Sermon for St Mark’s, 17th July 2017
Pentecost VI: “It’s not about Jesus”
A sower went out to sow, and then he disappears. At least for the sower, the story is over.
It is good to have a clear parable. Today’s from Matthew (Parable of the Sower) is not complicated, like the more provocative ones, and in this one it is easy to speculate on roles. Jesus is the sower, casting seed of the kingdom, and we are soils, some thorny, some rocky, some hard cases, and some fertile. Or, closer to the truth, “we” are fertile, “they” are thorny, and rocky, and the hard cases.
Remember though, “they” think you and I are the hard cases, thorny and rocky… or just wrong. I remember a bumper sticker: “I think I love Jesus, it’s just his followers who frighten me.” Or in Utah, a roadside sign proclaimed the volunteer cleanup is by a group named “Freedom from Religion”.
What if we consider another perspective? Maybe Jesus is not the sower – here is the clue. The sower is in and out of the story in one sentence. If the sower were about Jesus, wouldn’t he have more of a role? Again, maybe we are not the soil; maybe “they” are not the dirt after all. Maybe we are the sowers – anonymity can cover lots of “yous” and “mes”, too many to name. Further, we are too success-oriented for this parable, perhaps for the kingdom. Here’s why: one message in the information about the soils is that sometimes you will find success, sometimes you won’t. Life is just that way. The only way, though, you can guarantee failure is if you don’t step out and sow the seed.
Let’s think a little more: there are four places in the parable, but only two types of ground – fertile and unfertile. The encouragement in the message may be get out there, and don’t be discouraged by fear of failure. Here’s another idea: what about the yield thirty-fold, sixty-fold and hundred-fold? If you sow one seed, say of corn, and it returns one ear with a hundred kernels, that is good, but not miraculous, really. And if it is about church growth, would you want even a ten-fold increase at St Marks’? Last Sunday’s 10:00 attendance was 41. Where would you put 410 people this morning?
I believe the central message for us sowers is “Be not discouraged.” Often our good intentions work, sometimes they won’t. Life is just that way. But be ready for surprises. Think about this: If you were given a choice of where to serve as a sower, where to tell of your faith, would you prefer a college dorm, an impoverished neighborhood, a correctional facility, or a church meeting?
I have four stories from Hospice for your thinking, surprises all. And I confess I believe one of the many names of God is… Surprise!
First, I received a request from the wife of a patient: “My husband is troubled and needs to talk to someone.” Who would know better? I went to see this man, Joe, who was Jewish, but non-practicing. I came to their apartment, and she answered the door, weary and stressed. She said, “THANK YOU for coming.” I walked in, and he almost shouted, “What are you doing here!” It was not a question. I said, “I came to introduce myself. I am Roy Green, the Chaplain from Hospice.” He roared, “OK. You introduced yourself. Now you can leave.” Hard case? I did see him a few more times before he died, and the treatment was rough each time, but I learned that was his style. His long-suffering wife just put up with it. Did I accomplish any spiritual healing? Don’t know. But Joe did give permission for me to visit a few more times.
Second, I was driving to call on a patient in Christmas Valley, about a two-hour drive from Bend. On the way, I received an emergency call to visit a new patient who was imminently dying. I did not know the woman, nor the family, but the Chaplain was called, so I turned around, and in about an hour was at her bedside. She was “non-responsive”, but I spoke to her about her journey, as I understand it from Scripture. And when I gave her a blessing, she died. The grieving family, who had been stressed and weeping, was relieved, and almost congratulated the lady, “She did it, she did it.” Did I do anything for her? Who knows? Did I help the family? Never heard from them. But I went when called.
Third, as senior Chaplain I received the difficult cases. There was a man whose neurological disease meant he did not speak. He was a tyrant. I was called by the family to see this man, who looked intensely at me the whole time, and said nothing. At their request, I went every other week, and though his eyes bored into me, I tried to say something helpful, knowing nothing about this man. I was usually at a loss. Once when I mentioned forgiveness, though, a single tear came from his eye, but that was the only response. I even tried musical meditation for him, and learned at his funeral that he hated music. When he came to his last days, and the doctor said he was within hours of dying, he lived ten days beyond what medically he should have. His wife said he was just being hateful.
Finally, a young Baptist minister friend once asked if I would speak to his young adult fellowship about hospice work. At last, an audience which can understand spiritual speech. I explained the care plan – about forgiveness, and remembering those we love, and our expectations of God – but one of the adult leaders interrupted to say, “But don’t you have to make sure they accept Jesus before they die, or they will burn in hell?” I explained that was not the purpose of Hospice, that I did not press my religion but respected the individual religious heritage of the patient and family. There was uproar, not from the young people, but from the adults, and one left the room to go pray that my presence would not contaminate her young adult charges with evil. So much for sowing seed at a church meeting.
