More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)

 

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You never know…

This morning one of the readings made me wail and lament my mixed motives and weak efforts as a disciple of Jesus,

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (I Corinthians 2:11-15)

But God’s mercy is great where my works are puny. My book, through a friend of a friend of a friend, found its way to a pastor in Texas. Even though his is not a family with autism, God used one of the reflections in the book to help him find the Scripture on which to build his most recent sermon. And it helped him in a week that presented challenges to him, personally, and to the people he serves.

Here’s the sermon. I thank God who, in the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, uses our efforts above and beyond our limitations as he makes us ready for an eternal reward.

Jesus left that place…

[What follows are my thoughts for an upcoming visit with the Dinka congregation at Church of the Holy Apostles, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.]

Go Yecu jaal eeti  (Matthew 15:21, Dinka, from the Gospel for the Sunday closest to August 17th, Revised Common Lectionary) Then Jesus left that place…

Jesus and his disciples were healing and answering questions near the Sea of Galilee, where he grew up.  He was with his own people, near his own home, speaking his own language.

Go Yecu jaal eeti – then he left that  place and went to what is now Lebanon, the District of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus and his disciples were in a different culture.  Some of the people were called Canaanites, the pagans that the Jews’ ancestors fought agianst for the land.  Sidon was the home of Jezebel, the Queen to Israel’s King Ahab, who together led another generation of Israelites to pollute the land with idolatry, oppression and bloodshed.  His disciples did not think well of the people there.

But Jesus went there and, through a hard conversation with a local woman, gave his blessing and opened the way for his Good News to come to people there.

The Dinka people lived for a very long time in South Sudan.   Much violence came to their land and culture.  Some of the Dinka then left that place.  Like the disciples of Jesus, they must have been confused as they traveled to other parts of Africa, and then to many other places around the world.  They were called Lost Boys and Lost Girls.  But Yecu Kritho walked with them.

Some came to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  This was not easy.  It gets colder here than any Dinka ever experienced in South Sudan.  People here speak a different language that is not easy to learn and do things very different from Dinka traditions.

But I believe that the Dinka are here not just for their own safety, although that is good.  And not just to help other Dinka, although that is good.  And not just to keep Dinka culture alive, although that is good.

The Dinka are here because Yecu Kritho walked with you here to help Americans know him better.  The Dinka are here as Dutuuc – his apostles and witnesses – to help Americans hear God’s word like it is new – Lek Jot de Yecu Kritho.

This is what Jesus promised his church would do.  The Holy Spirit – Jandiit Lajik – would provide power to Lost Boys and Lost Girls to travel all over the strange world with Jesus and to share God’s glory wherever they went.

We bi rier loom te cii Jandiit Lajik ben enan week, ku we bi ya duleekcie ne Jeruthalem, ku Judaya, ku Thamaria eben agut piny thok eben.  

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  (Acts/Dutuuc 1:8)

Sioux Falls is the end of the end of the earth where Jesus brought a Dinka congregation.  He is with you here so you can help all of your strange new neighbors learn about him and have new life, here and cen de Nhialic, the kingdom of God.

Don’t miss the miracle

 My footThis coming Sunday’s Gospel has more than one miracle.  Sure, it has the obvious suspension of natural law when flesh-and-blood walks on water toward the end.  But don’t miss the much greater miracle launching right off the top of the lesson,

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

The divine Son of God who can walk on water and calm storms and raise the dead and such has to find privacy to pray.

The great miracle is the Incarnation, best described in John 1:14,

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Son of God – the Word – was not subject to confusion, weakness, exhaustion, rejection, pain, death, or any of the other afflictions known by mortal creatures.

But in the miracle of the Incarnation, the perfection of God is suspended, and the Son of God is clothed with our finite flesh and all that comes with it.

Matthew discloses the miracle in what seems like simple narration of events,

Jesus dismissed the crowds – while in the flesh, the Word who created all things can find his creatures overwhelming and distracting.

he went up on the mountain – while in the flesh, the Son who was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18) must resort to the primitive human practice of closing the distance to heaven by going to a high place.

by himself – while in the flesh, the One who in the Holy Spirit shares perfect unity with the Father experiences the human reality of separation and isolation.

to pray – while in the flesh, the instantaneous and perpetual love of Father, Son and Spirit is interfered with and the Son must reach out with words of prayer like any mortal.

But these limits under which Jesus operates are only one aspect of the miracle.  Even greater is the love for us that it reveals.

Imagine for a moment that you received the power to live without anything unpleasant ever intruding.  No pain.  No losses.  No disappointments.  No rejections.  Just a constant state of love and joy.

Would you waive that power, once it was yours?

