Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Simple Song

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 27, 2008

Year A: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 128
(Romans 8:26-39)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

A Simple Song

Today’s gospel lesson brings us to the end of the series of Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the sower. Last week we heard the parable of the weeds and the wheat. And this morning we just heard a quick series of shorter parables. I have to admit, I nearly laughed when I imagined this scene. Imagine Jesus running through all of these parables and then he turns to the crowd and asks, “Have you understood all this?”

Can’t you imagine the people in the crowd blinking nervously and instead of admitting their confusion, they nod and smile and say “Yes” to Jesus. And probably their next thought was, “I hope he doesn’t call on me and ask me to explain what these parables mean!”

In the parables Jesus is trying to teach about the Kingdom of God – or as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven. But the truth is the parables – although seemingly simple - are not so easy to understand. When you think about it, teaching through parables is an interesting way to teach, isn’t it? In my experience, most teachers are mostly concerned that their students clearly understand the subject being taught. And so, naturally enough, teachers try – not always successfully – to be as clear as possible.

One of the reasons that Jesus is such a great teacher – and so dangerous to those in power – is that he challenges his followers to think on their own. Even today, how bold and dangerous to challenge people to think for themselves! Jesus’ teaching is seemingly simple, but not always clear-cut or obvious. People have spent the past two-thousand years coming up with interpretations of these parables. All across the church I am sure preachers are in pulpits today preaching wildly different sermons on these parables.

In his parables, Jesus uses everyday, simple things – such as seeds and leaven – to offer metaphors for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…the kingdom of heaven is like yeast…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea…

Over and over, Jesus uses these everyday, simple images to describe what the kingdom of God - the kingdom of heaven - is like.

Most of you know that on Wednesday evenings this summer a bunch of us have been meeting to watch and discuss a video series called “Saving Jesus.” It’s been a very stimulating and fun experience. Anyway, this past Wednesday in our “Saving Jesus” discussion group we talked about the Kingdom of God – and just what Jesus and his early followers understood that term to mean – and just what we understand the kingdom to be. One of the theologians in the video suggested that Jesus had to use metaphors to describe the kingdom because even he couldn’t see the kingdom clearly. Jesus knew what the kingdom was like – but not precisely what the kingdom is.

That sounds reasonable to me. I think, though, that even if Jesus had a clearer image of the kingdom, human language – the human brain – can only go so far in understanding the eternal and the ultimate. And so the best we can do is grasp that somehow the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the kingdom is like yeast.

And, I’d also suggest that Jesus used these earthy metaphors to describe the kingdom of heaven because he wanted us to get our heads out of the clouds. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus tried to describe is not the afterlife. If we look at the New Testament carefully, we find that Jesus doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the afterlife. Jesus mentions the afterlife, but it’s not his main interest. And, so, clearly, for Jesus the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven does not equal life after death.

Instead, for Jesus the kingdom of heaven is a transformation of this world – right here, right now. The kingdom is a transformation that begins with Jesus two thousand years ago and continues with us right here, right now. One of the people in the video powerfully described the kingdom of God as a world where we love other people’s children as much as we love our own.

And the earthy metaphors used by Jesus point us to the fact that the kingdom - this transformation of right here right now begins in very small, simple ways. The transformation of right here right now begins with something as small as a mustard seed and as simple as yeast.

In these parables Jesus says look the kingdom of heaven is beginning all around us – right here, right now in countless small, simple moments that have the potential to grow into something grand and magnificent.

But - we need to pay attention to the simple things. We need eyes to see and ears to hear the transformation that’s underway.

And I think you and I in the early 21st Century are at a distinct disadvantage compared to Jesus’ original followers back in the First Century. You and I are bombarded by so many images and by so much noise; we can become blind and deaf to the kingdom of God that is being unveiled all around us. Our spiritual senses can become dull and so we can’t see or feel the tiny mustard seeds.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been haunted by the animated movie that’s out right now, WALL-E. Have any of you seen it? I usually don’t like to include movies in sermons because you know if people haven’t seen it they sometimes tune out or there’s the risk of spoiling the movie by giving too much away.

