Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pentecost 11 - Year A

“That CAN’T be what it looks like, can it?”

Harold, running the Vacation Bible School Science Station was shocked by how small a mustard tree really was. How many of us here in southern Alberta have actually seen a mustard tree up close? So he Googled the words “mustard tree” and a picture popped up on his screen.”

“That’s it!? That’s how big it is!? What a let down!” he said.

No wonder. After all, the way Jesus tells the story makes it sound as if this tiny germ grows up into a thriving Redwood.

Instead, a mustard tree is really only a bush. Maybe an oversized bush. But still, a bush. Not a tree. Certainly not a Redwood.

So, when Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed that grows into a mustard bush, a few giggles probably came from the cheap seats.

How would YOU describe the kingdom of heaven? It’s hard to do. Even Jesus couldn’t come up with just the right words.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl. Or a net, or treasure, or…”

I don’t know about you, but after Jesus’ list of comparisons, I’m no clearer about what the kingdom of heaven is like than when he started. There’s no common thread binding each image, no universal chain linking each story. It’s like the right words are just beyond his reach.

However, let’s be clear on what Jesus is NOT saying. Jesus is NOT saying that the kingdom of heaven is the place we go when we die. At least not in these parables. If he were then these stories would make even less sense than they do. The word “kingdom” is actually a pretty bad translation of the Greek word “basileia” which means “realm” or “reign.”

Well, sort of. “Basileia” is actually a really hard word to translate into English. It really means something like “the fullness of God’s presence and promises made real here today.” It’s not a place but a condition. Not a location but an experience. It means God’s future of justice, forgiveness, peace, and resurrection, reaching back and touching us here today. But in describing what Jesus was talking about the translators use the word “kingdom.”

And that’s where we run into the problems. What pops into your head when you hear the word “kingdom?”

Do you see thrones, crowns, and gold? Do you see monarchs decked out in purple robes attended to by fawning sycophants?

Do you see armies going off to battle to protect king, queen, and country? Flags waving, crowds cheering? Patriotism at its best? Nationalistic jingoism at its worst?

Do you see condiments, hamburger buns, and fishing rods?

No? Apparently Jesus does. And I’m sure the crowd was mystified as to what he was talking about.

Even though many of us know these stories, I wonder how much we digest them for our own Christian lives.

Christians hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed growing into a mustard bush, but then we build Redwoods - colossal cathedrals that take centuries to construct.

Christians hear that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, but we spend thousands of dollars each year on advertising to be less hidden.

Christians hear that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but we use the latest business techniques to build our organization to bake ourselves into loaves of bread.

I think Christians’ greatest temptation is to confuse God’s mustard seed kingdom, God’s yeasty realm, with the world’s kingdom of power and wealth. We may not say it as such, but often our actions betray our words.

I know it’s the church’s greatest temptation because it’s my greatest temptation.

So, what would it look like if we really believed in God’s mustard seed kingdom? God’s yeasty realm?


“What do you do?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said, still bleary-eyed from the trip.

“For a living, what do you do?”

You have to realize that when you’re a pastor and someone asks you this question, you’re tempted to lie. My intern supervisor used to answer by saying “I’m in insurance.” I know other clergy who say, “I’m in sales.” Most pastors have an answer that deflects the conversation.

(For the record I almost always tell the truth. It’s not that I’m more virtuous than other clergy, I’m just not that great a liar and I’m afraid I’ll forget my cover story)

It’s not that we’re ashamed of what we do. We just know what’ll happen as soon as people find out we spend most of our time in a church. The reason why most clergy don’t like telling people what they do for a living, especially when on a plane or on vacation, is because the tenor of the conversation changes as soon people find out we have the word “reverend” in front of our names.

People often get quiet and nervous, afraid that we’ll whip out a bible and start preaching. Or they want to share their problems, or they ask hard questions about God and suffering (questions which we’re supposed to have answers for at the tip of our tongues), or they tell awful stories about how badly they’d been treated by church people and we end up apologizing for things we’ve never said and for things we’d never dream of doing.

I was tired. I had just arrived in Mexico and just wanted to rest. But the inevitable question that’s the centrepiece of western small talk reared its ugly snout.

“What do you do for a living?”

I wasn’t thinking. It wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t really sure what I saying but the words just spilled out,

“I help people grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be.”


“Wow. That’s a good answer,” I told myself, mentally patting myself on the back.

My conversation partner quickly glanced around the room searching for the nearest exit, his eyes seizing on the “G” word; a word banished from polite conversation. He looked at his worried wife. Then asked, “So, have you heard who won the Blue Jays’ game this afternoon?”

