August 6, 2017

Pentecost 9  August 6, 2017   Tobit 6:1b-6a, 8:1-3; Romans 8:26-30, Matthew 13:44-53          Buy the field *********************************************************** The book of Tobit features a very strange fish in a supporting-actor-role. Tobit’s one of the very fishiest books of the bible. And since all of Jesus’ top-four-first-round-draft-choice-disciples are fishermen, we can bet they knew the story of Tobias, son of Tobit, who’s been sent on a mission of redemption to marry Sarah, a lovely, virtuous woman of faith, whose family has suffered from a strange demon, that’s killed all seven previous husbands-to-be of this woman on their wedding night. Tobias’ mother is more than a little nervous about her son going on this perilous journey. Tobias, however, has a huge advantage over all previous husbands-to-be, in that he is escorted on his mission by an angel named Raphael. And to greatly-over-simplify a marvelous story of true love and strange fishing… When Tobias goes to wash his feet in the river, a very big fish comes out of the water and tries to bite his foot off. Tobias shouts in fear. But the angel tells him, “pull that fish up on shore – cut it open, take out its gall, heart and liver. They’ll come in handy later…” Tobias does as he’s told. They reach their destination. Wedding arrangements are finalized. Sarah’s parents are so afraid Tobias will die that night, as the other seven husbands have all died on their wedding night – that the parents secretly dig a grave, hoping to keep the expected-next-and-latest-death a secret from neighbors. (Who by now are thinking this is a very strange family we live next door to…) But Tobias follows the angel’s instructions carefully–and burns the liver and heart of the fish – and the demon flees far, far away – where he is then bound, hand-and-foot by the angel… And the couple lives happily ever after… The book of Tobit is one of the so-called Apocryphal books of the bible included in Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican bibles but not in most Protestant bibles. Tobit was part the Septuagint Greek-language translation of the Old Testament, the everyday bible of the early church. And we’re reading from this story today mostly because (along with one of the parables Jesus is about to tell) – this is the only other bad-fish story in the bible.  And I like this story because… here even the baddest of fish in the bible… is working for the good, as a good-fish should… in the end… (Listen again for the word of God as we read from Matthew’s gospel… 13:44-53– ) *** The kingdom of heaven is like treasure we find hidden in a field. We may not even be looking for treasure.. But…suddenly here it is. Wow! Better hide that treasure again, and go! – calculate the cost of the field. Figure out what this treasure’s worth! Make haste, sell all we have! Buy the field! We may need to put on an estate sale – or hold an-all-summer-long-yard- sale – or just take our stuff down to the pawn shop. Whether we have a little or a lot, once we know what we’ve found, we gladly do whatever it takes to pay the price and buy the field… Again the kingdom of heaven is like the...

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July 30, 2017

Pentecost 8   July 30, 2017 (Psalms 126, 78:1-8, 67) Matthew 13:31-35 **************************************************** Rohi and I have gotten into baking bread and dinner rolls together over the past year… Like the woman in the parable, we mix a good amount of flour, together with just a little yeast dissolved in warm water – adding a touch of salt and sugar – stirring in more water…till the dough becomes a large, sticky, gooey mass, which we knead and fold – messily, hands covered with sticky dough – knead and fold some more…repeating til it feels right, and we set it aside in a large bowl…and wait… Later, when the dough is fully risen, we shape the rolls, putting them together, eight-to-a-pie-pan, as the bread goes into bread pans…. and… We really enjoy mixing the ingredients, and kneading dough, and setting it all in the bowl, covered, and placed on a radiator to rise… That’s really all there is for us to do…As the yeast takes over, and does all the real work… The only hard part for us is waiting, now, for dough to rise…Which takes, usually nearly two hours – which can seem like a really long time, when we’re hungry…Which we’re sure to be, knowing how good the bread will taste… But we also know…the waiting will be worth it… And we get, I think, what Jesus is saying – about – just a little yeast is enough to turn a few pounds of flour into a much larger batch of dough that rises and rises…And… This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Except, in the parable, the woman mixes her heavenly leaven into a whole lot more flour than Rohi and I have ever used. The three measures of flour this woman uses could be as much as a bushel – 80 to 100 pounds of flour – enough to feed a small village… This parable’s expansive language suggests mystery and great possibilities. Properly – for we are talking here, after all, about the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom Jesus tells us to seek first – and to pray for until it comes in all it’s fullness, on not just a little part, but all-the- earth-as-it-is-in-heaven… *** Today we’re hearing a pair of closely-related parables from Jesus. Over the past two weeks we’ve heard two longer parables, each involving seeds. This week we have yet another seed parable, but this week in honor of another Jesus saying, we’re letting the last be first. Leaven before mustard seed. And today’s two parables go together like peas in a pod…And I’ve actually got a little experience also with mustard greens, which I’ve grown in more than one location. I know mustard is one of the easiest crops to grow, and one of the hardiest of vegetables. I’ve harvested it well into November in Vermont and far northern upstate New York. It tastes good; it’s high in vitamin C. And did I remember to say – it’s easy to grow? Put it in the ground and watch it grow. And yes, mustard seed is proverbially small. Elsewhere, Jesus scolds those who ask for more faith, saying “if you just had faith as large as a mustard seed you could command mountains to jump in the sea and they’d...

