Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010
During the second week of the new decade, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, was shaken to its foundations by a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0. News of this disaster spread like waves from Haiti’s epicenter in Port-au-Prince to the farthest reaches of the planet. Every day, every hour, the stories fill the media in this race against time – to rescue those still living trapped under rubble and the millions of Haitians who still need food and drinkable water – bringing forth memories of 9/11, echoes of Katrina—only magnified to a scale we can barely imagine.
I’ve been thinking about the unexpected and indiscriminate ways of nature. Perhaps to comfort myself, I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare’s poetic language, comparing the quality of human compassion with the gentle rains, much like today: “The quality of mercy is unrestrained; it droppeth from the heavens like the gentle rains.” In contrast, I’ve been thinking of its counterpart – as reflected in another statement by Shakespeare: “the quality of violence is unrestrained; it rises up from hell, like an earthquake, or a hurricane.”
In this hour of Haiti’s greatest need for all of us, now is the time to be the gentle rains of mercy and compassion, and to shower this impoverished nation with love. And so, before we continue with this morning’s readings, let us pause now in a moment of silence, for the people of Haiti—the thousands of men, women, and children who have died, whose names and faces we may never know, the millions of lives forever changed by this devastation.
Let us remember that this could be us; that indirectly, this IS us. This becomes clearer as we re-contemplate the vision that Martin Luther King, Jr., put forth—a mountaintop vision of a new way of living lifted up by God, out of suffering and slavery and into salvation; out of domination and conquest and into mutuality and cooperation; to live together in harmony, as sisters and brothers on this one planet we share.
…on this weekend commemorating the message of Martin Luther King, we remember his liberating vision; a vision, in fact, shared by another great liberator, Moses.
The death of Moses is one of the most poignant moments in the Bible. Here was Moses – God’s faithful servant – who freed his people from slavery in Egypt and led them for forty years—forty years of wandering and deprivation, and finally, finally, brought them to the brink of the Promised Land. But just as they are about to cross over, God leads Moses up to the mountaintop, up where both of them can get a good view of the promised land. God shows it to Moses and they savor a moment there, on the mountaintop, because they have been partners in this enterprise for lo, so many years. But then God turns to Moses and says, you shall not cross over. Imagine having labored so long, come so far, only to hear those words, “You shall not cross over.”
In the last sermon he preached before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of a dream he’d had, a dream in which God takes him up to the mountaintop and shows him a promised land of justice and equality for all, a land that God assures him will one day come to be, but which he will not live to see. ”You shall not cross over,” God said. And for so many years on this Sunday, our story seems to end, here on the mountaintop, with God and Moses and Dr. King together there, gazing into the future, at a hoped for-dream.
Last year at this time, this country inaugurated its first African-American president. Does it seem like a long time ago to you? Does it seem like a dream? A distant memory?
Remember it? It was another mountaintop experience. High on the steps of the nation’s capital, our new president took office, and his words echoed those of Moses, Lincoln, and King. Surrounded by a sea of humanity, this man took oath as the world was watching—from millions of people crowding the mall in the nation’s capital on that bitterly cold winter morning—to the billions around the planet, including us here at Skyline, watching the ceremonies live.
It seemed as if the people had spoken, in a grassroots election, with record voter turnout: the liberator had come, the messiah was here, and we had reached the Promised Land. This new president seemed to be elevated to mythical proportions. By the media; by all of us. Even preschoolers here at Skyline dressed as Barak Obama for Halloween, cheering on the inauguration. Our fascination with his story – and even his name. (As comedian Robin Williams reminded us: “Barak blessing, Hussein – don’t ask, Obama – he with us.”)
Obama himself, aware of how fickle the crowds are and how easily they can cheer a messiah one day only to crucify them the next, reminded us contrary to popular opinion, “No, I was not born in a manger.”
Instead, like King, he reminded us of how serious the crisis in our country is – how America has fallen short of its dream that all people are created equal: As millions of people are losing their jobs, their homes, healthcare insurance, Wall Street executives make millions in bonuses. We have the greatest divide between the rich and the poor in any industrialized nation in the world.
