Sunday, July 24, 2011

Preach One: Proper 12A

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Have you understood all this?  As a school chaplain and as a parent, I have become very familiar with this question.  I have also become very familiar with the facial expression that conveys a lack of understanding. And so my students and my child have become very familiar with the sound of my sigh as my brain attempts to figure out a different way to explain whatever it is I am trying to teach.  You see, it's like this...well, how about, it's like...have you understood all this?

Moments like these take me back to my own childhood as my teachers and parents tried to explain things to me.  There are plenty of lessons it took me a while to learn, especially, as you know about me by now, if it involved math.  Listening to kids at school talk about their math classes, trying to help my son with his own math homework, flipping through pages of the SAT and ACT practice test booklets in the hall outside my office door...suddenly I'm in high school again, staring at a blackboard, staring at a test, staring at questions I was not at all sure I understood about the hypotenuse of a triangle and two trains traveling at different speeds and the point on a graph where the line approaches infinity.  Have you understood all this?  Well, maybe...

I was always better at reading and language and writing.  I remember those classes and practice tests, too, and can hear the voices of my English teachers asking, Have you understood all this?  Yes, I could answer confidently.  I could write a poem, I could find the main idea, I could do reading comprehension and sentence completion and analogies.  A carrot is to a vegetable as an orange is to a...

Have you understood all this? Jesus asked his disciples, searching their faces for the slightest sign of comprehension.  Yes, they answered, but the Greek word Matthew uses here can mean everything from absolutely to um...unh-hunh.  Elsewhere in the gospels we read how slow the disciples were to understand anything that Jesus said or did, and how slow they were to realize they didn't understand.

Have you understood all this?  The kingdom of heaven is like... Over and over again Jesus tries to explain what it is his whole life and ministry have been about.  The kingdom of heaven is like... Okay, a mustard seed is to a tree as the kingdom of God is to... Yeast is to dough as the kingdom of God is to... (sigh)... Have you understood all this?

Remember that parables are not really metaphors or analogies, but they are like them.  Two Sundays ago we heard theologian Walter Wink describe parables as "tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds...that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives."  The light that shines through a parable challenges us to see in new ways, to move in new directions, to consider new facets, to leave what is comfortable and familiar, to encounter God where we did not expect God to be.

This evening's parables seem quite simple at first, filled as they are with ordinary, everyday images and actions.  The kingdom of heaven is like...a mustard seed, yeast mixed with flour, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great value, a net thrown into the sea.  In all of these stories, the kingdom of heaven - the kingdom of God - is revealed to be working in the world right in front of us and beneath us and all around us, with or without our understanding.  The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "Why else would [Jesus] talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women breaking bread and merchants buying and selling things and fishermen sorting fish, unless he meant somehow to be telling us that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things...right here, right now, in all the ordinary people and places and activities of our lives."

Ordinary things, like a tiny seed that grows up into a broad and mighty tree that holds in its branches all the birds of the air.  The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.  Do you understand all this?  And we can say with confidence, yes, absolutely, yes.  The kingdom of heaven begins small, and grows to fill all the world.

Ordinary people, like a baker woman who mixes yeast into dough.  The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says.  Do you understand?  And, after a little review of the process of leavening, by which the dough is filled with thousands of tiny pockets of air that expand when they are heated, we can say, yes, absolutely, yes.  The kingdom of heaven is worked into the world, and spreads to fill it and expand it and raise it up.

The kingdom of heaven is like... Again, the kingdom of heaven is like... Again... Jesus repeats the lesson three more times, covering the material from different angles, different perspectives, different facets, so as to glint as much light as he can on the subject of how God is at work in the world.  Then, having taught us, having trained us in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus places the parables, themselves priceless treasures, in our hands.  Therefore every scribe who has been trained in the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out treasure that is both old and new... Jesus invites us to turn the treasures, the parables, like diamonds in our hands and see how their facets reflect something deeper and more ultimate and more challenging than what appears on the surface.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed... Jesus' disciples, whether or not they had ever sown a field, would have known that mustard seeds grow up not into trees but, at best, large, scraggly bushes that spread like weeds, which, in fact, they are.  Mustard is humble and ordinary and persistent, and not at all welcomed by those who are attempting to grow a pure crop.  The kingdom of heaven is like this.  The marvelous and powerful and transforming kingdom of God is like a stubborn weed, uninvited, unwelcome by some, but determined to grow despite all efforts to uproot it.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast... Jesus' disciples, whether or not they had ever baked bread, would have known that other scriptural references to leavening are far less favorable than this one.  Over and again in the scriptures they knew, yeast was used as the image for that which corrupts whatever is clean. The kingdom of heaven is like this.  The marvelous and powerful and transforming kingdom of God is expansive, making one bread, one body, out of many...clean and unclean...

