Monday, March 20, 2017

Harvest

John 4:5-42

A couple of weeks ago, I stood here and invited you to try something with me this Lent: to look around you every day, intensely curious about where God is at work in the world, about what God is doing in other people’s lives, and to share what you discovered each day with someone else.

I have loved doing that so far. Loved hearing from some of you what you have seen, and I’ve found that – once started – it’s very easy for me to see God at work in the world. All kinds of things reek of blessings: little acts of generosity online and in the grocery store; I see God at work in children’s questions, people’s prayer requests, dark chocolate,…and sunrise, on these newly dark time-changed mornings, is like a longed-for miracle of rebirth every day.
It’s almost hard NOT to see God at work once you start looking.

But when I get specifically curious about what God is doing in other people’s lives, and strive to figure out what God might need me to do to help, the way the “church growth guy” suggested last month, I’m more likely to get stuck.

I talk to a lot of people who just aren’t in the midst of conversion or even crisis right now. So I can’t always tell what God is doing in their lives or see what I can do to help.

It's frustrating. And not just because I like to be good at what I do. It's familiar, too. It reminds me of those times when a family member is suddenly ill; a friend is in crisis - or just aching from the daily slog - and I want to help, but can't see how - sometimes can't even see what God could do.
Maybe you know the feeling.

And then once in a while – in a conversation over lunch, an email, a moment at the communion rail – I’m overwhelmed by what God has already done in someone’s life, without any help from me.

I know God is at work, and I want to help – but I feel like I can’t catch God when I’m looking, and I can’t catch up with what God has done.
Sometimes, it makes me feel useless.

And then I remember the disciples, coming back to pick up Jesus at a well outside a Samaritan town, where they find him chatting up a stranger, a woman, of the wrong religion, possibly an outcast, having a theological conversation that’s a little over their heads.
And then, when they try to do what they can to help – "Rabbi, eat something; we brought you lunch." – he brushes them off (they probably feel more useless than ever) and steamrolls their confusion with a sudden discourse about the harvest.

“…look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together….

Here the disciples are – about to be overwhelmed, though they haven’t seen it yet – by a town full of Samaritans ready to recognize the Messiah, ripe for harvest, without their having lifted a finger to make that happen.

The disciples were just in town, too, buying bread. If they’d asked themselves in the marketplace what God was doing in those people’s lives, they might have seen and heard absolutely nothing of note. It’s an ordinary day, with neither crisis nor conversion in process.

But out of sight of town, over at the well, where no one looks for anything in the middle of the day, there’s a wandering Jew, out of place, having a bizarre, wide-ranging, and profoundly theological conversation with a woman about what God is doing in her life. (Or what God would be doing, if she’d just pay more attention)
And that woman is about to return to town, to share her story, and surprise them all – townsfolk, disciples, herself – with the upwelling of faith in Jesus that transforms this town.

“‘One sows and another reaps.’” Jesus reminds the disciples, right before the flood of seekers arrives at their feet. “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered in to their labor.”

The harvest is happening all the time. When we work for God – with God – we reap what we did not sow, and sow what we will never reap.

I think that’s what’s happening when we look around for what God is doing in the world. When we see blessings of generosity and growth and grace we see the harvest, the fruit of what others have sown and God has nurtured.

And when we see that harvest for which we did not labor, there is still something for us to do.  When we are called to reap, we are called to listen deeply to the story of what God has done, so that our friend, this stranger, whoever, is affirmed and confirmed in their experience of God.
And we are called to share what we hear and harvest with others.

But we are also called to sow what we will not reap: to pay attention, intensely, seriously, in those times and places and people where it is not at all obvious what God is doing, and respond to what we see and hear, whatever it is, even when it’s not obvious what we can do to help.
Sowing takes longer than harvesting, and you can’t tell – until the harvest – if you’ve done it right.

Every once in a while, we get to be like Jesus, the one who shows this Samaritan woman what God is doing in her life, and how to respond. Every once in a while, we get to be like that woman, sharing our own story of what God is doing in our lives, and explicitly calling other people to discover God, and seeing the results.

But most of the time, we’re the disciples.
We don’t get to see what God is doing when we’re in the daily conversation – we’re buying bread in the market place, while God is off pouring living water into someone else’s life.
And yet, we might still be planting the seeds, telling a little bit of our story of the journey with Jesus, on purpose or by accident, in a place where there’s not the slightest sign of God at work.
And then – when we have gone on our way – God pours living water on those seeds, and a dramatic harvest comes forth that it seems we had nothing to do with.

It turns out it’s okay not to know for sure what God is doing, as long as we are asking the question.
It turns out we are never useless, even if we don’t know exactly how we’ve been useful.

So whether we are the ones who sow, and never see how it all turns out, or whether we receive the harvest someone else has sown, we are called to give thanks to God for that harvest, to be fed by it, ourselves, and in turn, to feed others, because this is fruit for eternal life.

