Do not be Conformed to this World

A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

I like to describe the context of the readings that I am preaching on. With many of Paul’s letters, we can uncover elements of his relationship with the church that he is addressing, he knows the people there and the problems that have emerged. But in the case of his letter to the church of Rome, Paul had never been to Rome. He only had vague ideas of what was going on there, and a few acquaintances among people he had met in his travels. This letter is an introduction of himself and his teaching to a place where he hopes to travel. So he is addressing Christians who he has not yet met. In other words, he may as well be speaking directly to us: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

The appeal is to you, no less than to any other Christian who ever lived. Being a Christian is serious business, and it’s not just optional. Living a Christian life, means living in the service of the compassion of God, the source of all things, the source of all value. God is love, and to live as if love, compassion, and sacrifice for the good of others are not essential will destroy the fabric of society.

Paul continues: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed in your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The world here is what’s a given. It is not in its essence evil, but if we look around, we find it is the context in which evil occurs. The glories of creation and of loving and noble people are indeed in the world, as well as lives of sharing and mutual support. But this world is also a place where fear and hatred exist and all the evils that we see. But let’s leave those things aside for a moment.  When Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” I believe he’s referring to things where people usually say, “that’s just the way the world is.” Things that we think of as facts or principles—and that some then assert are neutral and value-free.

Self-interest is a given among human beings. People look out for themselves and their own interests, or the interests of their families. Anyone who claims to not ever act out of self-interest is simply not telling the truth. One of the reasons that religious people fall into disrepute is that some make elaborate claims of being holy and righteous in their actions, while it is apparent to anyone observing them that those actions are entirely self-interested. “Just send a check for a hundred dollars to our ministry and put your hand on the radio, and you will be cured.”

Self-interest is the way of the world. And the way in which you approach it is not value free. When people form their life around self-interest and self-interested goals, they create an isolated society, and a society of exploitation. For instance, there is good evidence that the origins of our modern views of race emerge from the financial interests of those people who needed a reliable and cheap source of labor for the colonial plantations of the 1600s and 1700s. Permanently enslaving a group of people could only be justified by arguing that those persons were either essentially designed to be owned or that they were intrinsically inferior. Somehow those evaluations of people from Africa seemed particularly convenient to people who had an economic self-interest in owning slaves.   A compelling self-interest has resulted in demeaning the dignity of other human beings in a way that has produced a fissure and illness in our society.

If human beings are formed into the characteristics of this world, they will fall into traps like this, sometimes less dramatic, yet nonetheless pushed in whatever direction: to be pure consumers, of whatever consumer society has on offer; or to join whatever clique seems most popular, regardless of one’s personal interests; or even to become a nationalistic sycophant, seeking power for one’s own group regardless of the consequences.  It is not so much that the world is evil, per se, but it has no values—and if we are conformed to no values, we quickly find that we are of no value and there is no value.

Paul then says, rather than being CONformed to the world, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The will of God is in the image of Christ.

Christ reaching out his hand, to pull Adam (and the rest of the human race) out of Hell. “He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead.”

Our minds are transformed by following Jesus, by seeking his way: the will of God as a life of compassion, of moral honesty, of courage. This is not to say that we should present ourselves as people who have achieved these things, or that we are above self-interest.  Quite the opposite. It’s essential that we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, who we are and where our self-interest lies, what directions the world is pushing us.  In knowing those things, we can continually present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, to be transformed, every day into the love of Christ. Paul points out that we are all different, we have many functions, many talents and gifts that differ from one another. The way in which each of is called to present herself or himself is distinct, and in that is the beauty of God’s creation.

But we’re here to seek God’s will, not the choices that the success of the world presents, but the challenges of the compassion of God, the will of God. As Paul said, “I appeal to you sisters and brothers to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

From our Psalm today:

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

You stretch for your hand against the fury of my enemies;

Your right hand shall save me.

The Lord will make good his purpose for me;

O Lord, your love endures for ever;

Do not abandon the works of your hands.