In words that echoed those of King, Obama reminded us how hard the journey will be: The challenges we face are real, they are serious and many. The journey will be long and the road, steep. We may not get there in a year, or even in a term (he left out, I may not make it there with you) but I promise you America, we the people will get there. (We will make it to the Promised Land)
So how do we begin? We begin here and now, within our own community. The promised land is here and now—at hand, as Jesus put it. The way to find the promised land is to start to build it, changing the world from the inside out, starting with ourselves, one person, one community at a time. Creating families, friendships, and communities. Communities where people of all races and classes and cultures come together to live into this promise of justice and equality for all. Churches are a great place to create such communities, and we, the people of Skyline, are called to create this here.
So we must begin together, inspired by prophetic voices called to do our part, to pick up the mantle of leadership that each one of us is called to. But what kind of leadership? What kind of vision of a promised land are we called to?
In the biblical story that follows today’s reading, one of Moss’s aids, Joshua, takes the lead and the people cross over into the promised land, the land of milk and honey, out of slavery and finally into freedom. And what do they do? The once conquered people, become conquerors, the oppressed become the oppressors.
Guided by the belief that we are God’s chosen people and they are not, God has promised us this land, it was OK to take it from them. Is this really God’s will, or a self-serving ideology, that has served to legitimate oppression and manifest destiny throughout human history, including U.S. history? This land is your land, and now it’s my land? For those who would say, but it’s right there in the Bible, God promised the land to the chosen people, I would say, it’s better to give your bible to someone else rather than be misguided by such dangerous literalism.
We cannot fulfill the mountaintop promise until we all come along together. We cannot fulfill our promise if we remain divided and isolated. We must come to realize that are all in it together.
And that is why it is time for a new story. Jesus spoke of a kingdom, a promised land ruled by love – love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Loves that cannot be confined or limited to just those we know, those in our group, our class, our socio- economic group, our faith. A way of being that recognizes and lives with the knowledge that we are all one.
One of Dr. King’s mentors was the mystical and prophetic Howard Thurman. Thurman said this: Ultimately, there is only one place of refuge on this earth for any person, and that is another person’s heart. It is our vulnerability and our interdependence that unite us as a human family. We are each other’s safe harbor. And so, if you’re employed, stand up for the unemployed; if you’re insured, advocate for the uninsured; if you’re a man, you stand up for the equality of women. If you’re white, you show up for the rights of people of color. If you’re straight, you fight on behalf of gay folks. If you’re a citizen, you stand, side by side, with the immigrant, and stand up with the people of Haiti in their hour of greatest need. Stand up for the people of Oakland, who don’t have enough food to eat. . If we are to build the promised land, solidarity must be the spiritual discipline, as well as the political practice of this generation.
Friends, on this historic Sunday, as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, I challenge us to take up the mantle of faith, that all people are created equal. Let us, you and I, do our part in building the promised land, to bring forth the kingdom of heaven—here on earth, here and now, in our lives, and in the world.
Posted: Tuesday, August 4, 2009
It Takes a Congregation to Raise Our Children
Earlier this week, in bible study, we talked a/what life was like for families, 50 years ago, compared with today. The consensus was that our culture today is not a friend to families. TV, internet ads enlist our children as surrogate salespeople demanding toys and clothes they’ve never actually seen but upon which they are convinced that their survival depends. Children and teens learn social skills from The Simpsons and even Sex in the City, and manners from South Park.
• 50 years ago, aunts and uncles and grandparents lived nearby and provided a cushion of childcare and perspective to relieve beleaguered parents. Today, many parents raise their children in the bell jar of the nuclear family.
• 50 years ago a city kid could wander through the neighborhood, and a country kid through woods and fields. Today we worry our child will be struck down by an car or snatched by a stranger.
• 50 years ago on warm summer nights people sat on their porches to watch and talk with passersby. Today, we retreat to our home entertainment centers, and the passersby are mostly in cars.
• 50 years ago, teenagers knew too little about sex. Now they know too much, with info available from everything from the internet to Oprah, many of them cynical before their 1st dance.
• 50 years ago, neighbors were family or friends and even if unfriendly, their strengths and weaknesses were known.
Today, many neighbors are strangers. Something called a village is more likely to be a strip mall than the real thing. and despite all the technology that’s supposed to bring us closer–from cell phones to the Internet–most of us feel more disconnected than ever. As psychologist and author Mary Pipher puts it, “There’s too much information and not enough meaning, too much happening and not enough time to process it.” As a society it seems we’ve come to care more about speed than safety, more about convenience than quality, more about wit than wisdom, more about personality than character.