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July 23, 2017

Pentecost 7   July 23, 2017   Psalm 1, Romans 8:18-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43 **************************************************************** The parable of the seeds and weeds is like the best of all parables. The parable that tells us everything we really need to know. The parable that tells us God will get rid of all evil, and we’ll live happily ever after, shining like the sun in the kingdom of heaven… The parable of the seeds and weeds is like the worst of all parables. A parable in which whether we are good seed or bad weed, our fates are all predetermined. The good seed are the children of God, who are bound to grow into good grain no matter what. The bad seed are children of the devil who are bound for the fiery furnace no matter what… This parable is like the famous first sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, that begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” then winds through a series of comparisons, to “We were all going direct to heaven – we were all going direct the other way…” We’re in our second week of listening to the Jesus parables in chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel. Once again we’re looking at seeds planted in the ground. Last week all the seed was good, but when good seed was cast by a good sower on four different types of ground, the good seed sown by the good sower still failed completely in three out of four soil situations. This week we’re in the garden again with Jesus, but now – all the soil is good – and now there’s not one but two sowers. First the Son of Man, who looks a lot like Jesus, and sows good seed. Then a second sower, a stuntman double for the devil, it seems, who sows a toxic weed, an actual weed known as darnel or zinzania, that looks a lot like wheat til its nearly full grown, and which is poisonous enough so that you would not want to eat bread that had darnel mixed in with the wheat. The problem of darnel growing along with wheat was well-known among farmers. No enemy required; wind-blown weed self-seeds. There are a few recorded cases of farmers letting both grow together till harvest, but more often farmers would cut or pull toxic weeds before harvest. Jesus is talking about unusual, not usual farming behavior. People would know this is a parable, not an agricultural lesson.  And… This is a parable in two rather different parts. In part one, the more conspicuously parabolic part, the point seems to be about not making a bad situation even worse. ‘Leave those weeds alone, or you’ll uproot the good along with the bad. Let the wheat and weeds grow together till harvest.’ So the Lord of the harvest commands. Then, after two other short parables (that we’re not reading today), Jesus responds to questions from disciples about the meaning of what they call “the parable of the weeds…” in the second part of the parable… and… As I’ve been thinking about this parable while weeding in my garden… I’ve been wondering – how often have I yanked up little seedlings that I have personally laboriously previously planted – pulling them...

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July 16, 2017 – Sower, seed, soil

Pentecost 6   July 16, 2017   Psalm 126, Matthew 13:1-23 Sower, seed, soil ************************************************************** This parable used to sound rather simple to me. I garden; so I understand – the soil seeds are planted in has a lot to do with how well seeds are going to grow, and what kind of harvest we’ll end up with… So I’ve sometimes puzzled over why this parable is so often called “The Parable of the Sower” – given that the main point seems to be about soil. After three types of crop failure due to seed falling on the wrong types of soil are described, we finally get to good dirt that yields a good harvest. All the sower seems to do is toss seed everywhere – even where no farmer or gardener I know would expect it to do any growing. And the seed doesn’t get much attention – though it does its part – growing best it can, wherever planted. But even the best of seed… is only going to grow well when planted in good soil. But this parable of course isn’t really about gardening. Except that the word parable means, in the original language, putting two things next to each other, side-by-side, in comparison. Comparing two things – one very familiar, usually, and the other less familiar. People in Jesus’ day knew parables. There’s many parables in the old testament– and they’d quickly recognize this story isn’t really about soil conditions. Stuff they already knew well. But even Jesus’ top twelve disciples apparently don’t understand what the point really is… So later, back in camp, Jesus explains… Telling his disciples – and all of us who can hear him – that his message is all about the dirt in human hearts – some hearts with dirt-packed-hard-as-stone – other hearts full-of-stone-just-beneath-the-surface – and even a good heart, full of all the right fertilizers… still won’t actually do any better than a heart of stone… when it’s choked with cares and pleasures that keep us from seeking first the kingdom. And it’s only the heart that’s like good soil, rich in nutrients, well-cultivated… where the word of God’s kingdom is truly able to grow… And I can still get a little lost here, even reading over the parable and it’s explanation many times this week… When I notice how, in the parable itself (in our first reading), not even a word is actually said about what the seed represents. Nor are any clues given as to what the parable is about… It’s only when we get to Jesus’ later-that-same-day explanation of the parable for disciples (in our last reading) that we hear the seed is the word of God about the kingdom of God. As Jesus says, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it…the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in the heart…” Which actually only makes the parable harder to hear for me. Because now the poor birds of this parable wind up looking like demonic vultures scarfing up good seed that happens to fall on the sidewalk…(Quite a bummer of an image for bird-lovers!) And seed that falls on the garden path, hard-pan soil, stands for those who get excited about Jesus till things get tougher. But when prayers...