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It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles

A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August, 20, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

The setting of today’s Gospel is that Jesus had been healing people on the shore of the lake, where they landed after that stormy night that we read about last week. People were broken, sick and infirm, and Jesus made them whole with his touch. And some religious people came along who were very worried about whether Jesus’ disciples were washing their hands properly. In fact, the healing didn’t matter at all to them, it was the forms of purity that were all-important. Jesus points out to these ultra-religious people that their technical compliance with rules is really a way to avoid complying with one of the most important of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.” Then, today’s passage begins and Jesus says to the crowds: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It would be a mistake to think that by saying this, Jesus is against Judaism or against a particular Jewish group, like the Pharisees, who were the most devout and active religious group in Palestine in those days.  Many prophets and rabbis had said similar things.

What Jesus was saying was: Stop trying to game the system. Stop using your religious observance as a way to feel superior to others. Once people get into positions of power – in business, in government, in the church – they often turn sanctimonious and say to others: If you’re not doing what I say you should do, then you’re defiled. Jesus won’t go along with this. It is what comes out from the inside that defiles, Jesus says. The products of hatred, disrespect and selfishness defile the people of God. “Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” How much do we see these on the national scene nowadays? How often are they excused – even by the President of the United States? How is it that his councils of advice have resigned, except for those religious leaders who he appointed to give him spiritual guidance?

It takes a transformation and cleansing of the heart to live the life of God’s compassion. It takes courage to heal. In our Gospel today, the religious people took offense. Jesus was aware that they would. People protect their selfishness, and their self-serving manipulations; especially religious people. The holiness of God is not revered by honoring a form, an image, an idol, a statue. God is revered by accepting God’s mercy, by living from God’s generosity—seeking the good of others, welcoming those who have not been welcomed, healing the broken hearts of those who suffer or who have been rejected. It takes courage to be with Jesus in this way, because he won’t necessarily let us off the hook, settling into the comfort of our own self-righteousness, or into the isolation of our own hurts.  He gives us no room to be smug.

It’s no accident that the story about the woman whose daughter had a demon follows directly after this in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples, of course, represent the church, and like the church, we love the disciples and we’re with them and they show us the truth of the Gospel as much in how they misunderstand it as by how they live it.  Jesus has moved from the scene of conflict with the Pharisees and healing the multitudes out to the coast. There’s some indication that he went out to the shore, to get away from a lot of what had been going on – not that different from why people are out on the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod right now. It was foreign territory and Jesus was on a break from his mission to change and heal his fellow people of Israel.

It’s kind of fashionable nowadays for preachers to criticize Jesus in this passage, putting themselves in a position of moral superiority, seeing Jesus as insulting the woman, not seeing the dignity of the woman or his responsibility toward her right away. I read it a bit differently. Jesus is walking and this woman makes her plea. And he remains silent, reflecting, taking it all in. She’s upset and she knows that Jesus casts out demons, and this is about her daughter who she loves. And Jesus is silent, just walking.  And the disciples are just like all these church people, and even, perhaps especially clergy, who have the quick answer, the decisive fix, and they know how to get rid of problems. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

I’m not certain who Jesus is talking to when he says the next sentence. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Maybe to the disciples. Not exactly as a reproof to them, but reminding them of his focus.  Maybe reflecting to himself, “who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman heard him and courageously and tenaciously engaged him. “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” And she expands on the metaphor, “even the dogs eat the crumbs.”

Jesus says: “Great is your faith.” This isn’t because Jesus lost the argument, no matter how convincing the loving mother was. It’s that he understands her faithfulness. And her faithfulness isn’t to some doctrine or rule. Her faith is demonstrated through her deep compassion for another, for her child, which gives her the courage to stand up to Jesus.

We’ve seen another example just this week come out of a terrible national tragedy. That was when Heather Heyer’s mother said at her daughter’s funeral: “I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got give her up, we’re going to make it count.” In the Gospel story the woman’s child is described as having a demon. There’s no specific or graphic description, but as I’ve said here before, that the demonic is a human, not a divine or magical reality. The demons are the results and symptoms of the evils of a society, where the angers, fears and selfishness are pushed off and dislocated: sometimes onto the weak or vulnerable, sometimes onto the most fearful or angry. Jesus saw this woman’s depth of faith and compassion and he said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the child was healed immediately, just as those in the crowds were healed, those people who Jesus addressed, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lord was not in the Wind

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

In the fourth watch of the night, he came walking toward them on the sea.

