Sunday, August 20, 2017

“Sometimes We Just Need to be Reminded” (Matthew 15:10-28)

Sometimes we just need to be reminded . . .

. . . even Jesus.

It has been said that God uses many things and people to get a point across to the faithful . . . to teach a lesson.  All of us can probably vouch for that statement.  So then . . . why wouldn’t God do the same for Jesus?

In this church we believe and embrace Jesus’ call to be welcoming to all . . . to be inclusive.  We believe that Jesus came to save the whole world . . . to re-establish God’s Kingdom for all of God’s children.  Thus it is that each week we issue the invitation to all to come and take their rightful place at the table . . . not at our beck and call, but at Jesus’.  All are welcome.

If that is true, then what do we do with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman?  Canaanites are not one of Jesus’ people; no, they are an enemy.  She is not considered “clean”.  Yet, she has the gumption to approach Jesus and demand that he “have mercy on” her as her “daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

Jesus’ first response is to ignore the woman.  But she is persistent . . . persistent to the point that his disciples implore him to send her away.  Having his chain jerked from both directions he finally responds . . . responds in words that might have hinted at some frustration on the part of Jesus.  He tells the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  

I imagine that every person who heard those words, including the Canaanite woman, understood their implication.  In that brief outburst Jesus let it be known that this woman was not welcomed to the table . . . she was not wanted . . . she was not a part of the “in” crowd.

But, the woman is persistent.  She challenges Jesus . . . “Lord, help me!”  To which Jesus tells her that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  Again, a reference to the “us” and “them” argument.  The woman is argumentative and throws a trump card on Jesus’ response . . . “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Unfortunately the writer of Matthew’s gospel does not go into much detail about how those gathered reacted to the woman’s challenge of Jesus.  No, we are not given any clues at all.  We are not told if Jesus was taken aback . . . we are not told if the room fell into silence . . . if there was hesitation and tension.  We are told nothing more than Jesus telling the woman, “Woman, you have great faith!  Your request is granted.”  And, we are told that within the hour the woman’s daughter was healed.

Sometimes we need to be reminded.

In this story, Jesus is reminded.

What happens in this story takes place in the shadow of the story that preceded it in this reading.  In that story Jesus is explaining that it is not what goes in the mouth that makes one unclean, but what comes out.  Jesus explains that it is what is in the heart that really matters, and when one speaks it reveals what is in the person’s heart.  It has often been said that words reveal intentions.  In the shadow of this knowledge Jesus is confronted with what is in his heart and what his words are portraying . . . there is an incongruence here.

Which brings us back to that original question I posed earlier:  what do we do with this passage in light of what we believe as the followers of Jesus . . . that all are welcome?  

Well, I guess we can rejoice in the fact that Jesus saw the light and responded by granting the woman her request . . . he healed his daughter.  He healed the daughter of his people’s enemy . . . the daughter of an “unclean” person.  In this way, Jesus welcomed all.  We could do this and let it be, or we could look at the bigger issue . . . that Jesus needed to be reminded.  Jesus needed to be reminded of his call to bring “all” the children of God back home . . . reminded that he was to restore God’s creation . . . to re-establish the Kingdom of God.  That kingdom included all of God’s creation . . . all of humanity . . . after all, everyone is created in the image of God as God’s children.

So it is that we see Jesus is reminded in this encounter with the Canaanite woman.  We see him reminded in her challenge as the words of his previous conversation of clean/unclean echoed in his ears.  What was coming out of his mouth . . . his actions . . . we not consistent with his message and intentions as given to him by God.  In this terse conversation we see the shift in Jesus . . . we witness the cleansing of his words . . . we see him move from the exclusive to the inclusive.  

Yes, Jesus gets reminded.
The truth of the matter is that we all need to be reminded from time to time.  We all need to be reminded of the words that we speak at the Lord’s table . . . that all are welcome.  Reminded that our actions often speak louder than our words . . . and, that sometimes our actions and words are not congruent.  Yeah, sometimes we need to be reminded of who we represent and follow.

Our actions and words reveal our hearts . . . Jesus said so.

Right now, in the world in which we exist, those actions and words that we are witnessing should be scaring us to death.  In the words and actions being witnessed in our nation and in the world, we are not seeing much that correlates to what one might consider to be a “clean” heart.  No, what we are witnessing is great hatred, violence, civil unrest, protesting, separation, and ugliness.  What we are witnessing is far from the peaceful kingdom portrayed in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the messiah’s vision for God’ creation.

These are scary times that we are witnessing and living in . . . a lot of brokenness and division.  In the presence of this brokenness and division, how are we to respond as the followers of Jesus who believe that all are welcome?  How are we going to deal with the uncomfortableness of this moment of brokenness and division?  This is our moment of confrontation with our Canaanite woman . . . our moment of pondering whether the words of our mouths are “clean” or “unclean” . . . our moment of stepping up and living that which we proclaim.  What are we going to do?