Who knows if I was successful in these encounters or not. Does it matter? Perhaps. But the next time I was called to go into a home or assisted living or hospital, I went. Most preachers will tell you about times they spoke about A, B, C, and D in a sermon, and someone came later with deep appreciation for saying “H”. Truth is, the Spirit can do marvelous works with our labors, but not if we stay home. So, this sermon is not about Jesus. It is about you. It is not about success. It is about you and me sharing good faith with abandon. It is about commending the faith that is in us, with heart, and a smile when we can.
And did you notice, I delivered the whole sermon and never used the word “evangelism”? Amen.
St Mark’s Sermon for Pentecost V
Often I come across a thought I wish I had thought, a saying I wish I had said, or words I wish I had written, but when that initial sentiment passes, I am just grateful for the discovery. Sometimes the source is unexpected and the insight a surprise, like from a child, but there are also sources who are consistently reliable, like a dear friend. My critics say I cannot speak in public without quoting John O’Donohue, and while I do not always quote, I quite often consult him. Here is a sample, and even though these are not my words, nevertheless with all my heart I believe them true:
“There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life.” (Benedictus, p14)
What a blessing!
At the close of the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus spoke these familiar words, “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.” (Matthew 11.29,30).
My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. The image of a yoke makes sense, even if, to us, it is hardly friendly. A yoke in Jesus’ time was often double, implying that in the work of Jesus, we are not alone. If we take one side of the yoke, he will take the other. OK. There is another implication – an inexperienced animal was often yoked with an experienced animal for training in how to do the work. So, the promise behind Jesus’ words is that if we take up his “yoke”, not only will he be with us in life and our work, he will show us the way, and walk it with us.
The final thought can be troubling, though: My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. From what I read about Christian witness, it is often anything but easy. Even if we are not called to be martyrs, there is the promise of suffering for Jesus, and even living day to day a life of love, grace and forgiveness is not what I would call easy or light. Christianity can be a struggle. Choosing that life – love, grace and forgiveness – gives meaning and hope, and the assurance that we are friends of God. That makes the burden bearable, but though we may carry on without complaint, a burden is a burden.
Another insight I wish I had discovered on my own, but did not, is to read that last line – my burden is light – taking “light” as a noun, rather than an adjective. Jesus is saying his burden is “Light”, with a capital “L” if you like. His burden, his task, is bringing Light to the dark places of the world. Light to illumine, or Light to heal, or Light to point the way, and here is where the insight from John O’Donohue connects:
“There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life.”
Call it “quiet light”, call it “soul”, call it one’s “true self”, there is a quiet light that shines in every heart, EVERY heart. If we are created in the image of God, and we are, then at our very core, in the truest part of ourselves, we are good, and there is light. It must be so! We are created in God’s image, and by grace are children of God. How can it be otherwise? In a Christmas meditation several years ago, John wrote, “There is a place deep within you, where you have never been damaged or diminished; where there is serenity, courage, confidence, forgiveness and the endless adventure of imagination.” Marvelous, no? And do not serenity, courage, confidence, and especially forgiveness, come from the very deep parts of you, from your center, from your soul? From the light in your soul? “It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life.” These are profound blessings sourced in the heart of God.
Jesus said, “My burden is light.” The burden Jesus asks you to take up is your Light. First, to see and honor the Light in your own soul. It is there, shaped by the fingerprint of God. Then, let your Light shine. Become Light in your family, among your friends, in your world. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5.16) Remember that? And bring your Light, the Light of Christ, to the places where you uncover darkness or shadow. You may find a shadow in pain, when a friend is suffering. You may find shadow in grief, when a loved one has departed. You may find darkness where people have not their daily bread, or where children are bullied, or where communities live under the threat of injustice. There may be shadows from your own past which can also receive healing from the Light of Christ that is within you. You may find shadow in the valley of death, but bring your Light, and learn Christ’s Light, to banish the fear.
At the conclusion of this service, as at all worship, there is a blessing. It comes from God through the words, the heart and action of the priest. It is a sacred privilege and duty of priests and bishops to bless in God’s name. But what about deacons? If you come to the rail when Marilyn is here you may receive a personal blessing from her, and it matters. You may often receive a blessing from a close friend, or from someone who loves you deeply, and it matters. How about grandparents? Can they bless grandchildren? Can parents bless their children? Of course! Moreover, you may receive surprise blessings, like gifts of light from unexpected sources. And you may receive blessings from persons you don’t even know and will never see again. We call those persons angels. Just watch, and see.
And remember, you are always a source for blessing – blessing those you love, blessing the creation with thoughtful living, blessing the stranger with your hospitality. You might inadvertently be one of those angels, unawares. So even you may bless in the name of love, in the name of hope, with confidence in the name of God. For there is a quiet light that shines in your heart. God put it there. God is that light.
Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Friends, “Each person has a unique intimacy with God… May we all receive blessing upon blessing. And may we realize our power to bless, heal and renew each other.” (Benedictus, p17)
Alleluia, and Amen!
