Tuesday, December 2, 2014

From Desperation to Destiny

It has been a long time since I posted anything. It has been a very rough few months personally and in my ministry at Bethel. Due to financial issues, the church has had to make a change in the call. It will be going from full time to half time. After much prayer and discerning, I determined that I am not supposed to be that part time pastor for these wonderful people of God. I will remain here until Jan. 31, 2015 unless I receive a new call before that date. God has certainly challenged us all and we'll see what God has in mind for all of us. Whatever it is, it will be good.

For the first Sunday of Advent, I preached on Isaiah 64:1-9. Here is the sermon:


Happy New Year! That’s right. Happy New Year! Normally, we associate the first day of the year with Jan. 1, but that is for the secular calendar. The church liturgical year starts on a different date and is traditionally 4 Sundays before Christmas. This period of four weeks before Christmas is Advent, which means arrival, appearance, and emergence. We are not just waiting for Christmas, but for our Lord’s return as triumphant king.

 In the reading from Isaiah, those who had returned to the Promised Land after the Babylonian Captivity were hoping and waiting for God’s appearance to deliver them from trouble. Life in the land was not as they had anticipated. They were not welcomed back with open arms. Those who had not been taken from the land resented the returnees’ sense of entitlement. The people were once again waiting and longing for God’s intervention on their behalf.

This passage sounds a lot like the psalms of lament, which are a great place to turn to when our hearts are heavy. Isaiah, on behalf of the people, cries out in misery and appeals for mercy. Our reading  reflects the people's journey from desperation to their destiny as God's people.

Today's lesson begins and ends with a request. The opening request is, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...to make your name known to your adversaries” (vv. 1a, 2b). For the people of Israel, life is turned upside down. It is time for God to act in the prophet's here and now, so their appeal is to a cosmic, divine warrior who would go to battle for them.

This anguished cry is followed by Isaiah reminding God of what he has done for the people in the past. Think of all the times throughout Israel's history God had made appearances in the people's time of need: the incident of the burning bush in Moses' call and the Mt. Sinai appearances of God.

The resources of the faithful minority were exhausted. The   bottom line of the prophet's appeal is to God's honor (v. 2). Of course, the people of Israel also wanted their enemies to get their comeuppance. Enemies would experience the terror of God's mountain-quaking, fiery presence (1b, 2a). That would get Israel's enemies off their back. However, as they were praying and hoping for a change in their adversaries, a change occurs in the lamenting community.

The mention of God's mountain quaking power reminds the people of Israel of God's previous interventions on their behalf. How God should deal with the people's enemies and the wrongs they've done, gives way to how God has cared for them through "awesome deeds" (v. 3). Funny things happen when we pray rather than retaliate.

The Israelites’ pondering of these things moves them to praising God for being the only God "who works for those who wait for him (v4). The people's praise honors the God who is turned toward humanity, who is in relationship with them and working on their behalf. They reaffirm God's sovereignty. The righteous are rewarded.

All is well for the righteous, but what should God do with the guilty? Like the spouse who "confesses" their cheating was due to their partner's failure, the people of Israel attribute their sin and their transgression to God’s anger and withdrawal. The accusation draws upon two key premises: 1. That good deeds derive from divine good ness, and 2. Without God, humans will sin. The lamenters next describe how sin has covered them as a community, contaminated their deeds, taken their energy and become their driving force. This compulsion to sin leads to a second confession and accusation: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (v. 7). The failure to seek God is attributed to God’s hiding; seeking is futile because God has left the guilty to the consequences of their own trespasses (Solvang).

Now the lamenters do what they said nobody does: they call upon God's name and attempt to take hold of God. When all hope seems lost and the divide between God and his people seems too wide to bridge, this confession is made, "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand" (v. 8). The people of Israel appeal to their historic relationship with God--"our Father" and "our potter."

Since God gathered and fashioned Israel as his own people, why should he destroy the work of his own hands? Ultimately, the light goes on and the people make the connection and make just one more request--that God's anger and memory of their guilt not last forever.