Jesus' parables aren't so simple after all.  They are challenging, revealing a kingdom that is not pure and clean and pristine, like a prize-winning orchid in a greenhouse.  Rather, the kingdom of heaven is found deep in the dirt, where mercy makes a mess of things.  The kingdom of heaven is inseparable from earth, where once God stooped and breathed life and called it good, where the breath of God still moves and searches our hearts and makes our spirits rise.

It is a difficult lesson, but one that should come as no surprise if we have been watching closely, if we have had ears to hear.  Every moment of his life was lived among the weeds and the leaven of society, inviting them to the table, healing their hurts, forgiving their sins, and calling them to follow.  Jesus was himself a living parable, revealing a kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of the world, that one writer has suggested "was more pervasive than a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest."

In fact, the parables glint at our lives a kingdom that is very much alive, very much growing and expanding and reaching, more of a verb, really, than a noun.  In them Jesus is not talking about things but action, movement.  He is not talking about love as a feeling or idea but love in motion.  The kingdom  is not simply a mustard seed but a mustard seed that someone has taken and sown, a mustard seed that grows and spreads.  The kingdom is like yeast mixed in and rising.  The kingdom, like treasure, is hidden and found, inspiring joy.  The kingdom, like a net, is thrown into the sea, catching fish, catching people, catching lives of every kind.

The kingdom has always been at work in the world and is inseparable from it.  It may be hidden from our sight, but from time to time we catch the glint of its ultimate reality.  The Reverend Robert Farrar Capon writes of his favorite of this evening's parables, "Just as yeast enters into the dough by being dissolved into the very liquid that makes the dough become dough at all - just as there is not a moment of the dough's existence, from start to finish, in which it is unleavened dough - so...the kingdom enters the world at its creation... There is not, and has never been, any unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world."

And so we ourselves are not unkingdomed.  As Paul teaches us, nothing in all the world can separate us from God's love-in-motion.  And we are called to be living parables, to reveal God at work in and through our own lives, loving others - all others - as Jesus taught us.  Have we understood all this?  Maybe, or maybe not, but then is it really possible to measure the area, or the circumference, or the volume of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of our seed-planting, fish-catching, pearl-hunting, bread-kneading God?  We are not called to understand these things, thank goodness, but to live them.  How will we, as kingdom people, catch rays of ultimate things and glint them at the world?  How will we, as kingdom people called to search and sow and love and rise and save, say to God, yes, absolutely, yes?  Amen.

Artwork: "World's Smallest Seed," by Jim Janknegt; "A Little Leaven," by Jim Janknegt; "The Lost Money," by Jim Janknegt; "Discovering the Pearl of Great Price," by Daniel Bonnell; "Treasurefield #3: Buying the Field," by Jim Janknegt.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Preach One: Proper 10A

Genesis 24:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In my nearly seven years and counting of ordained ministry, I have discovered that one of the most difficult tasks of a preacher (well, of this preacher, at least) is finding that hook, that fresh angle or engaging story or perfect turn of phrase that will make a sermon interesting, and maybe even memorable.  How many hundreds of sermons have a written by now, how many hundreds of hooks, so that some Saturdays I sit staring at a blank screen for ages trying to think up something that hasn't already been said.

It's not a new problem for me, really.  Back in high school and college I wrote pretty good essays and term papers, complete with concise yet comprehensive thesis statements on the first page.  We weren't supposed to, but after writing the thesis statement, I always saved the rest of the opening paragraph for last, because I always seemed to get bogged down in trying to craft a masterpiece of an introduction that would entice the teacher in and make her want to read more.

It was at the same time a relief and a bewilderment, then, when in seminary by church history professor instructed us to begin our papers something like, "The purpose of this paper will be to show that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire," and then get on with it.  No flourishes, no hooks, just the facts, ma'am.

