Saturday, June 16, 2018

“Discovering Faith in a Pair of Bulls” (Mark 4:26-34)


As the young family was leaving church, the daughter was telling her parents about her Sunday school class: “Today in Sunday school we learned how Jesus loved to teach about a couple of cows.”  The mother smiled and said, “I think you mean ‘parables,’ sweetie.”

Because I like “word play” humor, one of my favorite cartoon strips—Funky Winkerbean, had a strip in which the class was being given a vocabulary test in which they had to define certain words.  In the strip there is a student who happens to be a “jock” and he is pondering over a word . . . “parable.”  In the next frame of the strip we see him writing furiously his definition of the word.  In the last frame we are given the opportunity to see his answer . . . “A pair of bulls.”

Get it?  A pair of bulls . . . a couple of cows!

Personally, I think that it is funny in its cleverness . . . but, when it comes right down to it, describing parables and what they mean is not easy.  In fact, it can be downright difficult and frustrating.  Our reading this morning tells us: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.  He did not say anything to them without using a parable.”  Which, we are led to believe by the writer of Mark’s gospel, that they had a hard time understanding.  The writer goes on to state: “But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”  Apparently, parables are not as easy to understand as they sound when shared.

Yet, Jesus uses them all the time.

In our reading this morning, he shares what biblical scholars call “Kingdom parables”—parables about what the Kingdom of God is like.  He tells the parables of The Growing Seed and The Mustard Seed.  The first is about how a sower scatters seeds and nothing else, and all by itself the grain grows until it is big enough to harvest.  In the second, he tells how the mustard seed—the tiniest of all seeds—grows into the largest of all garden plants—big enough for birds to perch in its shade.  These describe for the listener what the Kingdom of God is like.

Sounds simple enough.  We all get it, right?  We understand the parables meaning, right?  It is as clear as mud . . . who are we to admit that we don’t quite understand . . . that we don’t quite understand how either of these parables relate to God and God’s kingdom.  That’s a part of human nature.  We would rather wink and shake our heads as if we understand, rather than admit that we have no clue what Jesus is talking about.  It is not “black and white” in its explanation . . . it is not concrete and literal.

Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, states that parables are not simple linear interpretive exercises in reasoning . . . like one plus one equals two.  Parables are not designed that way.  She states that in its root meaning para means alongside, and bole comes from the root ballein which means to throw or cast.  Thus, a parable is something that is thrown alongside something else—they run alongside of each other like two parallel lines that will never meet.  To understand one must use a back and forth dialogue between the two—the interpretation lies in a mutual, reciprocal, even circular motion.  It is not a simple one plus one equals two is the end result . . . no, the understanding comes as they run side by side. (Dear Working Preacher blog, June 7, 2018)

In these two examples Jesus provides specific parables to which the listeners are to imagine the nature of and truth about the kingdom of God.  He is suggesting that by speaking in parables is a means by which to make sense of things, as being a way to be in the world, and to operate in the world.  Through parables the listener is offered a lens through which certain concepts of faith or a means of glimpsing God’s activity in the world.  They point to a reality of life . . . that there are often aspects about our lives, God included, that only make sense in parable, states Lewis.  In a way, then, we might even say that parables are necessary for making sense of life.  (Dear Working Preacher, June 7, 2018)  

And, guess what . . . since we all go through and experience life differently, the odds are pretty good that none of us is going to see parables exactly alike.  We are going to interpret them differently as our lives are different and we experience life differently.  Plus, what we think they mean today probably is not what we are going to think that they mean tomorrow.  We are constantly growing and changing as we journey through life, and our experience of God changes as we change and grow in our faith.  Thus, we do not always agree.  Because of this, parables are tough to explain.

Parables are simple word stories that help us make sense of ourselves, our world, God, and God’s presence in the world.  Parables help us to understand.  Everyone loves a good story.  Since the beginning of time the human race has used stories to help us understand . . . that is how we explain things . . . make sense of things. 

Which does not always happen. 