On the other hand, few of us have any desire to turn the clock back 50 years. We know too well the racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia of bygone times. So let’s not romanticize the past, but let’s not view the present through a fog of wishful thinking either. The electronic village is not a village. Virtual community is not community. Computers and TVs and DVDs and Iphones and blackberries, and YouTube cannot raise our children. We must raise our children.
I know that the metaphor of the good shepherd tends to be overused. Also, we suburbanites don’t have much to do with sheep these days, the closest experience might be watching the migrating flocks of (sheep or is it goats) eating dried grass in the Oakland hills in later summer..Besides our lack of familiarity with sheep, we also tend to view sheep as “not very bright” not “independent minded thinkers”, but instead, animals that blindly following a leader.. My experience of this congregation is that it’s more like herding cats, than sheep! In some ways, the sheep/flock metaphor doesn’t work for us.. so may I suggest another metaphor for us.
There’s a Sioux word, tiospaye. It means the people with whom one lives. A tiospaye is a human ecosystem of aunts and uncles and friends and neighbors who are all responsible for the care and nurture of all the children. Everyone in the community belongs, everyone contributes, everyone benefits. Children need a tiospaye: a safe environment in which to explore and grow, where adults beyond the nuclear family are known as trusted friends and teachers, not strangers to be feared and fled, where the values and traditions of previous generations can be learned and internalized, where the ancient stories are told again and again.
A congregation, this congregation, can be a tiospaye. We can be a real, not a virtual, community. Only in community do we learn the lessons of difference and relationship. Community demands civility. When we’re in regular contact with other people, what we say and do matters. It has consequences. Mistakes require apologies. Triumphs evoke praise, sorrows sympathy.
The dominant message of advertising and the entertainment media is that the only worthwhile commitment is to oneself and the only Q worth asking is “Am I happy right now?” It’s a formula, ironically, for unhappiness, because happiness ultimately depends upon one’s feeling connected to something more than one’s own happiness. Psychologist Martin Seligman says, “To the extent that young people now find it hard to take seriously their relationship with God, to care about their relationship with the country or to be part of a large and abiding family, they’ll find it very hard to find meaning in life. To put it another way, the self is a very poor site for finding meaning.” The result is a desperate, vague hunger for values, for community, for something larger than the self.
When we do our job, church communities breach the walls of isolation and fill the void of spiritual emptiness. Studies published not in the religious press but in journals of psychology and, most recently in Time Magazine, find that people who attend church regularly are much less likely than others to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce or even to be unhappily married, to become depressed, or to commit suicide. At our best, a congregation like ours centers adults and children in an interdependent web of caring and cooperation, grounded in tradition but not bound to it, while opening hearts and minds to possibility and mystery, the cosmos beyond the self.
We do this in many ways. We enact rituals that connect the generations - from our Mardi Gras, to Halloween, from the Xmas Party, to the Easter Egg Hunt, to the upcoming Spring Fling celebration. We celebrate rites of passage from baptisms, to confirmation, from weddings to memorial services. And, to some extent, we engage children w/the natural world in ecology curricula and time outdoors. We instill the habits of service and generosity through our mission programs, inviting children and teens to take part in alleviating cold and hunger here in Alameda County, through such efforts as “stop shivering Sunday” and next week’s “Yes we can” Sunday. We invite teens to take part in preparing and serving meals to homeless people through St Mary’s center, and to join in our global missions including, writing cards to children in Sierra Leone and donating books for Angola.
But so much more is needed.
We need to foster more communication between the generations in church School and through youth groups, and picnics and overnighters. We need to support our young people in their visions for our faith community – Their vision of worship – types of music, dance, video, sermon topics, faith Q’s –relevant to their lives and their world Their vision of service and generosity – taking on issues they are passionate about.. from environmental conversation to alleviating hunger and disease. – Crop Walks, Heifer international. In a world in which language is debased and trivialized, we need read to find out how God is speaking to them – through scripture and poetry and music and films. In a cluttered and hectic world, we need to offer more sanctuary, more sacred space set apart for contemplation of ultimate things. We need to provide young people w/a context for slowing down time.
