Monday, July 18, 2011

Weeds and Wheat

All of us at one time or another has wondered why God allows evil.
We have all questioned why bad things happen to good people.
Why does God allow evil people to hurt others?
Why does God allow evil people to make millions of dollars off innocent unsuspecting people?
Why does God allow evil people to kill without being punished?
This morning our Gospel lesson gives us some very interesting thoughts from a parable Jesus tells about seeds being planted.
In the parable Jesus is the one sowing good seeds, and the evil one sowing bad seeds.
What is amazing about the parable is that both good and evil grow together.
I am no expert farmer but I read this week that the kind of wheat and weeds that Jesus is talking about look very much alike.
And that the roots of the weeds and wheat would get tangled and caught up together.
This is the problem with evil people is that they look just like good people.
It is not until they act that we can see the difference and sometimes even then it is hard to tell.
The parable is really astonishing because the slaves, noticing that the weeds have infected the good wheat, want to pull out the weeds, but the householder will not allow it.
“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

All of us in order to feel safe, in order to make things right have in us the same tendency as the slaves in the parable.
We want to root out evil and do away with it.
For example, after 9/11 we all felt vulnerable and what made us feel better was hearing from the president that we were going to get the bad guys; we were going to, “smoke them out”.
This year when we heard that Osama Bin Laden was killed people danced in the street.
We love it when evil is defeated it makes us feel safe and good.

The problem is that in our attempts to root out evil we might just pull up the good wheat with it.
For the most part, it is hard to tell who is good and who is evil.
Perhaps what made people so upset about the Casey trial was they felt that justice was not served.
That this woman who many thought was guilty did not get what was coming to her.
Jesus is telling us this morning that we are to take the long view.
Jesus asks the slaves to see even beyond this time and place to a different season to see beyond today into God’s future.
To understand that in God’s time all things will be put right, but in the meantime it is not our job to figure out who is in and who is out.

This week in the Concord Monitor there was an article about the Friendly Kitchen.
The neighbors living around the Friendly Kitchen have said they do not want the Friendly Kitchen to be rebuilt in the same spot.
They have threatened legal action.
The Friendly kitchen does not have the resources to fight a long legal battle so they have agreed to find some other place.
One of the neighbors said that she was very pleased that the Friendly Kitchen is moving and that since it burned down it has been extremely quiet.
One of the neighbors a couple of weeks ago wrote and op-ed about how great the neighborhood is now that those people have left.
The neighbors have said that before this there was noise and disruption caused by the people using the Friendly Kitchen.
I can understand where the neighbors are coming from.
I understand the part of us that wants to get rid of the bad things.
My question is what kind of damage this has done.
It has done damage not only to those people using the Friendly Kitchen but to the neighbors and our community.
I have always been proud of the way that Concord works to help all people in our community.
I have preached about how great it has been to see the support coming from people in our community to rebuild the Friendly Kitchen.
This has really disappointed me.
It would be nice to think that all we have to do is get rid of some folks and then everything will be fine.
I don’t think the neighbors realize that by pulling up the bad weeds they are also destroying the good.

They are destroying the good that our community does to make sure that people get a good meal and a Friendly place to go.
They are destroying their own ability to show compassion and mercy.

Throughout history people have tried to rid the world of evil.
They have tried to get rid of what was not pure and good in their minds.
Often times this has lead to nothing but fear and hatred.
We have tried to define “the other” “those people” that are to blame for the world’s problems.
In the meantime we have destroyed our own moral compass.
Think of people who are against abortion and in pursuit of trying to rid the world of what they perceive as evil end up killing doctors who perform abortions, or bomb abortions clinics.
In trying to root out evil we might uproot the good including the good in ourselves.

So if it is not our job to uproot evil what is our job?
Are we suppose to let evil wreak havoc on us and the world?
Are we not supposed to stand up for what is right and good?
Yes but we do it always through love, not through trying to get rid of people we find undesirable.
Our job is to tend the garden.
Indiscriminately show the good news of Jesus Christ.
We are to help all people even if they are weeds.
The people that Jesus ministered to and hung out with where considered by many to be the weeds.
They were the ones who were destroying good family values.
They were the ones who were blight on the neighborhood.
And Jesus told us to love our neighbors, to pray for those that persecute us.
This morning he tells us to let the weeds and wheat grow together because in the end it will be God who judges.
It will be God who sorts through what is good and evil.
It will be God who in the end will make all things right and make us shine like the sun.