Today is not much different from Isaiah's time. We too, cry out with Isaiah for mighty acts of deliverance. That's a perfectly normal response to the craziness and pain we experience in the world surrounding us and those we love. Friends, colleagues, neighbors and family struggle to detect some glimmer of hope in a time of confusion, pain and darkness. The  elderly battle chronic loneliness and health issues. Their adult children have their own problems and feel helpless to help their parents. Teenagers struggle with bullying and depression and some end their lives. Violence wracks our nation and the world: in Ferguson, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

In the season of Advent, however, we are reminded that God is not a "Cosmic Concierge" at our beckon call. We are deluded into thinking that every problem has a solution and that every question has an answer. The common understanding is, "There is a reason for everything." However, God does not always split open the heavens. The lesson that God is teaching us in this time of Advent runs contrary to the lifestyle of the 21st century. Everything today demands instant gratification. In the cosmic scheme of things, God is teaching us that not everything is gratified immediately. There are times in our lives that we simply must learn to sit, to be patient and to wait. Things will happen in God’s time.

So how do we handle this season of Advent, when things are bleak and God is not answering us in the time that we want? We need to set aside time for reflection and time for prayer. The tradition of the Advent wreath and the lighting of a new candle each week remind us that God is coming and our prayers will be answered. Over the next four weeks as we light the Advent candles and the light grows brighter, may our hearts grow stronger with the knowledge that the King of creation has heard us and will send his Son to comfort us and to wipe away our tears. Amen.


Samuel Giere, workingpreacher.org
HarperCollins Study Bible
Ralph W. Klein, "Studies on Old Testament Texts for Series B," Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
Russell Rathbun, "Begging for God's Presence”
Elma K. Solvang, workingpreacher.org

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Farming 2.0 a week late.

This is the sermon from July 20 that I preached at Bethel Lutheran Church.  I got behind in posting as I prepare for surgery on my rotator cuff tomorrow. Last week besides trying to get office things in order and worship preperation for several weeks' out, there were numerous pre-op things that needed doing.

The text is Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

Last week I admitted my lack of skill when it comes to growing plants. I have a black thumb rather than a green thumb. I have another confession to make. I have a hard time telling weeds from plants and flowers. After all, some of the weeds are beautiful and look like something you might want to keep in a garden. And some plants don’t look as beautiful as the weeds. After all, are the wildflowers we see growing in fields along the side of the road weeds or flowers? 

In last week’s gospel, we heard about different types of dirt and how the planted seeds were affected by the ground in which they were planted. That was Farming 1.0. Today, the issue is that of wheat and weeds that look alike in the early stages of growth or Farming 2.0.

There are several astonishing things about this parable that would have made the hearers of it scratch their heads. First, as we find out later in the story, the sower is a wealthy man of status who has slaves to do his work. Does it seem a bit odd that the householder himself should be the one sowing the seed into his field rather than the slaves doing it?

Nevertheless, the seeds are planted, but then there’s a problem. There are weeds in the garden. 

What’s our response when we see weeds growing in our gardens? “Pull them out” or “Quick get the Round Up!” However, the master told his slaves to leave the weeds alone. That too seems a bit odd. It was a common practice to uproot weeds before the roots got entangled with the wheat. That makes sense, except the type of weed in this parable is darnel, which was nearly impossible to distinguish from wheat in the early stages of growth. 

Darnel is organically related to wheat and is also known as “cheatgrass” or “false wheat.” It has a vigorous root system, which spreads deeply and widely, intermixing its roots with the roots of the wheat and greedily sucking up the water and nutrients of the soil. Darnel produces bad fruit and bad seeds which can kill humans and other animals. If you are a farmer, you really want to separate out this weed from the wheat. However, by the time the difference between the wheat and darnel could be seen, it was already too late. At this point, uprooting the weeds would damage the wheat. 

Once the wheat and darnel had fully matured, they were easily distinguished from each other. Reapers would gather the darnel, which could be burned as fuel. Then the wheat would be gathered into sheaves to be transported to the threshing floor. 

In talking about seed, wheat and weeds, Jesus was not teaching a course on farming, but was speaking allegorically. Jesus again is the sower of the good seed as he was in last week’s parable. However, rather than the seed being the word, the good seed is the children of the kingdom, believers in Jesus. The wheat and weeds are people. The task of judging between good and evil belongs to Christ. We are not to judge, but rather work at reconciliation and to forgive. That is why the Master directed his workers not to remove the weeds. The householder cared so much about the wheat that he did not want any of it to be damaged.

Sowing describes Jesus’ ministry of proclamation and demonstration of God’s empire and saving presence. The image of slaves is one Jesus used to describe his disciples earlier in Matthew’s gospel (10:24-25).

