Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 4

Pentecost 4, 2018
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

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

Back in the day, people used to make a distinction between the word “raised” and the word “reared.”  Essentially the difference was that, say, cattle were raised, and children were reared.  But over the last fifty years or so, the words have become kind of interchangeable.  Or, I guess it is that “reared” is disappearing.  If you say, “I was reared in Massillon,” people would look at you funny.  The point being, we now typically use “raise” for everything: children, cattle, and crops.  To bring something from a small state to a fully grown state is what we call raising.  We raise funds, raise salaries . . . You get the idea.

But we can make a distinction somewhere in here between things we actually raise, and things that kind of raise themselves.  Sheep, for instance, have to be intentionally raised or they will die . . . from stupidity.  Wheat does not grow naturally, at least not the kind we eat, and without human help, wheat will disappear from the earth.  In cases like sheep and wheat, we need to actively raise them.

And then there are the things that we only sort of raise.  Here I’m thinking of cats, and children.  In the case of cats, if we stopped feeding them, they’d be angry, but they’d work it out.  In the case of children, when our kids were behaving, that’s when I was raising them; when they were not, that’s when their mother was raising them.

And that brings us to the third kind of raising things, which is completely different.  Here I’m thinking about things like dandelions, or squirrels.  If you claim you’re raising a healthy crop of ants and weeds, people would assume you’re being sarcastic right?  In the case of dandelions,  all you need is one family on the block with a broken lawnmower and pretty soon everybody is raising dandelions.  We don’t raise these kinds of things; they invade.

So what I’m trying to do with those different levels of raising is just to point out that we don’t always mean the same thing when we use a word like “raise.”  Sometimes raising something means 24 hour a day involvement.  And sometimes raising something means it’s going to grow whether or not we even notice it.  In today’s gospel lesson, we want to be careful that we don’t mistake the orchids for the kudzu.

Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself . . . .”  The kingdom of God is like someone blowing dandelion seeds across your lawn, see?  Scatter these seeds on the ground, go to sleep and get up, and presto!  Harvest time.  But, of course, that goes against our basic principles of how life works.

As we know, anything worth having is worth working for, right?  If lawns were truly maintenance free, I don’t think people would have lawns, to be honest.  A field of dandelions is actually quite beautiful.  But maybe the reason we hate them is because there’s no pain, and therefore no gain.  We want to work for what we have so we can be proud of the results.  Dandelions don’t need us to raise them, so we don’t want them around.  We want to be able to point to the fruits of our labor, to be the ones responsible for the harvest, when the time comes.

We do not value what comes easy, you know, like when someone scatters seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself.  The farmer, the one sowing this seed, has nothing to do with the process at all.  She throws out the seed and goes to bed.  She has no right to say she is “raising this crop,” that’s for sure!  And it’s true; she doesn’t.  Hear that again: The earth produces of itself.  This crop is going to grow, with or without her help.  All she has to do is show up at harvest time and cut it down.  And in our way of thinking, that just ain’t right.

And then Jesus has another example: The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

Now here’s one we can get behind, right?  Tiny little mustard seed grows into a huge oak tree that brings shade to the whole neighborhood, and I can then stand out front with a rake and receive the admiration of my neighbors.  We often use this mustard seed analogy.  Fits with our thinking.  The Little Engine that Could kind of thing.  Underdogs, David and Goliath, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it’s all the same . . . Don’t underestimate something just because it’s smaller than the others.  If you’ve ever seen my wife angry, you know what I’m talking about.

We resonate with this idea of a tiny little seed growing up into a huge gigantic tree.  It just fits with all our stories of human endurance, and strength of character and stuff.  Incredible things can be done if we just put our minds to it, right?

