Sunday, July 31, 2011

7 Pentecost

July 31, 2011

Matthew 14.13-21


+ Last weekend, as most of you know, I was in the Cities. On Friday night, I had supper with my good friend, Justin and his girlfriend, Johanna at her apartment in St. Paul. Now, I had never actually had one of Justin’s famous meals before. I had heard about his culinary abilities (which, I was told, were quite something), but I had no idea what I was in for.

Sure enough, Justin did not disappoint. The meal he served was something else. And that is an understatement. He served, that evening, an incredible poached salmon with braised leeks and red wine butter sauce (beurre rouge). He also served an au gratin with three different potatoes including purple potatoes. For dessert he served several different kinds of fresh berries with ice cream. It was like nothing else I had ever eaten before.

Now, I hate to tempt all of you with these food images, especially those of you who very loyally have been keeping your Eucharistic fast this morning. But it was one of those truly magical meals. I have found myself thinking about that meal often this week—sometimes at very inopportune moments. But what is great about such an experience is that meals like that truly do make us appreciative of special times. Such a meal isn’t just about the food we share. It is also about the friendship we have and the celebration of friendship that meal entails.

We encounter another one of those magical culinary experiences in our Gospel reading for this morning. Here also we have an incredible meal. We have a miracle involving food. But we realize that like any truly magical culinary experience that there is more involved here than just the sharing of food. There is something deeper, something more meaningful. What we find happening today is something very familiar to us who follow Jesus. This so-called feeding of the multitudes appears frequently in the Gospel readings. Six times, actually. You know, then, that it is an important event in the lives of those early followers of Jesus if they are going to write about it six times.

I probably will also preach and write about Justin’s meal six times.

For us, this feeding of the multitude also has much meaning. Yes, it is a great miracle in the life of Jesus. But it also has meaning in our lives as well. If you listen closely to what is happening in the reading you’ll notice that, in many ways, we reenact what happens in today’s Gospel in our own lives as Christians. If you look closely, Jesus doesn’t just perform some outstanding miracle just to “wow” the crowds. He also performs a very practical act. And, as often happens in the life of Jesus, the practical and the spiritual get bound up with each other.

In our reading we find Jesus saying of the bits of bread and fish, “Bring them here to me.” Then he proceeds to do four things. He takes the bread and fish, he blesses it, he breaks the bread and he gives it to them. He takes, blesses, breaks and gives. That’s important to remember.

When else do we hear and do these things? Well, at every Eucharist we celebrate together. Every time we gather at this altar, we take, we bless, we break and we give. Of course, we commemorate the Last Supper when we do these things, but certainly, in the early Church, those early followers of Jesus remembered all those moments when Jesus shared food with them as kinds of Eucharistic events, since essentially the same actions took place at each. They also saw these meals—these moments when Jesus fed people—as glimpses to what awaited us. And we do too.

You have heard me say many, many times that when I talk of the Kingdom of God, I imagine a meal. The Kingdom of God is truly a meal—a wonderfully meal with friends. The Kingdom is no doubt much like the meal my friend Justin made. It is a meal in which the finest foods are served, the best wines are uncorked and everyone—everyone, no matter who they are—is treated as an honored guest. And everyone IS invited. Of course, some don’t have to come, but everyone is invited to this meal. In a sense, that is the very reason I hold the Eucharist to be so important to my own personal and spiritual life. What we celebrate at this altar is a glimpse of what awaits us all. What we do here is a moment in which we get to see what the Kingdom of God is really like. But what all of this—the feeding of the multitude, the Eucharist, the Kingdom as a meal—shows us as well is the way forward to doing ministry.

How do we bring the Kingdom of God into our midst, as we are told to do as followers of Jesus? We do it by taking, blessing, breaking and giving. In our case, we do this with the ministry we have been given to do. We take what is given us to share. We bless it, by asking God’s blessing on it. We break it, because only by breaking it can we share it. And we give it. This is what each of us is called to do in our ministries, in our service to those around us.