Jesus did not tell parables for explanation but for exploration.  Jesus was not looking for answers.  No, what Jesus was looking for was engaging the imagination . . . engaging the heart.  Jesus was not looking for certainties of faith, but instead he was looking for discoveries about how faith works.  And, through his example, he asks his followers to talk in parables . . . to tell stories to engage the imagination . . . the heart; to open up discoveries not about faith, but how faith works.  Jesus invites his followers to become storytellers.

As I said earlier, everyone loves a good story.  We all have stories to tell . . . about life, about God, about life with God.  When asked about our faith we may not be able to put it in precise theological words, but we can tell a story that conveys its meaning.  We begin by saying, “God is like . . .”  From there we open the imagination of others, touch their hearts, and share the Good News of Jesus in such a way that it allows others to experience God in their own lives.  They get glimpses of the Holy . . . glimpses of the Kingdom of God . . .

I am not sure that any of us can really explain why it would happen.  It is kind of like that seed that is thrown by the man . . . it just happens . . . it grows.  No one knows why it grow, but it grows.  It grows beyond what anyone could ever imagine . . . like a tiny mustard seed, it grows to be the largest of all the garden plants.  We can’t explain it, but it is amazing how the words of a simple parable . . . a simple story . . . can change not only our lives, but the lives of others.

Jesus asks us to be storytellers . . . asks us to share parables.  Jesus asks us to do this because something happens in the telling of parables and stories . . . for us and those who are listening.  So, go forth and teach about a couple of cows . . . get yourself a pair of bulls.  Be a storyteller.  Amen.  

Saturday, June 9, 2018

“This Old House” (2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1)

Have you ever been told that “you need to get your house in order”?  If someone tells you that you “need to get your house in order”, he or she is probably referring to your personal life and not the abode that you live.  They are suggesting that you take care of your problems and get things organized in order to make you life better.  It really has nothing to do with literal house cleaning, but more with the spiritual and psychological aspects of our lives.

In spirituality and psychology, the house is a powerful symbol that represents the individual “self” . . . it represents us as individuals.  Using the “house” as an archetype or symbol, spiritual directors and counselors have often ask people to draw a their house as they see.  From these drawings the spiritual directors and counselors can determine a lot about how people see themselves.  If someone draws a dumpy, downtrodden house . . . well, he or she probably does not see him or herself in a good light.  Those who draw a fancy, well-kept mansion . . . they probably see and think of themselves quite highly.  The condition says a lot about the individual who is drawing it when it comes to their lives . . . especially when it comes to the spiritual and psychological.

This is good to know with the scripture reading we have had this morning.  In this reading, the Apostle Paul makes reference to dwellings . . . to houses . . . as he speaks about the life of faith.  Paul writes: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” 

There are a lot of levels that we can interpret what the apostle means by the word “house”.  There is the literal interpretation that he is referring to an actual house waiting for us once our earthly journey is over.  That would be an acceptable meaning for the word.  It could also mean that spiritual or psychological dwelling of a person . . . something not made of brick and mortar.  I think that it is to this “house” that the apostle is referring to.

And, it is to this “house” that the apostle is telling us to get it in order.

The problem with this is that as human beings we have a pretty literal, concrete, finite way of looking at the world and ourselves.  There is a little streak of Missouri’s “show me” attitude that runs through us.  Yet, what the apostle calls us to is nothing like that.  He writes: “So we focus our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.”  It is the unseen that we are dealing with, besides, argues the apostle: “For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Nothing lasts forever.  All physical matter breaks down.  It is a law of science . . . it is a fact of life.  The Bible tells us that it is from the earth that we were created and it is back to earth we will go.  All things break down.  That is just the way that life is.  Think about it . . . who among us is still driving the first car we ever owned?  And, if you are, is it really the exact same car you bought?  The same parts and tires?  I doubt it. 

Only one thing lasts for forever . . . one’s faith in God . . . one’s relationship with God . . . that is the “house” that we are called upon to strive for in our life times.  That is the “house” that we are to get in order.  If one has such a faith, one does not need to worry because in the end it will be there.

So, how is the ol’ house?

How is your spiritual life?  Your relationship with God?

Does it need a little work?