That’s what God does in the miracle of the Incarnation.  The state of perfect love and joy is waived for a season in the flesh, up to and including death, so that those who are in the flesh can come to perfect love and joy with God.

Now wait a minute, you might say, we all sacrifice for those we love.  And you would be right to an extent.  We’re all made in the image of God, and so we can do some miniature imitation of Him.  Our love for others can be sacrificial as we occasionally set aside our pleasures and preferences in order to care for them.

But the fact remains that even at our best, we are not free from the pains of the flesh.  We get sick and tired and we die.  Jesus did not have to endure any of it – he chose it.  He chose us in a great miracle of love, and with us he chose his own suffering and limitation.

So don’t miss the miracle when you hear this Sunday’s Gospel.  Jesus walks on water, but that’s just to highlight the supernatural suspension of glory when he later muddles along alone, lugging the instrument of his execution, screaming of abandonment and dying in the flesh like all of us.

It is his loving choice to do so, and that love is the power through which He, as if pulling sinking Peter out of the lake, will reach into our death and raise us to new and everlasting love and joy.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Jesus took three of his apostles with him, went up a mountain, and, for a moment, was transfigured from their familiar rabbi into the glorious Son of God.

And, like us, they were transformed by his presence… Nah.  Like us, they were sleeping through the whole thing,

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.   (Luke 9:32-33)

Ironically, the same thing happens when Jesus displays his vulnerable humanity in the Garden of Gethsemane,

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  (Matthew 26:39-40)

Like us, they were transformed by his Passion… Nah.  You get the picture.

People say things like, “If God would just tell me what he wants… If God would just be less mysterious… If God would just appear to me…”

He did all that.  Still does, through the Word as written in the Scriptures.  But it doesn’t matter if he shows up in glorious miracles or in the depths of human suffering.  We are “weighed down” with the weakness of our sin-dissipated human nature.  Our thoughts turn into day dreams and pipe dreams.  We sleep through his presence.

Nothing to be done for it, really.  Sure, we can “try harder to stay awake,”  but you can ask my wife how well I do with that after a long day at work.

Jesus Christ’s love for us is so great that he transforms our weakness to share his glory.  He has done and continues, through the Holy Spirit, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Through his perfect offering and eternal intercession for us, we are delivered from the sleep of death to share the unending day in the joy of our heavenly Father.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (Collect of the Transfiguration, Book of Common Prayer 1979)

There’s only two kinds of people…

How many jokes rely on the “two kinds of people” opening?

Our Gospel this Sunday isn’t funny, but Jesus presents a story in which humanity is divided into two kinds of people: children of the kingdom and children of the evil one.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus represents the children of God’s kingdom as wheat and the children of the evil one (that is, the devil) as weeds. You can’t tell them apart much of the time. The wheat and the weeds of the time and place where Jesus first told this story look alike until the weeds bloom and can be identified as a toxic plant.

We are prone to shrug off some types of evil and say, “Hey, I’m (or he’s or she’s or they’re or we’re) only human.” The plants in the field in Jesus’ story are like that – they all look like wheat until a ripe moment in which the true nature of each plant is revealed.

Because of that, Jesus warns us against trying to rip out the weeds too soon. When the slaves (they represent the church, by the way) want to go pull the weeds, Jesus says, 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.

Jesus promises a day when he will give the order to angels to separate the children of the evil one to go “home” to the fires of hell, and preserve the children of the kingdom in “God’s barn,” the peaceful and abundant heavens.

Meanwhile, we are to be patient and gentle in dealing with the human race, knowing that some sinners will turn out to be saints and some saints will turn out to be sinners beyond salvage.

While we wait for the great revealing, there are some qualities for which to watch in ourselves and others, indicators of those who are bearing the good fruit of the Spirit as children of the kingdom and those who are toxic with works of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Drawing from our lesson from Romans and the Gospel, here are some of those qualities:

  • Children of the kingdom are led by the Spirit of God; Children of the evil one live according to the flesh.  The Apostle Paul explains this in detail in Chapter 5 of his Letter to the Galatians,
    • Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
  • Children of the kingdom often suffer while doing right – Paul says we share Christ’s sufferings; children of the evil one seem to get away with murder.
    • They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.  Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. (Psalm 73:4-6)
  • Children of the kingdom long and hope for the kingdom, in fact, we pray thy kingdom come every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer to our Father in heaven;  children of the evil one care only for their current gratification, as the struggling and misguided priest in the British series Grantchester preached in a disastrous sermon, This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.
  • Children of the kingdom practice patience, going gently in the world as we wait for Jesus to return and render the justice that he alone is fit to dispense; children of the evil one inflict all kinds of harm on the world, often while claiming to do good, even justifying their actions as “the will of God.”