The Eucharist is the basis—the ground work or the blueprints—on what we should be doing as followers of Jesus. Our ministries call us to feed those who are hungry. Yes, to feed the physically hungry, but also to feed the spiritually hungry, the emotionally hungry, the socially hungry, as well. We are called to take of our very selves, to bless ourselves, to break ourselves to share and to give of ourselves. Just as Jesus did.

It’s not easy. It’s not fun. In fact, oftentimes, it’s painful and tiring and exhausting. But this is what it means to follow Jesus. And when we do these things, the Kingdom comes forth in our midst.

Our job as Christian is to let people know this one simple fact—there is a meal awaiting us and everyone, EVERYONE, is invited. Our job as followers of Jesus is to do what Jesus does. We are to be the invitation to the meal. And we do this best by showing people what the meal will be like. We take, we bless, we break and we give of ourselves, freely and without limit or qualm. We give freely without prejudice or distinction.

Yes, I know—it is a radical thought to think of such things. But, so is feeding a multitude of people in abundance from just a bit of bread and two fish.

So, let us do as Jesus does. Let us embody that meal to which we are all invited. Let us take with us what we gain from the meal we share here at this altar. And let us, in turn, bless, break and give to all those around us in need. There is an incredible meal awaiting us. We are catching a glimpse of it here this morning. We who feed here this morning on what may appear to some to be little, will be filled. And those whom we feed in turn will also be filled.

"Give them something to eat,” Jesus is saying to us.

How can we not do just that?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

5 Pentecost

July 17, 2011

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

+ This past Friday I met with a wonderful young couple over whose wedding I will preside in September. We met at the HoDo, appropriately enough because they will be getting married on the rooftop there. We had a wonderful evening. I really enjoy meeting with wedding couples in such environments. The days of meeting with the priest in the priest’s office are, I think, starting to be a thing of the past. And I can tell you I get to know a couple much better over cocktails than sitting across from each other in my office. This will be my fifth wedding of the year. I was going to say that I still have three more after that—not a record by any sense of the word. Then, yesterday morning, I received a Facebook message about doing another wedding on the same day as this one in September, only later in the evening.

On Friday, in the midst of our conversation, as we got to know each other better, the future husband shared with me an interesting scenario in their family. His fourteen year son (from a previous relationship) has a nasty little habit of using the words “Gay” and “retarded” to describe things he hates. I think we all know situations like this. This couple suddenly got very passionate about this.

They said, “This is one of those things that drive us crazy. We have to jump on him immediately about how using those words is not only disrespectful, but downright slanderous.”

After a while, the boy got it. And now he doesn’t use those words anymore because he realizes that they are hurtful and disrepectful.

As we discussed this, I, of course, was thinking about our Gospel reading for this morning. And I realized that, in a very real sense, this is what means to sow good seed in the Kingdom. Now this parable we hear today in the Gospel is traditionally referred to as the Parable of Tares. T-a-r-e-s. We find this word “Tares” in the King James Version of the Bible. I personally like that word very much. This word is thought to mean darnel, which is a kind of ryegrass which actually looks very much like wheat does in its early stages of growth. To put it in a bit of perspective to Jesus’ own time, Roman law prohibited the sowing of darnel among the wheat of an enemy. To take it all a step further, we need to realize that sometimes planting darnel within an enemy’s wheat might actually be an issue of life or death. Less of a harvest, means less food. Less food means more illness, more death. So, this whole concept of planting weeds in an enemy’s wheat has much more meaning than we may initially thought when we heard this parable.

