Saturday, July 26, 2008

Have No Fear

Ta da! I'm getting the sermon up on time! Yippee! Just the pastoral prayer to write and I'm good for tomorrow! Thanks be to God!

The Sermon Today, Matthew 14:22-33
July 27, 2008
Have No Fear
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

What a great story! This is one of those stories that has everything—danger, drama, heroism, failure, redemption—and lots of places for us to insert ourselves into the story. In other words, there’s plenty of room for all of us to sit in this boat. The question is, do we stay in the boat, or do we jump out?
Before we start with the story, let’s take a little time to paint the background. Like most Bible stories, we have to spend some time exploring the world of the participants before we can start to really get a handle on the nuances of what was really happening here.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves about some of the basic physical facts of the story. Before it even begins, everyone involved is exhausted. Jesus has been teaching crowds of people all day. This is not your basic one, or even two, hour church service, but non-stop teaching and healing that lasted long enough for the people to start to feel faint from hunger. They were so drained, in fact, that even if they had wanted to leave, the disciples were concerned that they wouldn’t even make it to the nearest village to obtain food, much less make it all the way to their homes. And if all these people had showed up at once, any normal village wouldn’t have enough food available to feed them and then what would happen. The last thing they wanted was for Jesus to be seen as responsible for setting off food riots
And if the people listening were this exhausted, how must Jesus and the disciples have felt? While Jesus was teaching and healing, the disciples were stuck with all the hassles of crowd management—crying kids, cranky adults, hygiene, heat, shade, water, complaints, requests, keeping people in line, negotiating disputes, you name it. Jesus, we know, had been exhausted before he started so you can imagine how he felt at the end of the day. He had come to this deserted place in the first place to get away from the crowds and recharge his batteries.
Then there had come the miraculous feeding of the crowd, which had stirred things up even more and made it more difficult to convince people to leave. Finally, finally, they had gotten everyone on the road home, they had picked up all the trash and they could finally take a break. I imagine that all the disciples wanted to do was sit on rocks and stare at each other. Jesus, however, was so tired that he couldn’t even do that. All he wanted was to be totally alone, just him and God.
So, he made his reluctant disciples climb into their boat, grab the oars or the sails, and head back across the Sea of Galilee. Some translations call this body of water a lake, but it’s important to the story to understand that, as lakes go, this is a really big one. It’s about 11 miles long, and about 8 miles across at its widest point. Unlike the lakes we have here in Oklahoma, it is big enough that, when standing on the shore, you can’t see across to the other side. So crossing the lake was no small proposition.
I don’t know how the disciples thought he was going to catch up to them. Maybe get a ride from another boat down the road, maybe they were planning to come back and get him the next day. All we know for sure is that he didn’t go with them that night.
And that’s another thing. Most of us don’t remember, or have ever known, what really dark nights are like. When was the last time you were outside and so far away from civilization that there was no glow from a nearby city reflecting up on the horizon? I’ve only been in a place like that once or twice in my life, and always it was out in the middle of the ocean. I never knew what dark nights were like or how many stars there were in the night sky until those nights. But for Jesus and the disciples, that’s what night meant. And dark was coming on when Jesus sent them out.
There’s one more thing that we need to know to really get an good handle on this story. It is that in the ancient world, large bodies of water were really scary places. They were the very symbol of complete and total chaos. When God had brought order to every part of the world, the oceans were still chaotic. In their world view, every place outside a city or village was a place of danger. There were dangerous animals and dangerous people in the wilderness. That’s why so many people assumed that John the Baptist was just a little bit crazy to live there by choice, because no one in their right mind would. If you were alone, and something happened, you probably died. There was no way to call for help, and too few people around to think you would be found in time. And, of all these dangerous, isolated, places, seas were the most dangerous, the most isolated, the most chaotic. They were literally regarded as places where anything could happen, and none of it was good.