I think that I can safely say that “house work” is never done.  Not in the houses in which we live, nor in the houses of our spiritual selves.  It is a constant in our lives . . . it is the purpose of our journey . . . to constantly be working on our relationship with God and others.  We are constantly getting our houses in order.

I think that Jesus shows us some powerful tools for getting our houses in order.  Through the words that he spoke, but more importantly through the actions that he took . . . Jesus shows us the way.  Central to that is accepting the invitation to be in relationship with God . . . accepting the fact that we are in a relationship with God . . . and, then living up to what that relationship means to us as individuals and how it is played out in the world in which we live.  The fact is, we are in a relationship with God.  the question is whether or not we have accepted that reality.  When we have, then the goal is in building that relationship.

That relationship is built two ways.  The first way is through prayer . . . through conversation with God.  Note that I said conversation.  In a conversation there is the talking and the listening . . . it take both for a conversation to take place.  And, of the two, I would say that listening is more important than talking when it comes to God.  Someone once told me that God blessed us with two ears and one mouth--which do you think God considers more important?  We need to listen twice as much as we talk when it comes to prayer . . . it is in the listening that we discover the answers.  Remember, Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.

The relationship is also built in action.  It is built in how we live out that intimate spiritual connection that we have with God in our lives.  Are we doing God’s will?  Are we loving others?  Are we seeking peace . . . justice?  Are we feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned?  We love the way that we are loved.  There is no better witness to a relationship than how it is played out in our daily lives.

That is how work on getting our house in order.

Now, I know what you are thinking . . . who likes “housework”?  It ranks
pretty high up there with going to the dentist.  But is is necessary . . . necessary for overcoming the difficulty of this journey we call life.  Housework must be done.  And, not surprisingly, God thought about this too . . . no one likes housework.  Because no one likes housework, God gave us a “helper” . . . someone or something to prod us along.  That is the role of the Holy Spirit . . . to keep reminding us . . . to prod us . . . and, to give us a swift kick in the ol’ slats when all else fails.

God has given us our “house” and it is up to use to take care of it, to keep it in order, and to keep it clean.  Thus we are called into faith . . . into building upon that relationship we have with God, and ultimately allowing that relationship to spill over in how we live with and treat others.  That ol’ house that we live in will not always last, but we have the assurance that our eternal house will never go away.  To this goal we are to strive as a people of faith.  They say that where the heart lies, there is home.  May our hearts dwell with God . . . now and forever more.  That is what matters in the end.  Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

“When Silence Convicts” (Mark 2:23-3:6)

It was a great joy to be able to watch our granddaughters last weekend while their mother went to a concert in Denver . . . we had them for nearly five whole days.  Five days gets everyone beyond the pleasantries that family typically go through when they are together and are putting their “best” out for everyone to see.  You know the old saying about what fish and visitors have in common . . . after three days, they begin to stink.  So, we had the granddaughters long enough for them to pretty much be themselves . . . good and bad.

At one point the oldest granddaughter, Harper, was exerting her seniority over her younger sister, Finley . . . you know the stuff, being bossy, teasing, and just irritating her sister to death!  Of course, it made Finley upset and she began to cry.  Crying granddaughters bring out the “protector” in Grandpa . . . and I quickly swooshed down to confront the offending grandchild.

The confrontation consisted of a series of questions: Are you bossing your sister around?  Are you picking on your sister?  Are you being mean to your sister?  The response was typical of any child caught doing something wrong, but not wanting to admit it . . . stone silence with a straight ahead stare into the cosmos (anywhere but into Grandpa’s eyes).  Repeated questioning did not change the response . . . just more silence.  The oldest granddaughter was not going to admit being guilty of anything.

And, yet, her silence convicted her.  She knew she was wrong in the way she had been treating her younger sister.  She knew she was guilty of the things she was asked.  I don’t know if it was embarrassment or anger, but she was not going to admit anything.  Little did she understand that silence sometimes says more than words ever will.

