Saturday, August 5, 2017

Treasure

Matthew 13:44-46
August 6, 2017
William G. Carter

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."


We have been working through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, a collection of parables that Jesus told. The best definition of a parable came from the British Bible scholar C. H. Dodd. You may wish to write this down:

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

I think that’s a great definition. It reminds us that we are dealing with a literary form, a figure of speech. We hear the words “metaphor” and “simile” and we returned to that seventh grade English class when we weren’t paying attention when the teacher taught us about metaphors and similes. Those are comparisons, as in “the kingdom is like hidden treasure” or a “like a merchant search for fine pearls.”

And the parable, says Dodd, is vivid and strange. The meaning is not obvious which is precisely why Jesus told so many of them. He wants his listeners to work at it, to chew on it, to be teased (as Dodd says) “into active thought.”

As we have worked through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew over the last few weeks, we have heard some of the strangeness of the parables:

The kingdom is like a farmer who throws seed all over the place. Some of it takes root, some does not. He is sloppy, which is another word for generous, so he throws the seed everywhere he can. He is not cautious or calculating. That’s strange.

The kingdom is like a farmer who sows good seed in his own field. Somehow weeds appear in his favorite crop. When the servants suggest he purify the crop, he says, “No, let’s wait.” That’s strange. I wish I knew that parable when my parents sent me out to pull weeds out of the family garden.

The kingdom, says Jesus, is like a little bitty seed that grows so large that it takes over the whole field. We don’t expect the little one to become so large.

And as we heard last week, the kingdom is like a woman in the kitchen who works some yeast through a lump of flour. What’s odd about that? It is a sixty pound lump of flour! That’s a lot of flour.

So today we hear the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure. What’s so strange about that? It seems pretty clear that a lot of people never find the treasure. It is out of sight. It is not obvious. It is not readily available for just anybody to saunter along and pick it up. No, the treasure is hidden. So what’s the vividness, the strangeness of this parable?

Simply this: it is found by a man who is trespassing. The man who finds it has stepped onto land that doesn’t belong to him. It is not his land, so it’s not his treasure. So, in a way, when he goes off to liquidate his assets and buy that field, he’s going after something that still doesn’t belong to him. It’s not quite ethical. He has to have that treasure.

Please notice what he does not do. He doesn’t find the treasure, stick it under his shirt, and slip away. That would be stealing. He is not interested in stealing it; rather, he wants to own this valuable thing, whatever it is.  And he is willing to give up everything else in order to possess it.

At the same time, take note of what he does do. After he finds the hidden treasure, he hides it again. He hides it really well, because he doesn’t want anybody else to have it. He found it and he just has to have it. So much so that he will cash in everything else he owns, just to get that treasure.

Now, once again, that’s strange. If he gives up everything he has, how’s he going to eat? Where is he going to live? How will he take care of his family?

I mean, it reminds me of the man who was happily married for a long time. He had a few kids, had a nice house, drove a nice car, and all his bills were paid. One day, he comes home at supper time and says, “You’re all going to have to go and live somewhere else.” Why? “Because I found a hidden treasure.”

What do you mean you found a hidden treasure? He says, “Well, I was poking around a used bookstore, and there on a dusty shelf, was a first-edition Gutenberg Bible. You know, the very first bible printed on a printing press. It’s in excellent shape. It has buried under a couple of comic books, near some old Reader’s Digest condensed books. It’s priceless. I couldn’t believe my good fortune!”

Well, says his wife, what did you do? He says, “I covered it up, and then meandered around the store so I wouldn’t look suspicious. After a while, I found the owner and said, “I’d like to buy this book store.”He looked up from his computer and said, ‘You would?’ And I said, ‘How much money would you like for the bookstore?” Without blinking he said, ‘A million dollars,’ so I said, ‘It’s a deal.”

His wife is looking at him like he has two heads. “You just bought a bookstore?” He said, “I have to put together the financing. But if I cash in my retirement savings, and sell the house and the car, and sell you and the kids into slavery, I think I can acquire that book by buying that bookstore.”

She said, “What are you going to do with that book? Will you resell it?” He says, “Oh no, I’m going to keep it.”

She said, “I’ve grown attached to living here. I think I’d like to stay.” He said, “Well, I simply have to have that book…”

Can you believe that? I can’t believe it. The story is so ridiculous, such a complete exaggeration. What’s so special that you would give up everything to get it?

Good question. The parable doesn’t say. It’s an open question where we must fill in the answer. What answer would you give?

To tell you the truth, I was sitting in a picnic bench in New Mexico last month, and somebody asked me a version of that question. We were eating enchiladas at a conference center. Evening was upon us. We finished our dinner, took a sip of coffee, and watched the hummingbirds flit around. And my host posed the question this way: “What is the one thing so special to you that you could never give it up?”  

I looked at my beautiful wife and she said, “Be careful what you say.” She’s a smart woman. But I said to her, “You married a guy who got a philosophy degree in college. I like questions like this.” Besides, the friend who asked the question is a retired geologist from NASA, so he was used to dealing with extremes. I mean, if you take it seriously, it’s really some question.

What’s the question again? “What is the one thing so special to you that you could never give it up?”

