No Power, No Control

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

One of the professional hazards of being a pastor is the temptation to think that you’re a superhero. Many of us slip into thinking that we can and should fix all the problems facing our churches. That it’s our job to heal every broken heart; it’s our job to get everyone to worship; it’s our job to fix every conflict that arises; it’s our job to make everybody happy. But, of course, none of us succeeds at this. It’s just not possible. And it just leads to feeling out of control. And powerless.

I don’t think it’s just pastors. I think teachers sometimes feel that it’s their job to get every kid to learn, even the ones who just can’t, or just won’t. I think farmers sometimes feel it’s their job to make every crop yield in abundance, no matter the weather or the growing conditions. I think retailers sometimes think it’s their job to make sure that every customer is happy, even the ones who make demands that nobody could fill. I think parents sometimes think it’s their job to make sure their children are completely safe, and always making good choices. I think older people sometimes think it’s their job to be as busy as they were when they were younger, even though their bodies aren’t the same as they used to be. And when someone close to us dies, how often do we say, “I should have done something differently.” As though we could have stopped death. In the face of death, and in the face of life, we so often feel responsible for so much, but we can’t do it. We feel out of control. Powerless.

A landowner sowed wheat in his field. It was going to be a beautiful field, full of life, full of grain, full of hope. And his workers, they were ready. They knew their job. They had the skills and the strength and the know-how. They were in control. But overnight, things changed. Overnight, an enemy came and planted this poisonous weed. Why? Who knows. But now the field was different. It still had life, and grain, and hope, but now it also had poison. And misery. And confusion. And the workers, they wanted to fix it right away. But the boss said no. No, don’t do that. The wheat and the weeds look the same. You’ll pull out the wheat too. And even if you could tell the difference, their roots are all intertwined. If you pull out the evil, you’ll pull out a lot of good too. The boss said no. Be patient. I know about the problem. I know what I’m doing. I will take care of this. But in my time. And in my way.

And that’s the world we live in. A world that is beautiful, that does have life, and hope, and joy. But a world that also has suffering. We live with disease and worry. Our marriages are strained. Our children break our hearts. Our churches are divided. Our nation is divided. There is war, there is hunger, there is injustice, and there is nothing good on TV. And we feel out of control and powerless.

But our faith tells us that God is like the boss in the story. God knows about the suffering and evil in the world. God knows every leaf on every tree. Every hair on your head. And God cares. And God will fix it. But in God’s time. And in God’s way.

Our faith tells us that we are out of control, but God is in control.

Our faith tells us that God has a plan, even if that plan has a timeline different from ours. Now that doesn’t mean that God’s plan includes suffering. Remember, it was the enemy who planted the weeds, not the householder. But God’s plan means that despite those weeds, justice will be done, and every sin will be brought to light, and every person who suffered unjustly will be redeemed. God will take care of judgment. And God will take care of the harvest, and when that harvest comes in, we will be invited to a heavenly banquet.

But we don’t have to just sit here and wait. God invites us today to the first course of that banquet, a course of bread and wine.

This tiny wafer, and these drops of wine, are not just a tonic pill to get you through the week. They are the first course of the banquet that awaits us at the harvest, when God’s will is made complete. The Lord’s Supper is literally a taste of heaven. It’s an hors d’oeuvre. Holy Communion is the cocktail hour of heaven. And when we share it, when we ingest heaven together, we are proclaiming together that the full banquet is coming. We don’t know when. But it’s coming. When we share communion, we are proclaiming that this is but the beginning. We are proclaiming that God is in control. And we are proclaiming that we are not, and that we don’t have to be, and were never supposed to be.

And that sets us free from being powerless. We may not be in control, but we are not powerless. We are the seed that the landowner planted. And we have a job to do. Our job is to grow. To bear fruit. To become the people God made us to be.

And that means we do the best we can, but then we trust God to actually take care of it. In the case of parenting, I do my best with my children, and that’s not always enough. But my best is all I’m ever supposed to do. I have a very important role to play in raising these children, but it’s not truly my job to take care of them. That’s God’s job. The same is true of me as your pastor. And the same is true for every aspect of our lives. We’re not in control. God is. And that is freedom.

And God calls us to share that freedom with the rest of the world. Here’s one simple way to do that. When someone tells you that we don’t have control over this world anymore, you can tell them, “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. But God does. I can’t always see that. I can’t always touch that. But I believe it. And this morning, I tasted it. I trust God. You can too.”