We also see in this in churches.
We don’t like someone so we want them to go away.
Or we don’t like the way things are going so we pull away and think it is better to let all “those people” do whatever they want.
We wrongly believe that if we only could get rid of the people that disagree with us everything would be fine.
Or if we just went to another church where everyone agrees with me then all will be well.
The truth is that even here among us there are moments when we are the wheat and moments when we are the weeds.
The beauty of being a member of a faith community is that we agree in a non verbal contract to hang in there with each other.
We agree to let God work it out.
We agree that we are at the same time saints and sinners.
We are all sinners before God and yet made righteous through Jesus Christ.

St. Paul tells us that there is no condemnation for those who know Jesus.
We know Jesus and because of this we become heirs to a wonderful promise.
A promise that says that no matter what God forgives and loves us.
I think we should be spreading that message wherever we can.
We should be helping others to know that even if they think they are the weeds God can make them into so much more.
God can make them into heirs, into a shining sun, into righteousness.
When we invite people into our community of faith we are not inviting people because they are perfect, but because we want them to know that they too are heirs of God’s promise.

We can never tell the weeds and wheat.
And we will never be able to pull the weeds out without also tearing out the wheat.
What we can do is tend to the Garden.
We can spread the good news of Jesus Christ that we are heirs to a wonderful promise and a great future.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where Is Authority?

This week one of our members Gretchen Jacques died.
I met with her daughter and sister to plan the funeral.
They wanted to select reading that talked about the animals and God’s creation because Gretchen loved animals so much.
The daughter asked me about a passage that said something about the animals teaching us.
Not knowing the specific verse I took out my concordance, which is a book that shows you all the verses in the Bible that use a specific word.
In this case I was looking for the word teach.
I found this verse that said, “Does not nature itself teach you that if…”
In the Concordance it does not give the rest of the verse.
It appeared from those couple of words that I found the verse it was 1 Corinthians 11:14.
I looked it up and read the rest of the verse to the family here is what it says, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?”
We didn’t use that verse!
(By the way the verse that she was thinking of was Job 12:7)

The great question of our day is how do we understand scripture?
What is it about scripture that makes it authoritative for our lives?
I obviously have ignored 1 Corinthians 11:14.

Sometimes when we read the Bible we believe that there is only one way to interpret what we are reading.
The problem is that most of the Bible is not intended to be interpreted in only one way.
Parables are intentionally left open ended to many different interpretations.
Take for example our Gospel parable for this morning.
Anyone, who has been coming to church for a while has heard this parable many times.
We have all heard sermons about it.
Most of the time we are told that we are the soil, the Gospel is the seed, and God is the sower.
In fact, we actually have Jesus interpret the Gospel for us.
It would almost appear that I have no work to do this morning.
But here is where it gets tricky for me.
What happens when we are not good soil?
What happens when we are like the soil that is among rocky ground?
Who exactly is the sewer is it God or us?
Are we not also supposed to sow?
So maybe in the parable we are supposed to be sower?
How about the seeds?
They are what grow into the fruit, the flower?
How come we are not the seeds?
In other words the parable does not work as simply a wooden interpretation.
I want to suggest this morning that at any given moment in our lives we are the soil, the seed, or the sower.

There are times in our lives when we are simply not at our best.
There are times when we are the path, the rocky soil, thorns, and on rare days good soil.
There are times when we simply do not want to hear what God wants to tell us.
Days when we are mad at someone and don’t want to hear about forgiveness or love of enemies.
There are days when we think we want to hear God, but other things are taking over our lives and simply cannot pay attention long enough.
There are times when financially we live so close to the bone that we don’t want to hear Jesus tell us to give anyway.
There are days when our faith is not deep enough to overcome what is happening.
In other words the parable of the sower is not about a once in a lifetime opportunity.
That all we get is one day to hear God’s word and if we miss it then we are in trouble.
It is about all the times in our lives when we hear the word of God and the varying reactions we have to at any given time.
One of the great things about the parable is that the seeds are always being sewn.
The sewer lavishly sows the seeds.
There is always time in our lives to come around.
To let God make our hearts be good soil.
In fact, what we have in life is a journey of hearing God’s word over and over and over again, and each time it may mean something different for us.