What prompted the question was a decision that my friend’s daughter had made. She was raised Presbyterian, but she converted to another faith when she fell in love and married.

So I thought about that: could I ever give up being a Presbyterian? I’ve been taking part in the church for 57 years. Is that the one thing I couldn’t give up? Well, I wouldn’t want to give it up, but the day will probably come when I retire, and there might not be a Presbyterian church wherever I go. And if I retire and stay here, it would not be neither fair nor helpful to keep worshiping here. I would inevitably step on my successor’s toes, so I’d have to worship somewhere else. That wouldn’t be the end of the world. If I had to give it up for the greater good, I would do so.

What is the one thing that I couldn’t give up? My friends? I love my friends, but friends have been coming in and out of my life since I was eight years old. I have a lot of long-term friends, but none of them are permanent.

Could I give up my family? I wouldn’t want to; I love them very much. But who knows how much time we will have together? It’s taken a long time to get the kids launched. We hope they stay launched. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have another thirty years with my wife. But who knows? It is a happy marriage, and fruitful in so many ways, but one day death will separate us. That’s just reality. And life will go on. Different, but it would go on.

Could I give up my relatively good health? I wouldn’t want to; I’m feeling pretty good these days. But when you’re a pastor, you know that one good slip on the ice could ruin your health. Illness an strike at any time. Weakness can surprise us. None of us are exempt from that. I think of my father, gone two years ago this July. Strong as an ox, tallest man in my world, and then his rational mind started to go, and there was a long, long slide to the end. Would I want to cling to my health, stay strong, and live forever? Truth be told, that’s not reasonable. Wisdom comes from numbering our days.

“So what is it?” he asked. What is the one thing you want more than anything else, the one treasure that you have to have, the one thing you would never give up?

I’ll tell you what it is for me. It’s Jesus. Because if I had to lose everything else, I’d want to know that I could lean on him. That I would land safely with him. That in spite of my imperfect faith and wayward inclination, he would still take me in

It’s like the passage where Paul writes to the church in Philippi. He loved those people, but he was separated from them. He loved his Christian freedom, but he was stuck in a prison cell. He had a tremendous family of faith, a righteous religious heritage, but that didn’t count for much when you live behind bars. So he writes to those good people in Philippi with words that will be read at my funeral some day. Listen:

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things . . . in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own …but one that comes through faith in Christ.[1]

When all is said and done, when everything is cashed in, when we (quite literally) buy the farm, our hidden treasure is Jesus. He is the Christ, the Living One, the Life-Giving One. And he is at the center of all things, waiting to be found, waiting to take first place in everything.

Because there is nothing more important than him, nothing more important than his truth and his grace. So we seek him, and keep seeking, in the great promise that he has already found us.



(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


[1] Philippians 3:8-9

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Catholic

Matthew 13:31-33
July 30, 2017
William G. Carter

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is 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 yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”


It never fails. Say it’s a Sunday morning when we have a baptism. There is a mixed crowd of long-timers and newcomers. The baby is beautiful, the family is all smiles, the Presbyterians are delighted. And then at the door, one of the newcomers says, “Why in the world did you say, ‘We believe in the catholic church?’”

She’s referring to the Apostles’ Creed , of course, and curious why we would say such a thing. With a smile, I usually respond that nobody has a proprietary lock on the word “catholic.” There is Roman Catholic and Polish National Catholic, and people in both camps have assured me that they have little to do with one another. I once had a Russian Orthodox priest tell me that nobody is catholic – much less orthodox – except for the likes of him and those who agree with him. “Really?” I answered. “I though t those evaluations were above our pay grade.”

It reminds me of the old groaner about the guy who is being shown around the heavenly mansion with many rooms. St. Peter takes him by a locked room with no window. They heard loud hymn singing from within, and the man asks St. Peter, “Who’s in there?” “Those are the Baptists,” says Peter, “and they think they are the only ones here.” (Take note it’s a locked room. I’m not sure if it’s locked from the outside or the inside.)

“I believe in the one holy catholic church.” We say that a lot around here, almost every week, but I’m guessing that we really don’t give it much thought. We say “catholic” with a small “c.” We tell the inquisitors that means “universal,” as in “the big church, the complete church, the everywhere church,’ the “one in the Spirit, one in the Lord” church.

Perhaps they’ve been shaped to still fight against the Reformation, as some of us were instructed  long ago to keep the battles blazing. If you talk to the Presbyterians in Pittston or Dunmore and ask, “What makes you Presbyterian?” they might very well reply, “We’re not Cat’lic.” Except that Jesus says, “Maybe they are.”

What does it mean to be the catholic church? Or better stated, the church catholic?

All of this arose for me when I heard again the second parable from today’s text. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. A woman mixes it into some flour until the whole thing is leavened.”

On first reading, it’s the phase “the whole thing” that catches the ear. “Holos” is the Greek word for “the whole thing,” the same “holos” which is smack dab in the middle of the word “catholic.” Catholic is “the whole thing,” not just one small part of it, but the whole thing.