But, I’ll take a chance and make an exception for WALL-E. The premise of the movie is that there has been an environmental catastrophe on earth. Because of pollution the planet has become uninhabitable – a bleak, dusty wasteland filled with all the garbage we’ve left behind. The only activity we see on the planet is one little robot – WALL-E – who is essentially a trash compacter on wheels. The robot spends its day scooping up garbage, compacting it, and piling it in soaring towers of trash. It’s a depressing sight. But, it turns out WALL-E the trash-hauling robot has somehow transcended his programming. This little robot has begun collecting items he finds in the trash that capture his imagination – seemingly simple things like a Rubik’s cube, and most especially a videotape of the movie Hello Dolly that he watches over and over. Again and again he watches the men and women in the movie dancing and singing, holding hands. He imitates their dancing. And most of all WALL-E yearns for the simple feeling of holding another’s hand.

Meanwhile what’s left of humanity is living on a giant spaceship, devouring vast amounts of junk food, their eyes fixated on TV and computer screens, interested only in their own comfort, paying no attention to one another or to the beautiful wonders of space just outside their windows.

Go see the movie to find out what happens next.

In some ways the movie seems like a modern parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a robot realizing that life is about the simple feeling of holding another’s hand – that small, simple gesture of love that we know can be so powerful and mean so much. The kingdom of heaven is like yearning for love.

The God’s kingdom is found in these ordinary, extraordinary moments – these simple acts and gestures. That’s what the kingdom of God is like… The transformation of right here, right now begins with these simple acts of love.

Thinking about simple acts and gestures reminds me of “A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. I think Dr. Anne has used it during services a couple of times over the years. It’s a piece that I love very much. Anyway, the lyric goes:
“Sing God a simple song. Make it up as you go along. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.”

And today’s Old Testament lesson about Jacob and Rachel gives us a wonderfully touching example of a simple thing that grows into something magnificent. If you were here two weeks ago, you might remember that I was a little tough on Jacob, even calling him a “fink” because of how he treated his brother Esau and tricked his father Isaac. I still stand by that, and in this morning’s passage Jacob gets the tables turned on him in this strange little story of Jacob being tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister, Leah.

But the passage is not really about trickery. The passage is about the love that Jacob had for Rachel - this simple feeling of love. As the Bible says, “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

The kingdom of God is like a man who loves a woman so much that he works as an indentured servant for seven years and yet it feels like just a few days.

For the past few Sundays we’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parables, telling his first followers and telling us what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus is not describing heaven. Instead he is offering us a taste of the transformation of the world that begins with simple acts of love. Jesus is offering us metaphors for a world where we love other people’s children as much as we love our own. Jesus is teaching us about a transformation that can happen right here right now with us – with simple acts of love.
“Sing God a simple song. Make it up as you go along. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.”


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Our "Wasteful", Hopeful God

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 13, 2008
Year A: Proper 10

Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-12
(Romans 8:1-11)
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Our “Wasteful”, Hopeful God

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the best-known of Jesus’ parables – the parable of the sower. It’s a well-known parable and it seems from the early church it has been recognized as a particularly important parable. The three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke all present the parable of the sower as the first of Jesus’ parables. And a good biblical rule of thumb is that order is usually not accidental. Mark, Matthew and Luke all seem to agree that this is a particularly important parable.

Why? What makes this parable so important? Why is it placed first in these three gospels? Well, unfortunately I’m faced with a problem that I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure Jesus’ original audience could easily relate to the details of the parable of the sower. They may not have understood the meaning of the parable, but they could easily imagine the situation. But, what about us today? Having spent nearly my entire life in the city, what do I know about sowers, seeds and planting? The closest I ever get to a farm is the produce section at Shop Rite.

Having said that, I do wonder about the sower in this parable. Doesn’t the sower seem kind of wasteful? Think about the vast hunger that exists in the world today. Isn’t it scandalous to think of a farmer wasting seeds by not being especially mindful about where they are planted? First Century Palestine was not a particularly rich society. There wasn’t much of a safety net. Seeds must have been especially precious. Wasteful planting would have been at least as scandalous then as it would be now.

Yet in the parable Jesus describes the sower letting seeds fall on the path, giving a snack to the birds. Jesus describes other seeds falling on rocky soil or among thorns. Whatever the reality of First Century farming, this is sloppy and indiscriminate.

