeds. I love the potential. I love watching something that started from a little fleck become a pretty little flower. And with marigolds! They're the best, because when a
marigold's bloom dies, the whole head become seeds. When I left Christ Church, Gordonsville last December to come here, I gave little envelopes of seeds to the children, and I told them to plant their marigold seeds in the Spring, and I'd plant mine, and when they came up we'd think about each other.
This year I've got my marigolds growing in pots and they've been kind of slow to come up. The ones in the front flower bed have been better. I've had to plant twice, and still no flowers. They've had plenty of sun, plenty of water—my only guess is that the soil isn't very good.
Sounds like this parable, doesn't it? "A sower went out to sow," said Jesus, "and as he sowed some fell on rocky ground, and they sprang up quickly since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
At clergy retreat last October, out at Shrine Mont, the speaker was the Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, one of our Episcopal monasteries. His name is Brother Curtis Almquist. One of his sessions was on this text. Brother Curtis is from a rural background. He said: when you decide to plant something, especially on a farm, you don't just let seeds go everywhere. You carefully prepare the ground, and then you carefully plant the seeds. You don't sow seeds in places where you know it won't grow.
But here in this parable Jesus shows us how wonderfully gracious God is in planting seeds even in places where they're not expected to grow. That was the gist of his message. And I filed that teaching away in my brain, knowing that the text was going to come up sooner or later, and that would be my sermon.
So when I sat down with this text for today, I already knew where I was going to go. That's a dangerous thing. Because the text is a living document, and when it is read among a community of faithful Christians, sometimes the text can say things a little differently. So, when began my research, the first thing I did was to see if the text read the same way. And it didn't. I was a little shocked by this as you might imagine.
So I started pulling my commentaries down, and sure enough, Brother Curtis's teaching was completely in-line with what other scholars had written. But I still couldn't read it that way. I got hung up on the sowing. Let me explain.
You see, in biblical times, seeds were just scattered. You'd reach in the sack and pull out a handful of seeds and scatter them on the ground. You might plow the soil first, or you might scatter the seeds and then plow them into the ground. There was no John Deere tractor,
it was just scattering and hand plowing, or plowing with livestock.
But look at the difference in the text between the words "sow" and "fell." That's where I get hung up. Because it's one thing to say you're sowing seeds, or scattering seeds—that requires intention.
You're planting. But the original Greek and our modern English say that those seeds "fell." And what I'm left with is the image of the sower just tossing those seeds willy nilly with no care in the world for where they land.
And now you can read that like the commentaries and Brother Curtis, that God is the sower and that God shows his graciousness in sowing everywhere. Or you can read that like I am today where it's not so much that God is graciously sowing as it is that he simply doesn't mind that the seeds fall anywhere.
And you might look at me cross-eyed and say, "Alexander, you're just splitting hairs here," but I'm telling you that I think there's a pretty big difference in those two interpretations. Either God is so gracious, so wonderful that he plants everywhere, or it's simply that he doesn't really care if the seeds go everywhere.
I want to say that it's God being gracious, but I'm not sure, because the parable leaves room for doubt. If Jesus had wanted us to read it just the one way, that God's being gracious, then you would think he would want to spell that out. The parable would read, "A sower went out to sow, and he sowed his seeds all over the place, because he's likes the path, and the thorns, and the good soil alike and he thinks everybody should get a chance…" I'm not sure that's what Jesus meant.
Well, it's only a parable, right? I mean, you can't get too literal here. Later on in the text Jesus spells everything out. He says that it's a metaphor for shallow people, or people who care too much about the affairs of the world. The plain reading of the text tells you that… Don't try to reinvent the wheel, Alexander. Just tell people to be good soil, and try not to sound smug about how some people get it and some people don't…
I could preach that sermon. I probably will preach that sermon one day: it's the flat-footed, plain reading of the text—one of the very few parables where Jesus follows it up with his own commentary. But I've still got my question.
At my last parish I used to do a little children's time just before the sermon—we had a bunch of kids—and usually the children's time was geared towards the children. But, okay, I'll admit, there were times when I was talking over them to the congregation. It looked like I was
scattering seeds on the children, but in fact I was scattering the seeds on the thorns, and the path. Or at least that's what I thought. Maybe it was just the opposite.
I told you about doing a service out at a nursing home. Actually, I've conducted many services and nursing homes, and a couple at funeral homes. You talk about difficult services. At the funeral home, you look out at blank faces. The pews are filled with people in dark clothing. Usually they don't know you and you don't know them. There's the casket with flowers everywhere. The space is barren, totally impersonal. You stand behind a non-denominational looking pulpit with a big microphone, and in your ears your voice sounds muffled, like your talking into a pillow. The organ is slowly warbling out "I'll fly away" and "Amazing Grace."