If last Sunday had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Gospel would have been the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which immediately precedes what we hear today. In the Gospel of Matthew, the reason that Jesus is out there at a remote place by the Sea of Galilee is that he had been informed that Herod Antipas was comparing Jesus to John the Baptist; and everyone knew that Herod had had John killed for calling out Herod’s immoral behavior. As Jesus was trying to withdraw to reflect and pray, the crowds came. It was late in the afternoon, and Jesus made sure that they had food.

So our lesson today begins with Jesus sending his disciples ahead with the boat, while he got rid of the crowds and went up on the mountain to pray, which was why he was there to begin with.  So why did he send the disciples off in the boat? Because they needed to get to the other side.  Most of them were fisherman, and they knew how to use a boat—better than Jesus did because he was a carpenter. So that evening, they were headed off, across the lake while Jesus was up on the mountain alone; praying.

Though they knew how to row it was tough going, because the wind was blowing directly at them. And as they struggled through the night, a storm came up.

I grew up in arid country, and storms can appear quickly. When I was a kid, I was fishing with my dad, an uncle and three cousins in a small boat in the middle of a reservoir not that much smaller than the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of a sunny afternoon a cloud came in from the west and suddenly there was a storm—the waves were higher than the gunwales of the boat. My dad got the motor started and we went straight for the nearest point on the shore. As soon as the boat touched the beach, it filled with water. It was a frightening and dangerous time.

Out there on the water there was no place to take cover.  The disciples had been struggling out on the open water all night, and it was dark. When the storm suddenly came up, the text says, literally, it was the fourth watch of the night, which meant the time between 3 a.m and 6 a.m. There they were, far from shore, without even a 35 horsepower Evinrude to get them out of danger.

And Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water. It didn’t calm their fears—they thought they were seeing a ghost. Out there in the dark, everything seemed threatening. Not just the real possibilities of the boat sinking or capsizing, but everything. Their fear, which was in a real sense reasonable, magnified every other thing around them and made everything frightening, even the saving presence of Jesus. When I read this story again, I realized that it resembles nothing as much as the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. He appears, and is seen but not recognized until he speaks, he reached out his hand so that Peter could touch him and know that he was not a ghost. Jesus is present, the fear calms, and the storm calms, and they are safe.

So why didn’t he just stay with them and keep them safe? One reason is that he had something else to do—he was out there on that hillside to pray and reflect. And why shouldn’t these professional boat rowers be the ones to take a boat across a lake? The danger that the disciples were in was not unusual. Back then, people lived closer to the forces and dangers of nature than we do today. Everyday life could put you in peril that we mostly can’t imagine today.  In our more technologically advanced age, the dangers are more technologically mediated, like automobile accidents or nuclear missiles. Our fears and anxiety more often emerge with relationship to people and institutions—will there be enough money? Are those unhappy faces signs of a conspiracy against me? Will things work out so my kids can learn and be happy? Will there be a war?

Yesterday, we saw a violent eruption of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. At its root is the self-pity and infantile anger of white supremacists who can’t bear the thought of others having equality of dignity with white people in our country. Their anxieties have morphed into blame and evil. And people were injured and died.

Like the disciples, we are responsible human beings out in a world with its dangers and with anxieties that magnify and distort those dangers to the point that we see ghosts of our fears at every turn.  A large part of the polarization and partisan conflict is due to anxieties constructing dangers that aren’t there and making it harder to deal with the real dangers and evil that threaten us. It is particularly disturbing when people of great power intentionally magnify anxieties and threaten multitudes with danger and destruction.

Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, not to do a magic act and make the danger go away. That’s not what the miracle is. The miracle is the healing of the fright, the presence of the life-giving power of God. At the beginning of the lesson, Jesus is dismissing the crowds, just as I do, or a deacon does at the end of the Eucharist, “Go forth, in the peace of God.” At the end of the lesson, he brings peace, not just to the disciples, but to the forces of nature. His presence gives courage—even though, as Peter demonstrates, in the midst of all of this we can slip and start to sink. We often overthink things, think of why we are beyond God’s help, think that Jesus is on the other side of the lake, or perhaps on the other side of a historical or philosophical divide. Somehow, the last place we expect him is in the middle of our turbulent storm. Yet at the darkest time, there he is, “Take heart. It is I, do not be afraid.”

