upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sermon - July 24: Boarded Up Houses, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I want to thank Deanna for this image that started me thinking: The Kingdom of God is like a boarded up house. Typically, I don't like to publish sermons; they are relational experiences and they are oral/aural beasts, not written essays, but someone asked for this sermon to be posted.

On Friday a bomb exploded in Oslo, followed by a gunman unleashing on youth at a political camp in Norway. Over 90 people are dead. Immediately talk began to fly about militant and extremist Muslims as the responsible parties. Yet, it appears to be a right wing "Christian" who was angered by European tolerance of difference and liberal policy who may be to blame. In our country on Friday, talks broke down between Republicans and the White House as they tried to reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling and address debt in a comprehensive way. House Speaker John Boehner walked away from the talks and the President took to the bully pulpit for a rare expression of clear and unabated anger. Also this week, the UN finally declared two regions of Southern Somalia to be in a state of famine - a word rarely used in international circles because it is fraught with political ramifications. Need I go on? These are just things that happened this week.

All around us is bad news. Sometimes we feel like hiding in our homes just to escape the crushing weight of the world. All of us know people who have been deeply affected by difficult financial times; perhaps we ourselves have lost a job, declared bankruptcy, or struggled in another way. People we love die. Life can, and often is, difficult, unfair, and unrelenting. In the news and in our lives, the bad stuff can be easily seen and experienced. It’s just right there all the time staring us down.

Jesus lived in times no less difficult than ours. He was from Galilee, the place of poor peasant farmers and fishermen, a place of subsistence living. Throughout this rural region, he walked and traveled, in which he taught, preached, and healed. It was to these people he came proclaiming God’s Kingdom - what it is, what it could be, and how they could live in it even while they resided along the rocky ways of Galilee. They struggled to make it through each season. Would there be enough harvest? Would they have to borrow against future earnings? How much tax would they have to give to the Romans? Would there be enough fish to pay the taxes and feed their families? Illness, war, conscription, debt, drought. These were on the minds of folks then in even more acute ways than they are on our minds today. Farmers today may struggle through a bad season, but a bad season to first century Jews in Galilee could mean life or death. Just as we have a difficult time seeing the hope in the world, of seeing and experiencing God’s kingdom, the people in Galilee were no different. Jesus came to invite them into a kingdom they could neither see nor imagine. He comes to us to do the same thing. Not because bad things don’t happen. But because they do. And, at the core of the Kingdom is a trust that a better life is possible - a better life on this earth, in community with one another. God’s kingdom invites us to live in a reality which we cannot even imagine. And, this requires us to let go of the images given us by the evil one, who tells us to live afraid, scared, in hiding. No, Jesus says. Live into the fullness of life even in the midst of doubt, even in the midst of difficulty.

You always know when Jesus is telling us a story that is about God because he says things that don’t make sense: a shepherd that leaves 99 sheep to find one sheep. No one would do that. Today he uses that same technique. He tells us about God’s Kingdom being like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. He also tells us about a woman putting too much yeast into her bread. This pair of images teach us about God’s wild abundance. Mustard is an easy plant to grow; it is more like a weed than a cultivated plant. Even I can grow mustard. It breaks through concrete and grows in the most unlikely places. It can grow into a tree, but usually it is a scrubby brambling plant that gets out of control. This image would have made first century Jews laugh out loud. It would be like me saying, The kingdom of God is like a dandelion. Really?

I’m not baker, but I know that too much yeast results in an explosion. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid my mom accidentally used yeast along with self-rising flour. And, indeed, her cake exploded in the oven. Hyperbolic language is used on purpose to help us understand the largeness of God, the bigness, the boldness, the eruption of God’s kingdom. These are unlikely images to be used; they are unlikely things to happen; peasant people would have known about bread and about mustard plants. They would have known that God’s kingdom wouldn’t be like a scrubby tree that grows like a weed or exploding bread. But, we are to believe it. We are to trust that God is bigger and grander than our imaginings, that God cannot be confined by our human made boundaries, our human designed barriers, our human dreamed limits. We cannot confine God’s kingdom. It will break out. It will erupt among us despite our best efforts to control it, our need to make God fit into our molds.