Most important, we need to pass on to our children and teens, the core values necessary for moral choices: that every human being deserves dignity and respect, that giving is more blessed than receiving, that the Golden Rule is not out of date, that love demands both empathy and accountability, that there’s something inside every human that cannot be bought or sold, hired or fired, franchised or trademarked, which is the soul. To do this, we need to tell our stories of heroes and heroines who exemplify these values and inspire us to live and if needed, to die for them. We need to let children know that they are heirs to the UCC’s tradition of free inquiry and compassionate service.
This faith community and this denomination recognize our responsibility to our children and teens to give them not only a religious curiosity but also a religious identity. We must raise our children and teens to be free and confident to find their own path, and at the same time, we owe them a spiritual home to which they can return if they choose with affection, trust, and a sense of security.
Xian religious educator, Charles Foster, observes that all children have a deep yearning “to know to whom they belong.” They need a sense of history. The “communal events” we share, from the birth of Jesus to Galileo’s scientific discoveries to Sojourner Truth’s liberating mission, mark us as a people. We inherit their character. and so we must tell their stories. In Sunday School and in confirmation classes we use narratives from the Hebrew and Xian scriptures and other faith traditions of the world not because they’re literally true but because they are our religious birthright. During worship I read from these scriptures not because they’re infallible or exclusive but because they are rich in tradition as well as wisdom. They remind us who we are and to whom we belong.
This is our vision – for our children our future.. here at Skyline.. I am so moved by the commitment this congregation has made to fund our future children, youth and family director. We’re interviewing some very talented and dedicated people – shepherds if you will, to serve in this capacity, including someone today and we will keep you informed on our progress.
Yes, it does takes a shepherd, a catalyst – someone to champion and inspire our vision, At the same time, it takes all of us to be a part of it. It takes a flock, a tiospaye, a congregation, a village to make this vision a reality.
So, I ask you to be a village for every child in this congregation. Get to know the children and teens by name! Teach Sunday School whether or not you have children of your own. Help out with the Confirmation program and the youth group and family activities at the church. Be a calm and guiding presence to children in work and in play, in trouble and in turmoil. Take initiative. Reach out.
“Raising healthy children,” says Mary Pipher, “is a labor-intensive operation.” Families have never done it alone and cannot be expected to. It takes a flock, village. It takes a tiospaye. It takes a congregation. It takes every one of us! Amen.
Posted: Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Wheat and Weeds
Matt 13:24-30, 36-43
Another parable He put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’
The servants said to Him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds 1st and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’…
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”
It’s gardening season, literally, and liturgically! Over these next few weeks, we’ll focus on Jesus’ gardening /farming parables about the kingdom of heaven on earth. Last week’s parable compared God with an extravagant farmer, sowing the seeds of love and hope everywhere, confident in the abundance and great potential of the seeds to take root, anywhere. This week’s parable compares God with a farmer, scanning this earthly field, accepting the mixture of wheat and weeds within it, or tune in next week – how the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny grain of mustard seed. Today’s parable is a core teaching, appearing in the 3 synoptic gospels. This version comes from Matt’s gospel. No one can say for sure how accurate a reporter Matt is, writing in 90AD, but one thing is certain: He warms up to any parable about judgment, and the end time. This theme seems to fit today’s world, with global anxiety running high these days – about the future, wars, poverty, the environment, the economy, the nation, the church. Some of us fear an apocalypse, and others hope for one.. as we wrestle with a world that is messier, and weedier, than we’d like it to be.
Of all the Gospel writers, Matt is the only one who goes on and on about the end of the world, the only one who mentions a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. His is the only Gospel that contains the wise and foolish virgins, or the division of the sheep from the goats, or today’s parable about the wheat and the weeds. Of all the Gospel writers, it is Matt who most wants a clear-cut creation, in which things are black or white, good or bad, in which people are faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed, those who are in (with ears to hear) and those who are out (who do not hear).
Of all the gospel writers, only Matt sets up 2 versions of this parable: one version is told to the crowds, and another version, the insider’s explanation, is told to the disciples themselves – again, Matt’s discrimination between insiders and outsiders, between those with ears to hear and those without. To the insiders, the message is clear: “Never mind that there seem to be a lot of weeds/tares in the world right now. Hang in there, be patient. When the last day comes the wheat will be vindicated, while the weeds/tares will go up in smoke.