If we had more time, and if our space were arranged a little differently, I'd have the perfect hook for you today, a masterpiece of an introduction that would entice us all into the gospel text.  So what if my church history professor wouldn't approve!  Christian dramatist Tom Long wrote a version of the parable of the sower in his book entitled, The Art of Holy Backrub.  See?  You want to learn more, don't you!

It's a wonderful adaptation in which a narrator reads the parable (with a few flourishes) while the listeners, seated in a circle, "acts" out the parable with hand motions on the back of the person in front of them.  The sower sows the seeds, the birds peck at them, the thorns entangle them, the sun scorches the ground, and some of the seeds grow...

Not a bad way to introduce the story, I think, especially if your week has left you weary and worn.  Whether it's the economy or the weather, the emails that need to be answered or the errands that need to be run, the parents or the children or the grandchildren that need to be tended to, the work that piled up while we were away on vacation, the illness or the grief or the anger that just won't go away...we could probably all use a nice backrub right now.

So how does Jesus introduce his story this morning?  Listen!

Listen!  That's it.  No flourishes, no hooks, no holy backrubs.  Just Listen!  And then he starts right in with, A sower went out to sow...

This morning, and for the next few Sundays, Jesus will be speaking to us in parables about the kingdom of God.  We think we've got them all figured out, of course, but in his day Jesus was using parables to teach something new, something no one had ever heard before.  Let anyone with ears listen, Jesus enticed those around him.  Listen, he entices us.  Next week he'll add another line to his introduction (and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out my church history professor was actually there in Jesus' day to suggest this one): The kingdom of heaven is like... As if he said, the purpose of this parable will be... Let anyone with ears listen...

We think we've got these parables all figured out, but the thing is, the moment we think that, we've probably completely missed the point both of what parables are and of what the kingdom of God is.  So here we go.  The purpose of the remainder of this sermon will be to show that the kingdom of God is like a parable...

Volumes have been written about the nature and purpose of parables as used by Jesus in his teaching.  Preachers remind us, every time Jesus begins speaking this way, that most things we think parables are - metaphors, illustrations, allegories, explanations, riddles - they're not.  Remember that the Greek word for parable means something like "to lay beside."  In his parables, Jesus laid ordinary images and actions that his listeners would understand beside images and actions of God so extraordinary they couldn't even begin to imagine them.  One of my favorite hooks for preaching on parables was written by theologian Walter Wink, who wrote, "Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds...that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives."

Very early in the life of the church, parables were interpreted as allegories.  Each character or object or action in the parable stood for something else.  For example, in the parable of the sower, the birds are the evil one, the rocky ground is a person with no depth of faith, the thorns are the cares of the world that choke new growth in the word... Many scholars, though, suspect that this interpretation, while placed by Matthew in the mouth of Jesus, actually belonged to the early church in Matthew's community.  And it is by no means a bad interpretation - indeed, it is a careful and considered way to read the parable, consistent with other things Jesus said. good soil, be receptive to the word of God planted in you, be a place where the kingdom of God can take root and grow and be fruitful...

The problem is, this sort of allegorical interpretation is really inconsistent with Jesus' use of parables in general.  Jesus used parables to talk about God at work, not us at work, although there are implications or how we are to live in response to God.  In the parable of the sower, as Jesus tells it, the main actor is the sower who scatters seed liberally and indiscriminately, apparently unconcerned about wasting good seed on supposedly bad soil...let anyone with ears listen... The allegorical interpretation, however, gives the lead role to the various soils, and suddenly it's all about us.

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.  Jesus chose the ordinary image of a farmer (probably many of the people listening that day were farmers) whose farming method was extraordinary.  Most farmers took great care in sowing their precious supply of seed, sowing only in soil that they knew would support and nurture and yield a growing crop.  A yield of four or five times the amount of seed sown was about average.  A ten-fold yield was remarkable.  But listen.  This farmer, this foolish, careless, extravagant farmer, scatters seed anywhere and everywhere, and though it seems at first that birds and thorns and scorching heat will consume and destroy the crop,t he harvest turns out to be a hundred-fold at best, thirty-fold at worst.  Extraordinary.