A few verses later Jesus tells another few parables. The kingdom is like a hidden treasure in a field that someone sells all he has to go search for. And the kingdom is like one pearl that someone sells all that he has in order to have it. This is about the great value of God’s kingdom. It is beyond anything we would hope to have. Who would do this? No one does this. Sell everything you have to search in a field for a treasure which may or may not be there? Give up all of one’s wealth for a pearl? It’s utter folly. But, God’s kingdom is kind of like folly. It isn’t a reasonable thing to believe in God’s kingdom, to try and live there. It goes against all of the common sense of our world, which tells us to hoard what little wealth we have, to store it all up, to be afraid of...well, everything.

Last, we are told that the kingdom is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of very kind. No fisherman brings up every kind of fish. First of all, if you have ever been fishing, you know that fishing is a hit or miss operation, even net fishing. Second, a good fisherman wouldn’t bring in all of those fish. God scoops us all up.

I have been thinking about these texts a lot lately. I think the Kingdom of God is like a boarded up house in a bad part of town. A person sells all she has to move into it and make it a home. I think the Kingdom of God is like a boarded up motel along Aurora Avenue, once used as a place for prostitution and drug dealing into which a community of people move to live in intentional community. Something used for exploitation turned into a community of Resurrection. This is the Kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is not a sensible thing. It doesn’t fit into our middle class values or conform to our middle class ways of doing things. We are told to be nice, conform, work hard, and save much. But, God’s kingdom is wild. It isn't nice. It doesn't conform. It requires effort to see and move into. It is a place for scrappy people. It requires us not to live by the narratives given to us by the news, by political parties, by our country, by any other living being; rather, it requires us to live inside of a story that makes no sense, one that tells us that fear and anger are the pathways to weeping and gnashing of teeth. You see, we can’t live in God’s kingdom of abundant love if we are bound by fear. We can't live in God's kingdom playing things safely - by saving and hoarding and looking after self. We have to risk everything for God's kingdom. We can’t move into the richness of God’s holy presence if we are stuck in our places of safety and comfort, in our places of hiding.

Uncertain times can be as challenging as bad ones. During times of uncertainly, it is understandable to want certainty, to live in a world of black and white. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. It is easy to turn to the Bible to find the demarcations between these things. And, of course, the Bibles deals with them all of the time. Yet, the Bible explodes our understanding of these things, and it tells us in no uncertain terms that we are to leave behind the prejudices of our time and place in order to see the world as God does, as a place brimming with promise and potential, where the kingdom can be found in a seed, in a field, in a bowl of batter, in the stinky smell of fish. Life is not fair. It is not easy. And it may be difficult to see goodness in it - in the people who make it up. God’s kingdom is often hidden in plain sight, found just behind the monsters of our imaginings, in the common places we overlook, in the poor we try not to see, in the people with whom we disagree. We’d like the kingdom to be easily recognizable, like a cathedral or a beautifully tended garden. It’s easy to say: The Kingdom of God is like standing on mountain peak at dawn watching the sun rise and looking down upon the wonders of the earth. The Kingdom of God is like a masterpiece of art - something that makes us marvel. The Kingdom of God is the smell of bread cooking in the oven. The Kingdom of God. When people talk about experiencing heaven on earth or the Kingdom or God’s reign, images of beautiful, grand, intimate, safe, and wonderful are what we talk about. These are all, of course, glimpses into God’s Kingdom. But, God’s Kingdom is not always so apparent, so evident, so what we expect it to be. Sometimes God’s Kingdom is quite the opposite of what we expect, quite different from the normal expectations of our hearts. God’s Kingdom is as challenging and difficult as it is wonderful. This is one of the most difficult lessons for Christians to learn. God’s Kingdom belongs to God and not to us; so we need to let go of our desire to control it, to order it, or to be in charge of it. God’s kingdom is as hidden as the world’s difficulties are on display. God’s kingdom requires us to work for it, to search for it, to give up all that we think we have in order to enter into it. It is not someplace we fall into by virtue of being good, being moral, being right. It is a place we enter when we give up ourselves for the sake of the other - especially the one we revile, we despise, we hate. These things - hate, fear, superiority - they are the things that keep us out of God’s kingdom. They form the doors to God’s kingdom and they will not open as long as all we can see is them. We have to grow new eyes that see as God does. These eyes see the world as a holy and wonderful place. This world. Our world. The one with debt ceiling problems and killers and repulsive people - the world with starvation and the politics of famine. You see, the Kingdom of God is not “like” this world. The kingdom of God is this world and we are called to live in it fully, richly, and wholly. In the midst of our mess is God's Kingdom. Or, more accurately, in the midst of God's wonderful Kingdom, we keep making messes. Let's look up from them and catch on to God's vision of something beyond us and beyond our messes, and move into this new world with the complete trust that our God takes us where we ourselves could never go. Our God takes us beyond the limits of our imagination to a new world altogether. Our God lifts us from this world of despair and shows us a new world known by works of compassion and justice, in which the widow is housed and the orphan is loved. Our God is the God of Resurrection. This is the Gospel of our Lord. Thanks be to God.