It may have been a comforting message at the time, them, and now, to those who ask, “Why is the world such a mess? What can we do about it? if God is really in charge, why isn’t the world, a beautiful and pure, amber fields of grain? “It appeals to those who ask, “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds, God?”
But for others, today’s parable is not comforting at all – it has the opposite effect. Matt may have been clear that there are only 2 kinds of people in the world – the wheat and the weeds – but it is a clarity that escapes most of us, we who have encountered both kinds w/in ourselves, w/ in our neighbors, and w/in the world. Most of our fields are full of mixed plantings, or worse. Sometimes I think that if I examined mine closely I wouldn’t find wheat or weeds anymore. They’ve grown together for so long that a hybrid’s more likely, a mongrel seed that’s a mixture of both. So the business about gathering and burning the weeds tends to make me a little nervous, and the burning question is: Which am I? Wheat or weed? Good soil, or bad? Blessed or cursed?
Parables rarely answer such Q’s directly. They’re more like dreams or poems, delivering their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious, and their mystery has everything to do with their longevity. Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding.
But according to Matt, Jesus doesn’t leave today’s parable alone. According to Matt, he takes his disciples aside and gives them the key: “I’m the sower, the field is the world, the weeds belong to the devil, the wheat to the kingdom of God”. Everything equals something else and when I hear it laid out like this I wonder, “Jesus, why he didn’t’ you just say so in the 1st place? Some scholars say it is how he avoided arrest; some say it was how he winnowed his listeners. Others say he never explained his parables at all, but that some who recorded his words could not stand their ambiguity, (like matt) and took the liberty of making these later additions so that no one who heard them later could misunderstand.
Not that it matters much, except to remind us how much we love explanations, which are after all so much easier than mysteries. A parable washes over you like a wave full of life and light, but an explanation – well, an explanation lets you know where you stand. and all of us, on some level, want to know where we stand, just like the servants in today’s parable.
The servants are so eager to please. They see something wrong, all these weeds in their boss’s best field and offer to fix it. “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” they ask, wanting to be faithful servants, to be counted among the sheep, to be counted good. The weeds they are after are darnel – tares, if your Bible is the King James Version, or Lolium temulentum, if you know your weeds – a plant related to wheat, that looks like wheat, that hides out in wheat but that is poisonous in the end, causing blindness and even death if too many of its small black seeds turn up in the bread dough.
Palestinian farmers learned to deal with it early, uprooting the darnel once or twice before harvest so that they did not have to separate seeds by hand. To let the wheat and the darnel grow together posed an unnecessary risk, but one that this morning’s sower seems willing to take. He is eccentric, even by ancient standards – reluctant to let his servants weed his field for fear they’ll uproot the wheat, sure that an enemy is responsible for the problem in the 1st place. By modern standards he seems a little paranoid – I mean, how many of us assume that the weeds in our yards are the work of our enemies? Weeds grow by themselves, and most of us have them, not only in our yards, but in our lives: thorny people who weren’t part of the plan, sucking up sunlight and water meant for the good plants, not weeds, some are just irritating, like poison icy, others, are deadly. The Q is what to do about them?
“So you want us to go and gather them?” the servants ask the master? That’s the common sense solution.. pull them up, cast them out, cleanse the field. We’ve seen a lot of this throughout human history, and see it still today, whenever violent means are used to try to destroy the weeds, the wheat is also destroyed. Countless numbers of innocent lives have been destroyed in our recent attempts to root out the evils of terrorism in the world, and in the process, we become more like the weeds we are trying to destroy.
Wherever people try to purify the fields by hostile means, they’re doing what the servants wanted to do, without permission, because the master said no..
“No” the master said, “for in gathering the weeds you’d uproot the wheat along with them. Let them both grow together until the harvest time. “
It think there are some key reasons why the master said no. 1st of all, sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a bad one, especially when it can act both ways, like the wheat and the tares. We’ve all had the experience of uprooting the raspberries by mistake or protecting something interesting that turns out to be a thistle. I don’t know what makes us think we’re smarter about ourselves or about the other people in our lives. We’re so quick to judge, as if we we’re sure we know the difference between wheat and weeds, good seed and bad, but that’s rarely the case. Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we’ll chop down and what we’ll spare. Meaning to be good servants, we battle the weeds and end up standing on a pile of wheat.