God is Like a Dandelion

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel reading was Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I am no expert on farming, but it seems to me that the guy in this parable is irresponsible and wasteful. He goes out to sow seed, and what does he do? He just throws it everywhere. Everywhere! The rocks, the thorns, the road. In those days sowing was done by hand. And I’m no expert on farming, but if I were sowing by hand, then I think I could at least avoid the road.

Surely he could have focused more, paid more attention. After all, that would be a much better use of his seeds, a much better use of his time. Better stewardship. This sower acts as though he has all the seeds in the world, and as though he has unlimited time. He acts as though has far more than he needs, so he can be wasteful like this.

Yet somehow, he reaps an extraordinary harvest. I have read that harvests of four-fold to ten-fold were considered pretty good in Jesus’ day, and fifteen-fold was an exceptional year. But here this irresponsible, wasteful sower reaps a harvest that’s thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundredfold! Unheard of!

It seems to me that this sower is an image of God, showing us that God sometimes seems to be irresponsible and wasteful. God throws grace around on the good and on the evil, on the wicked, on the lazy, on the kind, on the peaceful, on the cruel, on everyone. God pours rain and sunshine on the whole world, and grace and love and every good gift. God doesn’t always focus where we think he should. Sometimes we see good things happening to others, and it even feels like God isn’t sowing among us anymore. And somehow, despite all this, God always reaps an extraordinary harvest. God’s Word just grows and grows.

See, I think God is like a dandelion.

Dandelions are irresponsible and wasteful too. When their flower goes to seed, that seed flies wherever the wind takes it, or wherever a child’s breath takes it. And you know, some of that seed ends up on the sidewalk. And some of it ends up in the rocks. And some of it ends up in the thorns. But you know what? There are still lots of dandelions next year; heck, there are still lots of dandelions next week! More and more and more and more. There are just so many seeds to go around, and they go everywhere. And sometimes, even the ones that land on the sidewalk, the most useless ones of all…well, they grow too, right through the crack. Dandelions seem to know that there’s enough soil around. There’s enough wind, enough water. And there’s enough seed. When they go to seed, they just let go, and their seed flies everywhere, and it yields a hundredfold, or seems to. Ever try to get rid of dandelions?

What if the dandelions are right?

What if they’re right that there’s enough to go around? What if God is right? What if God is right that there’s enough to go around?

We are taught to believe that things are scarce. Act now, because this deal won’t last. There’s not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough work. Not enough people. Not enough faith. Not enough of anything to make the future okay. Not enough, not enough, not enough.

I once went to a workshop called “Do What Matters.” One of the exercises was to talk about what you remembered from childhood. We all remembered that things were really good back when we were kids. But here’s what was fascinating: we all grew up in different decades, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. And we all remembered the decade of our childhood as the time when everything was okay, the time when we had enough.

And many people who grew up earlier than that have told me about their memories of the Great Depression, a time when things certainly seemed scarce. Unemployment was 25%! But almost without fail, these people have told me that things were good then. Because people got along. Or because people helped each other. Or because parents took care of them.

Kids who are loved are like dandelions. Kids who are loved always just know that there’s enough. Kids don’t question that. Oh, sure, kids can be greedy and want more, more, more. But it’s because they really think that there’s enough. They think their parents have enough money, enough time, enough of everything. Kids are the ones who blow dandelion seeds all around.

What if the kids are right? What if the dandelions are right? What if God is right?

What if it’s true that even in the midst of times as tough as the Great Depression, God always gives us everything we need? What if it’s true that even then, there’s enough?

I’m not saying there are no problems. There certainly are problems, some of them serious. But what if we have everything we need to solve those problems? What if God has given us every tool, every skill, every person we need to solve the problems we face? What if we can face our problems, without being afraid and worried? What if we have enough? What if God’s right?

How would your life be different? If God were right that you have enough time, exactly as much as you need, how would you spend that time differently? What would you stop doing, or start doing? If God were right that you have exactly as much money as you need, how would you spend that money differently? If God were right that he has provided everyone with every good gift they need, then how would you allow God to use you to provide those gifts for others? If God were right about this, what would you stop worrying about? What problem would you face head on? How would your life be different this week?

I invite you to write an answer to that right now. Keep it with you throughout the week. Share it with your family if you like. Look at it each day, and allow God to remind you that there is enough.

Amen.

Building a Labyrinth #2: The Boulder Field

So, I’ve begun the process of trying to build a labyrinth in the woods behind my home. If you missed my first post about this, check it out here.

I got back out in the woods today, and continued the work of ripping rocks out of the ground. It was very pleasant weather while I was out there, not too hot or humid. Yet, I was dripping with sweat. I guess this must be hard work. It’s fun, though, and rather cathartic. Here’s a picture of the pile of stones I’ve accrued so far.