Opening Prayer for Pentecost 7 A

Let us pray:
We come from near and far, O God. We come wearied and hungry. We come to sit side by side to share with one another in the Bread of Life, to drink from the Holy Cup. Do not let us go; hold fast to us. Humble us and mark us by the scars we earn in our struggles with you. May they keep us bound to the weak and lost, the last and the least. By our struggles and at your table, transform us into a new people, alive in your love and assured of your abundant grace. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Feast of Mary Magdalene

The painting is by He Qi and can be found at He Qi Gallery.

Today is the Feast of Mary of Magdalene, who was healed by Jesus of seven evil spirits (Lk 8:2, Mk 16:9) and who was the first person to find the empty tomb. She stood at the foot of the cross, and, in the longer ending to Mark, she is the first to see the risen Christ. She is St. Mary of Magdala, the Penitent, and July 22 is her feast day.

Early in the church, ignominious lore was spun about her that cast her as a harlot, conflating her with another woman in the Bible, the one who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears. We can thank early Fathers Bede and Gregory for helping craft this image of Mary. Frequently, Mary Magdalene is also considered to be Mary, the sister of Lazarus, also known as Mary of Bethany. It is very doubtful all of these women could have been one person. What is without question is that Mary Magdalene's devotion is apparent in sacred story and that she was a prominent person in the early Christian movement. She was known in the early Church as the "apostle to the apostles." In several extracanonical gospels, she appears as a vital member of Jesus' inner circle. Quite amazing!

The Eastern Church never conflated Mary of Magdala with Mary, Lazarus' sister or the Mary, who anointed Jesus. Thus, Mary Magdalene's reputation is not the same in the Eastern Church as in the Western Church. The Eastern tradition tells a post-Resurrection story about Mary traveling to visit Emperor Tiberius. The tale, handed down for hundreds of years, is told in numerous ways. One version depicts the two at dinner, during which she proclaims, "Christ is risen!" The emperor scoffs and says that a person could no more rise from the dead than the egg on the table turn red. It did. To this day, Easter eggs are painted a brilliant red in honor of this Resurrection miracle.

Mary has suffered a great deal in the Western tradition. The Church has tried to sideline her for being a prostitute, an adulteress, a harlot. Even so, Mary has remained a vital figure within the Church. Despite the ravages of sexism, Mary of Magdala has never been supplanted as the apostle to the apostles.

Here's to Mary, who teaches us that we may become something beyond our wildest imaginings, that those who have suffered are the first to experience Resurrection, and that even the Church cannot stand in the way of faithful witness.

The Smithsonian Magazine wrote a wonderful article about Mary Magdalene a few years ago. Learn more about the woman whose feast day is today.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Learning a Lesson, Laughing a Little, and a Sermon on God's Wild Unpredictability

I started a new appointment on July 1. July 10 was my first Sunday leading services. Everything went pretty well, but, as all first Sundays are, it was bit a rough around the edges. It's just what happens when leading a service in a space with which and with a people with whom one is not familiar. July 17 was supposed to be the polished service. You know, now that I've presided in the space, I am supposed to know how to lead those assembled through an experience that offers occasions for encountering the divine. So, I put my all into it.

