Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, July 17, 2017

Wonder Seeds


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

What new crop did the farmer plant? (Beets me!)

Why shouldn't you tell a secret on a farm? (Because the potatoes have eyes and the corn has ears!)

There is a joke in my family, who are farmers, that a farmer is a man who is outstanding in his field. Or out, standing in his field.

And let me tell you, farmers earn a meager celery, come home beet and just want to read the pepper, turn-ip the covers, en-dive into bed! (I got all these jokes from a website) 

Let anyone with ears…. Listen!

While it is true that a week of running around with 35 kids of all ages probably effects one’s mental state, these jokes DO have a point. Much like the stories that Jesus told his followers, like the one that we heard today, which often gets the name “the Parable of the Sower.” 

These stories get a fancy name – parables – which comes from a Greek word that originally means “to throw alongside.” Sort of like when you have two rows of three to five-year-old lined up facing each other, and get them to gently toss water balloons to one another until they fall and pop. It has varying degrees of success.

For those of you who are gardeners or have experience farming, think about the parable that Jesus just told for a minute. Is this how you plant your gardens? Is this how your rows of crops in the fields get planted? Even during the time of Jesus, this was NOT how people planted their crops. Jesus’ people didn’t have big farm machinery, but they still took great care with their seeds, vineyards, and livestock. After all, this was their livelihood, and could mean the difference between being full or starvation.

So, what is Jesus getting at when he tells this story? What two (or more) things is he casting side-by-side for us to link together?

When I was a youth, I remember hearing this story at a youth event and the leaders asking us what kind of soil we thought we were. However, at this point in my life, I am less interested in that question. Thinking this way reminds me of those funny online personality quizzes I take every now and again. Can’t you just picture this going around Facebook? “Which kind of soil are you? Take this quiz NOW!”

My theory now is that if we are asking ourselves what kind of soil we are, we probably aren’t rocky soil, soil on the path, or soil with weeds. Or maybe we are all of these things at the same time, or we even have been all of these kinds at different stages of our lives. This is not an all-or-nothing label, which sticks to us forever and ever, amen – “Too bad, you are rocky soil… good for you, you are good soil.” Like a personality quiz with an obvious right answer.

I also think Jesus left something out when he – or Matthew writing after – tried to make sense of this story. What I wish would have been added is an explanation for good soil. 

My Dad could tell you about good soil – while out standing in his field, ha ha ha – and every day he does go out to his fields, to make them good soil… by spreading cow manure.  That’s right. A key component of good soil is a waste product that are left over from what the cows could not digest, and smells bad, and is gross to talk about, is exactly what makes soil rich and robust for new life to grow out of it.

The rest of the world sees something that should be thrown away, cast out, criticized, forgotten, disregarded, and shamed.

But God sees… good soil.

Good thing for us… that God is actually a terrible farmer. God sees the good soil, and casts seeds like crazy, looking and hoping for growth. But then God sees the rocky soil… and does the same thing… and the same with the soil on the path! And the soil with the weeds! God’s idea of farming is not unlike being a guest on an Oprah show… YOU get seeds… and YOU get seeds… EVERY SOIL GETS SEEDS!!!

This seems incredibly wasteful! Especially when God only seems to expect a 25 percent success rate. Image, for those out there who are teachers, that your students need just a 25 percent to pass.

It’s outrageous, it’s irresponsible, but it is also who God IS. God is a farmer who takes chances. God is a wasteful fool who takes an infinite amount of chances on us, as much as it takes for as long as it takes.

This week our heroes learned a verse from the Psalms – “Do good, seek peace, and go after it.” That became our hero code to inspire us to be God’s heroes… because that is what God does for us. Even when we don’t always act like heroes. Even if we don’t always feel like we deserve it.

Last week I mentioned how many super hero movies are coming out now. I of course had to go see the new Wonder Woman movie, for research purposes. Diana is Wonder Woman, and she is raised by women who are strong and fierce, chosen to protect humanity. Young Diana wants to train for this too, but her mother, the queen of the Amazons, won’t allow it. One night, the queen tells a disappointed Diana, “be careful of mankind, Diana, they do not deserve you.”

Later, of course, when Diana grows up she defies her mother and goes off on a quest to save human kind, seeking to defeated the god of war himself to end World War One. She collects along the way her posse – a rag tag bung of heroes who are brave and loyal. At once point the group is trapped in a trench, and hear the cries of innocent civilians – women and children – who are trapped on the other side.

Diana tells her new friends, “We need to help these people.” But she is told, “We can’t save everyone…this is not what we came here to do”

Diana sheds her coat and brings out her shield, ready to go into the fray. “No.” she replies… “but it is what I’m going to do. I’m willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” Then she stepped into the no-man’s-land, and with her shield she took all the fire while her friends charged the trench on the far side, and liberated the captives.

