Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lord, Make My Heart Good Soil!



As someone whose calling it is to preach and teach the word of God I have always taken great solace in this particular Gospel parable.
Being a pastor is not like other professions.
At the end of every day I don’t have a lot of physical results to show for my work.
I am not a plumber who can fix a broken sink in a couple of hours and then look at it with satisfaction that I have done my job.
My job is all about people, and helping them have a relationship with Jesus.
People are complex, and even on a day where I think I might have helped someone come grow closer to God you just never know.
I have had many times when I thought I had helped only to have someone’s life fall apart again.
For example, there is one particular person who comes and sees me every couple of months or so.
He has had a difficult life.
And there just doesn’t seem to be any improvement.
He came again this week, and we had the same discussion about God’s love for him and how that love can help him find some peace he is looking for, but he left and I just got the feeling that he didn’t hear what I said.
So I have always been glad to hear Jesus tell us that even though we spread the Word of God it just doesn’t always fall on good soil.

However, as I read the parable this week I had another thought.
What about me?
What kind of soil am I?
I would like to think I am the good soil, who hears the word and takes it to heart.
I would like to believe that I am a person who lives out their faith with passion and heart.
But I have to admit that it is not always the case.
I was thinking that the sowing of the word is not a one and done event.
Every week when we gather God once again sows the Word in our hearts.
Every week we come here to have that Word once again get planted into us.
And well….I leave here and sometimes I suppose I do live it out, I am passionate about God and my faith, but not always.
Sometimes the cares of the world do get the best of me.
Sometimes I do worry about money and if there will be enough this week.
Sometimes I do get anxious that others will make fun of me because I am a person of faith.
Sometimes I do not understand God’s message and let the devil snatch it away from me.
Sometimes I wonder if I am simply not producing enough fruit for the kingdom of God, and perhaps all I am really doing is feeding my ego.

I was thinking that probably all of us at some time or another have had problems that are similar to the one that Jesus is talking about this morning.
That at times we had wished the soil was better.
Perhaps if it had been better we could have missed out on something unpleasant, or we could have made less mistakes in our lives.

There is another reason why this parable is so unsettling.
Because soil is what it is.
There is not much soil can do to change itself.
If you happen to be soil on a rocky path, or without much depth, or with thorns all around it, then that is about it.

I was thinking about my Dad who every year had a garden.
And every year it would just be a failure, but not because he didn’t work hard at it.
He would come home from work every night and he would weed the garden, and he would water it.
One year he even chopped down a tree in our yard because it would give the garden more sun.
He tried everything within his power to make that garden grow.
And at the end of the day he just had bad soil, it was really rocky, and it was near pines trees, and it just wasn’t going to be good a garden.
Sometimes soil is just bad soil.

It is God, the creator of the world, who puts soil where soil is.
If we stretch the parable we see that we are who we are, and there is not much we can do about it.
That seems to me to be one of the points of this parable.
Nothing is up to us.
God sows and we simply accept what is fallen based on what type of soil we are.
But you can see the problem here.
Why does God allow bad soil at all?
If this is all up to God than why not make all the soil good?

I don’t know the answer to that one.
But if all that is true, if the soil is what it is, if God put it there, than we had better hope that God is who Jesus tells us God is.
God better be merciful.
God better be full of Grace and love.
God better be patient with us.
If not than we are all in trouble.
Because even if at times I find that I am good soil, there are plenty of other times when I am not.
And all I have is God to rely on.
All I have is God who I know through Jesus Christ.

And what Jesus tells us about God in this parable is that despite all the obstacles in the way, despite the fact that the sewer is not more careful in his planning of planting the seed.
Despite the fact the three out of the four types of soil are no good.
Despite the fact that it would seem impossible to for anything to grow Jesus tells us that the yield is great.
“This is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty,”
I was reading this week how a good harvest in first-century Galilee would have produced ten bushels for every bushel of seed.
The idea that one it would produce a thirty fold, much less hundredfold, was unheard of in Jesus time.
In other words God is going to provide a spectacular harvest.
And God is going to use you and me.
As meek and insufficient as our attempts are God will use it.

So we are back were we started.
This parable is a great comfort to us, because it says that this is not dependent on us.
It is dependent on God.
God provides.
And today what we pray and ask God for is simply that God will make our hearts good soil.
Not that we will make our hearts good soil.
Not that we will find some scheme for bettering the soil, but that God opens our hearts to the hearing of the word.

Because every time we gather we get to hear again, and again that sweet message of God’s mercy, grace, and love is sowed into our hearts.
And then we get to go out and share it with others, so that God might produce in us and them a mighty harvest for the kingdom!
Amen


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Damned if you do....Damned if you don't



“You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”
We all know this expression, and at some point in our lives have felt this way.
We have come upon a situation that is really a no win.
We all know that making a decision comes with someone who will disagree.
It is impossible to make everyone happy all the time.
I had to learn this lesson early in my ministry, and it is one that I have to constantly relearn.
There is no decision that we make that everyone will agree with.
Just as one small example.
I know that there are people who want worship to change-to have it be more “modern”.
I also know that there are people who never want it to change, who want to do the same thing all the time.
As a pastor I am always caught between those two groups, and any decision that is made in regards to worship will make someone unhappy.
What are we to do?