That’s stuff we can see in the here and now.  We won’t see the final verdict until Our Lord returns.  At that time,

  • The children of the kingdom will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father; the children of the evil one will burn in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I had a visit from a long time friend last week.  He shared about his experience in a church that appeared to be full of children of the kingdom – and, in fact, probably is – but which also practiced the rash judgment against which Jesus warns.  It was one of the Protestant churches that is harshly anti-Catholic.  My friend had a Catholic grandmother who, by his new church’s statements, was an idol worshiping child of the evil one.

His objection, although not in these exact words, pointed out how his grandmother showed all the signs of a child of the kingdom:

  • She was led by the Spirit, starting every day early with prayer, especially prayer for other people.  Yes, she prayed using Rosary beads.  But her daily routine and attitude were clearly fruit of the Spirit.
  • She suffered while doing right.  Illness and age took a toll on her, but her focus remained on the well being of others.
  • She longed and hoped for the kingdom, praying daily for it’s arrival and inviting others into the Christian life as she understood it through the Roman Catholic Church.
  • She was patient and gentle in a world of family squabbles, harsh judgments and her own pain.

My friend and brother in Christ understood intuitively (or, more accurately, in the Spirit) that his grandmother was one who would shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father – in fact, that light was shining from her mortal life as well.

May we be guided by the Spirit to hear Jesus’ story and Paul’s teaching and live our lives in the Gospel’s truth, with acceptance of our share of suffering, even when it seems unfair, with hope for the kingdom to come and with patient gentleness toward others, praying for them to shine like the sun in the perfect kingdom without end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On the other hand, there’s Clint’s advice,

Dirty Memories

My readings this morning described the important power of memory for our faith.

For example, Psalm 77 starts in despair,

Will the Lord cast me off for ever? will he no more show his favor? Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed for evermore?  Has God forgotten to be gracious? has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion? And I said, “My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power,”

but memory comes to the rescue,

I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 11, Peter reports on how an unexpected invitation to preach to an “unclean” Roman officer and his household was confusing and frightening, until memory transformed it for the spread of the Gospel,

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (11:15-16 ESV)

These insights into the Scripture got me thinking about this Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus uses a story about throwing around seeds to illustrate what it will be like to preach, teach and share the Good News in his name,

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!  (Jesus, recorded in Matthew 13, this Sunday’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary)

The “dirt” on which the word lands represents, in part, the capacity of a person to remember what is heard or read. Hearing or reading Scripture “plants” it in the believer’s mind, so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to remembrance at the right times, like seasons of despair as in Psalm 77, or in the face of a confusing choice like Peter’s in Acts 11.

And planting is an important image, because the word needs time to crowd out old weedy thoughts and emotions that clog our lives. Memory is not just storage, but fertile soil in which the word grows. The Letter of James puts it well,

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. (1:21 NLT)

IMG_20170713_145244_906Our son with autism planted carrot seeds in a plastic cup at his day program. They came home with him, with green tops sprouting and needing more room to grow. So I got a proper flower pot and some good garden soil.

That good dirt is like a spiritually receptive memory.

If I toss the little root ball of carrots on the sidewalk, they will be scarfed up by our local bunnies and birds just as a the devil snatches the word of the Lord from a hard headed person whose memory is paved over with no entryway for new life.

If I leave the young carrots in the plastic cup, there’s not enough soil for them to grow, just like the word planted in a shallow memory will not take root and will wither in the face of life’s challenges.

If I transplant the carrots to a poorly kept patch in my yard, they’ll be choked by the weeds just as the word will be choked out of a memory clogged with worldly concerns like grudges and fantasies.

But I transplanted the carrots into good and abundant soil, so they can grow.  Jesus is telling us that those who receive, hold and let his words take root have “dirty memories” – not “filthy” but abundant, healthy space for his word to grow – and will experience spiritual growth and good works in his name.

This doesn’t mean you have to sit and memorize every last word of the Bible to follow Jesus.  He says that each believer’s  “crops” will come in different abundance, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”  He can work with different capacities and chooses all sorts of people – some who can remember every detail of childhood, others who can’t remember what they had for lunch.

Some of us will memorize large swaths of Scripture, others will catch onto a verse here and there.  In either case, the Holy Spirit will bring the right words to remembrance at the right time.

The important thing is that we let the word be planted by whatever means God uses – hearing it read and preached in church, reading it ourselves or listening to podcasts, having a friend share it with us over coffee – so that it gets into the dirt of our memories, be they great big fields or fancy little pots.  It is God who brings forth an amazing crop through those who make a little room for the seed to grow.