Or else we do not, because we have the good sense to listen to the sower, whose orders sound foolhardy if not downright dangerous. Leave the weeds and the wheat alone; let them both grow together, he says, letting us know that he doesn’t share our appetite for a pure crop, a neat field, an efficient operation; letting us know that growth interests him more than perfection and that he’s willing to risk fat weeds for fat wheat. When we try to help him out a little, to improve his plan, he lets us know that our timing is off, not to mention our judgment, and that he does, after all, own the field.
Far better that we limit our focus, within, to the field, within ourselves, and courageously bring to the light of day, to see the glorious mixture of wheat and weeds that is within us, and within everyone. It’s natural to want to separate out the weeds, throw them out, and rid ourselves of everything we don’t want to know about ourselves. But in doing so, we end up separating them from our conscious minds, and repress them deep within the shadows of our unconscious, where they continue to drive our actions. Far better to bring the glorious mixture of wheat and weeds into the light of conscious thought, and learn to live with greater compassion for ourselves and others. We’ re all a mixture of wheat and weeds!
Hear another parable of the wheat and the weeds. One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheat field. No sooner had they begun to work, however, than they began to argue – 1st about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds and then about the rest of the weeds. Did the Queen Anne’s lace pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration? and the blackberries? They would be ripe in just a week or 2, but they were, after all, weeds – or were they? and the honeysuckle – it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.
About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of his field. Dejected, they did as they were told. Back at the barn he took their machetes away from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field. At 1st, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit to them and their profession, but as the summer wore on they marveled at the profusion of growth – tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, ragweed, and brown-eyed Susans. The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed the reapers came.
Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked. and the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and when the harvest was over the owner called them all together – the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors – and broke bread with them, bread that was the final distillation of that whole messy, gorgeous, mixed up field and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.
Posted: Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Seeds of the Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 13:31 – 33, 44 – 49, July 27, 08
Another parable Jesus put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it’s the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened…”The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and dells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age.”
One of the hardest things about believing in God is trying to talk about it, .. there is great wisdom in the Buddhist practice of meditation, entering the place of emptiness, of being, a place beyond words, there is great wisdom in the Jewish tradition of never uttering the name of Yahweh, because God is beyond names and words.. words cannot describe God.. which makes preaching about it, every week, quite a challenge!
For me, there just aren’t the words.. words that are true enough, right enough, big enough, to explain, exactly why I believe, or how my life is different because I do. Words always seem to fall short, they’re too vague, too pious. I can talk about mysterious experiences.. of how my heart feels full to bursting sometimes, or the amazing kinship I feel with others, or the incredible co-incidences that seem to happen when I’m really open to the spirit. I can talk about how even the worst things that have happened to me, seem to have a hidden blessing in them, but the truth is that it’s impossible to speak directly about these sacred, mysterious experiences. How can the language of earth point towards the reality of heaven? How can words describe what is beyond all words? How can humans speak of God?
Truth is.. we can’t.. but that doesn’t stop us from trying.. we reaching towards the heavens through music, and arts, and poetry and stories, striving to talk about what we cannot express, in terms of what we can – pointing towards the sacred, by talking about the ordinary, and trusting each other to make the connections with our analogies and metaphors and parables. Believing in God is like coming home, like being born again, like falling in love. We can’t say exactly what it is, but we can say what it’s like, and most of us get the message.
Jesus was a master of stories, metaphors and parables, to point towards his experience of God, to point us towards his experience of God, to point everyone to this experience, of awakening to the truth, that we are all God’s children, living in what he called, “the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven.. J described the KINGDOM OF GOD/KINGDOM OF HEAVEN using examples relevant to his 1st listeners, metaphors about farming and fishing, and baking, saying, , KINGDOM OF GOD = Like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a precious pearl, hidden treasure. Net cast into the ocean. “ in the KINGDOM OF GOD – , the last shall be first.
It’s hard for us to hear just how jarring and startling, J’s parables of the KINGDOM OF GOD were for his 1st listeners.