This is what scripture can do for us it can be a companion in our faith journey.
Because it has multiple meanings it is something we can come back to again and again.
It is not that what the Bible means has been set for all eternity.
Sometimes we talk about the Bible as if there is only one message one understanding that we can get from it.
I think that we find solace in this that is why we like.
We like the easy answer.
But there is real beauty in always approaching the Bible like a treasure.
What is in here that I can explore?
What will I learn about God today that was hidden from me yesterday?

For me it is like Star Wars.
I have seen that movie probably about 200 times.
Every time I see I understand or see something different.
We just re-watched Episodes 4-6 again in our house.
This time what I noticed was how mean c-3PO is to R2D2.
I never noticed it before.
The same is true when we continually read the Bible we pick up on nuances we missed the last time, or it means something different to us because of where we are in our lives.

I know someone who wrote a song about how we are all seeds in God’s hand.
That we land in different places.
Some of the lyrics to the chorus go:
“We’re all just seeds in God’s hands. We start the same but where we land. Sometimes fertile soil and sometimes sand, we’re all just seeds in God’s hand.”
The first time I heard it made me think about this parable very differently.
Not that what I had learned before was totally wrong it just made me see it from another angle.
It made me see God from another angle.

Is that not the beauty of the Biblical text that we can read it and re-read it and come to see it differently every time.
It does not make it any less powerful.
In fact, I would argue more powerful.
The best art in the world is what makes us come back time and again because it speaks on so many levels to the human condition.
The Bible is art, but it is also more than that because it for us is God’s word.
It is what comforts us, encourages us, challenge us, and shows us God’s intention for our lives.

We do it a disservice to believe that it only says one thing.
And if we don’t get that one thing that we missed the whole point and we are waste of time.

Think about the disciples themselves.
They are not always good soil.
They often don’t understand what Jesus is talking about.
They often let the cares of the world choke them down.
They often don’t have deep roots.
And yet Jesus continues to work with them.
Jesus continues to teach and preach.
Jesus continues to sow the seeds.

We can take heart that God will not give up on us.
Even when we fall amongst the rocks and thorns God will try and replant us in a better spot.
Even when our hearts are not ready or unwilling to hear the word of God the Holy Spirit goes to work to make our hearts better soil.

Authority does not come from our interpretation of the text.
It comes from our constant engagement in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we meet in the Biblical witness.
It comes from a faith that takes lots of tending to.
We need to weed it, water it, talk to it, and even pray for it.

So may you constantly come to God’s word and be nourished by it comfort, encouraged by it, challenge by it, so that you may grow and produce good fruit.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Repairing The Damage!

This week I was away with the confirmation students at confirmation Camp.
We spent the week at camp Calumet Lutheran on the shores of Lake Ossipee.
I want to thank the congregation for making this happen.
I believe it is an important part of faith formation for our confirmation kids to be around other Lutheran kids from New England, to receive the blessings of growing in faith, and making new friends.
We always go as part of a larger New Hampshire conference so our confirmation students get to know kids from churches in Newington, Laconia, and Endfield.
One of the things the New Hampshire conference did at confirmation camp was go for a canoe ride down the Sacco River in Fryeburg Maine.
It is one of the things I really look forward to.
We have a great time canoeing, splashing each other, tipping canoes, being in God’s creation, and generally having fun.
This year we were canoeing along and we saw a rope swing to our left.
So we beached our canoes on the right side of the river on a sand bar and swam over the rope swing.
I don’t know about you but I have a general rule never to pass up a chance to go on a rope swing.
Anyway, there was this father and son who were just ahead of us who had already pulled over and were going to use the rope swing.
The kids and I arrived just as the son about the age of 9 or 10 was going to go off the swing.
Unfortunately we got in his way and he had to wait until we were safely on the shore.
I want to say that the kids were not in any way being rude or disrespectful they were simply being kids happy to be on a river about to go off a rope swing.
The father of the boy began to yell at me that we had totally taken over and it would have been more considerate to wait on the other side until they were done.
I apologized and said that he was right it was inconsiderate and asked him how we can make it right.
First, I offered to let his kid go as many times as he wanted and we would wait for him to be done.
Then, I offered for us to swim back to the other side until they were done.
To which he replied, “The damage is already done there is nothing you can do to fix it.”
The damage is already done there is nothing you can do to fix it.