In that movie, Diana had to learn the hard way that humanity would too often rather scatter bullets of hate rather than seeds of love. We are capable of truly terrible things. We would rather bury the son of God in a tomb rather than face this God who relentlessly loves us, and also loves those we don’t think deserve it.

But still, God the bad farmer keeps throwing seeds at us, hoping that at some point, someday, something will take root. Because when it does…. AMAZING things happen, and the yields are AWESOME.

We certainly threw out a lot of seeds this week at Vacation Bible School. Most of these kids were members of this community. And we have no idea if they will EVER darken the doorway of this church on a Sunday morning. But we were faithful heroes of God, scattering the seeds just as Jesus did, not knowing what kind of soil they were landing on…. But trusting that God does give the growth.

It may take months…years… or even decades to sprout sometimes. We may never see the yield that comes with our planting. But the words about the love of God that we spoke last week will not return to God empty.

God’s word returns full, and the tomb is empty. The seed that was buried sprouts and yields a hundredfold. Manure becomes good soil. Mountain and trees burst into song and clap their hands. Death becomes life. All soil gets a chance. Let anyone with ears… listen! Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Heroes and Villains

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

When was the last time that you went to see a movie? I’m willing to bet that it was either super hero movie, or at the very least one of the trailers before it was for a super hero movie.  We sure do love our super heroes and heroines, don’t we? We wear their logos on T-shirts and are inspired to be more like them. Our entire Vacation Bible School theme next week that is entirely about super heroes!  

 We like heroes, because heroes are strong. They beat the bad guys. They rescue people. They always save the day, without fail. All of those hero movies make the world make sense - the bad guys are bad, the heroes are good, and for the most part it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.

Sadly, real life is not like this at all. For us regular, non-super-hero types, the epic battles we face are not external, but inside our very selves. In the real world, I find that I have the capacity to be both hero and villain, sometimes in the same moment.

There are times when I know that I shouldn’t do something, especially when it will hurt someone else, but I do it anyway. I know that I shouldn’t buy clothes that are made by children in sweatshops, but I want them anyway. I know that the poor and the homeless need help, but I turn from the man with the handwritten sign asking for help. Sometimes it’s like watching myself from the outside do what I don’t want to do. And those times I DO want to do the right thing, something keeps me frozen in place.

I think that most of you know what I’m talking about. The Apostle Paul knew all about this, which he shares in his letter to the Romans from our readings for today. He writes to them, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He goes on, “Now if I do what I do not what, it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells in me.”

I know it’s hard to talk about sin sometimes, because it is so sneaky. It’s more than just when we do bad things or don’t do good ones. Sin is part of all of us – it is the cause of the broken world that we live in. Our relationships are broken – relationships with our family, friends, the earth, and even with God. This sinful state creates all the things that you see on the nightly news: war, violence, greed, discrimination, oppression, and extreme disparity between rich and poor. We “should” know better, and sometimes we DO know better, and yet, here we are. Doing the very things we know we shouldn’t do.

I read an article a few years ago about computer viruses that really stuck with me. It was about a kind of virus program called a “worm.” A “worm” will sneak into a vulnerable spot in your computer. Then, while inside your machine, it lies in wait for a message from whoever created it. The worm could theoretically do anything it wants to your computer, and once that happens, there is nothing that you can do to stop it.

How could it be that the computer that I own, that I purchased and use every day, could somehow be out of my control? It’s mine. We could very well ask the same question of ourselves – how can I not be in control of myself? I belong to me. How could it be that, as Paul says, we do not understand our own actions sometimes? How is it that we sometimes play the villain, even when we should know better?

“Wretched man am I!” Paul rightly exclaims. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Who is going to save us from ourselves, from the wreckage of broken humanity that we find ourselves in?

To our plight, Jesus Christ says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.”

While this text is beautiful for funerals, Jesus is not just speaking about those who have lost a loved one. Jesus is speaking to us, right here, right now, wherever we find ourselves in our own stories – hero, villain, or somewhere in between.

Just before this passage from Matthew, John the Baptist is in prison, wondering if all his preaching and angering the people in power been worth it. Is Jesus the one that they have been waiting for? Like John, we too wonder, is Jesus the hero that we want? Or is Jesus the savior that we actually need?

To the religious leaders of his day, neither John nor Jesus measured up. John was too preachy, harsh, and had weird dietary habits and fashion choices. Jesus came along on the scene, eating with sinners and breaking rules, and they labeled HIM as too free and irreverent. Like a new twist to the story of Goldilocks– this one is too hot, and that one is too cold, but in their eyes, NO ONE can EVER be “just right” to be the messiah, or their super hero.