But that slippery phrase stuck with me. “I help people grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be.”

And as I reflected on that I thought that maybe the word “I” should be changed to “we.” WE help people grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be. WE do this TOGETHER. As a family. As God’s people. That’s our job.
Back in May when we found out that our offer to buy the Assumption building was rejected, I sensed a palpable relief in the congregation. It wasn’t that you folks weren’t supportive of buying a new building. After all, you voted for it. If the offer was accepted I have every confidence that you would have honoured your pledges, and then some, in order to make the next stage of our ministry happen, if in indeed, this was God’s will for our church.

But I wonder if, in the backs of our minds, these parables were swishing around. God’s mustard seed kingdom, God’s yeasty realm, is about growing without anyone noticing. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. We are NOT the tree; we are the seed. We are NOT the loaf of bread; we are the yeast that makes it rise. And maybe we were worried that a move two blocks over would have made us the tree, when that’s not who God wants us to be.

I think there’s something wonderfully biblical about being tucked away in the middle of nowhere yet still breaking attendance records at Vacation Bible School.

It could be God’s mustard seed kingdom is as work when people in the community know who our members are but can’t pick our building out on a map.

I sense God’s yeasty realm rising among us when people stumble upon us accidentally then find home in our church family. We are the hidden treasure that Jesus found, paying the costly price for us.

It’s not our job to grow the tree, bake the bread, or be found. It’s God’s.

We are the seed and the yeast growing into the fullness of who God wants us and the world to be. We are the seed and the yeast through which God nourishes the world.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pentecost 10 - Year A

My wife is the gardener in our house. I actually hate gardening. I don’t enjoy getting my knees and elbows dirty digging around in the luxuriant soil of our backyard. My thumb has more black ink from a good book on it than green chlorophyll from picking beans.

The worst part is pulling weeds. My right hand blistered from yanking out dandelions and my back stiffened from too many hours with a shovel, digging out the unrestrained thistles that threatened to conquer our side yard.

But my wife LIVES for growing plants. We have a whole shelf devoted to gardening books. Books on proper prairie planting, when to plant, how to plant, what to plant. Which plants need lots of water and which need lots of sun. What plants should grow next to which others and which one can’t be in the same city block. Books on how to compost, what mulch is used for, how to maximize efficiency in garden use.

It’s a lot of work just thinking about it. But every October when our freezer is packed with vegetables and fruit from the backyard, I’m glad Rebekah has thought it through so thoroughly. And put me to work despite my griping about weeding.

I’m thinking that, for you gardeners, today’s gospel must make you want to tear up your Tilley Endurables in protest. After all, weeding is as vital to a fruitful harvest as 35 grams of fibre is to a healthy diet.

But the farmer in Jesus’ story tells his workers to leave the weeds alone in case wheat gets pulled out in an over-zealous plantain purge.

And I guessing that people shifted in their seats the first time they heard Jesus tell this story. He may be a fine preacher; he could hold a crowd with the best of them. But maybe it’s best if we keep him out of the garden.

But then again, they probably knew that Jesus was trying to get a reaction from them. But they probably still had a nagging question about this crazy story:

What is this parable REALLY about?

Maybe it’s a story about justice. God’s justice. Jesus tells his listeners to “collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into the barn”

So, weeds and wheat, good and evil, will – at the end – be sorted, the wheat resting safely in the barn and the weeds burning into nothingness. Evil will be destroyed and the fullness of God’s kingdom – God’s reality – will flourish on the earth. And we have to decide whether we’re wheat for God’s barns or weeds fit for the fire. Maybe that’s what Jesus is talking about.

Paul mentioned something about that in today’s second reading, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” Paul says, panting with expectation, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”

God’s justice coming to the word. Evil being destroyed. Suffering morphing into glorious joy. That MUST be what this passage is about.

But if that’s true, then what does that mean for those of us who are still waiting for God? Paul saw that day coming right around the corner. He thought he’d live to see it. He thought he’d see God’s kingdom descend to earth while he was still breathing.

Moreover Jesus himself implied that God’s day of justice was at hand. In fact, he said it’s flowering all around us. God’s kingdom of justice, peace, healing, and renewal were everywhere. It’s within us. It’s among us. All we needed were eyes to see and ears to hear.

But a lot of people went to their graves waiting for that day. A lot of people are STILL waiting, wondering if this God thing is all it’s cracked up to be. They wonder if Jesus really meant what he said.

This is when our Jewish friends might clear their throats, wondering,

“If Jesus is the redeemer, why doesn’t the world look more redeemed? If Jesus is the Messiah, then why isn’t the world bursting with God’s vision of life? Why do children still die preventable deaths? Why do wars still devastate innocent lives? Why do families still break down, diseases still take lives far too early, why does grief still drill holes in our souls?