It is a scary proposition.

I don’t know what happened in Jesus between the moment where he was denying the woman and that moment he changed his mind to heal the woman’s daughter.  All I know is that something happened that suddenly made Jesus congruent once again . . . that made his actions fit the words he truly believed in his heart.  In his willingness to heal the woman’s daughter . . . this outsider’s child . . . Jesus revealed a willingness to not only heal, but to also walk with those who have been healed and need to be healed.  From a closed table to an open table . . . Jesus welcomed.  Jesus welcomed even though it went against his religion, the mores of his culture, and the opinions of those who were closest to him.  In the end, Jesus did what God had sent him to do.

Because of that, we are in a scary time considering a scary proposition.  How are we to live our faith in the light of what we are witnessing in the world in which we live.  How are we to respond to the division and brokenness of our world as those who proclaim to be the followers of Jesus.

In this time we are being reminded.

We are being reminded that we are a broken and divided people.  We are reminded that God desires a close intimate relationship with all of God’s children . . . a restoration of the kingdom.  We are being reminded that we are to follow in the footsteps and witness of Jesus’ words, but more importantly his actions.  And, we are being reminded that this uncomfortableness is a push for us to examine our faith . . . to examine our words and our actions, whether or not they are congruent.  We are being reminded to examine our hearts . . . we are being reminded to love.

Sometimes love takes the harder, more difficult way.  But it is that effort that makes one stronger.  Sometimes love has to go through a lot of dirt to become what it is meant to be.  As the followers of Jesus we are called upon to do the “right thing” . . . and, sometimes we need to be reminded as to what the “right thing” is.  If we are going to be a people who believe and proclaim that all are welcome . . . then we need to pay attention to this reminder we face today.

May the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands be acceptable in the eyes and heart of God.  Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“Dreamcatcher” (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)

Based on Earl Hammer, Jr.’s book, Spencer’s Mountain, it was the story about a family in the mountains of rural Virginia between the years of 1933 to 1946.  From 1972 through 1981 we witness this family’s life as it unfolded before our eyes.  The Waltons graced our lives and entertained us on a weekly basis for nine years.  There was John and Olivia Walton, the patriarch and matriarch of the family; Grandpa and Grandma Walton; there was John-Boy, the eldest son and narrator, and his six siblings . . . all living on Walton Mountain.  On a weekly basis we gathered around the television and looked in on the lives and adventures of the Walton family.  

I loved the show!  I couldn’t wait to see what was going in the lives of the Walton family each week.  I loved the stories . . . the lessons taught . . . and, being fourteen, I loved the character of John-Boy’s oldest sister, Mary Ellen.  Yet, at the same time, it really wasn’t the sort of show a young teenage male of the mid-1970s was supposed to be watching . . . it just wasn’t macho enough . . . not tough enough.  It was something my sister was supposed to like, not her older brother.  It was a show that made an impression upon me . . . made me long to be a writer.  And, it gave me a nickname that I did not get rid of until I was out of college . . . John-Boy.  I heard that nickname forever!

Imagine living in a house with your parents, your grandparents, and six other siblings.  It would be pretty crowded and tough to be an individual.  In one of the episodes, Erin--the fourth of the Walton children, and the second of the daughters, pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the family--is moping around acting all sort of depressed.  Makes it pretty difficult to stand out in a family eleven.  When she is confronted by her grandmother about what is eating at her, Erin replies, “It’s hard to dream in a crowd.”  Especially when you are a middle child trying to compete against your older siblings who seem to have it all together, and your younger siblings who are cute and can do no wrong.  

Erin wants to stand out . . . she wants to be an individual . . . she wants to be somebody.  She dreams of being somebody.  And, don’t we all?

I imagine that Erin is not the only person to have ever felt that way . . . that she is not the only person who dreamed.  I think that Joseph, the central character in our scripture reading this morning, could tell Erin a thing or two about dreams.  Joseph is the youngest of Jacob twelve sons.  Jacob, who last week was renamed Israel after wrestling with God, loved all of his sons, but he especially loved Joseph . . . loved him “more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age.”  He loved Joseph so much that he gifted him with a richly ornamented robe . . . what we like to call his coat of many colors.  This did not make Joseph real popular with his brothers . . . nope, they hated him and treated him poorly.

Add into that mix the fact that Joseph was a dreamer.  He had vivid dreams . . . and, he was not afraid to share them with his father and brothers.  In particular he has two dreams in which the symbolism of the dreams has his father and brothers bowing down to him.  Again, probably not something a person wants to share with a group that already hates him; but, he does.  The dreams only make matters worse between Joseph and his eleven brothers.