You're going to talk about Resurrection, and the comfort of believing in the crucified and resurrected Christ, who offers salvation to all who come to him and faith. In other words, you've got a whole bag of rich, beautiful, healthy seeds, and you're scattering them as far as you can—but you have no idea what the soil is like.
You'd like to prepare the soil—every pastor or priest wants to do that first—meet the family, get to know some folks, you know…find out how good the soil is. You don't want to stand up there with your good seed and just have it wind up on the path. You want it to take root. Is that selfish, or is that because you know that it's good seed?
It would be tempting to think that seminary would have the best soil, wouldn't it? All these men and women from various backgrounds and ages, all gathered together to learn about the Bible and theology, and pastoral care.
We had chapel everyday. Usually the service was just straight Morning Prayer, no sermon, but at least one a week, if not more we heard a sermon. Sometimes the preacher was a professor, sometimes a guest, sometimes a senior seminarian.
And again, you think: that's got to be good soil! You can just imagine all the seed falling from that pulpit at Virginia Seminary into the soil of young men and women—the future clergy and bishops of the Episcopal Church. But here's an interesting irony. My experience was that the soil usually thought it was too good for the seed! We would listen carefully to the sermons, and then in quiet, subtle comments, we would rate how good the seed was, and sometimes pretty mercilessly. Back then I thought it was bad seed, but now that I've got some perspective—the seed was fine. We were terrible soil.
I graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School. A short time after I was ordained, I got invited to come back to preach in chapel. (Pause.) Well, okay, I asked to be invited. What can I say?
So I went back hoping to see interested youth, former teachers. I got up to preach and I'd forgotten that high schoolers do not show interest. They just sit there. The worst chapels were when a preacher talked down to us, and standing at that lectern for the first time I could understand why they did that. You can't tell, looking at flat faces, what the soil is like. You have no idea. And the temptation is to dumb down your remarks, because they don't seem to understand you. If they did understand you, they'd be a little excited. Right? Wrong.
You're never going to know.
So I preached my best sermon; I preached from the heart; I told them that God was all around them. And the whole time it felt like the seeds were just bouncing on the gravel.
After chapel, I got a little tour of their new facilities from the man who was the director of development for years—some of you might know Les Helmuth. As I was about to leave, Les said that I'd preached a good sermon. I thanked him, and then I told him that I didn't feel
like it came across. And he said, "Oh, you remember what it's like…they may not seem to care…but they're listening to every word you say." Does that mean good soil, or thorns, or the path? Maybe they're listening, but what kind of soil is it?
I don't know what is good soil, and what is bad soil. Maybe that's the lesson. Maybe the seeds get scattered because that's just what they're for. I don't know.
I do know that I like scattering seeds. I like scattering them from the pulpit, and I like scattering them in the flower bed. I like scattering them at nursing homes and hospitals and funeral homes, and at Walton & Smoot, and at Wal-Mart, and anywhere I can.
I do it, because I love it. And even though it's something I'm ordained to do, there is nothing at all to keep you from reaching into your lives—reaching into the stories of God's faithful presence with you—and scattering those seeds anywhere you go.
And you'll probably want to hold back from time to time. You'll look at this group of people, or that group of people—maybe even your own family—and think, "This soil isn't worth it...nothing's going to grow in that." And you will be tempted to shove that handful of seeds right
back into your apron, but don't do it.
See, if God's willing to let those seeds go anywhere, then you can't hold back just because you think you know. Because you never know whether it's good soil or not.
You look at my little flower bed on Eagle Street, and it looks very fertile—you would think that I could grow anything in it, but I can't seem to get one lousy bloom. And then you look over at a stony, weedy place where I put in some sunflowers and here they come.
Do you think God knows something we don't?
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
It's not as easy to work on a sermon during toddler nap time. And even though my brain is always writing, even while going to bed, it really isn't until I sit down at the computer that my thoughts start to come out in any substantive way. I could do it for hours, and I do--at the office. But when Master MacPhail, the delicate genius of 2.5 years, might just wake up, it's not as easy to concentrate.
Fortunately, after writing the one I'm working on, I just have to write the one I preach when I come back from vacation and then I get to stop for awhile. I need the break. When you're in the pulpit every week, it takes a lot of prayer, a lot of concentration to keep going sometimes. There's always one more Sunday, you know. It doesn't stop till Christ returns.
In a way I'm grateful that we won't have to have sermons in heaven, but in another way, that's a shame. There are a lot of people I'd like to hear. St. John Chrysostom for one. Richard Hooker. George Whitefield. Jonathan Edwards. St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Patrick of Ireland. John Calvin. The Wesleys, of course. And frankly, I'd like to take a Sunday one day. I wouldn't put myself in those guys' company. But what a congregation!