“Where is the day of justice? When is the morning of renewal? When will the earth be healed? When will evil finally be destroyed under the fist of God’s terrible justice? When will the wheat and the weeds finally reach their destinations?”

That’s what our Jewish friends might ask, and have asked.

And those are good questions. I wouldn’t know how to answer them, except by saying that, maybe this passage is also about patience. Patience for what God is going to do. Patience IS a cardinal Christian virtue. When we’re patient, we think in God’s time not ours’.

After all, we puny humans think in tiny timelines and limited lifetimes. In our ADD world, we demand instant oatmeal answers to hard infinite questions. We insist on a rapid response to eternal inquiries.

In the end, God has a vision of eternity that we don’t have. God’s plan for justice and renewal has a shelf life of, well, forever. And we will see it with our own eyes as soon as God chooses to take off our blinders. Even if those blinders are death. We need only to be patient.

However, others might say, “That’s all well and good. But God makes promises for us TODAY. Why should we ALWAYS look to the future for what God says God has planned for us? Jesus asks us to pray some pretty bold prayers. ‘Let your will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.’ Jesus is asking us to pray for God’s vision of life to rain down on us as we watch.

“So, it sounds as if we’re getting some mixed messages here. Either pray for the fullness of God’s kingdom of life and peace to come here and today. OR we wait for the end of the age when God will collect the wheat and burn the weeds.”

Asking for patience, waiting for God to act according to God’s eternal itinerary, sounds, to some ears, like we’re protecting God’s disappearing act, making excuses for divine distractions. And we scurry around, working our finger to a nub, doing what we believe God wants us to do.

But if that’s true, then I wonder if we end up taking the burden of world renewal on to OUR shoulders. Maybe we end up thinking that if God’s timing is too slow, we’ll speed things up, we’ll pick up the slack, we’ll do the heavy lifting. It’s our hands that will blister and backs stiffen trying to yank all those nasty weeds.

However, such hard work often leaves us tired, sore, and bitter, realizing that we can’t pick the weeds fast enough. They keep multiplying while we sleep. So, we’re dismayed, that, despite our aching muscles and sweaty foreheads, evil still prevails; death still grips our throats; life still ends no matter what we do or what we don’t do.

So, then –maybe - this passage isn’t about justice or patience. Maybe this story is about grace, the fancy church word meaning God’s unconditional love. But “grace” means more than that.

Grace is something God gives us – freely – not because we’ve been good people, or have been upstanding moral citizens, or have gone to church or prayed or read the bible.

Grace is something God gives us because that’s who God is. God is the God of life, the God of love, the God who is making all things new, the God who is ALWAYS creating and re-creating– pruning and watering. God loves the world above anything else.

And God knows that good and evil thrive alongside of each other. That’s really what this story is about. When Jesus talks about destroying evil, I don’t think Jesus is talking about the evildoers outside of God’s people. I think Jesus is talking about the evil that resides inside each and every human heart. The evil that rests snuggly alongside the love, compassion, and faithfulness that also finds a home within all of us.

Even the noblest deed isn’t completely noble. We are a stew of mixed motivations, a gumbo of virtue and viciousness. Jesus knew that if God destroyed the evil within us, some of the joy and love would be tossed into the fire as well.

But there are signs. Glimpses of God’s promised future - today. Road signs along God’s path. When compassion and love subdue hatred and violence. When justice and peace tame tyranny and anger. When God is honoured beyond what God can do for us, God’s future reaches back and blesses us. And we wait with hope for the day, when we – weedy wheat – will rest in God’s barn.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Pentecost 8 - Year A

Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.

It sounds so inviting doesn’t it? Jesus with out-stretched arms, calling the weary and burdened to rest in him.

Jesus, the Great Physician, the Divine Healer, calls all those who are stressed out and tired, tells you to grab a chair, put up your feet while he fetches margaritas as you lie on the beach.

Jesus the Cruise Director, making sure you’re relaxed and reposed, calming the sea sickness of life.

Jesus with a pipe and cardigan, welcoming you to the couch to warming your cold anxieties, waving your guilt away with a kind word and quiet manner.

Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.

This passage is some peoples’ favourite part of the bible. I don’t blame them. who couldn’t like this passage? Especially in our age of anxiety. Especially when Depression and mental illness is spreading plague-like around the Western world. Especially when there’ so much we need to be doing, grabbing dinner at the Drive-thru as we shuffle the kids between soccer practice and piano lessons. Especially when we’re working longer hours for less pay.