Don’t be fooled by the loudest voices, or the roaring of the storms, or the great earthquakes or cataclysms. Remember Elijah—he was told to go to the mountain and wait for the Lord. And it was not the storm, or the earthquake or the fire that revealed the Lord. It was the sound of sheer silence.

 

Listen to him

A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration August 6, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is fixed on the day of August the sixth. Every few years that day is on a Sunday, and since it is a major feast of the Lord, it supersedes the lessons for the Sunday.

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing, or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.

The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we are looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  In other words, as, God did with Moses, he set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost-free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being Jesus’ people—living in his resurrection—is not cost-free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own self-righteousness or entitlement.

But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence—and not what we tell God, or what we think we want.

God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face.  So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets and Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. “This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one—the Chosen.

And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.

There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”

We listen to Jesus’ compassion, we know his healing; healing of hurt, sorrow, or despair. We listen to his words of hope—hope that will not disappoint us, because it is grounded in Jesus’ real presence with us, courageously, in this real world. The glory of God shines in his love that will never fade or abandon us.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Who will separate us?

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

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.

At the end of that statement, St. Paul drops the mic and leaves the stage. But what is he talking about? Paul is talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. It’s easy to have vague and misleading ideas about the Holy Spirit, so let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it. The Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. What that Greek word means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems; or a friend to stand along with a friend in need.  In the church, where Jesus is no longer physically present, God’s Holy Spirit stands alongside us, enabling us to love one another, incorporating our lives into God’s compassion.

Paul says, “The spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” It’s common to think that good prayer is somehow an output of a well-informed or disciplined mind, or that somehow if we just pray with enough fervor in the right way we can get God to do the things that are important to us.

Actually, prayer does not work like that at all. In prayer we stand, or sit, or kneel in God’s presence; our desires, our feelings, our needs are there. Our care for other people and perhaps even our words are there.  But it is the spirit of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, that joins us to God in prayer. We are joined, upheld and helped in our weakness, even when we are unaware, even when we may feel that our prayers are going nowhere—indeed, God’s presence is not based on what we feel or perceive at all—often, it is at times of dryness, desolation or even despair that we are being transformed into the compassion of God—into Christ. It is in God’s design that God’s children are formed together for the sake of the good of this world—in Jesus’ resurrection he is the firstborn of a large family.

But this good—the growth of God’s love—is not happening in a world where everything works out easily, where people can do whatever they want and it’s just fine. Paul lived in a world where truly advocating the mercy of God and the good of God’s most vulnerable could trigger the anger and even violence of a world that valued the self-interest of those who wanted to keep power and privilege. So do we. Being formed in the love of God does not protect us from the consequences of this world—of loss, or ostracism, or anger, or attacks by those filled with self-pity.  Paul was arrested more than once, for telling about Jesus. Standing courageously for the values of Christ’s compassion in this world takes a similar risk of real loss, at least if you actually mean it. The Christian life in the Spirit is not happy talk, or silver linings, or magical wishes coming true. It is living by choosing what is valuable, true and permanent over the illusory and the selfish. It is in this context that Paul says,

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reality of Jesus’ life and death make it clear that the truth of Christian life takes place in a world where there is suffering and death, indeed in a world where there is cruelty and injustice near at hand. The Resurrection of Christ isn’t something that takes away the reality or the permanence of death; the Resurrection is new life, in which the love of God’s Holy Spirit overcomes the fear, anger, cruelty and despair that bind people into the compromised existence of a selfish world. Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The thing that has distinguished the Christians whose wisdom has most influenced me over the years is that they share in a complete lack of self-pity. Some are great theologians and others regular parishioners. At another church where I was serving I visited a woman in the memory unit of a nursing home. She was a lifelong devout Episcopalian and a tough businesswoman. The church remembered that thirty years ago, she told them that that congregation would never realize its building fund goals unless it dedicated ten percent to outreach to the community. Now she has no memory, except what her friends remember for her. But her character is intact, with no trace of self-pity.  I would visit her, and ask her to pray for the parish and people in the parish, and she would sometimes say something insightful and loving about one of them. The last time I saw her, I asked her to pray with me for the vestry deliberations. At the end, she said, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

…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.