This is a parable about a field—the world, the church, ourselves. It is about a collective experience. There is always an inseparable mixture of good and bad, wheat and weeds together. We should not expect that God is going to come and take out all the bad things and make everything and everyone completely good and pure. That is reserved for the last day and is not something we will see in this lifetime. This is not to say that God doesn’t change hearts and turn weeds into wheat and make the wheat mixed with weeds wheatier.

Jesus identified the field as the world, which was the realm of everyday political, economic, social and religious life. At that time, it was dominated by Roman imperial power. Jesus’ sowing of the good seed concerned another empire, the kingdom of God, which worshipped a different king and God. Jesus formed the distinct community of his followers right in the middle of the weeds of the Roman Empire.

Don’t we find ourselves in a similar situation today? We struggle with choices we have to make like deciding between: getting a job to support our family or staying at home to spend more time with the family; or between supporting someone who struggles at work and pulls down the quality of our team or firing that person; or between the best school your child has been accepted to or one that is affordable; or between two different treatment options for a severe illness; or between giving into peer pressure because you can’t stand being left out or choosing to stick to your values and risk isolation. You get the idea.

So…are we wheat or weeds? The answer is “Yes.” We as a church and individually are both. It goes back to Luther’s teaching about us being simultaneously sinners and saints. 

What makes us weedy? How about when we are upset with someone because of something they have done and we won’t forgive them. Sometimes the person is unaware of having done anything hurtful.  Another is talking behind someone’s back when we’re upset with them. Scripture tells us to go to the person who has offended us and make it right with that person. Then if the person will not listen, we should bring others into the situation. 

What makes us wheatier? Spend time in the presence of God in prayer and reading scripture. You know how good friends or couples become more alike the more time they spend together?...the more time we spend listening to God’s voice and in fellowship with him and one another, the more we become like Jesus. We get wheatier! Sharing our faith with others is another way to get wheatier. We should not keep the good gifts and blessings of God to ourselves! We become wheatier, healthier Christians through the bread and cup of the Eucharist as well.

We are a mixed bag of wheat and weeds, much the way we were one or more types of soil last week. We cannot so easily divide the world into Christians (the righteous) and non-Christians (evil doers). “Both the Gospel and our experience tell us that such categories are fluid, co-existent, and difficult to discern at best” (David Lose). Earlier in Matthew, Jesus declared that his family was composed of those who do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 12:50). That description could include a wide and surprising variety of people. Do we always do the will of the Father? No.

We are tempted to judge others though, aren’t we? Aren’t we pretty sure where some will spend their eternity because they don’t act like we think they should act? 

Our presence and job in this world is not one to eradicate evil wherever we see it. God is the judge. At the end of the age, the Son of Man will send his angels to collect evil doers. Remember, God is God and we are not. The final victory belongs to God despite all appearances. God will bring history to a close with justice and the saints will be freed from abuse and oppression. This is good news. 

This parable is not a threatening word, but a comforting word. What a relief that God does not call us to judge all the peoples of the world. 

What is God calling us to? God is calling us to be: to be wheat rather than weeds, to BE the good in the world, fully aware of how we will be resisted, to live the Gospel, to be the light when the darkness seems overwhelming, to be the salt when blandness and conformity are the easier paths. 

Do you hear the promise, the good news in this parable? In confusing, challenging situations, we have the promise that God will sort things out. Think of yourself as the field. At the harvest, the weeds in us are removed and what is wheat in us is gathered into God’s care and keeping.

Let our growth be that of moving from being weeds to being wheat.

Let us pray: 

Dear Lord, our lives are colored by ambiguity and we do not always know the right or best thing to do. But we do know that your love is guiding us and that you have called us to live as your people in the world. When we face hard choices, give us eyes to see the best path forward and the courage to follow it. When we make mistakes, forgive us. When we are hurt by our choices, comfort us. When we hurt others, help us to reach out to them in love. And above and beyond all these decisions, remind us that you still love us and call us back to this place that we may be forgiven, renewed, called, and sent forth once more as your beloved children. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
(David Lose)

M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII: Matthew.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.
Intervarsity Press Commentaries
Rev. Nanette Sawyer, Greedy Weeds, questionthetext.com

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why Are We Here? | Holy Soup

I don't know about you, but this really makes me think, especially as the pastor of a small church.