And that pushes a bigger question – is the Christian church, or one slice of it, the sum of all God’s activity in the world? To sharpen the question and provide a good answer, we have the words of Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian writer and wit. He says there’s a visible church and an invisible church. Listen:

The visible church is all the people who get together from time to time in God's name. Anybody can find out who they are by going to church to look. The invisible church is all the people God uses for his hands and feet in this world. Nobody can find out who they are except God.

Think of them as two circles. The optimist says they are concentric. The cynic says they don't even touch. The realist says they occasionally overlap.[1]

His point is simply that God is at work in the whole world, not merely in the church. And sometimes the church does God’s will . . . and always the church’s prayer is answered, “Thy will be done.” Are you catching what Buechner is throwing? “Catholic” refers to the “whole thing,” to all of God’s activity.

Needless to say, that’s a lot more activity that we can comprehend, which is precisely the one detail in Jesus’ parable. How much flour are we talking about? “Three measures.” Biblically speaking, how much is that? That’s about a bushel of flour, about 128 cups. That’s sixteen five-pound bags. And when you add in the forty-two cups of water to make it come together, you have about a hundred pounds of dough. That’s an enormous amount of flour, enough to bake enough bread to feed a large crowd of people.

And here’s this woman, this kingdom woman, who is working in the yeast in all of that flour. Imagine that!

If you can picture it in your head, you know her work is going to take a while. This is not a rush job, and neither is the work of God. Maybe you have noticed God is in no particular hurry. We pray, we trust Somebody is listening, we trust that our prayers will receive some kind of answer. But if your prayers are anything like my prayers, the most frequent answer is “Wait and see.”

This woman is working an enormous pile of dough. She’s working the whole thing.

The second thing we know, especially if we’ve ever worked with yeast, is that the whole thing is going to rise. Yeast works in secret. You work it in, you leave it alone, and it does its thing. Amy Jill Levine, the Bible scholar, points out that Jesus refers to a certain kind of yeast. It’s a sourdough starter. It ferments the flour. The whole thing bubbles up if you just give it some time.

And that’s the promise of God’s dominion, what Christ calls “the kingdom.” It bubbles up, it grows. It rises in secret, and the whole thing is a mystery.

I recall the descriptions of Christianity in China. In 1949, Mao Tse-Tung came to power and threw out all the Christian missionaries. He set up a secular state and outlawed any Christian activity. During the Cultural Revolution, all religious life was officially banned in China. After Mao’s death and the partial opening up of China, somebody discovered there were over 67 million Christians now in the country – and our missionaries weren’t over there doing the converting. It’s a glimpse of how God’s kingdom will rise.

The whole thing is a mystery. Like that little mustard seed, so small, so inconsequential, so inadequate, such an unlikely metaphor in that previous parable Jesus offers. Yet the little mustard seed grows into an enormous bush, so large that the sparrows come and make their nests there. How does something so small grow to be so large? How does sourdough yeast ferment in secret and enlarge an enormous lump of dough?

The biologists will remind us that yeast itself is a living organism, a single cell living organism. Quite literally, when someone massages in the sourdough starter yeast, they are infusing that lump of flour with life. So it’s no wonder that Jesus invites us to look within the mysteries from the field and the kitchen, and wonder at the quiet, mysterious, life-giving work of God.

And it’s good to keep this clear. Often, we Americans latch onto stories of enormous size and explosive growth, as if bigger is always better. The little corner grocery becomes a massive Wegman’s chain. The guy who built gadgets in the garage creates a worldwide technology business. The living room Bible study becomes a megachurch, and so on. But none of these scenarios equate to the kingdom of heaven, mostly because they are about us and our own efforts.

By contrast, remember what Jesus says about the kingdom. It’s all upside down:

·         What is greatness in the kingdom of heaven? To become like a small, trusting child. (Matt. 18:4)
·         Who is first in the kingdom of heaven? The last. (Matt. 19:30)
·         Who receives the blessings of the kingdom of heaven? The poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and those thirsty for justice. (Matt. 5:3-9)

In God’s kingdom, there is no room for any kind of arrogance, self-promotion, or violence, because it is God’s kingdom. It is God who rules over the kingdom of heaven. And that kingdom is not located on a distant cloud sometime in the afterlife. Rather, it is the very quality of life for which Jesus teaches us to pray: the will of God, on earth as it already is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). This is what grows. This is what rises. Not the accomplishment or the arrogance of humanity, but the rule of God over all life.

The apostle Paul could testify to this. He writes a letter to a church in Rome, full of people he had never met. And he declares on the largest possible screen, “All things work together for God for those who love God.” It’s meant to be. It’s predestined. The kingdom is going to happen.

And it grows, with us or without us. The good seed sprouts up in receptive soil. The good crop lasts among the weeds. Like an otherwise insignificant mustard seed, it digs deep roots and extends wide and hospitable branches. And all of this happens because of God. God make it grow. Or to put it another way, wherever there is growth in love, mercy, and justice, God is there, extending his rule until the final day it is everywhere.

The word for today is catholic. As in “the whole thing.” As in the huge lump of dough where God is already in the kitchen, working in the yeast until it becomes inseparable from the flour.

And I don’t know, really, what all of this means. I doubt there is a lesson here. I certainly don’t have a cute little story to bring it home. All we have is a one sentence parable. It’s a little bitty parable as small as its own mustard seed and it offers a glimpse of a truth much larger than our heads and hearts can comprehend.  