You would uproot the Wheat along with the Weeds

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

So the scene is the same as last week’s gospel. Jesus is still out on the boat, talking to the same people he as talking to on the beach about seeds. As the story continues, the field is planted, and inexplicably, there are all sorts of weeds growing among the grain. The word for “weed” refers to something similar to what we called, “cheat grass” where I grew up. It resembles grain, except it’s inedible for people and gives little sustenance to livestock. But you can’t easily see the difference between it and grain until it starts to blossom and grow its seed. By then it has developed a root system that is much more extensive and stronger than wheat.

The servants see the problem—weeds! Invasive weeds, taking up the soil and nutrients and water! Bad thing, we must do something! Just like everybody else, they see a problem, get anxious about it, and jump to a solution. The farmer, however, looks with the eye of experience. The weeds are going to reduce his yield, there is no doubt. But if these weeds are pulled up now, the grain will be removed at a greater rate than the weeds, and the yield will go down to zero. During this cycle, the number of weeds is the number of weeds, leaving them won’t result in more, so leave them. We will get the wheat that ripens—we will deal with the weeds when there is wheat to harvest. The fruit of the wheat field will nourish people, provide bread, be sold to supply for the needs of the farmer’s household. A superabundance of weeds is only one of the ordinary calamities that typically face farmers; that make a situation that promises easy abundance into difficulty and privation. The farmer waits and judges the ripeness of the wheat. At the right time the weeds are pulled out and separated from the nourishing crop. There is a big bonfire, getting rid of the nuisance and the waste. Then the remaining wheat is gathered—and there is food for all.

So why is this, as Jesus said, like the Kingdom of Heaven?  Note first of all that this is a real-world situation—we expect a beautiful, uniform field of wheat, growing perfectly, moving from green in the springtime, to golden at harvest—but what we get is disrupted by weeds and other occurrences, that are just not ideal. I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. And the Kingdom of God happens in the real world, a world with difficulties and disappointments.  And indeed, some of those things that happen are evil, or are the result of evil.  So, we don’t just say that whatever happens is fine, or certainly not that it is the will of God. We stand up to evil for the sake of the good of others. But we don’t go around weeding out imperfections, as if every annoyance or imperfection was evil.

Those servants were very anxious about those weeds. That’s understandable—the weeds were going to reduce the yield and make them look like they weren’t doing their job properly. But acting on that anxiety could have been utter disaster, resulting in a long winter with little or no food available. In living with imperfection and disappointment the community grows and shares in God’s love. And when evil—that is to say those forces that hurt and destroy the children of God through selfishness, fear or hatred—when evil afflicts such a community, the love of that community gives it the courage and resilience to respond and repel the evil and to be a source of life for God’s children.

I’m not convinced that the ending of this lesson, with its apocalyptic allegory, fits with Jesus’ original story. It’s a bit annoying that the framers of the lectionary left out the two intervening parables so that the interpretation naively appears to be a part of the story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the weeds is followed by the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast. Then the party breaks up and Jesus goes into the house with his disciples where they ask for more explanation.  That literary break is very important—we move from the public ministry of Jesus to the organized teaching of the disciples—that is to say, the church of Matthew’s day.  In the Matthew Gospel, the problematic weeds are evil people, reflecting the intense conflicts of the church in the last decades of the first century.  But still, note this: the ambiguity is the same. It is not up to the disciples or the children of the kingdom to decide and separate the weeds and the wheat—it is angels that do the reaping at the end of the age. Until then we grow together.  As for the consequences of evil being a furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth… if you claim the right to be truly and unrepentantly evil, hurting and destroying the children of God… well … we all take our chances, don’t we?