For us, living here and now, in a very different time and context, Jesus’ parables about the KINGDOM OF GOD seem enigmatic… for ex, what did Jesus mean when he said, “in the kingdom of heaven, the last shall be 1st and 1st shall be last? ” It can mean almost anything. It can be a trite cliché, (good news – a new checkout line just opened up at Safeway, while you’re standing in back of a long line) Context is everything!
But in it’s original context, (time and place in which Jesus 1st said it), the KINGDOM OF GOD had a very different meaning… Jesus preached in a poor Jewish homeland occupied, and oppressed by the wealthy Roman Empire – it was living under the Kingdom of Rome, under Lord Caesar. IN the Roman empire, society was highly stratified, with a few wealthy insiders, connected to the empire, at the top, and the vast majority, living at the bottom, are destitute.
Ever wonder – why Jesus called God’s realm – the kingdom? In 1st century, occupied Palestine… what was the kingdom? Who was Lord? “The kingdom,” = Roman kingdom, the Roman Empire, and the only King and Lord was Caesar! By comparing and contrasting the KINGDOM OF GOD with the kingdom of Rome.. …Jesus was making a very cutting criticism of the Roman Empire, saying that Rome’s system was not the system of God. In this context, how do you hear the metaphor, in the KINGDOM OF GOD the last shall be 1st? In this context, it’s not at all enigmatic – it’s political, subversive! Revolutionary! Jesus wouldn’t have survived long if he criticized the Empire directly, so he did it, indirectly, by talking in parables about sowers, wheat, and weeds.
Jesus’ critique of the empire is timeless.. it reaches beyond Rome, Rome is no worse than any other empire in human history. In fact, it applies to us; if Jesus was here today, who do you imagine, would be Rome? Perhaps we are Rome”.
In today’s passage that Rhea read from matt, Jesus launches a volley of metaphors and parables about the kingdom of heaven.. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he says, like yeast, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea. The images come quickly, one right after another, with no preparation, no explanation, no time for questions and answers. Jesus zings us with them – 1,2,3,4,5,… – like snapshots, like scenes glimpsed through the windows of a fast moving train. The kingdom of heaven is like this and this and this, he says. It’s almost like he does not want us to think too much about them, like he does not want us to get stuck on any one of them but to be dazzled by the number and variety of the things the kingdom of heaven is like – like this and this and this.
But today, I would like for us to focus in on just one of these images.. the mustard seed, the most familiar one, appearing in 3 of 4 gospels, very input. . we’ve heard it so many times before..but perhaps, it’s lost it’s potency for us. We read it in about 30 sec’s and think we’ve got it. but I imagine something very different in Jesus’ time.. perhaps an hour long interaction between Jesus and an audience, who are probably talking back to him, and interrupting him and debating with him and disagreeing with him and fighting with him, because he’s trying to get them to think, trying to provoke them to think for themselves…. I imagine that Q’s would come up… the audience fighting with themselves, and answering back to Jesus is doing exactly what he wants. It’s making them think, not about mustard, of course, but about the Kingdom.
So, I invite you to hear it as if for 1st time, wrestle with this, debate, in QandA, let’s even use our new microphones today so you can respond.. ..picture yourselves as poor, 1st century Palestinian farmers living under roman occupation, as you hear Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.. what do you think about that?
Of all the comparisons? why a mustard seed? We’re talking about God! Shocking, disturbing, very provocative, even a weird, image for the KINGDOM OF GOD. If J were to describe the K of Rome.. he might describe it as a mighty fortress, a team of stallions, a legion of soldiers.. If Jesus said, why the KINGDOM OF GOD is like a mighty cedar of Lebanon, everyone would yawn, say, “Of course.” It’s like a mustard seed … “What’s going on here?” what’s Jesus up to?
OK – you’re farmers.. what are mustard seeds?
Mustard seeds are weeds! Why a weed – ordinary humble, (like a dandelion?)
OK farmers, how do you like mustard seeds growing in your fields? We don’t like them.. Mustard seed is very dangerous in our fields. We try to control it. We try to contain it. Why do you mean the Kingdom is something that the people try to control and contain?” a disturber of the order… a wild weed?