Especially when gas prices are blasting into space and we wonder how we’re going to fill our tanks each week to get to work. Especially when food prices creep towards the stratosphere and we’re starting to seriously think about buying a cow for the backyard. Especially when the roads become rivers and we flush water from our basements.

Especially when we hear that Iran is tiptoeing closer toward a nuclear weapon. Especially when a yet another Canadian soldier is killed in Afghanistan. Especially when the earth is overheating, pine beetles endanger our forests, and salmonella threatens us with death-by-tomato.

Especially when…you fill in the blank. I’m sure you can. And after you scribble in your problems, Jesus’ invitation sounds mighty tempting. Like Good News in a Bad News world. A rest from our troubles.

Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.

But when you stop and really listen to what Jesus is saying, he doesn’t make very much sense. When someone’s offering you a rest, throwing a yoke over your shoulders, strapping a harness around you doesn’t exactly close the deal. It sounds like he’s asking us to trade one set of problems for another.

And he probably is.

At the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus is clearly overheated, like he’s been pushed to the edge and finally leaps out in anger.

He’d been accused of not being spiritual enough, not being godly enough, not being pure enough. They called him a booze-hound, of wasting time in night clubs instead of going to church, of filling up at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet instead of kneeling down in prayer.

“…the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

Of course, they didn’t like his cousin John any more than they liked him. Some of the religious leaders complained about John the Baptist. They accused him of having a demon. Then they said that he wasn’t preaching God’s word and that he was deceiving people.

However, people knew what John was REALLY up to. Folks knew that John was giving people a fresh start with their lives and with God. He showed them that God was a God who believed in second chances.

But not everyone wanted people to have second chances. Especially those with fancy titles in front of their names and even fancier robes in their closets. Folks who had a vested interest in keeping things just the way they were.

And they didn’t lack any supporters of the status quo. “Sure the government was corrupt, what government isn’t?” they’d say.

“The religious leaders were pompous and uncaring,” they’d point out, “Big surprise, stop the presses.”

“Of course, the temple favoured the rich and powerful,” they’d declare, “how else are the lights going to stay on?”

But Jesus and John saw the bar was set way too low, and they wanted to raise it, even demolish it. They knew what God could do and were tired of seeing people get in the way of God’s renewing power. They were tired of seeing so many people thinking God didn’t care about them only because religious people didn’t care about them.

That’s why he turned to the crowd and said,

“Come to ME, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For MY yoke is easy, and MY burden is light.”

Come to ME all you who are tired of struggling day after day trying to do good, trying to be the best person you can be, and you still fail.

Come to me all you who are weighed down under the heaviness of life; trapped in situations that keep you from being the person God wants you to be.

I will give you rest. I’m not like these other guys. I am gentle. I am humble. MY chains aren’t heavy. MY load is light.”

It wasn’t rest and relaxation he was offering, he wasn’t offering a vacation. He was calling then to a whole new way for people to live together with God.

While we aren’t fighting corrupt foreign occupiers, nor are most of our religious leaders official flunkies of empire, we have our own challenges, forces that pull us away from God and hinder our growth as God’s people.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that “we have our lives invested in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ – and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic force among us, and the theological question is facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it.” (Brueggemann, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope)

I would say that it’s not just a theological question. I’d say it’s a life question. I’d say it’s a question of how to live faithfully when there’s so much to pull us away from God.

How do we faithfully follow the poor preacher from Nazareth in the midst of plenty? How do we grow into the fullness of who God wants us to be when there are so many competing gospels? The gospels of wealth, beauty, and success? The gospels of strength, of personal power, of individual freedom?

At first glance, these gospels sound like Good News. They tell us what we want to hear and make us feel important. They make us feel like we can be more that what we are, they give us something to which we can aspire, providing tangible evidence that we’ve accomplished what we’re supposed to accomplish.

But these gospels demand a heavy price. We spend less time with our families; we disconnect and disengage from those whom we love. We cut ourselves off from each other. These gospels make us fearful that we’ll have it all taken away from us. So we become angry and suspicious of change. It brings out the worst from us rather than the best.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to a different life, a gospel that draws us in to follow him down the path of compassion, by the banks of humility, beside the bustling rivers of self-giving love, through the valley of gentleness, all the way of the cross of forgiveness, not for the sake of our selves, but for the life of the world.

That’s the yoke that Jesus was talking about. That’s the burden he lays on us at baptism.

And Jesus gives us food for this journey; he provides strength to carry his yoke. At Jesus’ table we’re given what we need to follow Jesus along his path. We’re given the bread of healing and the wine of forgiveness in the sacrament of new life.

Come, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and he will give you rest. Amen.