In much the same way, the kingdom of God is about God's work, not ours, although there are implications about how we are to live in response to God.  In his life and work, Jesus scattered compassion liberally and indiscriminately, apparently unconcerned about wasting good salvation on supposedly bad people, making it abundantly clear that the gift of life and growth in the kingdom of God is free to anyone who desires it.  Though it seemed at first that we would consume and destroy that gift on the hard wood of a cross, the harvest turned out to be...well, how much more than a hundred-fold was the yield of Easter morning?

A strictly allegorical interpretation of this parable, then, limits our access to the truth the parable reveals, the glint of something ultimate it reflects, the truth that nothing can, in the end, deter God's extravagant purpose for creation.  Again, Walter Wink writes, "Parables participate in the reality which they communicate... They can never be exhausted; they always contain more than we can tell."  Parables are more than a metaphor, more than an allegory.  They reveal truth by inviting us to respond to and participate in God's work in more ways than our "this equals that" imaginations have considered.

We have been invited into this morning's parable as soil, as ground that may or may not be ready to receive and nurture the good news of God's extravagant and boundless love.  But a parable has far more facets than just one.  We are also invited in as seeds.  On our faith journeys, have we ever felt like we landed on rocky or thorny ground, or felt withered up and dry?  Have we every experienced a time of rich and vibrant growth, aware that our faith was being watered and fed abundantly?

We are invited, as we turn the parable yet again, to see ourselves as sowers.  Do we scatter our witness of God's compassion with abandon, or, for fear of rejection or failure or loss or fear itself, do we reserve our witness for those in whom we know it will produce fruit?  Do we nurture the wild, abundant growth of life in God's kingdom, or do we inhibit that growth in ourselves or others?  How often are we not sowers or seeds or soil at all but rather birds or rocks or thorns or scorching heat?

Just as a parable reveals its truth when we allow ourselves to sink deeply into its soil, when we participate in its life and allow ourselves to grow in ways we had not expected, so is the kingdom of God revealed when we participate in its life.  This morning's parable reveals to us that even a single seed sown in faith, a single moment of indiscriminate compassion, has the potential to grow abundantly.

What of the seeds that, for whatever reason, do not grow?  What of the dangers, the setbacks, the obstacles, the stubborn, stony ground?  Jesus tells us, and in his death and glorious resurrection he shows us, that God's purpose is not buried forever by these things.  God's purpose is shown, and it will grow, as the prophet Isaiah describes, For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.

The kingdom of God is like a parable; they are both like seeds that grow, and grow abundantly, even in the most extraordinary and unlikely of places.  There are, after all, flowers in the desert, trees that cling to rocky cliffs, dandelions that grow in the cracks of a sidewalk.  When we dare to scatter with abandon, so that the world calls us careless with out kindness; when we dare to sow with indiscriminate compassion, new life can begin to bloom anywhere and everywhere.

Let anyone with ears listen.  A sower went out to sow...  Amen.

Artwork: Unknown; "The Sower," by Vincent Van Gogh; "The Parable of the Sower," by Miki de Goodaboom; "Sower with Setting Sun," by Vincent Van Gogh; Unknown.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Homeward Bound

We had a few souvenirs to bring home from South Carolina to Mississippi... yarn... "gemstones"... peaches... a bazillion pictures and memories... and a new friend.   Meet Momma J.

Momma J was waiting for us in mom's guestroom.  Mom wrote about her here.  Momma J apparently heard a call to lead a new flock in Mississippi, so she's heading home with us.

She is already shepherding me through the start of my Kudzu Shawlette.  I love this pattern, even though the cast on was a whopping 253 stitches.  The yarn, Twilley's Freedom Gorgeous DK, is a little splitty, but that's generally not a problem.  I can tell it will live up to it's name, giving this shawlette/scarf a gorgeous drape.

Welcome home, Momma J!

Monday, July 04, 2011

What I Did, Day Seven...

The last day of summer vacation!  The List was complete, and I think we even did a few things that were added to the list and crossed off after the fact.  All that was left to do was enjoy being together, take last minute pictures, play last minute games, and top off a great week with Fourth of July fireworks.

In between rain showers we scooted outside to photograph a few finished objects... Here is the Chevron Scarf, blocked a few days ago.  It's so light and airy and soft, but wrapped a time or two I think it will keep away fall's first chills. I found a pattern (and a lovely sample knit) for it here.