I am not one of those pastors who has their sermons mapped out years or months in advance. I've gone through periods of having songs selected and themes roughly outlined for the year. Suffice to say, I'm not in that space now. Even if I wanted to be, I just started a new church and I think I need to change my prerecorded tapes in order to craft worship that is relevant for the "getting acquainted phase" with this new congregation. For the time being, we are moving in a week to week mode. Hopefully, this will change.

Despite working in a weekly mode, I worked very diligently to get all of my ducks in a row. Oh, ducks...why must you stray? On Tuesday of this week, I emailed the contents of the order of service to the office and to the folks who do the visuals during the service. On Wednesday, I met with the music people, rehearsed with them, and selected music. On Thursday, the music was sent to the office for the bulletin and to those who craft the visuals. On Saturday, when I was still struggling to find the right message, I realized that it was going to be a late night. Rather than expecting someone else to open a text file on Sunday morning and scramble to put visuals to my rather unusual sermon, I stayed up until 3 AM finding photos that would move the congregation through the sermon. Needless to say, at 7 AM when my alarm went off, I was tired...very tired - so tired, in fact, that I didn't get up. I stayed in bed until 8 AM.

The worship service at my new church begins at 10 AM. While I wasn't working with an "excess of time," I did think that I had "plenty of time" to get to church. And yet, not so. I left the house a little after 9 AM. It takes about 20 minutes to drive the distance between my house and the church. I got about half way to the church when I realized that I had left my clerical collar on my dresser. I have worn a clerical collar since 1996 and this has never happened. Never. I quickly turned around and made it about half way back to my house when reality confronted me: There was no way to make it home and to church in the amount of time left. So, I made another U-turn and headed to church. This was going to be an embarrassing but not a fatal mistake. After all, I wear a robe.

Earlier in the week, some adjustments had to be made regarding the assisting minister and the sound board. Adjustments were made. Crisis averted. But, when I walked into the sanctuary without much time to spare, there was no one to run the visuals for the service. For the first time in 3 years there had been a miscommunication. Hey, they happen. So, I pull out my flash drive and pop it in the computer (I'm so prepared, right?). I open the internet and download the file with the song lyrics. Lo and behold, neither file will open. It is now time for worship to begin. No lyrics, no prayers, no liturgy for Holy Communion. And then, grace happened.

Song books were passed out to be shared. A lay person stepped forward to pull together the communion liturgy and other necessary components. I took a deep breath, laughed, and invited the Holy Spirit to move through the assembly. You know what? It did. We worshiped. Life continued - without a collar and everything.

The funny thing about this story, at least as far as I'm concerned, is that I often tell people that I rock worship old school. Not 1950s old school. But 1550s old school. I love incense, candles, and quiet. I like singing from hymnals and reading from Bibles. I enjoy hearing stories and being pulled into the imagination of the speaker. I like quiet prayer and shared prayer. Simple worship is beautiful worship. Today, as a result of the universe's sense of humor, we got to worship a little old school.

The even funnier thing? Today's sermon was on the wild unpredictability of God. I had spent a week crafting in detail a service to introduce people to the uncontrollable nature of God. I had planned, plotted, emailed, downloaded, and printed so that nothing would go wrong while we sang, prayed, and preached about wildness, wilderness, and the holy. Today offered a great object lesson with my own need for control and correctness sitting in the midst of the service. It was humbling.

It is true that preparation is important, that we can't just "fly by the seat of our pants" and move through life. It is also true that despite our best preparations, sometimes we have to let go and live not the plan we dreamed but the reality that is before us. I find that when I can do this - let go - then there is a lot of grace in the world, a lot of joy in the midst of error and chaos, and that community will inevitably arise to the occasion.

I don't know that I'm particularly glad that today's plan was not executed well. And yet, if it weren't going to go according to my plan, this was the best divergent path I can imagine. It helped those of us getting to know one another realize that becoming acquainted is often fraught with awkward moments. It reminded us all that, in the end, worship is not about our hopes but about God encountering us in community. And, while I don't know how others experienced today's service, God certainly was present for me.

Today was one of those "lesson days." And, I thank God for the gift of humor that allowed us all to laugh a little. Moreover, I am grateful for the wildness of God that constantly interrupts our plans for the sake of something more wonderful.

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