Here is that truth, as far as I know it: we are part of something so much greater than we can understand. Call it “the salvation of the world.” Call it “the redemption of the universe.” Call it “the invitation to return to the Garden of Eden.” Call it whatever you can, even though none of our words will ever contain it completely.

Jesus calls it the “kingdom of heaven.” It comes in the assurance that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God. Nothing at all. God’s love is already planted like a little bit of yeast in a great big lump of dough. Just wait – everything will rise.

The lady at the back door said, “Why do you say the word ‘catholic’? It’s not your word.” I smiled and said, “It’s not your word, either. It’s God’s word.”

And trust me when I tell you that everything that belongs to God will rise.


 (c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.




[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper and Row)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30
July 23, 2017
William G. Carter

Last week, we heard Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a sower who throws seed all over the place.” The sower is generous, casting about the seed without restriction or preparation. Some of the seed grows, some does not. So here is the next parable of the kingdom:

Jesus 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.’”


With all the summer rain and a full schedule, it has been a while since I’ve been on the riding mower. So on Friday afternoon, I took my turn to mow the yard. The dew had burned off, the grass was dry. I fired up the Briggs and Stratton, lowered the blade, and took it for a spin. The job took about 45 minutes and it was done.

Yet as I circled the front yard for the first time, I realized my lawn is full of weeds. Now I knew there were a few. A weed-and-feed expedition earlier in the spring eliminated most of the dandelions. It seems other undesirables have invaded our plot of land.

That’s a big deal in the suburbs. Everybody wants a perfect yard. A perfect yard represents a perfect home. Some neighbors spend a lot of money to have professional chemists spray their soil. Most of these consumers want a guarantee that they will remain weed-free. That’s what they are paying for, after all. You know as well as I, if there is a guarantee, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

One man I know tried a number of lawn services, to no avail. Being a tightly controlled sort, the weeds greatly upset him. So one year, in a scorched earth attempt, he killed all the vegetation on his lawn. He wiped it all out, grass included. Then he trucked in a lot of top soil and spread it around. With the best Scotts Premium tall fescue he could buy, he reseeded the entire yard. Guess what? The grass came up. It was beautiful. And then the weeds came back. They had to send him to a padded room for a short vacation.

Where do the weeds come from? It’s the recurring question in lawn care and life. If Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a gardener who throws around a lot of seed,” his very next episode is about the reality of weeds.

There are weeds in every field. Weeds in every family: even if the kids are raised with safety and good nutrition and the grandparents are healthy, somebody gets sick, somebody else goes off the rails, and somehow there is always a crazy uncle. It would be nice to think every family is perfect, but we know better. There are weeds.

There are weeds in every business. The enterprise is created, the product identified, the factory built, the workers are trained. And then a machine breaks down, or one of the workers sneaks out a product under his shirt, or somebody in the financial department is caught cooking the books. Weeds!

There are weeds in every church. We don’t want to believe that, but it’s true. Good people respond to the casting about of the seed of the Gospel. They congregate, they sing, they worship, they declare their love for Jesus and one another. Suddenly a bit of gossip invades like a pestilence. Or a weak soul is tempted by all that goodness. Or something sinister happens in the dark shadows of the choir room. Weeds.

It’s difficult to deal with the reality of weeds. When a young adult went looking for his first house, he found a possible home in a nearby village, took a tour, and came back laughing. “I crossed it off the list immediately,” he said. “The owner had paved over the front yard.” That’s one response to the weeds, I suppose.

Somebody told me about a middle aged minister of a church. They said he was “seasoned;” I think they mean “worn out.” He said he was going to start a new church. There would be a steeple, a sanctuary, and one pew large enough for only one person: him. “That’s the kind of church I want,” he said. “Just me and God, nobody else.” No weeds in the garden.

In the parable that we’ve heard, the servants come to the owner of the house and ask, “Should we pull up the weeds?” It’s a reasonable question. The landowner is the Sower who has cast about “the good seed.” It was pure and perfect as he threw it about. But then something happened, some kind of corruption crept in.

It’s easy to ascribe that to an enemy, to some unseen villain who sneaks in late at night and taints a perfect crop. Now, I know – that’s ridiculous in real life. My next door neighbor throws broken tree branches back into my yard, but I don’t believe she would ever sneak over and blow dandelion seeds in our direction. Well, she might – but I don’t perceive her as “an enemy.”

So I wonder if the landowner is overstating the case. There are some weak-hearted Christians who think the devil is as powerful as God, but that’s nonsense. God made the world. God made the squirrels and the pine cones and the sea turtles and the silver mountains. Then God called it all of it “good.” There’s no devil with that kind of power. The devil is a liar; he’s never as important as he says he is.

But there is corruption. God's good creation is mysteriously tainted. The Psalmist knew that; we recited Psalm 12 today. Remember the final verse: “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.” Maybe you came to church to forget about that, but church is about reality. And the reality is there are some weeds in the wheat. The parable says, “When the wheat bears its grain, that’s when the weeds become obvious.”

And the question is what do we do about that? If there is good and there is evil, some want to pluck out the evil. Pull the weeds. That is an understandable response.