But of course this parable isn’t an instruction manual about farming. In this parable Jesus is telling us something very important about God and very important about us.

In his most recent New Year’s message the archbishop of Canterbury pointed out that “God doesn’t do waste.” He went on to say that God never gives up on any of us, never throws any of us away, and never sees any of us as waste. Instead, God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s love is poured out on everyone – the good and the not so good, the smart and the not so smart, the nice and the not so nice. God’s Word, God’s grace is poured out on everyone, no matter if our soil appears to be rich or rocky. We might think that God is being wasteful, but God doesn’t do waste. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful. God is generous. God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s love is being poured out on all of us.

I remember the summer I did my clinical training at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. Most days in the morning I would walk to the hospital and at the end of the day I’d walk back home. Each way it took about 35 minutes. As many of you know, I love Jersey City, but the truth is it can be a pretty gritty place – lots of concrete and asphalt. Over the course of that summer what I noticed on those walks was how many people took the time and made the effort to plant flowers in front of their houses – sometimes in the little scrap of dirt along the curb. In these little plots of land, in this inhospitable place people “wasted” their time planting and tending gardens. In the midst of cars, trucks and buses there were roses, marigolds and hydrangea. We might think that this was a waste, but obviously, they didn’t think that they were wasting their seed or their time. These were people of hope, not waste. These people believed life and beauty could sprout in the unlikeliest of places.

And so in this parable Jesus tells us the truth that God is busy sowing seeds in the most inhospitable places. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful. God is generous. God is seemingly wasteful. God is out in the middle of Route 24 planting seeds. Not waste, but hope. Not waste, but love.

Because the truth is, you never know which seeds will flourish. This is a lesson I learned over and over during my teaching years. When you teach gradually you learn it’s hard to tell the good soil from the not so good. I remember in my early years as a teacher I’d get fooled all the time. I’d have students who looked clear-eyed and super attentive, nodding at all my insights, laughing at my jokes. In my mind I’d quickly peg them as the “good students,” the rich soil. And then there were others who seemed to not be paying any attention, fidgeting, doodling, not nodding at my insights, not laughing at my jokes. In my mind I’d quickly peg them as the not so good students, the rocky soil, the waste of my time.

You know where I’m going with this. It didn’t take me too many school years to realize, you never know. Pretty often it was the kids who seemed not into class who ended up doing the best work and the kids who were doing all that nodding and laughing – well, that’s all that they were doing – nodding and laughing.

And of course, we also know that seeds take time to grow - sometimes a really long time. There was an amazing story recently of a 2000 year-old date palm seed discovered in an archaeological dig in Israel that scientists have germinated and have grown into a plant – a date palm tree that they have named Methuselah.

How often in our own lives have we planted seeds that take a long time to bear fruit? Those of you who are parents of young children I’m sure hope that all your care and nurturing will show results long in the future.

I remember one birthday, maybe I was seven or eight, my parents gave me a very nice, illustrated Children’s Bible as a present. I remember being bitterly disappointed. I don’t know what I was hoping for – maybe a Captain Kirk action figure – but it wasn’t a Bible. Sometimes it takes a long time for seeds to bear fruit!

Again as a teacher, there have been a couple of times when a former student has gotten in touch with me to let me know that something I said or did in class had an impact on their lives. There’s no better feeling. And it’s always been a student I would have never expected and sometimes a student I could hardly remember. It’s hard to tell the good soil from the rocky soil. It’s hard to tell the good soil from the rocky soil because it’s not about our talents or intelligence – it’s about how we respond to what God offers to us. How do we respond to God’s word, God’s love, God’s grace that is being poured out on all of us? We choose to be good soil or rocky soil.

And our Old Testament lesson offers a great example of seemingly rocky soil producing great fruit. We’ve been hearing the story of Abraham’s descendants and particularly the story of Jacob – grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac and Rebecca, twin brother of Esau. This is what nowadays we might politely call a dysfunctional family. Jacob in particular is not an especially likable or promising character. Based on these early stories, one wouldn’t look at Jacob and see good soil. In today’s lesson we have the warm and fuzzy family moment of Jacob getting Esau to give up his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew and a piece of bread. Nice guy, huh? And a couple of Sundays from now we’ll hear the story of Jacob tricking his blind father Isaac into thinking he was Esau and receiving his father’s blessing. To be blunt, Jacob is kind of a fink.