So, these tired, hungry, nervous disciples set sail, at night, across the sea, with no instruments, without the one who they depended on for protection and guidance, off they go into the unknown. And then the storm comes up. Have you ever had one of those days? I’m sure the disciples certainly felt like this was one of those nights.
How long they struggled against the winds and the waves, no one knows. Certainly long enough that now they were soaking wet, shivering with cold and completely convinced they were probably going to die. Some may have been rowing, because certainly the sails were down by now, some may have been bailing water, some may have just been sitting there in despair. We know that they had been on the water for several hours, at least, because Jesus came walking toward them across the water during the fourth watch—or sometime between 3 and 6 in the morning. In other words, they were at the end of their rope. Have you ever noticed how often we have to get to the end of our rope before we can let go and let God help us? It’s like we refuse to let go as long as we have resources and options of our own available.
Anyway, here they all are, on the tip end of their last bare nerve and someone says, “It’s a ghost, or a demon!” Now they are convinced that they are truly done for. Out here in the middle of the most evil place on earth, it could only be an evil spirit coming to get them. And then they hear the voice that they know so well. It’s Jesus. Or at least it sounds like Jesus. What if it’s an imitation? A fake? A clever trick by the evil one to get them to let down their guard. When you’re verging on hysteria, anything seems possible.
So Peter speaks up, “Lord, if it is you…”
I love Peter. We get the most complete picture of him in Matthew—almost like Matthew got many of these stories from Peter himself. Who else would dare tell such stories about the great Peter, leader of the infant church? But I can hear Peter saying, “Go ahead, write it all down, just like it happened. Don’t pull any punches. I’ve got plenty of flaws, although too many people don’t remember that these days. Don’t pretty it up, just tell the whole story.
Peter, so impetuous, so transparent. I think he appeals to us so much because he is such a real character. He always jumped in to everything feet first, is it any surprise that he did so here? We’ve already talked about how the goal of a rabbi’s disciples was to be exactly like him, well this was certainly Peter’s chance. This was his chance to be just like Jesus. Now it’s a little risky, so he asks permission first. Do you want me to do this Lord? Do you believe I can do this? And I imagine that Jesus paused for a minute, and then said, “Sure, come on.”
So Peter jumps, he lands, and he doesn’t sink! One step, then another, then another. Hey, this is great! I’m walking on the water!
So what made Peter start looking around? Maybe a giant thunderclap or bolt of lightening? Whatever it was, he suddenly realizes where he is? Have you ever done that? Started something and then, about halfway into it, realized exactly what you were doing? Suddenly you realize that maybe you can’t really pull this off. Maybe this is too big. That’s what Peter thought, and when he thought that, when he started focusing on his own abilities, it began to overwhelm him.
Fortunately, Peter is sometimes smarter than we are. As soon as he started to sink, he didn’t try to learn to swim, he didn’t panic, he didn’t try to suck it up and put a good face on it. He just turned to Jesus. “Help me!” You know, Anne Lamott speaks often of her two favorite prayers, “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Not a bad prayer vocabulary, and certainly both of those were Peter’s favorites that day.
And Jesus responded, and reached out, and picked him up. Yes, Jesus did chastise Peter, but I think it might have been pretty gently. Yes, Peter doubted—not Christ but himself. But even with that doubt, Jesus still reached out and pulled him out of the soup. He didn’t hold it against him. He didn’t say, “If I pull you out, how will you learn to swim?” He didn’t say, “OK, but you’re off the island.” He just pulled him up and brought him to the boat, where the others still waited. Safely. In the boat.
You know, all my life I’ve heard this story told, and all my life, Peter comes out as some sort of doofus for not making it all the way. But more and more I admire Peter. Especially these days, when our little corner of the world is safer than it has ever been, and yet all that seems to do is make us more fearful. Because our lives are stable, we fear uncertainty. Because we have plenty, we fear loss. Because our lives are secure, we fear risk. So we stay in the boat.
But not Peter. All he had was Jesus, and that was enough. That was enough for him to risk everything to do the impossible. Yes, Peter didn’t make it all the way, but dear Lord, please make us all more like Peter.
In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer—The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New Baby Coming