In our own world that loves superheroes and superhero movies, Jesus just doesn’t measure up, either. In fact, Jesus would make a terrible superhero. Heroes aren’t supposed to be weak, let themselves be beaten, and hand themselves over to die…. which is that is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus gave up his power, gave up his life, gave up everything in order to prove that his love for us was stronger than anything. Stronger than human hatred and fear. Stronger than the burdens we carry. Stronger than the struggle between hero and villain that we find our selves in. Stronger than death, symbolized in the cross, an instrument of death and brokenness that weights on us so heavily.

What has been the cause of weariness in your life lately? What heavy burdens are you carrying? Perhaps you have been worried about money and financial security. Maybe you are worried about a family member’s health or upcoming surgery. Perhaps you don’t know if you will be able to pay the rent or the light bill, or feed your family. Perhaps you or a family member or friend is having a hard time with a harmful addiction. Maybe you have a son or daughter in the military who may be facing dangerous situations while doing their duty to their country. Perhaps you are missing someone you have lost, either recently or years ago.

You know very well the burdens that are weighing you down, and there is nothing that you can do on your own to give you peace and help you sleep better at night. “Wretched men and women are we” is our lament along with Paul. Who will free us from this body of death?”

Come to Jesus, and Jesus will give you the rest that you so desperately need. Not because Jesus will take away all your worries and make your life perfect with the wave of a magic wand. No, Jesus gives you rest because Jesus takes on our burdens for us. Jesus took on YOUR burdens, YOUR sins, YOUR fears, YOUR broken relationships. All these things that bring death to you were all nailed to the cross, along with our lord Jesus.

All power that these things had over you was SHATTERED that early Easter morning when Jesus burst from the tomb, ALIVE. Your BURDENS couldn’t hold him. Your SINS couldn’t hold him. Jesus defeated them all and so YOU are truly free. This is how Jesus became the super hero and savior that we need.

And like any good super hero, Jesus has super friends in a hero league to help to justice in the world. We all become super heroes in our baptism – and Emma is the newest hero in our ranks, sealed and marked by the Holy Spirit forever, as we all have been before her. She is a newly minted superhero for Jesus, called to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world. She will grow up to learn from the example of Jesus’s love and sacrifice, wearing Jesus’ yoke of freedom and grace along with us. She will join us in working for justice and peace in a world where both are desperately needed.

 Now, neither Emma nor we will be called on to leap tall buildings, or defeat bad guys with a magical truth lasso, or dramatically save the world with lots of explosions. But we WILL be called to scale over the walls the divide us. We will be called to tell the truth about things like hate and fear. And we will be sharing the news about the savior OF the whole world… with explosions of love, perhaps.

It’s a tall order, but we won’t be doing it alone. Jesus bears the yoke of heroism with us, and stays with us through all parts of our superhero journey, through our burdens, from baptism… the cross… and beyond. So that the world will say,

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its…. God’s super heroes!” Amen. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Hurry Up and No Waiting

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

A few weeks ago, I shared with you about the Global Reformation service I attended in Windhoek, Namibia. Along with the thousand Lutherans from around the world there for the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, about nine thousand other Lutherans from all around Africa came by the bus loads. They had warned us ahead of time that this service was expected to be about 4 hours long… and they were pretty accurate.

That day was full of Hurry up and Wait, as my mom calls it. Hurry up and wait to get to the busses on time… only to go through security before you get on. Hurry up to get on the bus… only to sit and wait for all the buses to be full before all leaving together in a bus caravan. Hurry up to get in the stadium to be seated… to wait for the Namibian President to arrive in state. And don’t even ask me about how the distribution of communion went. It was beautiful, holy chaos, that’s all I will say about it.

Though we were only half way through the service after we were done with communion, we all had already been awake for hours and hours, sitting – under tents, fortunately, but still outside on a warm day – and most of us were hungry. Actually, by this time, I think many of us were quickly reaching the state of mind that is now called “Hangry.” Which of course is the combination of hungry… and angry.

Soon the volunteers began passing out boxed lunches down the rows. I was sitting with some other Americans, and we hungrily waited as they drew closer … and closer… to our row… only watch them be delayed. A clearly upset white man had accosted the African volunteer, wanting his food sooner rather than later. The volunteer very patiently told the man that she would get to him, if only he would sit back down. Like the rest of us.

Finally, we got our boxes, opened them up, to find a boiled hot dog, a buttered dinner roll, a bag of chips and a muffin. No Ketchup, mustard, relish, nada. Just a dog and a roll.

As we received our boxes, a pastor from one of the Namibian churches greeted us from the pulpit and welcomed us in the name of Jesus. She said, “When you receive guests into your house, you feed then whatever you have in your kitchen. This is what we have in our kitchen. It’s not fancy. But it’s what we have ‘from our kitchen.’ You are welcome guests, and we are glad to have you.”