However, what Jesus says about the mustard seed is nothing like that.  Jesus says, It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

A mustard seed does not grow into a towering redwood.  It is a shrub.  It is an invasive species that takes root and spreads out in an ugly tangled mess.  A scraggly bunch of mustard shrubs coincidentally give off the same bright yellow of the dandelion.  And they require just as much work when it comes to raising them.  One tiny seed and before you know it you’re the French’s Mustard Company.  The point is not that the little seed grows into a towering beauty of symmetrical tree-ness.  The point is that this tiny seed grows outward and covers everything.  It’s sprawl cannot be stopped.  The kingdom of God invades every aspect of everything

And, once again, there is no “raising” of the mustard shrubs.  Nobody can walk by in a couple months and say, “Look what I raised!”  The seed is planted and the planter no longer matters.  Plus, the seed is thrown on the ground!  Not even planted in the earth.  In neither of these cases is there any room for pride of accomplishment.  And that’s really the underlying point.

The kingdom of God is like this: YOU do not raise it.  You do not control it.  You do not do anything.  It happens in spite of you, when it comes right down to it.  The kingdom of God happens for your benefit, but is out of your control.  The kingdom of God is like a field full of dandelions.  The kingdom of God is like skunks, squirrels, and chipmunks.

And so what does that make us?  What is our part to play in this kingdom?  How do we claim some ownership of the whole thing?  You know, what about us, growing the kingdom here in Massillon?  Jesus said of the mustard seed, “when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

You and I are making our nests in the shade; that’s what we’re doing.

The kingdom of God is all around us.  Growing while we sleep, invading every inch of creation.  And you and I are like little birds that build our nests in the shade God provides.  We don’t need to be out there planting mustard seeds.  We need to be inviting the other birds to come and rest in the shade.  Come into the kingdom and you will find rest for your souls.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 3

Pentecost 3, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

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

You know how when someone is trying to tell you something, but you can’t stop thinking about something very strange they said a minute ago?  Something that worries you?  Like if I called up my wife and said, “The kitchen isn’t completely destroyed, but let’s talk for a while about where you’d like to go for dinner this evening.”  We wouldn’t get too far through the possibilities without her saying, “What do you mean the kitchen isn’t completely destroyed?”  And in that same spirit, let’s talk about this . . .

Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  Kind of jumps out at you, doesn’t it?  Makes you wonder, “Have I blasphemed against the Holy Spirit?”  If Jesus says it’s the one unforgivable sin, then I definitely don’t want to be guilty of that!  Well I can tell you straight away that if you’re worried about this unforgivable sin, it means you are not guilty of it.  We do not come to faith on our own; we do not decide to follow Jesus.  No, the Holy Spirit calls us to faith, nudges us in the direction of God, gives us the desire to follow Jesus.  So, the very fact that you are sitting in this room today tells you that you have not blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.  You don’t have to worry about this sin.  Now then, let’s talk about someone else’s sin . . .

In the first reading this morning, we heard the familiar story of Adam and Eve.  Or, at least part of it.  Adam and Eve have already disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and are now hiding from God in the garden.  And today’s reading starts with God finding them hiding in the closet with a blanket over their heads so God can’t find them.  And then we get the first instance of what-aboutism, and throwing your companions under the bus, and kicking the dog.  You may think those are new concepts, but we have them right here in the first book of the Bible.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent.

However, Adam is really swinging for the fences here when he says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”  He blames both “the woman” and God.  As though, in the previous chapter, when God was creating everything, God had said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner . . . so that he has someone to blame besides me when he messes things up.”  Adam hasn’t been with Eve for more that a few verses and he is already blaming God and her for his own mistake.  It’s like you buy your kid a new car, he crashes it, and then blames you for giving him a car.

Anyway, then Eve blames the serpent, and the serpent is cursed forever for working against God’s plans.  And, you know who else worked against God’s plans?  The scribes in today’s Gospel reading; that’s who.  As we heard,  “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.”  (This is the only time in Mark’s gospel where the name Beelzebul comes up, but that demon is sort of like the ruler of demons.)  So the scribes are saying that he has the authority to cast out demons because he has a bigger demon.  Which is silly, of course, and Jesus shows them that it doesn’t make sense by quoting Abraham Lincoln and saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Or, wait.  That was Lincoln quoting Jesus.