While his brothers are out with the flocks, Joseph is sent by his father to check on his brothers and to bring them back home.  So off Joseph went.  Upon seeing their brother approach, the brothers plot to kill him . . . but, they couldn’t do it.  Instead they sell him off to a band of Ishmaelites.  Upon returning home they tell their father that Joseph has been attacked by ferocious animals . . . torn to shreds . . . and all that is left is the blood-stained coat of many colors.

Sometimes your dreams will get you killed . . . especially if they are dreams that no one else cares for.

One of the main themes of the Book of Genesis is this promise of God to create a great nation . . . from Abram to Isaac to Jacob this narrative runs through their lives.  As the Jacob saga of the story is ending, and the Joseph saga is beginning . . . there is still no great nation.  No, there is only Jacob, whose name has been changed by God to Israel, and his twelve sons.  Now, stop and think about this . . . Jacob, now Israel, has twelve sons . . . each of the sons becomes one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  That is the dream.  And, thanks to Joseph and his ability to dream, the story ebbs ever closer to the reality of the dream.

It turns out, years later, that the dreams that he shared with his father and brothers do come true.  The Ishmaelites end up selling Joseph to the Egyptians as a slave.  Joseph works his way up from being a slave to being Number Two, just below the Pharaoh himself in power.  All because he dreams and he can interpret dreams.  Through his dreams he creates an intricate storage system to prepare for Egypt’s survival if there should ever come a drought . . . and, there does come a drought.  A drought that touches the lives of many in Egypt and beyond . . . including Jacob and his remaining sons.

Seeking any aid possible to survive, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to ask for help.  Unknown to them the person they must speak to is none other than Joseph.  In the end they fulfill the dreams that Joseph had told them long ago . . . they bow down to him.  Of course, brothers will be brothers, and Joseph has his fun with them . . . makes them quite nervous for awhile before he invited them to bring the whole family up to live in Egypt.  This gets Israel and the twelve brothers . . . or tribes . . . into Egypt.  From there you know the rest of the story . . . population explosion among the Israelites, slavery, Moses, plagues, the Red Sea, wandering around the wilderness . . . until they eventually do become a great nation among the nations.

Joseph follows his dreams . . . and, God’s story moves further down the line towards reality.  And, Joseph would probably tell folks that it was not easy to hang on to those dreams . . . especially when those dreams did not make everyone happy.  But, he held on . . . he held on because he was a dreamcatcher.  

To me Joseph is what I call a “dreamcatcher”.  Now I know that when many of us hear that term . . . “dreamcatcher” . . . that we think of those hoops on which an intricate net or web is woven, and there are feathers and beads that adorn it.  The purpose of these is a sacred one.  They are placed over the bed as a sort of protection . . . in particular for children.  This is a part of some Native American cultures--especially the Ojibwe and Lakota tribes.  The idea is that dreams and thoughts pass through the hoop and its web . . . the bad dreams and thoughts get hung up in the web, the good dreams and thoughts pass through.  And, the “dreamcatcher” is also seen as a symbol for unity among the greater Native American culture.

Through Joseph . . . as with his father . . . as with Isaac . . . as with Abraham . . . the dream continues on to the children of God.  And, there would be others who would catch and carry that dream . . . there would be Moses . . . David . . . Samson . . . the prophets.  These were the “dreamcatchers” . . . these were the one striving to bring into being God’s desire.  And, that dream passes on up to and through Jesus . . . the apostles . . . Peter and Paul.

The dream is simple.  God desires an intimate and personal relationship with all of God’s creation . . . God desires the kingdom restored.  The dreamcatchers all strived to fulfill God’s dream . . . to re-establish that relationship between God and humanity.  And, ultimately we are shown the way to realizing that dream through the life, words, and actions of Jesus himself.  That is the dream of everyone who is a follower of Jesus.  His dream should be our dream as his followers.  

That is our goal as the followers of Jesus . . . we are to catch his dream and make it our own.  We are to be about kingdom building.  But, remember what Erin Walton said when it came to dreaming . . . it is hard to do in a crowd.  Also, remember Joseph when he tried to share his dreams.  Remember Jesus who expressed and lived his desire to fulfill that dream.
None of them had an easy time.  Yet, the dream lived on and lives on in those who hear and embrace it.

To be a dreamer can be dangerous business.

God’s dream . . . all the great saints before us caught it, attempted to live it . . . because they believed in it.  Jesus caught the dream . . . shared the dream . . . lived the dream.  We have heard his words about the dream.  We have heard the words of the great saints concerning the dream.  And, now it is our turn to catch the dream . . . our turn to live and share it.  We are to become the “dreamcatchers”.

The rest of the world might not understand it . . . but, that is okay, because we do and God does.  When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming from afar, they mockingly said, “Here comes the dreamer!”  We, too, might hear those words as we dream God’s dream of the unity . . . or the kingdom.  But it will never happen if we don’t allow ourselves to dream.  

John Lennon sang in his song Imagine: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us.  And the world will live as one.”