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
And my reaction was to question: A.) Why was I not suddenly moved emotionally that my boy wants us to read the Bible (which I love) to him?, and 2.) Why did he want us to read to him from it? What does he want to hear; what does he already know?
In answer to the first question: I have no idea.
In answer to the other questions: I have no idea.
He has a children's Bible, which is actually better than most. It's NIV (which I don't really like), but it seems accessible to Son 2.5. It has pictures. I read him the story of the offering of Isaac, since it came up in the lectionary on the Sunday he wasn't in church, because his parents were in the hospital producing Maggie. I read him Psalm 23. The Creation. (Oddly, I teared up reading about God blessing the Sabbath day--I have no idea why.) The Resurrection was too emotional for me to read him yet.
The whole time I was reading he was kissing me and kissing the book. (I'm not kidding here.) I kiss the Bible ceremonially after reading the Gospel on Sundays, but he is usually in the nursery...he doesn't see that.
The whole event has left me puzzled, slightly awed, and wondering if maybe I don't know everything.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
"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."
I'm sure you can imagine that these words have taken on a whole new meaning for Karin and me in recent days. I want to say how very grateful I am that Walter (Sparky and Julie) was able to take care of you last Sunday. These will be weeks of adjustment, and I do hope you will feel very free to contact me at home on the phone or by email if you need me.
As I was researching this text, I came across a sentence that tickled me a little bit. The scholar wrote, "Once a text is owned by all who hear it, it is the historical interpreter who seems [like] the intruder." Or he might have put it this way, this text is so familiar for its plain meaning that if you explain why it was originally written, people won't want to hear it.
For Episcopalians, this verse sort of floats around above the pews and occasionally drops down on a parishioner during a particularly hard week. We know it as one of "the comfortable words" offered after the Absolution in a Rite One service of Holy Eucharist. It's got it's own life. It's got its own place in the liturgy.
The text's original meaning fits perfectly with the Confession and Absolution. Remember a couple Sundays ago when I mentioned that Matthew's community was wrestling with its identity? They were Jewish converts to Christianity. They were trying to figure out how they were going to be true to their past, while also being the people Jesus called them to be.
Jesus says, "You all are like children playing in the market place, yelling at each other, `We played the flute and you didn't dance. We bawled our eyes out and you didn't mourn.' John the Baptizer was a teetotaler and you didn't like him, and I (Jesus) come to you eating an drinking, and you say I'm a glutton and a drunkard. So what does a prophet have to do to get you to listen?"
They don't seem to understand what Jesus is trying to tell them: that God doesn't sit there looking for them to fail. See, they believed that true religion was about following the words in the book. And they were half right about that. God had said to Moses that the Hebrew people must observe God's decrees and statutes and not ignore his commandments. That ethos is at the core of the Hebrew people's history—it's at the center of the Babylonian exile.
But what had happened over time is that the biblical commandments had been added to well beyond their original meaning. So many rules and penalties and even secular customs had been added to the mix that the most fundamental aspect of God had become obscured.
They lost sight of the call of Abraham and the call of Moses—the fundamental call of God into relationship and union. The Hebrew people had become weary and heavy laden with the rules and penalties of their faith. And Jesus, seeing them cast down, says, "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."
You see how, in context, this teaching is like a long drink of cold water for a weary pilgrim? It fits very well after the moment in the service when we confess that "we have erred and strayed like lost sheep," and have not followed the commandments of God. And God's response, coming from what the 1662 Book of Common Prayer calls, the "throne of the heavenly grace" is: Come to me…I will refresh you. In its original context, as in our day and our time, this text has the effect of drying the sinner's tears.
But—as I said before—this text has a life of its own. And long after we've forgotten what the original context is, it will still be meaningful just for its plain reading. (Pause.)
I remember going to a retreat, and the retreat leader said, "I want you to go take an hour to ask yourself `What questions are you living?'" She said, "People don't often answer questions. They live them. They walk around with them in the back of their minds, silently—even unconsciously—asking them again and again."
What do I really believe? What does God want me to be or do? Does my spouse really love me? Will I have enough money to meet my needs? Whom should I vote for in the fall? It's not like, "What are we having for dinner?" These are probing questions.
For younger people the questions are often stressful: Whom should I marry? What do I want to do with my life? What job or career path should I take? Is this as good as it gets?