And yet the Bible tells us that the Twelve Tribes of Israel rise out of the seemingly rocky soil of Jacob. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful. God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s love was poured out on Jacob long ago and is poured out on all of us here today.

In the parable of the sower Jesus tells us something very important about God. God word, God’s grace, God’s love is poured out on all of us. God is seemingly wasteful. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful.

The question for us is how will we respond to God’s word, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s generosity? Will we say no to God and choose to be rocky soil? Or will we say yes to God and choose to be good soil?


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What is Ministry?

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 2008

What is Ministry?

Some of you know that in January at the diocesan convention Bishop Beckwith appointed me to the Commission on Ministry. Traditionally the COM has been responsible for dealing with people who believe they are called to ordained ministry as a deacon or priest. The COM does interviews, reads documents, checks on academic progress and ultimately votes on whether they recommend a candidate for ordination. Although certainly this has always been an important job, the focus of the COM has been exclusively on those who feel called to ordained ministry, necessarily ignoring the ministry of lay people.

The Canons of the Episcopal Church are very clear that this focus on ordained ministry is far too narrow. Title III, Canon 1, Section 1 states: Each Diocese shall make provision for the affirmation and development of the ministry of all baptized persons, including: (a) Assistance in understanding that all baptized persons are called to minister in Christ’s name, to identify their gifts with the help of the Church and to serve Christ’s mission at all times and in all places. (b) Assistance in understanding that all baptized persons are called to sustain their ministries through commitment to life-long Christian formation.

At the diocesan convention Bishop Beckwith announced that for a year no new people would be allowed to enter the ordination process so that the COM would have this time for discernment – a chance to figure out how it could move from the old model of focusing only on those in the ordination process to a larger responsibility for supporting the ministry of all baptized persons. It has been an enormous and complicated task. We are more than halfway through the year and much work remains to be done. I’ve half-joked that we could have used a year of discernment before our year of discernment!

In our discussions we realized that we needed to find out how parishioners understand ministry and how they see and do ministry in their lives. Is ministry only doing specifically religious or charitable acts? Or can we be ministers in our daily lives? Can we, in the words of the canon, “serve Christ’s mission at all times and in all places”? Can we be ministers in the office? Can we be ministers on the playground? Can we be ministers in the supermarket?

In order to find out what people thought, each COM member asked a group of people from their own parish two questions: What is ministry? How is ministry done at our church? For my part I got in touch with a number of Grace Church parishioners by email and received some very interesting, thoughtful and sometimes beautiful responses to these questions.

To define ministry a couple of people rightly turned to the dictionary or the prayer book. Others took a crack at offering their own definition. One person wrote, “…I would define ministry as trying to understand and carry out what God would have us do to the best of our ability.” Another person elaborated on the same idea, “I think ministry is serving others using the gifts we have been given as individuals by God. Part of that includes pushing ourselves past our comfort zones – whether that is something like public speaking or giving up attachments to vocation, place or material things. (I don’t think God ever wants us to give up our primary relationships.) And I think it means considering our ministry in the context of prayer, so that we can discern how best God wants us to minister to the world.”

Another person offered a very concise definition: “Ministry is the work we do to serve God and the world.” She viewed ministry as a response to needs – the needs of our church community and a response to the needs of the wider community around us. She also saw ministry as a response to our own personal needs – “our longing and need to serve.” She also asked her young daughter, “What do you think ministry is?” And the girl answered “I think it’s church.”

So, what do you think ministry is? To help all of us answer that question, beginning in September one adult seminar a month will tackle the issue of ministry and how we do ministry here at Grace Church. I will lead the first discussion on September 28 and hope that many of you will be able to attend. In the meantime, take some time this summer to think about your definition of ministry and what kind of ministry you have done in the past and might be open to in the future. In the next issue of The Messenger I’ll write about what parishioners had to say about how we do ministry here at Grace Church.