Every once in a while, you hear about somebody who wants to purify the world, or at least their corner of it. They will go in there and separate the weeds from the wheat, the tainted from the pure, the evil from the good, the goats from the sheep, the left from the right. They are on a crusade to restore things to the way they were intended to be. We might even hear somebody come along and say, “I’m going to drain the swamp.”

Well, how is that working out? It doesn’t work out so well if the swamp is already inside of you. It is impossible to clean up the world if your own hands are dirty. And do you know why that is? Because the enticements of corruption are always greater than the purity who think they are good.

Nevertheless, every once in a while, someone will try to start pulling the weeds. A church leader may look around, see some empty seats, and say, “We are carrying some people on the membership list who do not come, do not participate, or do not give. It’s time to clear the roll.” Now this is usually said with the best of intentions. But if there’s a problem with the initiative, it’s the presumption that “I alone” – or “we alone” – can call ourselves pure, and point to “they” who are not. With all pastoral authority, I say get off it.

Every so often in my pastoral work, I come across a dear soul who wishes to divide the world into two categories: “Christian” and “Everybody else.” And they are absolutely convinced that they know what “Christian” means. There is usually a checklist of a lot of observable behaviors, like “don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t chew, or date the girls that do.” Why do we have to reduce the Christian faith to observable behaviors? Should we ever make decisions based on mercy? Forgiveness? Love? A second chance?

And then, the dear soul might say, “We shouldn’t put that person on a committee because he’s not Christian.” Or because “she’s not Christian enough.” You know what that is? It’s a desire to pull the weeds, to keep the field pure, to present the church to Christ spotless and without blemish.

It sounds so right, but it can go so wrong. Because for one thing, all of us are a work in progress. It is not harvest time yet. And for another thing, who made any of us the arbiter of who is Christian and who is not? Who gets to decide who belongs to God and who does not? Who has enough purity to weed the garden?

According to the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ alone who will present the church spotless and without blemish. And do you know how he can do it? Because he has forgiven every sin.[1] So Jesus is the one who says, “Leave the weeds alone. Don’t touch them. Don’t uproot the good wheat by presuming you can identify and extract a weed.”

One of the intriguing details of this parable is that the “weeds” actually have a proper name. In Greek, they are called “zizania” What’s zizania? It is a plant that looks just like wheat, probably what contemporary botanists call “darnel.” The point is when zizania grows alongside wheat, you can’t tell the difference. You cannot distinguish. You cannot differentiate.

So one of the points of the parable is “do not judge, lest you be judged.” Our own vision is not clear. Our own clarity is more obscured than we realize. And maybe, at least for the time being, there are a few weeds in our own garden. And maybe God still has to do some work in us.

See, this is how I know that Jesus is a Calvinist. For all his righteousness and clarity, John Calvin would never finally conclude that he himself was righteous or clear. He would say that everybody, no matter how pure they believe themselves to be, that everybody bears the seed of corruption. Even our best efforts can be tainted by self-interest and twisted out of shape by evil.

So if you think you might be pulling up the weeds, you could end up destroying the wheat, the good crop of wheat. This is why we need a Savior, somebody who sees clearly and ultimately will do the final sorting. The day will come, says Christ, when the fisherman’s net has caught all kinds of fish, and the good will be separated from the bad.[2] The day will come, he says, when the sheep will be separated from the goats, all on the basis of whether or not they learned to show compassion and care.[3]

So Jesus says, “Leave it alone.” When it’s harvest time, better hands than ours will handle it.

Is he saying, “leave it alone”? Well, in a sense, yes. But Jesus never says we should acquiesce to “the evils that we deplore.” Faithful Christian discipleship always works for good. It works for God’s good, and it works for the the public good. We must never be naïve and declare “everything is beautiful.” Neither must we give in to the evil and say with cyncism, “There’s nothing we can do.”

Ten years ago, columnist David Brooks interviewed a young politician named Barack Obama. It was a genial conversation, and Brooks discerned that Mr. Obama read a lot of books. Suddenly Brooks asked out of the blue, “Have you ever read the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama sat up straight and said, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” Brooks said, “What do you take away from him?”

With a rush of words, Obama said, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard. We cannot swing from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”[4]

So I was thinking about all of this while I was mowing my heavily weed-filled lawn. It gave me a lot to think about. It was a hot day, so when I was finished, I asked Jesus if he wanted to join me for a cup of cold water. We sat down on my front porch and had a little chat.

He looked at the front yard and said, “It looks pretty good. Your wife will be proud of you.” I said, “Thanks, Lord. It’s a job that needed to get done.”

We sat for a minute. I took a sip of that delicious cup of water. Then I got up the courage to ask, “But what about the weeds? There are so many weeds. Even if I had the energy or the inclination, I could never get rid of the weeds.”

He smiled and said, “Leave them alone.”