Sermon for St Mark’s, 2 July, 2017
“The First Fourth”
Tuesday will be the first time we celebrate the anniversary of our independence as a nation, the first since the new administration took office. This is the first fourth of July to come around in the calendar, so Tuesday is “the first fourth.” In 1776, the fourth was a Thursday, a day when visionaries risked life and fortune for the highest ideals of nation and dignity. That day a new principle of government was declared, a new order President Lincoln described later as, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Only a few among us did not have to åmemorize those words, “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent…” These are the most famous written by Lincoln, a speech written in a time of war on our own soil, when neighbors and families aimed muskets, artillery and curses against each other. And this Tuesday, we find again neighbors and families at odds. There is hard division in our beloved country, and while we still stand for liberty and justice for all, there is certainly enough confusion and anxiety for all.
Into this confusion and anxiety, Jesus speaks: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.43). We understand the first part, about hating enemies. Mark twain, in one of his witticisms, wrote, “The Bible tells me to love my neighbors and love my enemies, probably because they are the same people.” Yet Jesus thinks differently, a sharp distinction when we see all over the news messages of division, exclusion, kicking people out, heading to the streets to champion opposing views. Jesus concludes, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A clearer translation is “Be whole, as your heavenly Father is whole.”
So how do we reconcile the hope of Jesus who lives in us, with the tensions we live in? Is there a path through the present wilderness to wholeness? Or must we forget Jesus for a while?
In June, Linda Bitter, Ruth Tsu and I attended a seminar sponsored by Gorge Ecumenical Ministries. The presenter was Heidi Venture, and her task was to help us understand values behind our and our opponents’ positions. Her teaching was based on research in moral psychology, especially Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Maybe before we make enemies of our neighbors – you know them, “those idiot liberals” and “those narrow-minded conservatives” – we might look at the values behind different traditions. It is naïve to think that any who oppose us are just wrong. So let me encapsulate a few discoveries of Heidi Venture and Jonathan Haidt. These might show us a path which lessens our current anxieties.
Dr Haidt proposed six moral touchstones, six values, which are cherished by most all of us. See if you cannot honor all six. First value, then, is compassion, caring which makes us sensitive and responsive to persons in need and those who are suffering, and makes us despise cruelty. Understandable and good, yes?
Second, there is the value of fairness, in which everyone gets her or his free chance to succeed, and which rewards the good in citizens and punishes cheaters.
Number three is loyalty – honoring family, our nation and our commitments, fosters trust and appreciation, but makes us wary and protective against those who betray.
Authority as a value, is number four. We are taught to respect legitimate authority, honor those who are our mentors and leaders, chosen for their wisdom and commitment to the cause. Respectable authority is essential to the good function of any organization – familial, political or religious – and we challenge systems when authority is misused, or people are not behaving properly in their leadership.
Liberty is a seasoned value for Americans, and in free cultures across the world. It is an expression of human dignity, that we cherish our independence, that we think for ourselves, and form coalitions for the common good. When liberty is oppressed, we resist. We do not tolerate bullies or tyrants and challenge oppression of any stripe.
And finally, as in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here is the value of sanctity. It is what we hold sacred in community, our noble truths, how we respect creation. Sanctity also gives permission to protect ourselves and others against any corruption in life or in the earth which has the power to pollute or destroy our high ideals
Compassion, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty and sanctity: six moral foundations. Who can argue? But here is the interesting part – our morality can bind us, and blind us. Morality binds us in groups for the common good, but it can blind us to the fact that there are good people on both sides of arguments, something to be learned from those who think differently than we do.
In Dr Haidt’s research, the highest priority for conservatives is preservation of the institutions and traditions which sustain a moral community. How can we argue with that? We can disagree on application or solutions, but the value behind the conservative position is solid and good. On the other hand, the highest priority for liberals is care for the victims of suffering and need. Again, remedies for suffering can be argued, but compassion and protection for victims is noble.
What was most helpful for me in this seminar is a way to see the noble good in those who do not think as I think. If we step consciously into a place of listening for understanding, and choose to respect the dignity of every human being, the equation is changed, and there is balance, a way through our present confusion and anxiety. It does not mean surrendering values, but recognizing the values of the other, and moving towards daylight from a position not of agreement necessarily, but of respect.
Compassion, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty and sanctity: six moral foundations. I believe Jesus would, and did, have something to say along these lines. With these at the fore, we might recognize his counsel: “I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” We are invited to bring Jesus to the table with us, and to see Jesus across the table.
This Tuesday is the first fourth, a day which finds confusion and tension in our beloved country. When the Church gathers, we are also divided, good Christian people who see things differently. As citizens of the United States, let us cherish our deep values – compassion, loyalty, fairness, liberty – and as Christians, remember our highest loyalty is to God, under whom there can be liberty and justice for all. We have too much that is sacred, too much we hold dear, to remain enemies in our own camp. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.