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These are all rocks that I’ve dug out of the ground in the area I’ve cleared for the labyrinth. I don’t want to have to step on them or trip on them as I walk it. Plus, I plan to use these rocks to eventually create the labyrinth itself. It’s a wonderful system, and perhaps a metaphor for life – by working hard on something that’s in your way, something that is a stumbling block, you find a new resource for going forward. Sounds like therapy.

Anyway, these are big rocks, most of them bigger than my head. And you can see in the bottom left of the picture some of the holes that are left behind. I’m going to have to fill them in with something eventually.

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As I was working on this today, I noticed just how many rocks there were, and how many of those rocks were wedged in among other rocks. I got the sense that these woods are really nothing but a boulder field, with a sprinkling of soil on top. I started to wonder if you could somehow see through the soil, this is what you’d see:

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Well, minus the cute kid and her dad.

But then it occurred to me: that’s stupid, because there are trees all over the place. Lots of trees, tall trees. So there must be a decent amount of soil here, or the trees wouldn’t have enough nutrients.

But then it occurred to me: I’m building this labyrinth here, because this is a spot in the woods without a lot of trees. This is a mini-clearing. So…umm…maybe the boulder field analogy isn’t far off. Sheesh. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. And I’m totally going to break my shovel.

 

On Being a “Good Christian”

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

There are people in this room who are not good Christians. And in this sermon, I am going to identify who those people are. That got your attention, didn’t it?

So a “good Christian.” That’s a phrase we hear sometimes. Sometimes we credit someone else with being a “good Christian,” or even accuse someone else of not being one. And sometimes we get very anxious wondering if we ourselves are “good Christians.”

But what is a good Christian? Someone who believes exactly the right things? Someone who acts in a very moral way? Someone who’s as close to perfect as we can be? But hold on. We are saved by grace, by grace alone, by God’s love freely given to us. We know that. In Romans, Paul tells us that Christ saved us while we were still sinners. We haven’t earned salvation at all, yet we have received it. There’s nothing we can do to take that salvation away. And there’s nothing we can do to add to it.

But there are merit badges, aren’t there? We so often act as if there are. We act as though if we follow God’s commandments well, maybe we’ll get salvation plus. Or salvation prime. Maybe we’ll get the premium mansion in heaven. Maybe God will love us a little bit more. If we just try. If we do the right thing, sacrifice the right way, vote the right way. Then we’ll be good Christians.

But that is a dangerous place to go. Because that path always leads to one of two places. Walking down that path may lead me to think that I’m not a good Christian, at least not as good as others, and there lies great guilt and shame, and a sense that I’m not fit to do the kind of things other people do. And this prevents me from taking hold of God’s grace, truly living my life. Or walking down this path might lead me to think I am a good Christian, at least better than others, and there lies pride, pride which tells me I know better than other people. I behave better than others. I am better than others.

Either way, when we slip into thinking in terms of good and bad Christians, we slip into judgment. Judging ourselves, judging other people. And scripture is clear that such judgment is God’s alone. Not ours.

But here’s the good news: we don’t have to worry about whether we’re good Christians or not. Because we’re not. You aren’t. And neither am I. We are not good Christians, because there’s no such thing. Oh, sure, there are kind Christians and unkind Christians. There are humble Christians and arrogant, wise Christians and foolish. But not good or bad. None of those things make us better Christians than anyone else. There are also tall and short Christians. Old and young. Blue-eyed and brown-eyed. Doesn’t make us any better or worse.

Because a Christian is someone who has experienced the love and grace of God, and who puts the name Jesus as the reason for that experience. That’s it. That’s what a Christian is. And you can’t be good or bad at that. It’s just not how it works.

Arguing over who is and isn’t a good Christian sounds a lot like what Jesus says in the gospel reading today: “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, and calling to one another:

  • We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance.
  • Well, we wailed, and you didn’t mourn.”
  • You aren’t joyful enough.
  • Well, you aren’t serious enough.
  • You’re too strict.
  • You’re too open.
  • You’re not doing it right!
  • No, you’re not doing it right!

The truth is none of us are doing it right. Because there is no doing it right. There’s just Christ. Just Christ.

Christ saving us.

Christ leading us.

Christ giving us his yoke, and us taking that yoke upon ourselves.

A yoke connects of a pair of oxen or other animals together so they can pull a cart or a plow or something else. The yoke enables the plowman to guide the oxen to where he wants them to go. And it keeps the two animals together, working together.

Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us, and to learn from him. This isn’t a burden, not something to add to all the other burdens in our lives. It’s not a special Sunday hat that we put on for worship, and then take off so we can get on with our regular lives. This yoke is not a punishment, a training tool, or a test. It’s a gift. It’s a gift of God’s grace. The gift of a meaningful life. It is Christ’s very life, Christ’s very presence, around our shoulders. Christ’s very life, filling us up, sending us out, and gently leading us.

This yoke doesn’t make us better Christians, or more faithful. Certainly the apostle Paul wore the yoke of Christ, and look what he said in today’s second reading! Paul says that he still does what he does not want. He still sins. The yoke doesn’t somehow force us to do right at all times. But it always provides forgiveness and a new direction when we stray.

Christ’s yoke holds us safely, and guides us at the same time. It doesn’t control us or harm us. It doesn’t make life perfect. But it makes life possible. Wearing this yoke means trusting Christ. Trusting that he loves us. Trusting that he wants nothing less than our salvation and sanctification, and the salvation and blessing of the whole world. It means trusting that he knows the place where we’re headed, the direction we’re aiming. We don’t need to figure that out all on our own. Yoked together, we figure out God’s calling and direction for us together, and we don’t have to know where we’re ending up. We don’t have to know whether we’re “good Christians,” whatever that might mean. Because it’s never about the past. It’s not about what we’ve already done, but about what we’re going to do next. It’s always about now, always about what we’re going to do now. We are just called to trust right now. To listen the best we can right now, and follow the best we can right now. And tomorrow, we’ll be called again to do the same thing: trust, listen, and follow. And the next day, and the next. So we can let go of needing to be right, or good. And we can trust. Where is Christ leading us today?

Building a Labyrinth?

So I am blessed to live in a wonderful house owned by the church where I serve. One of my favorite things about this house is the backyard. Here’s a view of the backyard.

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As you can see, it opens into a rather deep wooded area. My daughter loves to play in there — she has “hideouts” and such. In my first year here, I built a trail that leads to the church; I walk that way to get to work on nice days. I also built a firepit, and build campfires from time to time.

A few weeks ago, I had an idea that perhaps there was a place in these woods to build a labyrinth. I scoped it out, and found an area that just might work. It is fairly clear, and should only require minor terraforming to welcome a labyrinth. I hemmed and hawed about it, but finally this afternoon, I went back in and started.

So here’s the spot, lightly raked.

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It’s my intention to clear it out some more, and then mark the perimeter with a circle of rocks. Once that’s done, I’ll figure out how many circuits I can comfortably walk in a circle this size, and then start marking the labyrinth walls with rocks. I don’t know if I’m just out of shape, or if this really was hard work, but 45 minutes of working out there really wiped me out. I cleared some brush, cut down a few small trees with a saw, and raked the whole area.

Then I started the real work. One blessing of living where I do is that there are rocks everywhere. (I guess this is where a glacier stopped in the last ice age, maybe?) But it’s also a curse, because those rocks are everywhere. When I built the trail a few years ago, I abused a shovel and my back to remove lots of rocks from the middle of the trail, and then used those rocks to mark the sides of the trail. In addition to the cruelty I do to my body, I also left holes in the ground that make wonderful booby traps. I actually filled a lot of them in with ashes from the fire pit.

So that’s where I am. I identified an area, and started clearing out a few small trees and lots of detritus. The next step is to make a bunch of holes by trying to pull rocks out of the ground. I got maybe a dozen out today, but there are another dozen dozen left. I don’t know when I’ll get to that. I have a feeling this is going to be a looooong project.

You Are the Welcoming Statement

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 2. The gospel reading was Matthew 10:40-42.

So, Jesus talks a lot about welcoming here. Welcoming is certainly a topic that we’ve been discussing at Prince of Peace a lot over the past few months, as we voted on whether or not to adopt a particular welcoming statement or not. When I saw that this was the assigned gospel text for today in our three-year lectionary, I was not completely thrilled. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about welcoming yet. Perhaps that was a topic best put to bed for a while. But the Holy Spirit seems to have had different plans. Besides, it’s not like the topic hasn’t come up since the vote.

Since the vote, I have heard some say that we are already a welcoming congregation, and we will continue to be. Of course, as I like to remind people, those of us within the church actually have no ability to say whether we’re welcoming or not. Only visitors can tell us that. And in the conversations I’ve had with visitors over the past few years, I can tell you that yes, we are perceived by most as a very welcoming church.

