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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

“I Can’t Dance” (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem
I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he

Written in 1963 by Sydney Carter, The Lord of the Dance, became a surprisingly popular hymn within churches.  Inspired by Jesus and wanting to give tribute to Shaker music, Carter penned this hymn.  He never imagined that it would ever be embraced by Christians, much less sung within the church.  He stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all.  I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian.  But in fact people did sing it and, it touched a chord . . . Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”  

He went on to say: “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us.  He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality . . . I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.  Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know.  We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible.  The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.  The Shakers didn’t.  Dancing for them was a spiritual activity.”
Carter saw Jesus as the Lord of the Dance who invites others to come and join in the dance . . . the dance which Jesus deems as being life itself . . . the dance he will lead and teach.  The Lord of the Dance is one of my favorite hymns, especially on Easter Sunday.  I love its message . . . its message of life . . . when it comes to the final chorus and verse:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That'll never, never die;
I'll live in you
If you'll live in me -
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

Like Carter, I like that image of a dancing Jesus calling us to come and join in the dance.  I like it . . . but, to be honest, if you think I sing terribly, well, you won’t want to see me dance.  I can’t dance.

Dancing has always struck fear in me.  One of the most anxious moments in my life came in knowing that I would have to step out onto a dance floor . . . in front of a crowd . . . take my daughter’s hand . . . just the two of us . . . and dance the father/daughter dance at her wedding.  I encouraged her to schedule that well after the reception had begun and the wine was flowing heavily . . . for the crowd’s sake and my sake.  Most of my family would confirm that I cannot dance, except the grandchildren . . . they think Grandpa is Fred Astaire.

Jesus uses a powerful image in our reading this morning . . . one in which he mentions dancing.  Jesus says: “To what can I compare this generation?  They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”

Here Jesus is addressing a crowd shortly after he and the disciples had been visited by the disciples of John the Baptist . . . John the Baptist who is sitting in King Herod’s prison.  John had sent them to ask Jesus if the was the “one” or should they expect someone else.  Of course Jesus does not answer them directly by saying “yes” or “no”, but instead tells them to go back and tell John what they had seen.  And, now, he is addressing the crowd . . . and, what he is addressing is the continued disbelief he is encountering, especially among those who are the leaders of the people.  Jesus wants to know why they won’t believe . . . why they won’t dance.

I imagine that there is myriad of reasons why there is disbelief . . . why there is a fear of joining in the dance . . . why people are hesitant to follow Jesus.  One reason might be that they are fearful that they might upset the powers that be . . . the religious leaders, the king; after all, Jesus was branded as a heretic and rebel inciting a new kingdom.  They might be fearful of the Romans who were quick to strike down any sign of insurrection . . . and, they hadn’t quite made up their mind whether or not Jesus was an insurgent stirring up rebellion.  They might have been fearful of what others might think if they joined the ranks of Jesus followers . . . what their family and friends might think and say . . . what their neighbors would think . . . the community.  And, maybe . . . like me, they couldn’t dance.  Whatever the case, I think that Jesus was getting a little frustrated in the slow response of the people to come and join in the dance . . . slow to believe.

Dancing and faith are not usually something that we see paired together . . . at least not in the church, especially in some of the more conservative churches.  We don’t see a whole lot of dancing in the church.  I am not sure if the reason is that people are too scared to dance, or . . . if they are like me, they can’t dance.  Either way, I don’t think Jesus would find too much dancing going on in or out of the church . . . at least not the way that he dances.

Now my statement about being scared to dance or not being able to dance is probably a falsehood.  The truth is we all can dance.  This is something I have learned from my grandchildren . . . everyone and anyone can dance . . . and, it can be done without the aid of wine!  My grandchildren did not care how well I danced . . . they did not care how silly I looked . . . all that they cared about is that I picked them up, and we swirled, twirled, hopped, bopped, and danced liked there was no tomorrow.  What they care about was that I was willing to be with them . . . to hold them . . . to let down my hair and relate to them where they were.  And, you know what?

It was fun.

It was fun, but honestly, I am not ready to go public with my dancing.

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance . . .’” said Jesus.  Jesus does not care whether or not you are a great dancer like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers . . . he just wants you to dance.  Jesus does not care if you look silly when you are dancing . . . he just wants you to dance.  Jesus doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about your dancing . . . he just wants you to dance.  And, if you are a little timid about dancing for whatever reason, Jesus will show you . . . Jesus will show you with the words that he speaks . . . he will show you with the actions that he takes . . . and, he will show you in the way that he lived his life and death.  Jesus is the dance of life . . . no matter what happened to him, he danced.

Learning to dance may not be easy in the beginning, but in learning to dance one finds life.  Jesus wants everyone to have life, thus he invites all to dance:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”

In the song, Lord of the Dance, Carter put it this way at the end:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That'll never, never die;
I'll live in you
If you'll live in me -
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

Jesus calls us to dance.  The best spiritual advice I can give you as you consider the invitation from Jesus to dance is this . . . it is a quote from William W. Purkey: “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching.  Love like you’ll never be hurt, sing like there’s nobody listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”  It’s true.  Jesus should know.  To dance is to embrace life in Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, July 3, 2017

“How Long?” (Psalm 13)

Who voices what we will not say out loud?