All of a sudden, this Wednesday has gone from nothing on the calendar to being completely crazy. This biggest news is that one of my parishoners is at the hospital right now delivering her first child. I can't wait to get down their to check on her and be supportive, but of course, 9 million other things have suddenly jumped up to interfere. And even worse, the interferences are important too--like meeting with the dean from the seminary I want to attend to talk about getting started with classes this fall. I hope it's not too late. I admit, I've been stalling on this one. I think because of the huge amount of debt it entails more than anything else. But I've made the call now so all I can do is press on.

Our house feels really empty right now, with DS off to church camp, followed by a week at the Appalachia Service Project. It's odd, because 17 year old sons don't really hang out at the house much, or are sequestered in their rooms so much when they are, that you think I wouldn't notice it so much but I really do. It's really going to be strange next fall when he moves off to college.

Gotta run, time to go meet the dean.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Finding a Rhythm

Whew. I'm so glad it's Tuesday. Not that there's really anything all that unusual about this particular Tuesday, but that I'm starting to learn that for me, at least, means that being a pastor means that I am like a limp dishrag on Mondays. I can manage most things, but there's just nothing there. I wonder if it's like this for other pastors. I wonder if it will get better as I grow more into the job. I wonder how I will manage when school starts and I have to start full time graduate work. Oh Lord, have mercy!