We are not the first to dream, nor will be the last . . . but, Jesus has called upon us as his followers to share the dream . . . to go forth and share the “good news”.  May we all realize our potential to be the catchers of dreams . . . dreamcatchers.  We are not alone for it is God’s dream that we catch.  Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Limping” (Genesis 32:22-31)

Talk about your sibling rivalries . . . there was no love lost between Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  These two were fighting even before they were born.  Rebekah, their mother, inquired of God why her pregnancy was so uncomfortable.  She received the prophecy that twins were fighting in her womb and would continue to fight all their lives.  At their birth the brothers came out fighting . . . Esau came out first with Jacob clinging to his heel.  Needless to say the two boys fulfilled the prophecy.  There was no love between them.

Of course we know that Jacob did little to help the situation.  We know that he tricked his brother out of his birthright offering Esau a bowl of stew when he thought he was going to die of hunger.  And, we know how--with his mother’s conniving and help--Jacob tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the family blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau.  Who could blame Esau for being angry with his brother . . . angry enough to threaten to kill him.

Thus it is that we find Jacob on the run.  He is running for his life.  Again, with his mother’s help, he runs off to his uncle’s place.  There he ends up marrying Leah and Rachel . . . starts a family . . . and, eventually flies the coop once again.  Only this time, he heeds the directions of the God who tells him to return to his homeland.  Jacob was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  With his father-in-law and brothers-in-law not really happy with him where he was, and with his brother still fuming--despite years and years since the whole blessing episode . . . Jacob takes off once again.  He is returning home.

Esau gets wind of Jacob returning home and gathers an army of 400 strong to go and greet his brother.  Jacob knows his brother is coming . . . he knows his brother is still angry . . . knows that he wants revenge.  Thus it is that he attempts to head Esau off at the pass by sending messengers and gifts to appease his angry brother.  Which brings us to where we are this morning in our scripture reading.

Jacob does not trust his brother.  In order to protect his wives and children, he sends them to the other side of the river . . . away from him.  And, then he waits . . . alone . . . until he encounters a man who begins to wrestle with him.  The two of them wrestle through the night until daybreak.  Eventually the man senses that he cannot overpower Jacob, touches his hip wrenching it.  The man demands Jacob to let go, but he will not let go unless he receives a blessing.  After asking Jacob his name, the man complies: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”    

Thus blessing and covenant are bestowed upon Jacob.  Jacob recognized from whom the blessing and covenant came . . . none other than God.  And, as he had done earlier at Bethel, he marks and names the place . . . he called the place “Peniel”--which means “face of God”--proclaiming his reasoning: “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  But the blessing did not come without consequences . . . Jacob received a limp.  “The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his limp.”

I would venture to safely say that Jacob’s life was quite an adventure with quite a bit of drama.  In my estimation, he bounced around trying to please everyone, keep his life, and never really knowing where he was supposed to be.  It was a life filled with struggles and constant changes.  A life that seems, at least to me, to be one with lots of changes . . . from one thing to another in his life.  It seems to me that Jacob had been wrestling his whole life, and that this episode of wrestling with God is symbolic of it all . . . though I would say that wrestling with God was the toughest of the struggles in his life.

It is Jacob’s limp that catches my attention.  It is a sure and certain mark and reminder of his struggle with God.  One that will always be with him, letting him know that he “. . . saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  I imagine that for Jacob his limp became a sign of his faith.  And, in what appears to be a weakness was actually a strength.

I think that too often we do not give ourselves enough credit for having survived the struggles that we have endured in our lives no matter what those struggles may have been.  We’ve all had them . . . struggles with individuals, struggles with our health, struggles with our finances, struggles with moves we had to make, decisions we had to make . . . struggles with God and our faith.  We have all had struggles and endured the wrestling matches that they have been . . . and, we have earned our marks . . . earned our limp.  Though others may view our limp as a sign of weakness, we know that it is not.

Struggles deal with change . . . change of all sorts.  It is moving from one place in our lives and in ourselves to another . . . sometimes kicking and shouting the whole way, sometimes sliding in gracefully.  Yet, no matter what, we know that our struggles are epic wrestling matches.  We’ve got the limp to prove it.

Since we are among fellow sojourners . . . and, because we want to be honest . . . I think that we can all admit we have had struggles with lots of things in our lives.  And, I also think that we can admit that we have had struggles with God and our faith.  Struggling is not something bad.  It is a process . . . a process of change, growth, understanding . . . a process of switching directions . . . that is not easy.  If it were easy it would not be a struggle.

Think about Jacob and his struggles.  He had his struggles . . . a bad relationship with his brother . . . a deceitful one with his father . . . two marriages in order to get the woman he truly loved . . . a father-in-law who wasn’t always up and up in his relationship with Jacob . . . a God who kept pushing him to step into his destiny.  Jacob had his struggles.  He wrestled through them . . . and, he survived.

He survived.