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July 9, 2017

Pentecost 5   July 9, 2017   Psalm 145, Romans 7:7-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 ***************************************************************** “Come to me and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. And yet here I am, feeling feel like… I’ve been ignoring the invitation… most of this past week…. Life is difficult, Jesus often tells us.  Life is difficult – but – it’s never supposed to be as difficult as we make it. So Dorothy Day, co-founder of The Catholic Worker movement often said. Which I’ve been thinking about this week, as I’ve been pondering what St Paul says today… About it being human nature to want to do the right thing… Even while we’re doing what we really don’t want to do… We do not do the good we want to do, Paul says in Romans, but instead we do the very things we don’t want to do… And by now I should know better than to try to cover Romans and the gospel in the same sermon… And reading NT Wright’s good commentary on Romans I should have been doubly reminded… As he points out how challenging it can be even just to read this chapter quickly without getting tongue-tied… And yet here I was, spending most of a whole day just trying to understand all the ways great interpreters through the ages have heard and interpreted what Paul’s trying to say… Till I found myself feeling like this person Paul describes in Romans, who wants to do the right thing… but keeps getting it wrong… I keep thinking I want to do the right thing, but I need to say “I think” because I’ve been remembering how my sainted mother (God rest her soul) used to tell me that when I was little I would tell her, “but… I don’t want to do…what I want to do…” Which is how I end up feeling after studying this section of St Paul’s letter to the Romans – that starts way back in chapter six, and winds through twisty turns of thought well into chapter eight. A complicated argument about how the law of God (and probably the natural law and civil law also) actually makes us more (not less) inclined to break the law. Leaving me feeling again like my four-year-old-self – not at all sure now that I even want to do… what I want to do…) As I try to wrap my head around what I think the word of God is saying… And think about… How often we think we want to do the right thing – but then find,, in practice, that the very same law that tells us not to covet actually triggers our inclination to want yet-more-stuff that we don’t want to want.  We want what we don’t want to want all the more once we’re told not to want it – so St Paul says. And as if to prove his point, now I can’t seem to resist hanging out perhaps for far-too-long with this strange passage of scripture – which suddenly seems to explain so much of life, here and now, for this weak-willed person… Of course I don’t think Paul intends for us to take everything he says too literally. I don’t think St Paul expects we’re always going to go shopping till we’re dropping...

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July 2, 2017

Pentecost 4   July 2, 2017  (Psalm 24), Exodus 6:2-9, Romans 6:2-9, Matthew 10:40-42 *********************************************************** The good news is – you’re all going to heaven. Assuming, that is – you’ve ever given even a cup of cold water to a disciples of Jesus. And the good news gets even better. You’re already there – already in heaven, in one sense. Because as Saint Catherine of Sienna has said “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life…’” Now the sermon could be already over – since I’ve given away the conclusion. (Some of you say “alleluia!”) So I better talk fast to remind you of the bad news – which is that the good news tends to often be overlooked…. and quickly forgotten… The good news of Jesus Christ has a way of staying hidden from sight…Till we’re living the good news, all the time… So the conclusion really isn’t the conclusion… Till we get to the full conclusion… And we’re not quite all the way there yet. Consider: Moses gets the word straight from God – go, tell the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD who will free you from slavery to the Egyptians – and you shall know that I am the LORD your God – who has freed you – (who has freed you –) from slavery…’ And Moses is trying to explain to Israel this is already a done-deal. Hey, the Creator of the universe has promised it… But the Israelites won’t listen. Won’t even give Moses a hearing. Because they’re too broken in spirit by bitter slavery…. to be able to hear the good news… that they are already free… Which is pretty much the story of the human condition… Christ has died for all. Our sins are forgiven. We have been given the free gift of life eternal. Just as St Paul tells the church in Rome – ‘you have already been set free from sin – you have already been given the gift of eternal life.’ But Paul knows – better than most of us – all the many reasons why the ultimate conclusion can’t be heard by most of us humans… straight-no-chaser. Telling the good news too quickly – that we’re already freed and forgiven – already living eternal life – tends to lead to hearing the good news badly. Either going the libertine route – like – “hallelujah! I’m saved. I can do whatever I want now and still be saved… So to hey with the diet and good behavior, I’m living it up till Jesus comes back..” – or going legalistic – holier-than-everyone-else… We believe. We’re saved. Saved by grace and faith in Christ. And since all the rest of the world doesn’t get it – God has left us in charge of explaining everything to everyone. Our human capacity for misunderstanding grace is probably why it takes the apostle Paul six chapters to work up to telling us the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ – and another ten chapters after this to unpack what it means… to be alive and living in Christ… and… (I confess…) I’m as guilty as the next person of cherry-picking my way through scripture… Looking for the best parts…...

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