That is the situation we are dealing with this morning in our scripture reading.  At first glance the reading seems to be talking about the sabbath . . . Jesus and the disciples are walking through a field on the Sabbath, some are plucking the heads off of grain and eating them much to the chagrin of the Pharisees watching them.  The Pharisees raise a ruckus about them breaking the Sabbath laws. 

Then later, in a synagogue, there is a man with a crippled hand . . . anticipation rippled through the crowd as to whether or not Jesus would heal the man’s hand . . . of course, it would be another violation of the Sabbath laws.  And, of course, Jesus does.  The Pharisees rush out “. . . and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill him.”

In both situations the focus is on what is happening on the Sabbath that should not be happening on the Sabbath . . . the Sabbath laws that were being broken . . . which the Pharisees had no trouble pointing out to Jesus.  Each time, Jesus confronted them about the Sabbath and its purpose.  In his first response he reminds them that the Sabbath was created for humanity by God . . . that it was God’s determination as to what Sabbath would be, not humanity’s . . . and, that as the Son of God, he was Lord of the Sabbath . . . and that he alone would decide the true meaning of Sabbath. 

Which brings us to his second statement to the Pharisees in this reading.  Jesus asks them: “Which is lawful on the sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”  It does not take an advanced degree in theology to know the answer to that question . . . to do good and to save life.  Yet, no one in the crowd--especially the Pharisees, would answer the question.  We are told: “But they remained silent.”

It was their silence that convicted them.

Behind their silence they knew the answers to the questions . . . they knew the Shema and its meaning to love God and follow God’s desires . . . of which, as Jesus reiterated, were to love God completely and wholly, and to love others as you would love yourself.  So, yes, the Pharisees knew the answer to Jesus’ question . . . their answer screamed out in their silence.  Instead of doing the right thing . . . the godly thing . . . they choose to go their way as opposed to God’s way.  They would allow the dogma, the laws, and their own desire for power and control to keep their mouths shut instead of following God’s desires.

The writer tells us: “He (Jesus) looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’  He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”

Jesus draws the line in the sand . . . God’s way or humanity’s way?  Who is in control?

I think that this is the whole foundation of the argument when it comes down to the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees . . . who is in control?  In Jesus’ heart it all comes down to God . . . in the minds of the Pharisees it comes down to the following of the dogma, rules, and laws.  In Jesus’ heart it comes down to the relationship between each individual and God . . . in the minds of the Pharisees it comes down to keeping the dogma, rules, and laws--not relationships.  In Jesus’ heart it comes down to the relationship people have between each other . . . and, in the minds of the Pharisees--well, you know--dogma, rules, and law.

What is being worshipped?  For Jesus it was God demonstrated by the relationship of people with God and one another.  For the Pharisees it was the structure of that dogma, those rules and laws.  In the minds of the Pharisees, if people followed the rules they would be saved whether or not they actually had a intimate relationship with God or not.

When confronted with the truth, the Pharisees were not going to jump the ship and join Jesus to do the right thing.  No, they weren’t going to give up their control and power.  Their only recourse was to stand there in silence . . . and, the silence convicted them.

As I look back on the weekend with the granddaughters, and I think about the little confrontation I had with the oldest one over her behavior towards her younger sister, I am reminded that silence is a pretty loud answer in our lives.  All of us have been in situations which called for us to respond in some way, and we have stood there in silence instead of responding with words or action.  And, we know that our silence convicted us of our inaction.

We know what the conviction of silence feels like.

The reality is that it is not our silence that convicts us and makes us feel a certain way . . . it is the Spirit of God . . . the Holy Spirit that holds us accountable for our silence and inaction when we have been called upon to do the “right” thing.  It is the Spirit that is reminding us of that call to intimacy in our relationship with God and others . . . that is reminding us to love . . . to love God and each other.  The silence just seems to trigger the Holy Spirit’s prodding of our hearts.

In those moments where our silence convicts us, let us not run out as the Pharisees did to avoid doing God’s will.  Instead let us open our hearts to respond in such a way that God’s will is revealed, embraced, and lived . . . to do good . . . to save lives . . . to love as we have been loved.  If we can do this, imagine what a world this would be.  Amen.