I wonder how many of us have had difficulty in our relationships and thought or spoken these words.
How many friends have we lost because they did something we couldn’t stand and we simply could not repair the broken relationships.
How many times have we taken up positions that are so intractable that we stubbornly will not hear someone offering us an olive branch of peace?

I am thankful everyday that our relationship with God is never damaged to the point of no return.
I am thankful that God never says to us “the damage is done and there is nothing you can do to fix it.”
Since the time of Adam and Eve, God has been searching for ways to repair the damage.
The Bible is one long story of God trying desperately to get God’s people to notice how much he loves and cares for them.
Even though we stubbornly want to go our own ways God is always looking for a way to get into our hearts.
God has been extending to us over and over again an olive branch, trying to bend over backwards to get us to see his love for us.
This morning in our Gospel Jesus gives us a wonderful grace filled offer.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
We are all burdened down by so many things in our life.
But the greatest is Sin.
We are taken down by our selfishness, our own intractable ways, and our own thoughtless disregard for others.
Jesus offers us rest from all of that, and offers us a life of grace.

After the exchange at the rope swing with the father I was proud of the way the kids in our group processed what happened.
One confirmation student said, “Perhaps he was having a bad day and just took it out on us.”
Another said, “He must be embarrassed to act that way in front of his own son.”
They were able to process what happened in a way that showed compassion for the man.
I have to say that I did believe he had a point.
We could have/ should have stayed away until he was done.
It would have been the better thing to do.
But as St. Paul reminds us this morning we don’t always do what we are supposed to do.
We don’t even always do the thing that we know we are supposed to do.
We don’t always think of other before ourselves.
I will tell you I saw that rope swing and couldn’t wait to get on it.
I didn’t give one thought to the man and his son.
I should have.

There are lots of things we should do, but don’t.
There are lots of things we want to do, but won’t.
We confess to things done and left undone.
We confess that we are captive to sin.
We know this about ourselves.
Even people that seem like they don’t know it and come across as cocky or really sure of themselves even those people carry burdens.
Even those people know deep down that they are not good enough.
Even self righteous people know that they are sinners like the rest of us.

The only difference is, are we ready willing and able to admit our burdens?
Are we ready to give them over to Jesus?
Are we ready to take those things in our lives that hurt us, that damage us and others and give it to Jesus?

The good news is that Jesus tells us he is ready for them.
Jesus tells us he can handle our burdens.
I don’t understand Christians who cannot or will not admit their own sins.
Because our whole religious understanding of who we are is about admitting our sins and allowing God to work on us to transform them into new life.

I believe that man on the river was so burdened by his own life that he could not find his way to compassion for us who did him wrong.
I don’t believe that for Christians this is ever a stance we can take.
There always has to be ways for us to repair the damage.
There has to be grace offered to others for not being perfect.

Because our God is so gracious that he came down and lived with us.
Our God is always searching for ways to repair the damage.
“The Lord is gracious and full of compassion slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
God in Jesus Christ showed us grace and mercy.
Jesus calls us to take the burdens we have the sin we carry, the regrets, and the wrongs and put them on him so that our burden can be lighter.
As St. Paul says, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

That is where we find rest from being captive to sin.
We come to Jesus with all of it from our lives and Jesus gives our souls rest.

It is true that the good we want to do we cannot will it on our own, but through Jesus Christ we can learn to live in God’s grace.
May all of you be able to place your burdens on Jesus Christ our Lord so that you may have rest.
Thanks be to God that the damage can always be repaired so that we might have peace.

A Cup of Cold Water!

It is overwhelming sometimes to come face to face with death.
Through it we see just how small we are to control life.
My wife’s (Vicki) grandfather is dying.
For us and her family it has been hard to watch a once active man change and move on to the next phase of life.
He is still the same gentle loving soul even now in these final days, but he is not the same.
He is changing as he makes the final journey to be at home with his Lord.
But you want to stop it, or speed it up and make it less painful for him and everyone else.
We see that in these instances despite our pleas there is inevitability to it all.
But in that moment you feel helpless.
Yesterday we were visiting him.
As I was talking with him trying to comfort him he kept asking me for “Cold water”.
I got the nurse to bring some cold water.
Sometimes that is all we can do.