For us, it’s a bit different. For us, sowing weeds among wheat is something very different, especially when we look at Jesus’ explanaition of this parable. As I pondered this these last few days, I realized that for us, we sow darnel among wheat in very different ways. In the situation with that son of that young couple, we would sow tares, sow weeds, when we do not speak up when deragatory words are used. Yes, we know that standing up and saying “this is not right” is hard to do. Yes, it may cause us to be on the receiving end of ridicule and possibly even violence. But the fact remains that when we don’t stand up—when we are complascent—we are sowing tares. We are sowing weeds in the Kingdom. We are showing that we do not love our neighbor as ourselves and that we are not truly followers of Jesus, who would stand up and speak out against the injustices of such comments.

And we’ve all been guilty of complascency like this. We’ve all done it. We’ve all rolled our eyes and bit our tongues—or maybe even chuckled a bit—when someone has made a sexist or homophobic or racist joke or comment around us. And we have all tried to ignore when institutions like our very Church or our government on have denied certain rights to people in various ways.

And sometimes even we ourselves have been malicious. Sometimes we have endevoured to plant seeds that prevent growth. We sometimes don’t do it purposefully. But we do it.

When it comes to church, for example. We show weeds among the wheat when we are afraid. Fear is a great tare among the wheat. Fear of the future. Fear of change. These can be crippling. We sow the weeds when we are afraid that everything we once knew and found so comfortable is now being viewed as out-of-date or somewhat archaic.

One of the greatest “tares” we all experience in parish ministry is when people say things like: “We can’t do that. We have never done that before.” Saying things like that and being stuck in that mentality is a kind of sowing of weeds in the midst of the field. Yes, we need to have a healthy respect for our history and our past. We can never forget where we have came from and what has been done in the past.

As you know I occasionally love to do a traditional Rite I Mass on Wednesday nights, esepcially in the summer. It’s good for us to hear that traditional language. It might not be our “thing,” but it certainly puts into perspective where we have come from. It gives some of us a certain level of comfort. And I love doing it. I was trained in celebrating Mass with those traditional words and with those traditional actions. They have meaning and they have contributed in real and purposeful ways in what we do now in our current liturgy.

But we can never be stuck in that past. And we can’t step back in time. We cannot let what we’ve done in the past prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done now and in the future. When we get stuck, that is when the crop begins to die. It prevents the harvest from happening. It prevents growth from happening. It makes the church not into a vital, living place proclaiming God’s loving and living Presence, but it preserves it as a musty museum for our own personal comfort.

The flourishing of the kingdom can be frightening. It can be overwhelming. Because when the Kingdom flourishes, it flourishes beyond our control. We can’t control that flourishing. All we can do is plant the seeds and tend the growth as best we can.

Allowing the Kingdom to flourish also means that there also needs to be some pruning of the weeds. In the Rule of the Episcopal monastic order of the Society of St. John the Eveanglist, we find this wonderful statement in the chapter titled “The Spirit of Mission and Service”:

“Christ has promised that if we abide in him and consent to his skillful pruning, we shall bear fruit that abides. If the result of our labors are to last we need to root our endeavors in Christ and draw on our intimacy with him.”

Rooting our endeavors in Christ is a sure guarentee that what is planted will flourish. Because rooting our endeavors in Christ means we are rooted our endeavors in a living, vital Presence. We are rooting them in a wild Christ who knows no bounds, who knows no limits and who cannot be controlled by us. Rooting our endevors in Christ means that our job is simply to go with Christ and the growth that Christ brings about wherever and however that growth may happen. Even when that growth may seem to happening in the midst of weeds and thorns.

Last week, in my sermon on sowing seeds among thorns and weeds, I said that sometimes God even uses the thorns and weeds and that, even then, crops flourish. I believe the same happens even when tares have been planted by the enem—whoever that enemy may be. God sometimes is able to even to bring about a fruitfull harvest even when vindicitive tares have been planted in our midst. Sometimes when we encounter weeds maliciously planted in our midst, our frustration, our anger, our impatience drives us to not only root out those weeds, but to make sure another like it never happens again. And hopefully in those instances when we ourselves have planted weeeds that have stunted the Kingdom from growning, the recgonition of our actions sometimes causes us to stop and take notice of our actions and to change.