I started to say, “But the weeds…” He interrupted me to say, “It’s my field.”[5]



(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


[1] Ephesians 5:25-27
[2] Matthew 13:47-50
[3] Matthew 25:31-46
[5] A true vignette, borrowed from another preacher, who probably borrowed from somebody else.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9
July 16, 2017
William G. Carter

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”


I am always astonished at the tenacity of vegetation. The dandelion pops up overnight, blossoms in a burst of yellow, then explodes in a puff and scatters across the yard. There’s a vine that wraps itself around the back fence. Every year it gets snipped down to the soil, but every year it returns and grows taller. It’s well planted. Or there’s the blade of grass that pokes its head out of the crack in the driveway – how did the seed get there?

It appears a good seed, given the right conditions, can grow just about anywhere. A few years ago, my mother gave us some a few spearmint plants for the front garden. They took over. Now there’s no room for anything else. The few daisies that our friend Carol shared were planted in our rocky backyard and they are doing just fine. While I sipped my morning coffee, I saw them greeting the morning sun and singing alleluia.

A good seed can grow just about anywhere – but not everywhere. The rocky mountain has a bald spot somewhere around ten thousand feet. The grass grows in the crack of my driveway, but not on the driveway itself. And if it ever stops raining this summer, the sun might eventually burn out the well-lit lawn.

So Jesus tosses this familiar parable toward the ears of his hearers, uncertain where it will land. There is no telling which response will happen this time.

Some of us will race ahead a paragraph or two, and find a freeze-dried, just-add-water explanation of the parable. It’s given in the same style as Saint Augustine, who taught that the parables can function like a hidden code. He liked to say that every detail of the parable stood for something else. The Word of God’s kingdom equals the seed. Each patch of soil equals the individual listener. Rocky soil is the person with no depth. The scorching sun equals the troubles of this life. The thorns that choke out the seed are cares of the world and the lure of wealth, and so on.

This is how the early church understood the parable. It is an obvious interpretation that comes by observation. Just watch who shows up on a Sunday, and the following Sunday. Take note of who is flourishing. The Gospel seed is thrown into all kinds of soil.

There are people who stumble into a church, sit down and listen, and quickly discover a life-giving Word from God. They are excited. They return early the next week. They sit down front. But should they lose a job, have trouble at home, get snubbed at coffee hour, or discover that all the Christians have flaws, they may slip away. And if they hear something challenging in a sermon or a Bible study, they evaporate. Nothing grows. They are only around for the excitement, not the growth. It’s easy to call that shallow soil.

Or consider the people who move into town, buy the big house, have 2.3 perfect children, and drive the big car. They come to First Presbyterian Church, because it would never occur to them to go to Last Presbyterian Church. The music is stunning, the building is well-kept, the preacher went to Princeton, and most of the people look just like them.

But then, some friends at the Club mention some wonderful vacation spots. The kids get involved in weekend sports, not because they’re great athletes, but there’s where their friends are. Time passes, and one of the deacons seems them in the grocery store on a Tuesday night. “It’s been forever since we’ve been in church,” they confess. “Our weekends are just so busy.” The Bible says, “Cares of the world, the lure of wealth, it yields nothing.”

It’s easy to evaluate by the results. That’s how John Calvin developed his views on predestination. Calvin was preaching the Gospel twice a day, every day. He noticed that some people got it and others fell asleep. Some people grew in the faith while others daydreamed. Calvin said, “Obviously God has turned on the lights for some and kept the lights off for others.” It never occurred to him to evaluate the quality of his sermons, but, well, he was noticing the results.

American church people love to look at the results. Where is the growth happening? Where is there a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, hundred-fold return? Where are the other churches growing? What are they doing? What fresh ideas can we steal from them? After all, they’ve been stealing our members; we should up our game and steal some of theirs.

It’s tempting to look at the results. If you look at the results, you never ask what kind of soil you are. Is this acidic soil? Are there some rocks here? Has it been paved over?

Even tougher: have I allowed the crows to snatch the seed away from me? Are there thorns of privilege and affluence wrapping themselves around my legs?

It’s a hundred times easier to look out there than it is to reflect in the mirror and ask, “Why isn’t the seed of God’s kingdom growing and flourishing in me?” It is a worthy question - - but I don’t think it has a lot to do with the parable.

This is the parable of the Sower. The Sower went out to sow. And what does he do? He throws the seed all over the place. He shows no caution, no preparation, no hesitation, and so the seed goes everywhere. He does not prepare the ground, pull up the weeds, or remove the stones. He doesn’t chase away the birds, block the sun, or chop down the thorns. No, he’s not the gardener. He is the Sower.

So let’s pay attention to what we learn about him. I have made a list.

First item on the list: he has a lot of seed. He never runs out of seed. You might say he’s the source of all the seed. Never has a shortage when it comes to sowing the seed.

Second item on the list: this Sower is terrifically generous. He throws the seed all over the place. It’s not restricted to carefully dug furrows. The seed is thrown everywhere. It doesn’t matter if the soil is rough or welcoming. There is always fertile seed which carries its own promise within its own shell.

Third item on the list: the Sower is not interested in controlling the outcome. All he wants to do is spread the seed around as far as he can. There are all kinds of soil; for all we know, the Sower may have created all that soil too. But for now, it is the season for seeding, and he is doing a marvelous job. The seed is all over.

Fourth, and maybe the most important item on the list: the Sower knows if that seed is going to grow, it’s going to grow. It’s good quality seed, the best seed possible. In fact, it might be the only seed there is. Its source is in the Sower. It is his seed, and his seed alone.