As we are in this sanctuary this morning, we are living proof that we, too, have survived our struggles . . . even with God.  

There is nothing wrong in admitting that there are times in our lives when we struggle with God and our faith.  I know for certain that we all have if we are even trying to live up to the simplest of Jesus’ teachings and examples through his life.  I know that we have wrestled with God through the darkness of the night . . . through brightness of the day.  That is how we grow stronger.  And, guess what!  Just as Jacob discovered through his epic wrestling match with God . . . God was still with him.

God was still with him.

And, Jacob was still with God . . . but, with a limp.

Life is a journey . . . and, a life of faith is a journey.  

One of the things I enjoy about the area we live in is the opportunity to go hiking in the mountains.  Over the years I have taken a lot of hikes . . . some of them have been fairly easy, some not so easy.  And, yet, after each of those hikes that I have taken, I have to admit that I have always had a limp.  My knees hurt . . . my ankles hurt . . . my legs ache.  Now, it might be because I am out of shape . . . it might be because I am getting older . . . but, whatever the reason, I have never finished a hike where I wasn’t limping.

At the same time, there has never been a hike that I took that did not leave me with a sense of accomplishment . . . a sense of awe.  And, for several days after any hike, my limp reminds me of that accomplishment.  I survived.  I survived to hike another day.

So it is with our journey of faith.  We encounter those struggles which leave us sore and limping.  Yet, at the same time, we are still moving . . . we are still going forward.  And, we are not alone . . . God is with us.  That is what we are called to do . . . we are called to walk with God, even if we have to limp.  That is faith.  Amen.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

“The Parables of Potential” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

It seems this morning that Jesus in a parable telling mood, as we have heard five to six parables: the mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, fine pearls, the net, and the storehouse.  Each parable is a “kingdom of heaven” lesson for the listener to consider.  As Jesus prefaces each parable with the phrase, “. . . the kingdom of heaven is like . . .”, it is easy to slip into the idea that he is referring to that cosmic, other-worldly place way up in the sky beyond the clouds--you know, heaven.  After all, he says “kingdom of heaven”, and most people believe in a heaven that is out of this world.

And, maybe that is what he is talking about in these parables . . . but, I’m not so sure.  Instead I find myself thinking along the lines of John A. Sanford.  John A. Sanford was a psychotherapist, Episcopalian priest, and author.  Two of his books had a major influence on my understanding of God, Jesus, and how all of us relate to God and one another.  The first was Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language; the second, The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meanings of Jesus’ Sayings.  It was this second book that made me look at the teachings and words of Jesus differently.

Sanford’s premise was simple . . . and, quite in line with Jesus’ teachings.  It begins with the individual.  The individual must discover who he or she is as created by God.  Remember that we are told that we have been created in the image of God; thus, in discovering ourselves we discover God in who God created us to be.  In that discovery we are called upon to love ourselves as God created us.  In loving ourselves we in turn love God . . . we, in turn, can love others.

With this idea Sanford believes that Jesus is not talking about some cosmic and other-worldly dimension out there when he is talking about heaven.  No, Sanford believes that Jesus is talking about something more real and immediate--something not seen as a reward or prize for making it through life.  The “kingdom of heaven” is something tangible . . . something real . . . something that is now in the present.  The trailhead for the “kingdom of heaven” is within each and every one of us.  The “kingdom of heaven” begins with us as individuals.

When Jesus addresses these parables to his listeners, he is telling them about that potential within them . . . potential that is there from the time that they were created by God . . . that spark of God created in their image just waiting to be fanned into a roaring fire.  Potential to be realized and lived.

Another writer that I admire, Joseph Campbell, has also helped me understand this better.  Campbell was a professor of mythology, a writer, and a popular lecturer best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion.  The PBS documentary, “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” by Bill Moyers, threw Campbell into the spotlight sharing his thoughts for everyone in the world to consider.  If you have a chance to see the documentary or read the book, please do.

Campbell said, “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.”  And, he also said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”  Here I believe he is affirming that it all begins within the individual--that the individual must discover who he or she is as created by God.  That self lies within the person.  It is a great and wonderful gift waiting to be discovered . . . a gift of infinite potential.  To find it and live it is the best thing in the world.

Jesus refers to this potential in the first two parables we heard this morning.  The mustard seed--the smallest of all seeds that becomes the largest plant in the garden “. . . so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”  Or it is like yeast . . . yeast that makes the flour into dough that explodes in size.

The “kingdom of heaven”--to paraphrase Jesus--is like this untapped potential that is within us . . . waiting to be discovered . . . waiting to be nurtured, cared for, and allowed to grow . . . to grow into this wonderful and limitless creation by God.  To find this gift is to realize one’s potential through God.