But what really matters here to them is that the crowds have gathered around Jesus, such that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat.  So the scribes come down to sow doubt into the people.  Clearly, everyone agrees that Jesus is actually healing people and casting out demons.  That’s why the crowds are there.  So the scribes figure the way to get the crowds to abandon Jesus is to call into question the authority of these miraculous deeds.  Good things are happening, as everyone can see, so their strategy is to get people to think Jesus is with satan, to undermine their faith in him, and to say that he is insane.  And the response to that from Jesus is, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  So, again, if you, personally, are not trying to align Jesus with satan, and undermine people’s faith in him, and say that Jesus is insane, then you are not guilty of the unforgivable sin.

Taken as a whole, in this quotation, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness”  We get all distracted by the second part of the sentence, because it worries us.  Worries us needlessly, as I have already pointed out.  But the first part of that sentence is the good news.  The very good news!  And it’s even better than the translation we have.  Because in the Greek the phrase is, “all will be forgiven to the sons of men, the sins and the blasphemies which they might have blasphemed.”  All will be forgiven.  All.  That means even throwing your companion under the bus will be forgiven; even blaming God for giving you that companion to throw under the bus will be forgiven.  All will be forgiven.  Full stop.

And that sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  If everything will be forgiven, what is to prevent people from acting badly?  If all will be forgiven, why should I bother to be a law-abiding citizen?  And all I can say to that is, if the only thing keeping you from being a criminal and a jerk is that you think you might not be forgiven . . . well, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. 

But, of course, we all know that civic and criminal law works that way, yes.  Fear of punishment keeps us from doing things that will harm other people.  But God is not part of the Ohio Revised Code; when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” he’s not talking about heavenly jail cells.  And so hearing that all will be forgiven should be good news to us.  That’s the kind of thing that should make us crowd around Jesus such that Jesus and his disciples cannot even eat. 

And then we have that other uncomfortable part of today’s reading.  The part where Jesus seems to turn his back on his family.  His family sends word that they are outside, and Jesus asks, “Who are my brothers and sisters?”  And as we heard, “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.”  Is he speaking metaphorically when he calls those seated around him his family?  Well, of course he is.  But here’s the important thing about that.

The people sitting around Jesus, just listening to him, are doing the will of God.  The people who accept his miraculous deeds of healing are his family.  On the other hand, the ones who say he is working with satan or that he is insane are not doing the will of God.  They are blaspheming the Holy Spirit, because they are denying who Jesus is.

If you want to do the will of God, sit near Jesus.  If you want to be part of Jesus’ family, embrace his words and healing.  Don’t try to call Jesus away from the people; don’t try to undermine his authority.  Just sit and bask in the glow of Jesus.  Stay close to him.  And in that, you will be doing the will of God.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 2

Pentecost 2, 2018
Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Psalm 81:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

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

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.”  That’s how this morning’s first reading began.  You’re familiar with this command, I ‘m sure.  It’s the third commandment . . . or the fourth, depending on whose system you follow.  Typically, for you and me, it just means that stores are sometimes closed on Sundays.  We kind of get the idea that God wants us to get some rest, and so we take Sundays off.  Unless of course you’re a priest, in which case that’s the only day you work, am I right?

We are disconnected by time and culture from the Jewish emphasis on the Sabbath, though.  The Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai as a gift to the Hebrew people.  They lay out a list of ways that would set God’s people apart from their neighbors.  They were at the very center of Jewish identity.  The answer to the question, “How do we know God loves us?” could be, “Because God tells us not to steal—unlike our pagan neighbors.”  Or, “Because God tells us to rest on the sabbath, unlike those who follow false gods.”  And the way to maintain that relationship and identity is through following the Law of Moses, because that’s what makes the Israelites different.

So, in today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees are critical of Jesus and his disciples for picking grain on the sabbath.  The Pharisees, as I have often told you, were not bad people.  They were, in fact, the good people.  Faithful Jews, doing their best to do what God commands.  As religious leaders, they were responsible for reminding people when they were in danger of violating God's commands.  Because, again, the Law is at the very center of Jewish identity.  For them, to work on the Sabbath isn’t like running a red light; it is more like treason.