Monday, July 21, 2008


Running late again, but not as late as last week. In fact, last week feels like a total waste. Nevertheless, here is yesterday's sermon.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
July 20, 2008
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first 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 approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Earlier this week, this story appeared in the English newspaper, The Telegraph:
Oops -- Scientist Blowtorch Weedkiller Burns Neighbor's YardRobert Gailey, 79, watched in horror as sparks from a gas-powered garden tool caused the lawn and shrubs of his neighbours, Stuart and Phyliss McLean, to catch light.Mr Gailey had been using a Weed Wand, a £20 hand-held flaming device which burns weeds, to treat the driveway of his semi-detached home in Paisley, Renfrewshire.Within seconds, the McLeans's manicured lawn and evergreen trees were aflame and Mr Gailey's wife, Mary, called the Fire Brigade.
The story goes on to include warnings from the local fire chief about how dangerous it is for people to use devices like this in their garden.
But obviously, this gentleman was so focused on getting rid of all the weeds in his garden, that he completely lost sight of the larger picture.
I think this news story tells us something about human nature, and I think that in this parable, Jesus is reminding us of something similar. He talks of a farmer who plants good wheat in his field, only to be told by his field hands when the seeds start to sprout that there are large amounts of weeds mingled in with the wheat.
Now, how they know this I’m not sure, because Biblical scholars are pretty clear that the weed referred to is a plant widespread in Palestine called darnel. That doesn’t really mean much to us, but this is a pretty insidious, tricky little weed. One of the things that make it so hard to deal with is that as it grows, it looks exactly like wheat. They are indistinguishable from one another through most of their growth cycle. In fact, the only way you can tell wheat from darnel is that when the stalks start to mature, darnel has tiny little black seeds in its head instead of regular wheat berries. Another trick that darnel has, is that as it grows, it’s roots entwine themselves around the wheat roots, so that it is physically impossible to pull up the darnel without pulling up the wheat as well.
So, how these laborers knew that there was darnel growing in with the wheat and what they thought they were really going to be able to do about it, is beyond me. And apparently the farmer had a few of the same concerns, because it told them to just leave the weeds where they were, and they would sort them out at harvest. I’m pretty sure that the laborers weren’t all too happy with those instructions, because they obviously thought they knew what needed to be done. Nevertheless, it was the farmer who owned the field, the wheat, and even the weeds. So they let them be.
No, I’m sure that the field hands weren’t happy about those instructions at all. Because the reality is, humans are great little weeders. All too often in human history we can see the places where the weeders have gone to town, making sure that everything is just as it should be. How many of the worst acts of human history have begun as just a little weeding here and there? Just a little ethnic cleansing, just getting rid of a few witches, or rebels, or malcontents.
See, that’s the killer. Every time we start focusing on getting rid of the weeds, what we end up doing is destroying the crop. How many nations have been torn apart by persecutions? How many churches have split over doctrinal questions? How many communities have been torn apart by social issues? How many families have been ripped to shreds by disagreements over hair, dress, politics or religion? Our very own Methodist church split 150 years ago over the question of slavery. And the really, really sad thing about it was, both sides truly believed that they were the wheat and the other guys were the weeds. The slave churches and the free churches both knew they were right and all they were doing was getting rid of those other guys who were so wrong that they were evil. Sometimes I wonder what question in the church today is our slavery issue?
And let us never forget, very people who had Jesus crucified were doing what they thought was right. It wasn’t personal animosity, they were just trying to keep their faith community pure and keep evil from taking root. Just a little weeding.
That’s the thing about wheat and weeds. We really can’t always, or even often, tell the difference. All we can see is the outside, not the fruit inside. Often, what we see as threatening is just the beginning of one of God’s new plantings. It looks strange and alien to us, so we decide it must be a weed and needs to be pulled up. But oops, we were, in all good faith, wrong. So God tells us to wait, don’t focus on the weeds. The world, after all, belongs to God, and the church is the work of the Holy Spirit. Not us.
I have this image of a world where the weeders are running things, and it looks like this. I see all these people feverishly working in an empty field, frantic to pull up every little green shoot because it might be a weed. The field is absolutely clear. It is also barren and dead.
What’s the difference between a clean, but barren field and one full of wheat? Focus. Where do we put our attention? What drives us?
See that’s what the farmer understood. The farmer knew that while his workers were focused on destroying the weeds, who would be taking care of the wheat? More and more, as I read and study scripture, I come to believe that God doesn’t issue us a negative call to save the world from evil, but to join in God’s work of bringing good to the world.
It is so easy to stay busy looking at the weeds, we forgot to focus on being wheat. We get so wrapped up in rooting out evil that it sucks up all our energy and there’s nothing left to build a better world with. Instead of nourishing the wheat, we just worry about killing the weeds. It’s so tempting to focus on destruction, not creation.
But what Jesus is telling us here is that the point is not to worry so much about the weeds, but to be strong and fertile wheat
· To focus on the sun that brings light and life
· To dig down deep roots into the ground of our being
· To soak up the rain that God sends on both the wheat and the weeds
· and to ultimately produce the fruit, the grain that will nourish a hungry world and give life to more wheat.
Does this mean that we should never speak out against evil? Absolutely not. We cannot ever, ever turn our back on those in need, those suffering from injustice and cruelty, those who feel lost and alone. But neither can we forget that rooting out evil is not the point. Jesus doesn’t call us to purify the world—according to whatever standers of purity we choose to endorse—but to spread the good news, by both word and deed. This is being the wheat. Our role is to nourish—everyone, everywhere. We will probably nourish more than a few weeds along the way as well, but that’s OK. God will sort it all out in the end.
I’ve mentioned several times that Pat and I have attempted a garden this summer for the first time in years. And I’ve admitted pretty freely that it has not been a great success. Not horrible, but certainly nothing to brag about. It won’t feed the family. What I haven’t mentioned is the grass in the front lawn. We have great grass. Deep and thick and green when all the lawns around us have started to turn brittle and brown. All grass, no weeds. And if you ever got a good look at what we call a flower garden in the front, you would know just how miraculous that is.
The truth, however, is that we’re not really responsible for the lawn, but owe it all to this wonderful man who comes every so often to fertilize it for us. And that’s what he does, spread fertilizer, not pesticides or herbicides. The reason, he told us, is that he has learned over the years that the best way to have a great lawn is to grow great grass—grass that is so healthy that weeds can’t get a start. This is what we are called to do. Grow great grass.