Which brings us to the next two parables Jesus told in this series . . . the hidden treasure and the fine pearl.  Who doesn’t want to get rich?  The “kingdom of heaven” is the jackpot at the end of the rainbow . . . hitting the lottery . . . finding the prize at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks.  So valuable and exquisite is the “kingdom of heaven” that one should be willing to exhaust all his or her resources to find it . . . to discover it . . . to own it.  So potent is this potential that we sell everything to have ti.

In the first four parables Jesus is telling the listener that the “kingdom of heaven” is this priceless treasure . . . this invaluable gift . . . that is filled with unlimited potential as it is who God created the listener to be.  It is the gift of God.  It is what brings the individual into relationship with God as he or she has been created in God’s image.  So valuable and desirable is this treasure that the urge becomes so powerful that the listener is willing to do anything . . . to give up everything . . . to have it.  But it doesn’t stop there.

Jesus concludes his parable teaching with a final parable and explanation that challenges the listener to become what I would call a “kingdom builder”.  The final parable is about the net.  The net is filled, and once back on the shore the work begins . . . the work of separating the good and useful from the bad and useless.  The good stays, the bad gets thrown away.  This is practical advice that Jesus is offering.  We are to keep that which is useful and helpful in realizing our potential as a creation of God.  We are to keep that which builds up, and we are to get rid of that which poisons, tears down, and destroys growth.  This is a lifelong process that reminds us that not everything that is shiny is gold.

Joseph Campbell writes: “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universal, to match your nature with Nature.”  It is to get in step with God’s plan for us . . . to walk in the footsteps of Christ.  In order to do that, the nets must be cleaned.

In the end, Jesus asks: “Have you understood all these things?”

That is the challenge.

It begins within each and every one of us as we discover that spark of God--that potential of who God created us to be.  It begins with us as we embrace and capture that potential with the desire to allow it to grow and bring us closer to God.  It begins with us as it overwhelms us with a desire so strong that we want--no, need to share it beyond ourselves with others so that they too can discover the holy within them.  In this way we discover the “kingdom of heaven” . . . in this way we become “kingdom builders” as called by Christ.

Joseph Campbell put it this way: “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.  But in doing that you save the world.”

Such is the “kingdom of heaven”--the place of God.  To this potential Jesus directed his parables.  To this Jesus challenged his listeners.  He call for them to be as he spoke in his concluding parable that those who have “. . . become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out his storerooms new treasures as well as the old.”

The “kingdom of heaven” is within us all.  We are all the creations of God--in God’s own image--waiting to be discovered . . . waiting to release the potential . . . to fulfil God’s call through Jesus’ example.  Campbell states: “I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I have never met an ordinary man, woman, or child.”  Wouldn’t you agree . . . God makes no junk.

In these parables of potential Jesus invites . . . no, challenges us to discover God’s kingdom--the place of God.  As always we know the journey won’t be easy.  Jesus never said it would be.  The most difficult step is the first step.  Joseph Campbell knows this as he says: “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”  Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

“Marking the Sacred” (Genesis 28:10-19a)

If you take the time, you’ll see them.  A person cannot drive through Montana without seeing them.  They are everywhere.  What are they?  Well, they are “markers” . . . markers that signify and “mark” that something important or significant or historical has taken place.

Driving Interstate 90 we see them everywhere . . . Lewis and Clark Trail markers . . . Yellowstone National Park markers . . . Little Big Horn Battlefield markers . . . they are everywhere.  They are everywhere pointing out to us the historical importance and significance of a place.

Throughout Montana there are little white crosses that dot our highways.  Crosses that mark the places where car accidents have taken the lives of people.  These white crosses are placed at the scenes of car accidents where lives have been lost by the American Legion of Montana . . . there are approximately 2000 in place across Montana.

We see markers even when we stroll through our community . . . markers placed on or beside buildings and structures.  Even our church, Joliet Christian Church, has one of these markers . . . a National Historic Site marker that signifies the historical significance of our church in this community.

And, I imagine, that even in our own yards we have markers that “mark” some significant and important part of our lives.  I know that I do.  In my front yard there is a rock that sits under our aspen tree that proclaims that that piece of land has been claimed for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.  In the backyard there is a wind main with a great big “N” that claims that part of our property to be a part of Husker Nation.

Marking important, significant, and important places has been happening for forever.  It is nothing new.

Our scripture reading this morning points to this fact.  We have the story of Jacob, who is on the run from his brother Esau--from whom he has stolen his father’s blessing, and a moment in his life in which he paused to “mark” an important and significant event in his life.  Stopping from his running he places a rock beneath his head as he falls asleep.  As he is sleeping he has a dream.  In the dream angels are ascending and descending from heaven . . . above them stood the Lord.  The Lord speaks to Jacob telling him that he will be blessed . . . a great nation will come from him . . . and, that God will watch over him and protect him.

It is quite a dream!