So, you with ears, listen! To be righteous does not mean being be good and sweet and nice all the time. The be righteous one simply needs to further the harvest of the Kingdom by doing what those of us who follow Jesus do. It means to plant the good seeds. And in those instances when we fail, we must allow the harvest to happen even when we have planted weeds among the good seeds.

And when we do strive to do good and to further the kingdom of God, then will we being doing what Jesus cooamnds us to do. The harvest will flourish and we can take some joy in knowing that we helped, working with God, to make it flourish. And, in that moment, we know the fruits of our efforts. And we—the righteous—we the ones who do the work of God in this world, who further the kingdom in our midst—we will shine like the sun in that kingdom of our God.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

4 Pentecost

July 10, 2011

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

+ I think I am going through one of those moments most people go through at my age. One of the signs that we are maturing as adults (and especially for those of us heading into middle age), happens when, one day, a strange feeling comes upon us when we least expect it. For some people, when this feeling rears its ugly head, it is a time to despair. Some people call it a mid-life crisis. Others just say it’s a restlessness that comes with age.

It is a feeling we fight, we try to avoid, we do anything in our power to get around. But sometimes, there’s no escaping it. This feeling I’m talking about is the feeling of frustration.

I’m not talking about the frustration one feels when its rains on a day you’ve planned some big outdoor event. I am talking about the frustration that comes on us when we realize that all those dreams, all those plans we had have simply come to naught. It’s the frustration we feel when we simply face the facts of our life and see our present life for what it really is. And when we compare that present life with what we imagined our life would be like at this point, we definitely find ourselves frustrated.

We ask ourselves: what happened to me? How did I end up becoming this person—this person who looks and acts just like what I disliked the most when I was younger.

Certainly most of us have felt this frustration in our jobs, or as parents. For those of us in ordained ministry, we deal with this all the time. When many people go into the ministry, they imagine all the good they’re going to do in their lives. They imagine all the people whose lives they are going to positively affect. They imagine all the souls they will save. They imagine all the parishes they will one day fill with believers and how they, single-handedly, will change the sometimes all-too-accurate reputation the Church has of being a close-minded, human-driven organization with all its faults.

To use the images from today’s Gospel, they imagine all the seeds they sow will be in good soil and will flourish a hundred times what was sown. They come out of seminary and rise up from having hands laid on them at their ordination with a starry-eyed idealism.

Now I don’t think I did have much starry-eyed idealism when I was ordained. I had already been through the ringer a couple of time by that time. But trust me, there are a lot of newly ordained clergy who do.

And then, they hit the five-year mark. For some clergy, the five-year mark is that mark when they realize the honeymoon’s over. They’ve, hopefully, been through the wringer once or twice by this time. Their wrists have been slapped, their egos have been deflated, their sermons critiqued to the point they are much more careful what they are going to say when they enter the pulpit. And, more importantly, they face reality.

By five years, one knows if the seed one has sown is producing a crop. And by five years, every clergy person knows that what they are producing is not anywhere near one hundred times what was sown. And it is then that frustration settles in.

Now, I say this as I approach the eight anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate on July 25. These eight years have been a strange rollercoaster ride for me. And as I approach this ordination anniversary, I find myself reflecting back to what my goals were in that hot summer of 2003 and what, if any of them, have been met. I reflect back on what I sowed in those early days of ministry.

Now, I am very fortunate and very grateful to God and to the people I have served with in those eight long years, that the crop hasn’t been too bad. There have been many successes. And I have had many more joyful moments as an ordained deacon and priest than I have had disappointments. You have heard me say it before and you will hear me say it again: I am very happy and thankful to be a priest. It truly is one of the greatest joys in my life.