However, this story is not about punishment or destruction. It is about the challenge of life in the real world. Life in Christ is life in hope—a community that shares life and finds life in the mercy that God has for each of us, for all of God’s children.

St. Paul is addressing this in this morning’s epistle:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” It is that 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 that we may also be glorified with him.

 

That reference, to “Abba” may in fact be the earliest reference we have to the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus gave his disciples—we are disciples in being God’s children: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Paul did not address idyllic and perfect Christian communities, he wrote to churches who experienced conflict or suffering. And he continues:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We are God’s people, gathered here. Our hope is in the divine reality of a community gathered in diversity and imperfection, discovering God’s mercy together.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of you Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The seed of the Kingdom

A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

As many of us would like to be during the summer, Jesus was at the beach.  Today’s Gospel says he “sat beside the sea.”  Then it got way too crowded, so he got on a boat and started to tell the people stories.

The parable of the Sower is well known, though people today may not be as well-acquainted with the behavior of seeds and plants as Jesus’ first hearers would have been.  The image is of a farmer or farmhand planting grain in the spring.  Today, this is done with large machines that plant all the seeds in precise rows at a very high volume per minute.  A farmer in ancient times had to do all this by hand, reaching into his bag of seed and flinging the seed across the plot of ground. The skilled and careful farmer would be sure that most of the seed fell on the good soil that had been tilled; the less careful worker might have more of his seed go astray.

Some waste was the norm, as Jesus’ listeners knew full well, so it’s not as though they would think that some seed landing on a footpath, or rocks, or thorns, meant that the farmer was not realistic, or even a particularly careless fellow.  The last section of today’s gospel reading has an allegorical interpretation of the parable. It is portrayed as being in another context at another time. Certainly that allegory is a common way that this story has been interpreted, but there is good reason to believe that Jesus first presented the story to be listened to and understood literally, on its face as a story about the familiar world.

The farmer sowing seed is a familiar bit of reality, and in that reality, we can see the real difficulties of life—the complete loss when birds take the seed before it can sprout; the immediate hope in seeing seed quickly sprout followed by disappointment at the equally fast failure of the weak seedlings on the rocky ground.  This situation is not unlike what we experience in our personal lives as well as in the church. Things go wrong, sometimes dramatically, sometimes in minor ways, and our enthusiasm can be undercut when things turn out not to be as well founded as we believed.  Jesus’ world is the Kingdom of God.  That Kingdom partakes of reality as stark as that of anyone’s world.

But the focus of this parable is not on the thorns and troubles pressing in on every side.  The bulk of the seed landed on good, fertile soil and the yield was amazing! A hundredfold, sixty-fold, even thirty-fold was several times higher than the yield Jesus’ hearers reasonably expected from their crops.   The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of our ordinary reality, and Jesus has sympathy with the difficulties we find in the real world.  But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good.  We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out in the most comfortable possible way for us. In fact, the opportunity to be generous, gives those who provide a bit of the bounty of the Kingdom, though we should always take care that what we do is for the sake of others and not simply to make ourselves feel good.  By giving, the church can become God’s Church, but it is not the success of that institution called Church that is the yield of the Kingdom.  The love of God, always supporting us and giving the opportunity to serve God’s people, that is the Kingdom of God, and the bounty of life, and the reality of our lives all at the same time.

This summer, our New Testament epistle readings are from the letter of Paul to the church at Rome.  Paul doesn’t use the term “Kingdom of God,” but what he preaches is very much about the same kingdom I have been talking about. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Despite the power of sin, and any struggles or shortcomings, there is no condemnation.  For Paul, as well as Jesus, the overwhelming joyful news of God’s coming is in the midst of the difficulties of the real world.  The gifts of God, and the possibilities for us in this world, transformed by his kingdom, are enormous—unlimited even.  If the everyday difficulties cause someone to stumble, to lose confidence or even to do bad things, she or he is not condemned or lost.  Each of us is the child of Christ and part of his body.  Paul continues: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

You are the field in which the seed of God’s kingdom is planted and also the agents to nurture that Kingdom.  It is through God’s spirit, and not by our strength or talent that the Kingdom grows.  Accept the gift of the spirit of Christ in you, and rejoice in God’s bounty: Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.