Well this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells us that God feels this same way.
That no matter what mode God chooses to get our attention someone rejects it.
John the Baptist came as a prophet, he came as an aesthetic, giving up worldly pleasures, living in the desert, eating only locusts and wild honey, preaching repentance.
He came to show people that God wants for them to return to God.
And people said he was crazy.
That is what we do with people who are “too religious”.
We call them nuts.

Jesus comes among the people.
He doesn’t go off into the desert to live by himself.
He goes into the world, enters into people’s broken lives.
He eats and drinks with everyone who will have him.
He makes friends; he lives as everyday people live.
And people call him a “drunkard and a glutton.”
This is how we react to people who are too worldly.
They can’t possibly be religious because they act and look like everyone else.
God can’t win.
So no matter what form God comes in people seem to miss the point.
What does God have to do to get people’s attention?
What does God have to do to get your attention?

This is an important spiritual question for us to ask.
It goes to the heart of what do we expect God to be like, to act like.
And in that answer we find much of our own spiritual life.

I think that what we have done is over complicate things.
We have loaded God with a bunch of nonsense a lot of unnecessary rules and regulations.
Instead I want to suggest it is simpler than we think.
Jesus tells us this very truth.
That God reveals things not to the wise and intelligent but to the simple folk who understand the Gospel at its simplest form.

What God revealed in Jesus Christ is that God loves us no matter what.
That is the Gospel in a nut shell.
No matter what we do God loves us.
All who are carrying burdens Jesus takes in and releases those burdens.
Those who want us to follow unnecessary rules will never understand the freedom and simplicity of the Gospel.

I have tried in my ministry (sometimes I am better at this than others.) to clarify always with simplicity.
Worship is not about the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the candles we light, the colors of the altar.
It is about having God give us the good news of Jesus Christ.
For an hour a week it is about being released from our burdens as we hear God remind us of God’s love for us.
I have tried to remind people of this.
That anything else we do in worship serves that sole purpose.
Nothing else matters.
And to think it does matter is to miss the point of worship.

Pastors are often the worst offenders of this.
We have been trained in seminary, and in some cases it is a problem to know too much.
I belong to a Facebook group where pastors from across the country post questions to each other.
During advent someone asked about the meaning of the advent candles.
And this started a long discussion about what colors they should be, and what the meaning should be.
At some point it became utterly absurd.
Finally, a friend of mine posted, “Who cares about the color of the candles. God took on human flesh. Mind blown.”
You see in the middle of some obscure debate we had lost the real power and wonder of that time of year.
We lost the central thing that was really important.
That God choose to dwell among us, and show us what loved really looked like in the flesh.

This is what happened with Jesus.
Instead of focusing on what Jesus was saying.
The way Jesus lived out the kingdom of God; people were focused on how much wine he had with his dinner.
It is really absurd.

But it goes back to our expectations of how we think God should show up, and what God should look like when God arrives.
Jesus suggests that God is not found in those presuming to know it all.
But the infants, the simple minded.
God is found with those at the margins who know only of their need for God’s grace, those not screaming from the top of their lungs that they are right and the rest of us just don’t get it.
We see a lot of this in our world today.
We see people taking sides against others, and telling us that they know best.
We see those trying to divide us because we come from a different place, different perspective.
Most of us are sick of all of it.
We are tired of the bickering and the yelling.
We are tired of being divided.
And in the Kingdom of God we are invited by Jesus to lay it all down.
To put it aside and to act, and speak like Jesus teaches us.
To be people who try to find peace among the screaming, and to bring people together.
To invite others to rest with us, pull up a chair share some food and wine.

What Jesus invites us into this morning is to find God in our lives.
To know God not through our own intellect, but through the wisdom of God taught to us through Jesus Christ.
If we can rely on that then we have a chance of finding our way through the clutter.
We have a chance of seeing God in each other, in our world, in Jesus.
We have a chance at seeing what really matters.

Because I think the world needs the people of God to stop arguing about the color of the advent candles and to start sharing the good news.
The world needs the message that we are able to lay down the things that divide us and come together.
The world needs the message that there is another way to be in the world.
There is a way to find love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

So let us go to Jesus, and find rest.
Let us dance with Jesus, let us mourn with each other.
Most of all let us never forget that God has come and lived among us, and shown us the way.
Amen

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mountain Tops



My Dad was not someone who liked to hike.
However, once a year we would go up Foss Mountain.
It is near Camp Calumet off of Crystal Lake.
Anyway, if you have ever been up Foss Mountain you will know that it is not much of hike.
You drive up it, and then you get out of your car and maybe walk 100 yards and you are at the top.
My dad would get to the top after the grueling 100 yard walk up a gradual incline look around and say, “Well this is my one hike this year.”
However, one of my favorite pictures of my father is of him on the top of Foss Mountain.
It is a black and white photo.
He is sitting with one leg up and the other folded underneath it.
He is resting his hands on his legs and staring off into the beautiful scene of mountains and lakes before him.
I like the photo because it shows him at peace, in reflection.
I have no idea what he might be thinking at that moment, but my guess is something like, “Wow this is unbelievable”.
I can guess that is what he saying because it is one of his favorite sayings.
In many ways that picture is a contradiction a man who didn’t like to hike on a mountain top, appreciating the glory and wonder of God’s creation.