As I reflected on this, I remembered the prophetic poem of Isaiah which we included as one of the readings for today. Let me remind us of the pithy parts:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Do you know what I hear emerge in those words? That God is responsible for God’s own kingdom. That God gives life to the soil and the soul. That God’s own Word will take root and flourish. That God is not concerned with wasting words but creating bread, specifically the Bread of Life.

So I think about this. I don’t believe our job is to be selective, restrictive, or evaluative. No, in the name of the Sower, we are called to be generous. Keep spreading the seed of God’s kingdom.

I recall a conversation with a youth group leader. She was feeling worn out. Plans would be made for the youth of our community, and few of the kids would show up. She would say, “I don’t know what to do.” I responded, “Keep going. You never know when the seed might take root.” So she would try again. There would be little, if no response.

One day, she was getting ready to send out some information and she had two sets of labels. I said, “Why two sets of labels?” Well, one was the A List, and the other was the B List. The A List comprised the few kids who were a sure bet to come – they loved the program, or their parents forced them to come, or maybe both. The B List named the kids who never came. The information was only going to get sent to the A List. She said, “Why should we waste the invitation on the ones who never come?”

I simply responded, “Because you never know.” You never really know. This is not harvest time yet. It’s sowing time. And God has a way of creating life where you can’t imagine it possible. Come over and look at the grass sprouting up in the cracks of my driveway.

Now if you have ears to hear, and you hear this parable of Jesus, and if you flinch when you hear him speak of “shallow soil” or “the thorns that choke out the seed, due to the cares of the world or the lure of wealth,” pay attention to that. Make the necessary changes that you might welcome “the life that really is life.”[1] (1 Timothy 6:19)

Every week, I meet people on the street or in the stores, and they say, “Oh, I don’t get to church as much as I should.” Or “it’s been a while since I’ve been to church.” Or “Hey stranger, I bet you’ve been missing me.” Well, of course I’ve been missing you. To quote a favorite poet, “What life have you if you have not life together?”[2] It’s good for us to be together, if only for an hour a week.

But I cannot change anybody’s schedule for them. I am powerless to rearrange anybody else’s priorities. It is not my role to cancel somebody’s trip to the shore or declare that travel soccer is the bane of all Christian educators. It’s up to each of us to consider what we might do to welcome the Word that God speaks, to nourish it in our hearts, and take part in the fruitfulness of the Gospel of God.

And let's keep our eyes on the Sower. As for me, I want to sow the seed of the kingdom, as God sows the seed: generously, lovingly, without restriction, because I have seen what happens when the love of God takes root in a person’s life. The hopeless brighten like the summer daisies. The drunkard sells his beer and buys furniture. The self-centered suburbanite befriends the poor. The old crank transforms into Santa Claus. The fractured souls are healed.

The Gospel bears abundant fruit. Just as the Sower intended.



(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


[1] 1 Timothy 6:19
[2] T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rest

Matthew 11:28-30
July 2, 2017
William G. Carter

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


I don’t know of a more inviting invitation. “Come to me and I will give you rest.” He speaks to the woman who cannot sleep, to the child who is anxious, and to the man is bone-tired. Come . . . rest. The invitation is gentle, not forceful. He speaks from a level place, a humble place. And his invitation includes all: “all you,” or as they say in the South, “you all.” There’s not a single person excluded. Everybody come, come and rest.

What intrigues me is why so many people turn him down. Have you ever noticed that?

As a kid, I learned from my father. He knew how to put in a long day’s work. At his desk by eight every morning, home for supper by six, then he would change his clothes and go outside for a few more hours of labor. Dad came from a family of farmers. They didn’t sit very much, unless Grandpa was riding the red tractor in his straw hat and a strand of timothy grass in his teeth. Even then, the days were long and there was precious little rest.

When we would visit those grandparents, we’d leave at the end of an IBM workday. Mom would have the kids bundled up and ready go. Dad would roar up the street, run in and change his clothes, and off we’d go, six hours in the car, along endless Route 6. Next morning, he would wake early on his parents’ farm, slug down some coffee, and ask if there was anything he could do to help. He didn’t rest when he went on vacation.

I know a lot of people like that. They can quote the Bible: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” says one version of a verse from the book of Proverbs.[1] Or there is that section that somebody read to us at the teenage Bible camp:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer,

    and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11, RSV)

It’s a compelling lesson from nature. And in case you don’t know what a “sluggard” is, the New Revised Standard translates the word as “lazybones.” Go to the hard working ant, O lazybones, and learn your lesson. Work hard. Don’t ever sit still. The Calvinists didn’t invent a hard work ethic. They found it in their Bibles.

But there’s also the invitation to rest. According to the Greek dictionary, to rest is “to cease from movement or labor in order to recover and collect (one’s) strength.” Now, we don’t need a dictionary to tell us that. We already know what rest is. It’s just that we don’t do it very well. 

And do you know why that is? As Jesus suggests, it’s a matter of the soul. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest for your souls.” The soul is the part of us that’s alive. It’s the intersection of thought, feeling, and breath. It’s the gift breathed into us by God’s Spirit that makes us human. The soul is the wellspring of our dreams, the anchor for our imagination, the seat of all passion and hope.