At the then of Jesus’ long pep talk to his followers as they are about to go out on his behalf, Jesus reminds his disciples of what it means to welcome and be welcomed. Whoever welcomes the one who comes in Jesus’ name welcomes Jesus. And whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes God. And whoever gives even a plain hot dog on a buttered roll to one of these little one in the name of Jesus will not lose their reward.

I learned a lot about rolling with the hot dogs that came my way on this trip. There were so many parts of this experience that were beyond my control – more accurately the whole experience was a wild ride where I could only buckle up and hang on. I was smartly prepared as much as I could be – snacks, water, extra tissues, and so on - but for the most part I as a disciple of Jesus was often called on to graciously accept what I was handed. But doing that is not easy, is it?

It’s much harder to be a guest than it is to be a host, if you think about it. Yes, when you host someone at your house overnight, you have the inconvenience of having someone else using your towels and eating your food. But you know what’s in the kitchen and have control of what’s coming out of it. But as a guest, you sleep on someone else’s pillows and drink from someone else’ cups. You eat what comes out of someone else’ kitchen.

We as followers of Jesus may find ourselves in kitchens pretty different from ours. And it’s going to feel really uncomfortable. Like a pair of old shoes that we have outgrown, and it’s time to get some new ones.

The followers of Jesus found themselves traveling during a very uncertain time. They didn’t know if or when they would be welcomed or rejected. We, as disciples of Jesus live in some uncertain times as well.

As our country turns 241, there are citizens of our own nation, even of our own Lutheran denomination, who don’t know if, and when, they will be welcomed or rejected by the country they belong to or the denomination they love.

When I was in Namibia, often the only American or even the only white person in the room, this thought crossed my mind– “The great great, great, great grandparents of people in my country could have enslaved some of the great great, great, great grandparents of some of the people in this room.”

African American Seminary Student Lenny Duncan, in addition to studying to be a Lutheran pastor, created a documentary called “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?” Now, why would he have to even ask such a question? Because the ELCA is the whitest denomination in the United States,according to the Pew Research Center. Even the MORMONS are more racially diverse than we are.

So, do black churches matter in the ELCA? When Mr. Duncan posed this question to our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, she replied – “[Black churches] matter to God, and therefore they should matter to us, but we don’t treat them that way.” Certain people don’t have access to our kitchens, and we are not willing to go to theirs.

When this happens, we lose a part of who we are. Without the mutual love and support of ALL of our diverse members – black, white, straight, gay, trans, rich, poor, differently abled, young, old - the body of Christ is incomplete. The outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face. But when we sing the hymn, as we did this morning, “all are welcome,” do we truly mean it? Do we extend the welcome that we ourselves have received from Jesus?

In Jesus’s kitchen, all are welcomed, and all are fed around his banquet table. From his kitchen, we are given “nothing fancy,” just some bread and wine, everyday things that are easy to find. And yet, in this simple meal we are given life… we are given welcome…. and we are given a new kind of family. We are given the body and blood of Jesus, a body that was broken so that humanity might be made whole, and blood that was shed so that someday treat one another as blood kin. This is what keeps us going, so that we may continue the work that Jesus started, of building houses “where all are named… where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew.” (from the hymn All Are Welcome)

This reign, this kingdom is God’s kitchen, and we are welcome to it. As Benedictine monastic Father Daniel Homan wrote in a book that is aptly titled Radical Hospitality, “…we are all guests, we are all travelers, we are all a little lost, and we are all looking for a place to rest awhile…. God is the host, but God also becomes the guest we received in others.” (xxxvi) 

When we welcome others, we welcome God, as God has welcomed us.  This is a welcome that is relentless in pursuit of us, in pursuit for love, peace, and justice in this world that God has created. Nothing will get in the way of God’s radical welcome in God’s kingdom. Not our own prejudices and biases, not institutional racism or white privilege, not travel bans or walls - not even sin, human brokenness, and death can stand in the way.

There is no Hurry Up and Wait in the kingdom of God. This radial welcome is knocking on our door right now, and won’t leave us alone, like the worst kind of houseguest – respecting no boundaries we put up or excuses we make. Always getting in our faces. Always pushing us out and making us uncomfortable. Making demands on us we don’t always want to fulfill. And we will find ourselves doing things we don’t normally do, things we never expected we would be doing. Like eating hot dogs in Namibia. Like helping to welcome those who are homeless on a cold night. Like welcoming more than 30 rambunctious kids from the neighborhood through our doors for a week of VBS.

There is no Hurry Up and Wait in the kingdom of God. The welcome of the kingdom is right here, right now. We are being called out of our comfort zones and into other people’s kitchens. We are being called to eat the hot dogs of hospitality, in whatever form they come. Amen.