OK farmers – you’re in Matt’s gospel, so most likely you’re Jewish farmers.. how do you feel about them? It’s forbidden in the Torah.. by Jewish law for mustard to Africa during apartheid, and kept the vision alive – 1 man, 1 vote, end of apartheid.. he kept the seeds of faith alive, through 27 years of imprisonment.. and the power of his faith, as tiny as a mustard seed, put into action, spread like wild mustard seed across the entire country, creating a new kingdom.. of 1 man, 1 vote, end of apartheid. The faith of one man, Nelson Mandela.
OK farmers, back to the field.. take a look at that mustard shrub.. What kind of birds take shelter in it? Are these majestic birds? Nope! The phrase Jesus used for birds, did not refer to majestic birds like the eagle or hawk…the kinds of birds who came to find refuge in the mustard plants’ branches… were the unclean birds… the scavengers… the ones who ate carrion… dead carcasses!
- Is Jesus is saying that the KINGDOM OF GOD is really ‘for the birds’…especially for those who feel as tiny, and invisible and insignificant as a mustard seed – those ‘undesirables’ that society keeps on the fringes… those people we can’t even imagine in the KINGDOM OF GOD? (In Mks’ gospel, the parable of the mustard seed is preceded by the story of the hemorrhaging women and healing on the Sabbath).. Who else do you imagine included in the KINGDOM OF GOD? perhaps the kingdom includes the poor, foreigners, the sick, the elderly, the widows, the poor, the mentally ill. AA enslaved in the US, Blacks living in South Africa during apartheid, can you think of others?
- Could it be that even THEY can find a home here!?! In this KINGDOM OF GOD?
The truth is that all of us, in our lives feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed.. Most likely, Jesus did, – nobody from nowhere.. born in a manger in the countryside…of Q’s able birth, a carpenter’s son, from Bethlehem – He lived among the poor… basically homeless – “the son of Man has no place to lay his head”! – He came into Jerusalem, not on a mighty stallion… but on a lowly donkey…- He was arrested, beaten, condemned… and died on a cross – one of the most humiliating forms of execution imaginable.
and yet, his life, like the tiny mustard seed, when sown upon the earth, grows and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Perhaps it’s harder for us, to relate to the subversive economic/ political message in this parable..we’re pretty well off by global standards.. but what about the poorest people in Oakland – in the flatlands – immigrants, uninsured, unemployed.. barely making living wages.. how would they here this parable? Perhaps as a message of hope,.. that whenever you feel tiny and insignificant, remember that like the tiny mustard seed – within you is the power of faith, to move mts, to transform not only your life, but many lives! Truth is, all of us, experience those times in life when we feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed, and our faith feels crushed by the inevitable losses that are a part of life. So hear now, another mustard seed parable, from the Buddhist tradition’s hear now, another parable of a mustard seed, from the Buddhist tradition.. A young woman named Kisagotami lost her only child to illness around his 1st birthday. Bereft with grief, she went from house to house in her village, clasping the dead child to her breast, and pleading for medicine to revive him. Her neighbors, thinking her mad, were frightened and tried to avoid her. But one man directed her to the Buddha, telling her that he had the medicine that she was seeking. Kisagotami went to the Buddha, and begged for the medicine.
“I know of some” the Buddha said, “but I will need a handful of mustard seed from a house where no child, husband, parent or servant has died”. Sounded easy enough.. mustard seeds are everywhere.. Try as she might, she could find no house that was without loss. Like the mustard seed, she broken open, to see her kinship, with all of humanity. In doing so, her despair lessened and she no longer felt divided from the rest of humanity. It is said that she returned to the Buddha as a nun and became fully enlightened.
Through the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus compares our faith with gardening.. we too, are called to sows tiny seeds, including some that may not survive. We sow mustard seeds so small, they barely seem to promise anything significant.. but we leave open a crack, a possibility that something may emerge from the efforts in our lives. Something we don’t expect, some invisible chance that something beautiful may emerge, something… when we least expect it. And just maybe, it will grow to something beyond our wildest imaginations.
Faith isn’t about pretending that we’ve found our way when we are lost, it isn’t about pretending that there isn’t suffering in the world. It is, instead being honest about our pain, and about the suffering that exists around us. And the sense that we are not alone, not separate from one another, in our joy, or in our pain. And it is about planting the seed anyway. Amen.