Our Gospel from Matthew today comes at the end of a long discourse about mission and discipleship.
It comes after the sending of the seventy, and Jesus talking about what it cost to be a disciple.
Jesus reminds the disciples once again that it is not easy.
That they too may not be welcomed just as Jesus in certain cases was not welcomed.
To be a prophet is to be disliked.
To live a righteous life is too take the hard road.
And it is not for everyone.
But the least we can do is give a cup of cold water to one of God’s little ones.
Jesus is arguing from most to least.
You can welcome prophets and the righteous.
But even just giving a cup of cold water will do.

There is something comforting about that.
Not that being a disciple is easy, but that what we are called to do is obtainable.
There are so many things that we want to change but in the face of them we are often left to feel inadequate.

Recently, there were tornadoes in Springfield, Ma.
Seeing the destruction on the news made one feel inadequate.
What are we to do in the face of such destructive power?
It just so happened that the weekend after the tornadoes we had our synod assembly in Springfield.
Only a couple of blocks from where the tornadoes ripped through the city we met to be the Church.
And on Saturday we set out to do what we could.
My service project was to go to a park and put on a carnival for some neighborhood kids with an organization called the Lion’s den.
The pastor who runs the program told us that we were doing a great thing by showing up and doing what we could to help.
It wouldn’t seem that putting a carnival in a park would help.
I mean we were not moving trees from people’s houses or cleaning up after the tornado.
But the kids in that park were also affected by the tornadoes they saw it and had fears about being confronted with something of such awesome power.
They needed something that was good and reminded them about the normalcy of life.
We did not save the city of Springfield we merely showed up and gave a cup of water to people in need.

A couple of months ago the Friendly Kitchen burnt down.
It was again one of those things that made you feel that you were powerless in the face of the power of fire.
One of our members John Jurnot was moved to say that he could do something.
He organized people in the community to put on a successful concert at the Barley House.
Because of his efforts the Friendly Kitchen now has $2,000 more dollars to build.
It has not rebuilt the entire house.
But John showed up and gave a cup of water.

This week we hosted Bike and Build.
We did not do this last year for whatever reason.
But Marlene Smith and Linea Stevensen came to give them rides to the Holiday Inn to shower.
Jennifer Buck cooked dinner and Cynthia Marple cooked them breakfast.
Bike and Build is young people giving up a summer of their lives to build affordable housing from New Hampshire to British Columbia.
Each participant had to raise $4,000 to go on the trip and they use the money to build affordable housing partnering with local groups.
It did not solve all the worlds housing problems, but we got to welcome some young righteous people putting the world back together.
People from our congregation spent some of their time helping others.
It may not seem like much but people showed up and gave a cup of cold water.

Sometimes we get lost in all the things we can’t do.
We get lost in the complexities of the situation or the problem.
When all that is really required is that we show up and give of our time and talent.
That is what Jesus always asks of us is that we show up.
When called we are ready to do what is necessary.
We don’t have to do everything only the things within our power.
Certainly welcoming others and giving a cup of cold water is within our powers.

What are the ways that you will be called on to serve God this week?
Who will ask you for a cup of cold water and will you be able and willing to do it.
Or will you get lost in how big the problems are, how little control we have, how complex the solutions seem to be.
I think it is easier then we make it look.
If someone is in front of you that needs help do it.
Don’t over think all the eventual possibilities simply show up and give a cup of water.

I learned this week that at the end of our days that is really all we need or want anyway.
We want someone to be there holding our hand and getting us our cold water.
Everything else is in God’s hands.
This is how we live in grace and not in the law.
This is how we live sanctified righteous lives.

St. Paul tells us this morning that because of our baptisms we are given new identities.
We no longer allow sin to exercise dominion in our mortal bodies.
That instead of living for the law we live in grace.
That grace gives us the power to put on the face of Jesus Christ.
That we don’t have to be slaves to sin, but can be slaves to righteousness.
This means working to make things right.
Righteousness does not mean perfection, but toiling in the world to make things the way God intended them to be.
One of the bikers was telling me how the trip was reminding her of all the good that is done in the world.
What I think that looks like is that each of us in our lives has opportunities to offer others cups of cold water.
Each of us has the opportunity to offer hospitality.
Each of us has the opportunity to share the grace of God with others.

It is sometimes overwhelming to remember how little control we all have.
We cannot solve so many of the world’s problems.
We cannot stop our loved ones from dying.
But we can hold the hand of someone dying, offer some bikers a place to sleep, make a meal for weary travelers, give money to a worthy cause, and give a cold cup of water.