Still, I’ve had plenty of set-backs and disappointments. Yes, I have stumbled and fallen and failed miserably. I have preached my share of clinker sermons. I have lost my professional cool with parishioners and other clergy and, yes, maybe a bishop or two. And I have failed people I have been called to serve—not purposely, but certainly I have fallen short of the expectations made of me by some people. I have done my share of very stupid things as a priest. And when I think about those things—those dumb things I have done in my ministry— then I face it. I find it right there, staring me in the face—frustration.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this frustration is like. If you notice at the beginning of our Gospel reading, as Jesus sits in the boat from which he preaches sort of like from a pulpit, we are told that there is a large crowd coming forward to listen to him. To this large crowd, Jesus then proceeds to preach about seed that fails and seed that flourishes. And for this moment, it seems as though the seed of the Gospel as it comes from Jesus’ mouth is truly falling on the good soil. But when we look at it from the wider perspective of the story of Jesus, what we realize is that what he is preaching is, in fact, falling on rocky ground and among thorns.

Let’s face it: on the surface, from a completely objective viewpoint, Jesus’ ministry ultimately seems like a failure. He is surrounded by twelve men—people he himself chose—who just don’t get what he’s saying. These men will, eventually, turn away from him and abandon him when he needed them the most. One of them, will betray him in a particularly cruel way: one of them will betray him to people he knows will murder Jesus.

By the time Jesus is nailed to the cross, it’s as though everything Jesus said or did up to that point had been for nothing. Not one of the people Jesus helped, not one of the person he gave sight to, helped to walk, healed of illness, came forward to defend him. Not even one person he raised from the dead came forward to help him in his time of need.

And certainly, not one person from this large crowd of people that we encounter in today’s Gospel, comes forth to defend him, to vouch for him or even to comfort him as he is tortured and murdered. Everyone left him except his mother and a few of his female friends. And maybe his dear apostle John.

It would be even worse if even his mother has deserted him. Can you imagine, in that awful lonely moment, to look down and realize not even your mother—of all people—had stayed with you. So, it could have been worse.

Still, as far as his life of ministry was concerned, it seemed very much like a failure. It seems, in that moment, as though the seed he sowed had all been sown on rocky ground and among thorns. It seemed as though the seed he sowed had died. For any of us, frustration would be an understatement for what we would be feeling at that moment. And if this was the end of the story, if it ended there, on that cross, on that Friday afternoon, then it would be truly one of the greatest failures.

But this is one of the cunning, remarkable things about Christianity—one of the things that has baffled people for thousands of years. In the midst of this failure, in the midst of this frustration, God somehow works. In that place of broken dreams, of shattered ambitions, God somehow uses them and turns them toward good. Somehow, in a moment of abject loneliness, of excruciating physical pain, of an agonizing murder upon a cross, God somehow brings forth hope and joy and life unending. Ands what seems to be sown on rocky ground and among thorns does, in fact, flourish and produces a crop that we are still reaping this morning.

In my own life I have found strange moments when God has broken through my own failures, my own shortcomings to work, when God has taken the seed I thought I had sown on land unsuitable for growth and somehow made it grow. In those moments when I have failed, I have found that I learned a few lessons about myself.

First, my failures have taught me that I had to stop being selfish and self-centered. What God does in ministry has very little to do with me personally. Let me tell you, it’s a hard realization for me to make but it isn’t all about me all the time. It is always truly about God using even me in those situations.

Second, those failures taught me that, even in those moments in which I, myself, was, if in no one else’s eyes but my own, a failure, still, somehow, God works. God truly can use our flawed and fractured selves for good and turn our failures and our frustrations into something meaningful. What we can take away from our Gospel reading today is that our job is not always to worry about where or how we are sowing the seed. Our job is to simply do the sowing. And God will produce the crop.

What I have realized in these eight years of ordained ministry is that I simply need to let God do what God is going to do. Our job, as Christians, is simply to sow. And God will bring forth the yield. And when God does, then we will find crops flourishing even in rocky soil and amidst thorns.