Since the vote, I have also heard some say that they no longer feel welcome here. I have heard others say that they would not have felt welcome here had the vote gone the other way. I won’t deny any of these people their feelings, but I’m not going to go any further with what I’ve heard from others. That should be in the context of a conversation, not a sermon.

What I will focus on instead is what “welcoming” means. I think it means recognizing someone else as truly human. Recognizing someone else’s humanity as real. Recognizing someone else as a complete person, complete with their dreams, their fears, their joys, their sins, their own particular need for God’s grace, their own particular way Christ’s light shines within. Someone who is just as human as you are, just as important, because just like you, they are also God’s child. I think it means welcoming people just as they are. Not fitting them into our own worldview, but instead opening up and learning about their worldview, which just might be as valid as ours. Listening to them, and embracing their humanity, even if you don’t agree with what you hear. I think that’s what welcoming means.

And that is not easy. It is not how our culture tells us to act. Our culture tells us that there is us and them. But Jesus says that is a lie. There is no “them.” But boy is that hard to remember. And boy is it hard to act on.

I’m going to tell you a story of when I succeeded in welcoming someone this way. Not because I’m especially good at it; I’m not. For every time I’ve succeeded, I could share ten stories of when I failed. But I’ll tell you this for two reasons: to show you that it is possible. And also, to show you the reward I received.

It was the summer of 2003, and I was in Atlanta leading a group of sixteen teenagers and adults at the ELCA National Youth Gathering. As we walked from our hotel to the conference center each day, we encountered many homeless people. I tried to set a good example for our group. You know, teach them the importance of helping the helpless. I gave to everyone who asked. I was proud of every dollar I gave these street people. I say “people,” but I really didn’t see them as people, but rather as a teaching tool for our youth. But then on Wednesday evening, our group was going to have a special dinner at the Hard Rock Café. I got to the restaurant early, and sat down outside. A homeless man made eye contact with me and said, “Can I draw you?” He had a paper and a pencil in his hand. I didn’t want to get caught in a conversation with him. I wanted to give the guy a dollar, and move on. But I didn’t see an escape plan. So I said, “Sure.” And he sat next to me, and started to draw. And then we started to talk. And I found out a lot about him. His name was Jerry. He came from Ohio, and had lost his job a few months ago. He moved to Atlanta, looking for work, but he couldn’t find any. So he sold his possessions to survive, and then he turned to a gift he had, the gift of drawing. He was buying his meals by drawing people like this. We sat there for 45 minutes, talking as he drew. The rest of my group arrived, and they were fascinated by this artist.

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I received one of my most cherished decorations, and I paid him for it, a lot more than a dollar. Jerry showed me how he viewed me. And I saw him for who he was, not a helpless, worthless bum, but Jerry, Jerry the artist, Jerry from Ohio. Whenever I look at this picture, I see myself how Jerry saw me, and I see who the Holy Spirit is calling me to be. The Holy Spirit is calling me to be someone who sees all of God’s children as God’s children, as truly human people. This picture was my reward for actually welcoming Jerry into my life.

Jesus says that there is a reward for welcoming people. From my experience, I think the reward is something like this. You get to see someone in a new way, and you get to see yourself in a new way. The way God sees each of you. You get to see Christ living inside you, and you get to see Christ living in the other person. Just as our purpose statement says, “We will seek and serve Christ in all people.”

Four weeks ago, we declined the opportunity to add a welcoming statement to that purpose statement. Four weeks ago, we decided not to put a welcoming statement on paper, not to let a piece of paper do our welcoming for us. And in a way, I think that’s a really good thing. Because it means that you are our welcoming statement. You are the one who determines whether someone who walks in that door is welcome or not. You are the one who decides whether to look for their true humanity or not, whether to seek Christ within them or not. And you are the one who will receive the reward for that welcome.

And it’s not just about worship on a Sunday morning or Saturday evening. The church is not this building, or one hour. The church is us, the disciples of Christ, going about our daily lives throughout the week. You are a welcoming statement in every place you go, in every encounter you have. You have the opportunity to welcome every person you meet. You have the opportunity to receive the reward Jesus spoke of. So go, be that welcoming statement. Receive your reward. See each other, and yourselves, the way God sees you.

Labyrinths # 10 and #11: Two churches in coastal Delaware

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I am in the habit of trying to visit a lot of them. For more information about labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society

Last week, I was on vacation in Delaware. While there, I found a few labyrinths to walk. Today’s labyrinths are both at churches in seaside towns. These two labyrinths were built very differently, and have very distinctive feels.

Continue reading “Labyrinths # 10 and #11: Two churches in coastal Delaware”