Why Are We Here? | Holy Soup

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Farming 1.0

It's been a long time since I have posted anything. I've been traveling. First for vacation, my husband, Ray, and I went to Rhode Island. It was my joy to participate in a classmate's installation service as pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Woonsocket, RI. We were in RI about a week and a half and connected with many friends. Our pace was more leisurely than previous visits.

Then I was home for one week followed by a week of continuing education at my alma mater in Gettysburg. Class time and conversations were stimulating. The fellowship with old friends and new was amazing. I am finally home for a bit.

Below is the sermon I shared with the congregations of Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY and Bethany Lutheran Church in Olean, NY. The scripture text is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

          From our conversations together, I know a number of you have farming or at least gardening experience. The parable of the sower likely raises different questions for you than it does for those like me, who have no knowledge about what it takes to make things grow. I do have some observations however.

          I noticed a couple of things about the sower. Doesn’t it seem like this man was careless? He threw seed everywhere he went. In Jesus’ day, they did not use fancy seed spreaders like those that we have today. Instead, they took a handful and threw it as they walked along. That is fine, but the sower did not pay much attention to where he threw it. The seed landed on all kinds of ground whether or not it was any good. He had the results to prove the differences.

The sower did not hold back any of the seed, but generously threw it.

After telling the story, Jesus ends this parable with this appeal, “let anyone with ears, listen (13:9). This kind of listening involves more than literal hearing. It is about discerning and discovering the importance of Jesus’ words. One word is repeated numerous times throughout this passage—“hear.” How well the seed grew depended upon the quality of hearing of the recipients of the word. 

Jesus describes four kinds of soil representing four different responses to God’s Word. The path represents those who hear the Word and don’t understand it, so the evil one takes it away. Their response is “I don’t get it and I don’t want to spend the time and energy to try to get it." They gave up when they didn’t understand.

          The rocky ground is those who hear, get all excited, yet do not let the Word go deep into their hearts, so they fall away. Their response is, “Wow. This is amazing. I never felt like this before.” Then after a few weeks or months, their response changes to “You mean I have to do this every day? I have to go to church during the summer?”

          Those who are thorny ground hear the word, but let day-to-day worries and wealth distract them. This prevents them from bearing fruit. Their response is, “I really wish I could be at church on Sunday, but I’m going to a football game. Or I’d really like to help out with the food pantry, but it interferes with my bowling league. Or I really wish I could give to the building fund, but I just bought a new Jaguar convertible. 

          The good soil is people who not only hear, but also understand God’s word and take the time to learn the disciplines and practices of the Christian life. In this way, their lives individually and corporately yield a bumper crop. 

  Everyone heard, but not everyone discerned the importance of Jesus’ words.

          Where did you find yourself in Jesus’ parable?

          By talking about the seed as the Word, Jesus already identified himself as the sower. However, it is not uniquely Jesus’ position. We too may sow the Word. Sometimes we are the seed. And we are always some kind of ground or a combination of various kinds.

One of the things I appreciate most about being a Lutheran is that we acknowledge as a church that things are not always so black and white. Even when we love the Lord with all our hearts and endeavor to please him with our actions, we stumble and fall. That is because although we are saints because of what Jesus has done for us, we are also sinners who mess up and let things get in the way of our relationship with the Lord. Martin Luther called this being simultaneously saints and sinners. In other words, we are all a mixed bag who are in a process of learning and growing.

What is God saying to us individually and as a congregation through today’s gospel? Are we listening and understanding?

          Let’s face it, we don’t always understand God’s written or spoken word. Do we give up then or do we spend time with the Lord in prayer until we understand? It takes perseverance.

          More often however, I think as a small congregation we need to take care that God’s Word is not choked out by our anxieties about the concerns of daily life, especially when it comes to family or church finances. If we allow these or other things to get in the way, we will dry up and die without bearing fruit.

          Jesus words to us here are so radical. "Jesus takes our hand, opens it up, and as he does so, we notice his hands are not only callused and bruised; they’re also pierced, with seeds in the holes left by the nails. Then he pours some of that precious seed from his pierced palms into ours, and we send seeds everywhere that cost God everything. Amen."

(Jason Byassee: Scattering seeds, http://m.faithandleadership.com/sermons/jason-byassee-scattering-seeds?page=full)

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