I think that one of the greatest difficulties of faith are those moments in our lives when we are stuck in the silence and isolation of feeling as if God has abandoned us.  Those moments in which we look around in our times of need and cannot find God anywhere . . . that God has turned away . . . ignored us.  Those moments when we feel alone.

The reason that I think that this is among the greatest difficulties of faith is because we are taught from a young age that ours is a God that never abandons us . . . that ours is a God who is always with us in the good times and in the bad times . . . that listens to us constantly and hears our every ache, pain, hope, joy, and concern.  We are taught that we should never . . . ever . . . believe otherwise.  God is always with us.  Thus, we are also taught that we should not complain or moan and groan . . . lament in a way, in those moments and times in our lives when we feel lost and abandoned by God.  Such complaining, pleading, and whining is seen as a weakness of faith . . . a sign of faithlessness.

Therein lies the problem.  On the one hand we are taught that God is always with us and caring for us.  On the other hand, all of us experience those moments when we feel isolated and forgotten by God because God is not present to us . . . or at least not in the way that we expect.  To express such feelings of isolation . . . of abandonment . . . is to commit a sin of faithlessness . . . to expose a weakness in our beliefs and faith.  Such expressions are not well received among the faithful.  Thus we keep it to ourselves . . . we become silent in our isolation.  The silence echoes in our hearts and minds, and we hurt.  Is this feeling not something that we express in our prayers each week when we ask God to hear those prayers that we can only share with God?

So, I again ask, who will voice what we will not say out loud?

Luckily, this morning, we have the psalmist speaking for us.  Four times in this short psalm we hear the writer ask the question of God: How long?  The psalmist wants to know how long God will hide . . . how long God will forget . . . how long God will make the writer struggle with all of these thoughts and doubts . . . and, how long will God allow those who see the whole thing as folly to gloat over the writer.  This is definitely a person who is struggling through some difficult times . . . who is feeling isolated from God . . . who wallows in the silence as God does not respond.  The result is that the writer feels a deep sense of sorrow . . . what has been taught is not stacking up with what is being experienced.  Thus it is that the writer wants to know from God: How long!

Don’t we all?

This is quite a quandary of faith.  One that--if we are going to be honest with ourselves--we have all been in.  We have all experienced those moments in our lives and faith when we have felt that we have been separated and isolated from God.  Moments when we felt that the words we uttered in prayer were echoed off empty walls and returned to us in deafening silence.  Moments when we questioned our faith . . . questioned our God.

Those moments have come when we have been hit with crisis in our lives.  It could be our health . . . our finances . . . relationships . . . any number of things where it seems as if life is just merrily moving along and we are suddenly confronted with problems and issues that throw us for a loop.  The immensity of such situations are overwhelming.  In such times what do we do?  We reach out to God . . . we reach out to God, but God does not respond.  God is not there.  A sense of panic fills our very being.

In our panic, the faithful tells us to “hang in there” . . . that God will take care of us . . . that everything will be alright.  No one wants to hear us in our panic, thus it is that our panic is greeted with pat answers meant to sound thoughtful, but are really meant to pacify us.  So we become silent and crawl deep within our isolation.  What we really want to do is to scream out to God: How long!

We want God to know that we are scared.

We want God to come and take away our fear to makes us well once again.  To make things the way that they have always been.  

But, we keep silent . . . after all, we do not want to appear to be unfaithful.

Well, I want to assure you . . . in such times of expressing the honest feelings of being isolated . . . of feeling as if pleas of concern and needs of assurance are falling on deaf ears . . . of being lost and forgotten . . . that you are not faithless or unfaithful.  No, in fact, it is because of your faith and faithfulness that you are even able to utter such expressions.  It is all a part of the faith journey.

And, yes, even though it feels as if God has disappeared . . . God is still with us.  God is beside us in our waiting.  God feels our sorrow . . . feels our pain . . . God never abandons us.  Unfortunately, the dark night of the soul is necessary to help us see and appreciate the light of the dawn.  We have to learn to endure the silence and isolation no matter how difficult it might be.  It is in the struggle that we become stronger . . . stronger in who God created us to be . . . stronger in our commitment and love for God . . . stronger in our faith.

In that we can rejoice.

As the psalmist expresses what we won’t say out loud, we also see a shift in the psalmist’s words.  There is a movement from anguish and sorrow in the author’s words to words of confidence and hope.  The psalmist finds confidence in God . . . in the situation . . . and, in himself.  The psalmist sings out: “. . . but I trust . . . I will rejoice . . . I will sing . . . because . . .”  

The psalmist proclaims: “And I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.”

Through this period of isolation and silence the psalmist finds strength in what is learned . . . hope for a new direction . . . the ability to leave the past behind . . . and, self-assurance in who he is as a creation and child of God.  And, so it is for us.

Who will voice what we will not say out loud . . . what we will not say out loud to others or God?

We will.

We will because that, too, is a part of our faith . . . a part of who we are as a faithful child of God.  God wants all of us . . . even our doubts.  To hide them or bury them is--in my opinion--to be unfaithful.  We are among the faithful, and it is okay to ask God: How long?

My mother always liked to tell me when I was struggling in life “that this, too, shall pass”.  And, she was right.  In the passing I learned lessons and received blessings.  This is the knowledge that shifted the psalmist from anguish and sorrow to hope and joy.  May we have such faith to be open and honest with God in all of our lives . . . God really wants to know.  Amen.