There was a study done recently about happiness. The results were that those of advanced years were most likely to be happy, because older people tend to have more financial security, more wisdom, and above all, less of a need to prove themselves. Younger people tend to strive for their place in the world—often becoming disillusioned because they can't achieve what they think they should have. Speaking personally, I don't really have that difficulty. There aren't many higher places one can go—as an Episcopal priest—than to be the Rector of the Beckford Parish.
But even if many of the youthful questions are no longer before us, there are many questions we still "live." And sometimes those questions can tend toward the self-doubt, the self-criticism that leaves us feeling inadequate or grumpy.
Am I satisfied with the person I've become? Am I the person God wanted me to be? I see our baby girl sleeping in her mother's arms. One day she will begin the journey of self-discovery, self-criticism, self-doubt. And for awhile, as a young person, she will be easy to reassure.
The questions won't be quite so big. She and Peter will come to us and we will take their yoke upon us, and we'll be able to give rest to their souls. When we're children, reassurances are easy to receive.
But when you've been through some things in life. You know what I'm talking about. When you've made some debts, and skinned your knees a couple times… When you've done everything you know to do to live at peace, and yet you've still made some enemies… When you've given everything for something you believe in and still failed…
And we read "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest," and it just doesn't seem to have the level of comfort it once did. We've become too experienced with the ups and downs to be satisfied with cozy reassurances. How is Jesus going to give me rest?
I know an clergyman who started a church plant. It had all the promise in the world. He is a dynamic, inspirational type of guy. He has the perfect mix of good looks, sharp brain, earnest devotion. He had everything going for him, but for some reason, the church didn't grow. It was like a little sapling that shoots out of the ground under a massive oak with all the promise of youth and the best soil, only to die for lack of sunlight.
By the time the church was going to be closed we found out that the young priest had been paid virtually nothing because the church had been dwindling, and he had been supporting his wife and children mostly on savings, and little bits of assistance here and there.
They're okay now—he's serving another church. But can you imagine the fervent prayers he must have prayed? Can you imagine the stress he must have lived under?
You can't go through something like that—you can't live that close to the edge—without having some gut level questions about "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."
How is God going to refresh us, anyway? What does that look like? I've been trying to think…if you were to call someone up and say words to this effect, you'd give some details. You'd say, "I'm sorry you're feeling down. Come on over to the house. I'll make coffee. We'll make my famous spaghetti. We'll go shopping, or we'll go down to the lake and fish." But you don't get that from Jesus. Why?
Is there a reason why he can't flesh that out a little more? Maybe it's Matthew's fault. We're reading from Matthew. In John there are much more comforting words, you remember my friend? "If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will pray the Father and he will give you another Comforter…the Holy Spirit..." At least in John we get the promise of the Spirit's companionship, but you don't get that in Matthew.
So many reassurances in the Bible give you a little indication of what God's going to do. God said to Abram, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, and your reward shall be very great." Abram said to God, "You have given me no offspring, a slave born in my house is to be my heir."
But God said, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your every own child shall be your heir." And God brought him out of his tent and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able..." And God said, "So shall your descendants be…I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans..." (Pause.) See there? He says specifically what he's going to do.
I got so upset with the lack of specifics in this text that I invited him into my office a couple weeks ago. He sat down on the little vinyl sofa next to my bookshelves, and looked at me very uncomfortably. Things got really quiet. I said, "Why are you so uncomfortable? You are one of the most treasured teachings of Jesus. You go around the church constantly, giving comfort to people who need it. Why are you so uncomfortable?"
He said, "I am uncomfortable, because you keep trying to get me to give you more for your sermon, but that's because you still don't understand." I said, "What do you mean? I'm going to tell them about the context." He said, "No, it's not that." "Well? What then?"
He said, "The problem is that you are looking for Jesus to give you more, but he's already given you everything. You see, when he says, "Come to me…and I will give you rest" you keep looking around as if he's going to pull out some cake and ice cream and tell you that all your problems are over. I am not just a cozy reassurance.
"My point," said the text, "is that Jesus gives himself. The questions you are living…he's living with you. The problems you are facing…he's facing with you. Come to him, that's all you need. Fulfilling the promise is his business, not yours. If he says he will give you rest, you have to trust him…he'll find a way of doing it." (Long pause.)
After he'd said all this, I just sat there…stunned. Actually I felt embarrassed, because he was right. We talked a little bit about the weather, and family stuff, but he pretty much just excused himself …said he had an appointment to go visit someone in the hospital, and then after that he had to get over to the nursing home, and then the people in that church that didn't take off, and the young priest who feels like a failure.
He said he needed to spend some time with the people of the Midwest, and Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Afghanistan, not to mention a small church near Tom's Brook and then back to Maurertown for a Bible study.
Actually, I feel pretty bad about asking him to come into my office. He's pretty busy these days.