And so, the Pharisees are right to criticize the disciples for working on the Sabbath, because they care.  And Jesus responds with the radical statement: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  And if you understand what he is saying, it changes everything.  Everything.  Because this sentence tears back the curtain and tells us why God gave the Israelites the Law: for the people’s benefit.  And it also reminds us of the crucial truth about God and the Law:  The Law was made for us; we were not made for the Law.

That sounds obvious, I know.  But I think we all secretly think it’s the other way around, even though we don’t realize it.  Somewhere along the way, we start walking through life assuming we will be punished because that’s how God wants things to be.  When things go badly, we figure we must have done something wrong to deserve it.  And, what’s worse, we have a hunch that God created the Law first, and then created people so they could exist solely to follow this collection of laws, and be punished when they don’t.

Which is like saying, when my wife and I got married, we made up a bunch of rules for the household.  But we didn’t have anyone to follow those rules, which made us sad.  So then one day we looked at each other and said, “We need someone to follow all these rules we made up.  Let’s have a baby!”  But, of course, you don’t have children so that they can follow your rules.  The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.  People come first, and the Law does not exist without people.

One of my favorite authors is named Robert Capon.  His writings actually saved my faith, but that’s a story for another time.  In one of Robert Capon’s books, he talks about “Angels.”  And he doesn’t mean angels like you and I think of them, with wings and stuff, on the Hallmark cards.  He is using the word Angel as a metaphor.  He’s talking about the things that we put above human beings, and to which we’re willing to sacrifice those human beings.  And the problem is, these metaphorical Angels are usually good things, at least in the abstract.  Powerful Angels,  like Romance, and Patriotism, and Religion.  In theory, they’re all good things.  But when one of these Angels faces off with a human being, the Angel always wins, because that’s what we want.

In the story of Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers fall hopelessly in love against their parents’ wishes and they both end up dead.  And we love it!  What are mere people when weighed against the mighty force of the Angel of Romance?  But Romance was made for humankind, and not humankind for Romance.

When someone disagrees with me over whether athletes should stand or kneel before a football game, I can call in the mighty Angel of Patriotism, which will quickly steamroll right over any thoughtful conversation or respectful disagreement.  Patriotism is more valuable than actual human beings, it seems.  But Patriotism was made for humankind, and not humankind for Patriotism.

And Religion?  That’s probably the scariest Angel of them all, because that metaphorical Angel must be the one that God loves more than any human being.  Religion is the Angel that will get heads chopped off over Prayer Book decisions, and have planes flown into buildings in New York City, and demand that accused witches be burned in Massachusetts.  Religion will crush people in a heartbeat, and if it’s our religion, then we’re all for it.  But Religion was made for humankind, and not humankind for Religion.  Or, as Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.  People come first; people have always come first, and the Law and these so-called Angels do not exist without people; they exist for people.

God created people long before God declared the sabbath.  And in case you have forgotten, God loves people.  All people.  Jesus laid down his life for people.  For you.  Jesus feeds the people in the mystery of Holy Communion.  (A priest is not allowed to celebrate communion by himself, because the Sacraments exist for the people.)  The Holy Spirit calls us together into community so that we can support one another, and so that we can serve people together.  God gives us the promise of resurrection to new life, because God cares about people.

In the second part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Here is an opportunity for this man to have a new lease on life.  To be rehabilitated, to have a fresh start, and a new beginning.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Which raises a whole new line of questioning!  It’s like he’s asking, “Can a soldier work the sabbath, but not a doctor?  Can a thief break into a home, but the police can’t chase them down?”)  And what do the good, law-abiding, upstanding Pharisees say in response?  Nothing.  They are choosing the Law over a person, and they expect Jesus to do the same.  They are choosing the Sabbath over healing.  They are choosing an Angel over humankind.  God gave them the gift of the Sabbath, and they have turned it into an idol of higher worth than a fellow human being.

And in their anger, they begin to conspire to have Jesus killed.  That’s where the angels always lead us: to wanting others dead because of our righteous moral outrage.  If you cross an Angel, you end up dead; and if you place an Angel above people, you wind up dead as well.  These metaphorical Angels always lead to suffering and death.  Jesus offers us healing and life, because the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.

May God give us the grace to choose compassion over rules, to choose people over Angels, and to choose Jesus over everything.