So, all you who have ears, listen. We will all feel moments of frustration in this life, but for those of us who hope in God and who sow the seed of God’s Word in this world simply cannot allow frustration to triumph. Frustration and despair are the thorns and rocky soil of our lives. We must be the rich soil in which that seed flourishes. And when we do, the crops God brings forth in us and through us will truly be one hundred times more than what we sowed. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

3 Pentecost

July 3, 2011

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

+ Sometimes, I honestly feel sorry for you. You truly do have to suffer sometimes under my strange eccentricities, especially my strange appreciation of strange catholic beliefs and practices.

This past Wednesday, at Mass, we commemorated Sts Peter and Paul, but I also threw in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Feast of the Sacred Heart fell this past Friday. And because I have always held a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart, I couldn’t let the day go by without some kind of commemoration.

The fact is, we Episcopalians do not officially observe the feast of the Sacred Heart. But that, of course, has never prevented me from doing anything and this is one of those feasts that I just can’t let by without making some reference to it.

And although we seem to see this particular devotion to the Sacred Heart as only a Roman Catholic devotion, I beg to differ. I learned my devotion to the Sacred Heart not from any Roman Catholic, or even from an Episcopalian. I learned devotion to the Sacred Heart from my very Lutheran grandmother.

My Grandma Minnie had a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart. I don’t know if she ever called it the “Sacred Heart,” but her favorite representation of Jesus was always ones in which he was revealing his heart. In fact, the two representations I remember most clearly were a very cheap picture in a black plastic frame and a large statue of the Sacred Heart that she keep in the corner of her living room. She received that statue from a Hispanic Roman Catholic friend of her’s and it was one of her most prized possessions.

The other day, as my mother and I were cleaning the basement of my mother’s house, getting ready for her move, I found that statue in a large cardboard box. No, I will not set it up here in the church, but I am going to put it in a place of honor in the rectory.

For my grandmother, this devotion wasn’t some strange Catholic devotion. For her, it truly represented the love Jesus had for us and, although she wasn’t a big preacher, she made it clear that Jesus did truly love each of us.

I have to agree with her.

Why the Sacred Heart is important to me is not because it is some quaint catholic devotion. It is important to me because it is such a wonderful representation of that love Jesus has for each of us and all of us. That Sacred Heart is a beautiful symbol that Jesus loves fully and completely and wholly. Jesus loves in a way we strive to love, but cannot love. Our love has limits. Our love fails at times. But not Jesus’. His love is always without limits.

And that love knows no bounds. Jesus loves everyone fully and completely, no matter who or what they are. I say it all the time and I will always say it—Jesus love for us knows no bounds. He loves us fully and completely. And we see this most clearly in that devotion to the Sacred Heart.

But it’s not enough that we are simply the recipients of this love. The fact is: we are followers of Jesus. As followers of Jesus we are essentially called to imitate Jesus. And that means that our hearts should be like his Heart. Our hearts should be filled to the brim with a burning love. For everyone.

Everyone—no matter who they are—can be found within that Heart. No one is excluded from that place of burning love which is never extinguished.

When we see devotion to Christ’s loving heart in this way, we see that it IS very timely for our church at this point. We see that this reminder to love as Jesus loved is at the core of the Gospel and at the core of what it means to follow Jesus.

When we see the Sacred Heart we should see it as a mirror in which our own hearts are reflected. His heart is the ideal. It is the goal in our own love. We too should love just as like the Sacred Heart of Jesus loves.

This love is not an easy love. It truly is the yoke that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. When he says to us:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke I easy, and my burden light.”

We truly find that he is setting the standard. Learn from him. He is gentle and humble in heart. In this love that he feels for each of us and in the love that we, in turn give to others, we will find rest for our souls.

So find refuge in this love. Let his love be the guide for your love. Let your heart be a reflection of that Sacred Heart of Jesus, which contains within it the vastness of Christ’s love for each of us.