Awakening from the dream, Jacob realizes that he is in a special place . . . a holy place.  He proclaims: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  So moved is Jacob by this dream and encounter with God that he decides that he cannot just leave without “marking” its significance and importance . . . after all, it is a holy place.  Thus it is that he takes the rock upon which he was sleeping, raised it up as a pillar, and poured oil over it to consecrate it as holy and important.  He called the place, Bethel . . . meaning the “House of God”.

It is here that Jacob creates the standard . . . that he begins the practice of “marking the sacred”.  Whether it was for his own personal remembrance or to point it out to those who came along later, the point is that Jacob took the time to “mark” that space as something important . . .something worth remembering . . . something sacred.  Each and every time that this pillar . . . this “mark” . . . is encountered it stands as a testament of something important . . . something worth remembering . . . something held sacred in a person’s or a people’s life.

I have said many times in my life and ministry that I believe that it is important to “mark” those moments in our lives . . . to mark those places in our lives . . . in which we have encountered the holy.  I have talked about the practice of sacred cairns in our life journeys in which we have marked those moments and encounters in which the presence of God was strong and noteworthy . . . those times in which we had an epiphany . . . those places where we have seen miracles . . . and, those encounters of the holy.  I truly believe we need to “mark the sacred” in our lives.

We need to mark these in order to remember and remind ourselves of the holy that surrounds us like the air that we breathe.  We need to do this because we are a forgetful people who are so busy with the world around us that we sometimes forget to pause . . . take a deep breath . . . and, remember.  God is with us.  Remember what God said to Jacob in his dream?

God said, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

We are not alone . . . God is with us.  That is the promise of God.  But sometimes we need to remind ourselves.  How we remind ourselves . . . besides showing up here every Sunday . . . is to “mark” those sacred moments in our lives so that we can be reminded from Sunday afternoon to the following Sunday morning.  Reminded that we are not alone.

So . . . how do you “mark the sacred” in your life?

My daughter, Candace, has a sacred place in her life.  It is one that is familiar to most of us here in this sanctuary . . . Pilot Peak.  Most people think of it as the “beartooth” as they drive along Beartooth Highway.  For Candace, this is a special place, and to “mark” it--much to the chagrin of her mom and dad, she got a tattoo on the back of her neck.  

One of our neighbors have several markers in their yard.  One is a young tree that they have planted for their beloved dog that passed away.  Another is a sort of sculpture and wind main of a witch . . . a witch to remind them of a relative.  No, not because the relative was a witch, but because she had a witch outside in her yard.  Whenever they see the tree they are reminded of their beloved dog . . . when they see the witch they remember their loved one.

Since Dana, my wife, won’t let me place stone pillars wherever I have encountered the holy in my life, I take pictures.  Lots of pictures because I encounter the holy and significant all around me.  With each picture I am reminded of the presence of the holy in my life and in my life journey.  Each picture prompts a memory and a story that goes with it.  As I remember and recall the story, I place myself back in the presence of the holy.  I am reminded that God is with me . . . that God does not abandon me . . . until I have accomplished with God what I have been called to do.

I imagine that there are as many ways to “mark” the sacred as there are people. Each and everyone of us has our own way of marking the sacred in our lives . . . and, that is good that we are doing this.  Good because we need those reminders.  At least I hope that is what each of you are doing . . . “marking the sacred”.

I would encourage you to pause from time to time . . . to look back on your life and your life’s journey.  As you look back, look for those “marks” of the sacred in your life . . . those moments when you were in the presence of the holy . . . when you were overwhelmed by that presence.  Pause, remember, and tell the story even if it is only for your own ears.  In doing this, I assure you, you will know and understand that you are not alone.  God is with us . . . always with us.  It doesn’t hurt to be reminded.  Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

“A Parable of a Third” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

I think that anyone who has had any experience in the agricultural field would agree with Jesus’ logic in the parable about the sower.  You have to know your soil when it comes to planting!  Obviously some of the sower’s choices were not of the quality that would bring about a bountiful crop.  Only in the last place where the seed was sown was there a successful crop.  Though Jesus is talking agriculture here, we all know that his meaning really has nothing to do with crops at all.  No, what Jesus is talking about is how faith is embodied in order to grow and prosper within individuals . . . and, though it is not alluded to, also how it is embodied within the body of Christ--the church--in order to grow and prosper.

In our scripture reading this morning, you might think that he is telling a parable about a sower; but, the reality is that he is telling a parable about thirds.  Let me explain.

Years ago I volunteered to be a part of a non-profit organization to do some civic-minded things around the community I was living in.  It boasted a huge volunteer membership . . . and, sure enough, on its membership rolls it had lots of names of people who belonged to the organization.  At least that was what was on paper . . . the reality was far from that.  The reality was that very few of those people actually ever showed up to support and do the work of the organization . . . in fact, it turned out to be only about a third of the people who did all the work and supported the organization financially.  