It was fun and so simple to knit, and I still have about a third of the skein of Malabrigo sock left.

And here are our Five-Hour Baby Sweaters.  Mom's is pink (Caron Simply Soft) and mine is blue (Cascade Pacific).  I altered the pattern a teensy bit to reduce the width of the cuffs and the hem along the bottom.  Although we used needle sizes indicated by the yarn, mom's turned out larger than she expected and mine is much smaller...probably just the right size for a teddy bear or doll.  Mom's has buttonholes; I plan to crochet a tie out of a contrasting yarn for mine when I get home.  There are tons of versions of this sweater on Ravelry, with lots of ideas for trims and alterations.

I would definitely knit this pattern again, but instead of seaming the sleeves I would knit them in the round.  I don't like the ridge the seam creates inside the sleeve.  Still, it's an interesting pattern as written, allowing you to knit the entire sweater (and even do the seams) without breaking the yarn.

Oh say can you see how the colors of the sweaters are exactly the colors of the sunset as we waited for the 4th of July fireworks to begin!

Tomorrow we head home...but there's still plenty of summer left!  

Sunday, July 03, 2011

What I Did, Days Five and Six...

The weekend of summer vacation included a few day trips, which were lots of fun in and of themselves, but even more fun for all the car-knitting-time they allowed!  I finished the Five-Hour Baby Sweater and started the Kudzu Shawlette on the road.  Pictures tomorrow, I promise!

On Day Five we drove down to Columbia, SC, to visit my brother and his family.  The ten-year-old got to spend the afternoon with his cousins, all of whom share the same passion for Legos and Star Wars that my mom and I share for knitting.

On Day Six we drove up to Linville, NC, to see Linville Caverns, an active limestone cave (which means don't touch the walls, they're still forming).  The tour guide was both brilliant and funny in a Blue Ridge Mountains sort of way, and gave us an excellent tour even though it was his first day on the job.  When the tour was over, we all had to spray our shoes with bleach to keep from spreading some kind of disease that's killing bats, which keeps bats from killing mosquitos, and, well.  You didn't have to tell us twice.

Back outside we stumbled upon butterflies bathing in creekwater flowing out from the cave.  And of course, because it's my weakness, I had to take pictures of some flowers growing near the gift shop.

We drove toward Little Switzerland along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and had lunch at a little cafe just a few miles away from the Big Lynn Lodge, where mom and I go for her knitting guild retreat every September.  That would be in exactly 72 days.  This year, I'm taking a spinning workshop, taught by Terri from Day Two.  Because I need another hobby to fill all my free time.

After lunch, we followed the signs to Emerald Village, where we mined for gems scooped out of the mountains and strategically loaded with lots of dirt and regular old rocks in plastic buckets for suckers tourists like us.  It was hard to tell what some of the colorful stones were, but I think we did leave with at least a few emeralds and rubies, a lot of garnets and amethysts, and all sorts of other stones...citrine, sodalite, unakite, moon stone...

Finally we wound our way back down from the mountains, past peach orchards and pastures...ready for one last day of vacation!

Friday, July 01, 2011

What I Did, Day Four...

Some summers we are nearly done with vacation before we get to the end of The List of everything we want to do.  Other summers we get through most of The List early on and just turn lazy for a while.  This is one of those vacations.

On Day Four we went back to Flat Rocks.  This time we walked a trail on the side of the falls we don't know as well.

Oh, ice cream is definitely on The List.  Chocolate for the grandson, chocolate raspberry for the grandmother, and birthday cake (complete with chunks of blue frosting and rainbow sprinkles) for the mom taking the picture.

Late in the afternoon we went to Hatcher Gardens.  Once upon a time it was simply a wooded backyard full of gullies and streams and garbage.  But the elderly couple living there saw its potential and began cleaning and digging and planting.  One flower, one pond, one sapling at a time, and with the help of local garden clubs, the garden grew and quietly attracted visitors seeking sanctuary along its shaded trails.  When the Hatchers died, Mr. Hatcher at the age of 96, the gardens were given to the city and are now a woodland preserve.  Signs along the trails teach about the many things growing there, and benches along the way invite visitors to stay as long as they desire.

There was knitting between all the hiking and ice-cream eating...but mostly there was just being lazy!