I was reflecting on this week’s Gospel about Jesus going up a mountain to say good bye to his disciples.
About Jesus giving them some final instructions before all things are handed over to him.
I was thinking about this moment, and about my Dad sitting on that mountain with that look of wonderment and peace, and I was thinking about holy space.
I was thinking about holy spaces.
Jesus gives those last instructions about going into the world on a mountain.
And in Matthew’s Gospel all the really important things happen on Mountains; the sermon on the mountain, the revelation of Jesus divine status, praying, curing of the sick and the lame.
It is on Mountains that the divine is present.

Mountains matter in Matthew, and I think they matter to us too.
Even if we don’t like to hike we all have mountain top experiences in our lives.
We have important moments that feel significant and big.
Many of us during this time of year celebrate those moments.
We have graduations, first communions, confirmations, weddings, and all sorts of major life passages.
We experience something in these moments a clarity of purpose.
If your child graduates this spring you as a parent feel that something is different with them.
They have passed a milestone; you have gotten them through school into something new.
Lots of graduation speeches are about the future, about shaping that future and making it better.
It is a mountaintop experience.

I don’t know about you but I would like to stay there sometimes.
I look at that picture of my Dad and wish that he where still there/here.
That this summer we could go up the Foss Mountain together, and he would turn to me and say, “Well that is my one hike a year.”
But you know Jesus won’t let us.
We are sent down from the mountain out into the world.
We might visit those mountain tops but we can’t last there.

This season people in our congregation are also struggling with death, with loss, with heart ache, and into that world is where Jesus sends us.
We can’t be young forever.
We can’t always have some great life event.
Sometimes we simply have to get through.

It is on another mountain at a different time and place.
Many years before Jesus would stand on that mountain with his instructions.
Moses stood on a mountain.
He was told that it was holy ground.
He experienced the Almighty One there on that mountain.
Once again it would be nice to stay there and bask in the glow.
But God had other ideas other orders.
Go and tell Pharaoh that the God of the universe wants God’s people to be free.
Moses protests, “send someone else, I don’t really want to go, I am no good for this thing”.

We protest too.
It is nice on the mountain.
It is nice there in the presence of the Holy One.
We can take our shoes off and not worry about anything.
It is peaceful there and we can stair off into the distance in wonder and amazement at God’s creation.
But there are other things God has in store for us.
Other things God wants us to do.

You recognize a pattern here.
We go to the mountain only to be sent back down.
But something in both stories is important to point out.
Neither Moses nor Jesus disciples goes alone.
Jesus promises “I will be with you to the end of the age.”
Moses is promised that God will be there too.

You see the Holy doesn’t just have to be on the mountain.
It can be in the doing too.
It can be in the living and dying.
It can exist with a father changing a dirty diaper.
It can exist with a mother driving her teenage children to the movies.
It can exist when someone waits by a loved one who is dying.
It can exist at the Friendly Kitchen as we pass food to a hungry person.
It can exist as we walk together so that we might abolish the death penalty.
It can exist between friends as we listen to someone else’s pain.
It can exist as we live our faith in the world.
It can exist as we teach others about Jesus.

You see I like that picture of my father, but the real things I remember about him was the way he was with me down from the mountain.
I remember the way he taught me to catch a baseball, hit a golf ball, drive a car.
The way he got mad when I didn’t do my best, and the way he forgave me when I disappointed him.
Fatherhood/motherhood is often not about mountaintop experience.
Sure you have those moments when all seems right, but that is just a culmination of a million little moments when you had to correct something, or suffer through natural growing pains.
I can remember when my kids where young and they were not yet sleeping through the night, and I came home from work, my wife looked tired she had some form of kid spit up on her.
And she would look at me and say, “Motherhood is really glamorous.”
Think of what Jesus had to go through to stand on that mountain and ascend into heaven.
He had to go through Good Friday.
Being the messiah is not glamorous.
Being a disciple is not either.
Being a disciple means getting our hands dirty in the world as we attempt to live out the great commission.

If you have had a mountaintop experience recently I am happy for you.
If you have been to the Mountain top and had some time to look out over the horizon and have some peace, I am glad.
I hope this summer you get to have some time to take a hike, enjoy God’s creation, think about what your life and be at peace.
I also hope you have some time to get dirty to love others, to help others, to not be glamorous, to be sent into the world to teach of Jesus and his love.
 Amen