This confused me.  The executive director of the organization explained that it was that way with most non-profit groups and other organizations that rely upon voluntary participation.  She explained that typically one-third of the group carries approximately 90 percent of the work and financial load; one-third participates whenever it feels like it . . . maybe once or twice a year; and, one-third never participates at all, but consider themselves to be members nonetheless.  Because of that, she said, you are never going to see a huge group coming out to do the work.

Though Jesus uses different examples in his parable, I think he was talking about this one-third theory.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking . . . Jesus mentioned four areas that the sower sowed seed.  But, remember, the first seed never took to the ground as birds came by and ate it.  In the other three examples, the seed takes root, grows, and either meets its demise or flourishes.  In those three soil examples, I think Jesus does a good job of explaining the one-third theory.  Wouldn’t you agree that Jesus’ example demonstrates the theory?

One-third does nothing . . . one-third puts out a puny effort . . . and, one-third does the yeoman's share.

The underlying and unspoken question of the parable is this: Which soil are we growing our faith?  Or, even better, which third are we in?

As I said earlier, Jesus’ original intention was to address this parable to the individual listener.  Now that the body of believers . . . the church . . . has been in existence for a couple of thousand years . . . I think that the unintended intention is to address this parable to that group . . . to the church.

On the individual level we have all seen this parable in action.  We have seen people come into the church . . . some have stayed and participated in everything . . . some come every so often, usually Christmas and Easter . . . and, others we never see again.  Those individuals in the less participatory two-thirds are probably in those first two soils that Jesus talked about.  They are not very active, nor are they very reliable when it comes to their faith or the work of the church.  They probably have their reasons, and those reasons are probably legitimate and real; but, the bottom line is that they are not carrying their weight.

Now you are probably sitting there, thinking to yourself, that the pastor is full of mullarky . . . that this is not for real.  But, I assure you . . . it is for real.  I know from experience.

One of my jobs at the university is to provide professional development workshops for teachers.  We offer these workshops for free.  Because teachers need professional development to keep their licences and to move up the pay scale these workshops are necessary . . . because they are free, they are popular.  Rarely do we have a workshop that does not fill up and have a waiting list.  Before any workshop takes place it gets filled to capacity.

That is before the workshop takes place.  What happens is that when the workshop actually does take place only a number of teachers between one-third and two-third will show up.  If the workshop is for 30 people, we will have between 10 and 15 people show up.  Out of the 30 we have come to understand that 10 will be there because they want to be there; another possible five will show up because they had nothing better to do; and, the rest will not show up or even let us know that they are not showing up.  It pretty well equates to one-third, one-third, one-third.  And, we have been keeping up with this statistic for almost five years now and the results rarely change.

Now, that is my secular experience.  Let me share with you my church experience with this one-third theory.  This is a theory I have been keeping track of as a pastor for over twenty years now.

Everyone knows how much fun a scheduled mid-week meeting is in the church.  They are about as popular as getting a root canal; but, they are necessary part of the work of the church.  Now if there are a hundred people at worship on Sunday morning when one of these meetings is announced, I can predict fairly accurately how many people will attend that meeting.  There will be 30 people, give or take one or two.  In over twenty years, I have rarely been wrong.

Sure, there are exceptions.  Most of the time, within our congregation, we skew this theory’s premise and actually have more participate than should.  At the same time, there are times when we live up to the theory.  

Now, if you still don’t believe me, try it.  Do your own homework.  Think of a group or organization you belong to and keep track of the participation.  Then let me know if this idea of one-third isn’t true.  I think Jesus was onto something.

Which brings us to the dilemma of the whole parable . . . how does the one-third get the other two-thirds more involved?  To that I have no answers.  Nor does Jesus give us any answers.  Yet, at the same time, we do have some clues.  Jesus tells us that the seed that flourishes does so because it embraces and understands . . . it believes in the message, believes in the messenger . . . and, because it believes and understands it embraces its purpose.  Embracing its purpose it goes about the business of living and doing it.

The question is how do the one-third instill that into the other two-thirds?

Well, it cannot be done by haranguing on them.  No, that will just make them dig in their feet and move further away.  No one enjoys being constantly told that they should be more involved . . . after all, they have chosen which third they want to be in.  What needs to be done is going back to the foundational block of it all . . . relationship.  For that seed that thrives it comes down to having a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus.  This is what needs to be shared with the two-third that does not participate with regularity.

It comes down to relationship . . . the one-third showing the other two-thirds their relationship with Jesus.  Not beating them down with the relationship, but is living it in the presence of the other.  In order for this to happen relationships between the one-third and two-thirds must be established.  The one-third meets the two-thirds where they are.  They begin to show that they care . . . that they are there for them . . . in those times when life is difficult and pulls them away.  In such relationships the one-third becomes the soil necessary to grow and thrive.  It is not fast work, but work that slowly pulls them back into the circle, back into the family of God.

In which soil is your faith?  Jesus poses the question this morning . . . and, he poses the challenge.  May we all find the soil that strives to make us one as the family of God.  Amen.