And the soul is the part of us that can be traumatized, anxious, and fearful. When the soul is wounded, one of the typical responses is to keep pushing on, persisting through, often in the vain hope that if we just add another inch to the span of our day, we will speed by or gloss over the deep wound that we are trying to avoid.

That’s what Wayne Muller identified as he reflected the practice of keeping Sabbath – and why so many people resist it. He writes:

This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness. If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode an destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop loving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done . . . anything to fill the time, the empty space.[2]  

He’s right about that. Go to a restaurant and watch the people around you. Some of them would rather stay attached to their smart phones than have an intelligent conversation. Go the shore to get away from it all, and when you realize that others had the same idea, take note of how many of them are staying tethered to email and internet.

It is simply the next extension of what I discovered about two weeks after I bought my first laptop computer some twenty-five years ago: because we can do work anywhere, we never stop working, especially if the work is mental, or emotional, or virtual, or expected of us. Let me tell you it was interesting to spend four days last week in a place in the New Mexico desert where there was little internet service, and you only got cell phone service if you stood on a table with your left arm in the air as an antenna. Don’t ask how I discovered about the cell phone service.

So what is the rest that restores our souls? That is the invitation of Jesus Christ. We find it by “coming to him.” And what is that? Coming to a church? No, we come to him. If you merely come to church, it will exhaust you.

But we can’t see him. How do we come to him?  I think we come by paying attention to his grace. We come by listening to Jesus say that every one of us has inestimable value. We come by chewing on his promise that we “do not live by bread alone,” but by the life-giving words that come from the mouth of God. We come by observing the birds of the air and how they are cared for by an Unseen Benevolence. We come by admiring the wildflowers which bring beauty to life’s path and we did not plant them.

It’s all about grace, the invisible goodness and favor which give us our lives in the first place. If we’re convinced that life is only weariness and burden, then we’re missing how everything is really a gift, a generous gift. If we are obsessed with the latest stupid stunt of some public figure, then we’re missing what a wonderful blessing it is to be together, to pursue the dreams we have in common, to work for the benefit of all of us.

Maybe the saddest addiction of all is to be consumed only with myself – my views, my fears, my worries, my hurts, my anger, my wounds. I don’t know if there is a heavier burden than that. There is only one way to have that burden lifted from our shoulders. It is to come to Christ, who alone is saving the world as an expression of the goodness and grace of God. We really do have to give up the burden of being addicted to ourselves.

I recently picked up the latest collection of Sabbath poems by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer. For forty years, he has spent Sundays resting, going for a walk, and writing short poems on Sabbath themes. He pays attention to the world that thrives even on his Sabbath day off. In the book’s preface he writes these words:

We are to rest on the Sabbath in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest. This work is entirely independent of our work, and is far more complex and wonderful than any work we have ever done or will ever do. It is more complex and beautiful than we will ever understand.[3]

The world doesn’t revolve around us. Maybe it’s better for us to orbit around the One who made it all, the One who fills it with life and brings it to such abundance.

“Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” That’s why the invitation persists. We don’t rest once and then think we’re done with it. Neither do we sit on our hands while others labor to benefit us. A full life is a rhythm of work and rest, of task and reflection. And if life is out of balance, if the rhythm is limping, the invitation is to come. To keep coming. To persist in coming to the grace of Jesus Christ.

At its heart, this kind of rest is about one thing: what will fill me with God’s abundant life? What will restore my soul?  What are the practices that create a song in my heart? What is it, for you, that brings you totally alive? That’s the kind of rest we’re talking about.

Every one of us has an answer unique based on who they are, how they are growing, and how they are wondrously made. In my house, one of us picks up yarn and needles, and imagines a hat for a premature infant; although these days, she is just as likely to design and create a kitchen table or a backyard deck. (It is an awesome thing to be married to a woman with a nailgun.) Meanwhile I sit in my blue chair, juggling metaphors or scratching out a new jazz melody. All of us are wired differently.

The lady up the street has an enormous flower garden; tending it is what gives her life. Or there’s the man who persists in welcoming cast-off puppies; they keep him company and he returns the favor.

For some people, it’s running marathons (which I can’t understand) or singing difficult songs (which I do). For other people, it’s providing a happy table, where joy is the main course.

For some people, it’s the solitary work of quiet prayer for the needs of the world. For others, it’s translating those prayers into acts of mercy and justice. It gives life to them and to others.

This is what it means to come to Christ in restorative rest. In the grace of God, we find what gives us life and we pursue it. And we keep pursuing it, not for the sake of indulgence, but in the pursuit of a greater integration and health. It’s a different kind of yoke to be placed upon our shoulders. We give up all the other slaveries and take on the disciplines that heal our souls.

And that’s why we keep coming into this place and gathering at this Table. For this is where we hear once again how much we are loved, how deeply we are saved, and how greatly the world is kept in hands far more gracious and just than our own.

May you have a blessed Sabbath, again and again.


(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


[1] Proverbs 16:23, The Living Bible
[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath (New York: Bantam, 1999) p. 51-52
[3] Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013), introduction.