So keep on listening and looking, with intense curiosity, for God in your life, and even more, in the lives of people around you.
Respond to whatever you hear.
Pray.
Sow what you know of God’s love, whether it seems likely to sprout or not.
And share what you receive,…so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together….

Amen.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Antidote to Temptation

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

It’s all about temptation, today, isn’t it?
The stories of scripture, our prayers, our music, all remind us of the spiritual perils and pain of temptation, something most of us deal with every day.

That’s the way our human story begins, after all: God creates the world, creates humanity, brings it all together as paradise… And then along comes the serpent, chatting up the woman, talking about that one tree, the only thing in the garden that God has put off limits, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Knowledge of good and evil is – this one story aside – something that you and I have been taught all our lives to value. We call it maturity, when we can distinguish between what is good and what is bad.

Perhaps the temptation in this story lies not in the knowledge itself, but in the results of that reach for knowledge: in the dangers of sudden independence, the nakedness of knowing the scope of goodness and evil, and being suddenly faced with the power and responsibility to make choices between them, all by ourselves.

There’s some subtle wordplay going on between the “craftiness” of the serpent and the “nakedness” of the newly informed humans – a similarity of sound in Hebrew that links the two, as if our nakedness is, perhaps, exposure to the shrewdness, the craftiness – the prudence, in some translations – of the world.
The vulnerability this woman and man experience in their nakedness is the precarious pain of having the kind of knowlege that makes us try to be careful – to understand, plan and control our own risks - and losing the confidence and protection of our absolute dependence on God.

I suspect that’s the core of most of our temptations, actually. That the pain of not having something lies in a desire, a felt need, to control our risks, to be careful with resources, to plan, and arrange, and control our own reality. And that when we are living fully and completely in the reality of our dependence on God’s grace, forbidden desserts, other people’s wealth or perfect relationships, and all our other “temptations,” big and small,
just don’t matter, because we are not trying to manage our health, our weight, our happiness, our popularity by our own power.
We simply live in God’s abundance, however little or much of it happens to be in our hands in this moment.

Knowing with every fiber of our being that it all depends on God protects us from the pain of not having this or that, and gives us the confidence to face whatever risks may come, whether we control them or not.

The woman in the garden story is manipulated by the serpent into eating the fruit of knowledge, in the same way that many of us are manipulated by society’s insistence, by peer pressure – which is as real for 60 year olds as 16 year olds – into trying to manage the world for ourselves: to manage reality, challenges, and daily life on our own, instead of trusting with our whole hearts and selves, instead of leaning in to our dependence on God, and on one another.

That’s how Jesus resists “temptation,” by the way. Did you notice?
In that hungry wilderness, the “tempter” invites him into doing things for himself – making bread, ruling the world – and Jesus declines by leaning in to dependence on God.
Even though the tester isn’t necessarily asking Jesus to be selfish - making bread that could feed not just himself, but lots of hungry people; ruling the world as the Messiah is supposed to do – Jesus leans in to his humanness, to dependence on God as God is, instead of using divine power to control and manage his life.

Even when the tempter tries to use that trust in God against him – quoting scripture, and inviting Jesus to physically experience that trust and prove that dependence by throwing himself off the top of the temple and letting God catch him – Jesus goes even deeper into trust.
“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” he reminds us. In other words, you can’t really trust God while you’re trying to make God prove God’s trustworthiness.

Jesus models for us that the antidote to temptation is not willpower; it’s not getting away from it all, it’s not management, or power, or having it all already or knowing what is right.

The antidote to temptation – the only thing that makes temptation lose all its glamour and power – is deep and unescapable dependence on God, a trust that is not a choice, but a fact of life as essential as breathing.

Ideally, that’s what we are practice when we give something up for Lent. Ideally, we’re experiencing how not having what “tempts” us doesn’t matter, because God has more than we could need.

But I have to admit I’m often tempted to treat that Lenten practice as a test of my own will and strength, as practice in choosing good from evil and maintaining my sense of control over my own risks and reality.
That’s not what Jesus would do.

But I don’t think we have to give up “giving things up”, because fasting is something that Jesus would do, and because when I let go of some of the things I desire, I do have more space to trust in God.

So while I’m still going to give something up this year, I’m going to add another practice as well, something I think might just help make me more aware of my dependence on God’s abundance and grace.

I got the idea from our guest last week, when Canon Rob Droste told us that Christians are called to be intensely curious about what God is doing – in the world, in people’s lives, in the moment. 
“What if you could text someone at the end of every day to report how you had seen God at work in the world right now?” he asked us. “Wouldn’t that change the way you experience God and the world?”

So I’m going to report my “God sightings” every day. I’m going to be intensely curious about what God is doing in your lives, in mine, in my friends’ lives… even the lives of strangers and politicians and people on TV.
I’m going to look for what God is doing in the world, every day.
And let someone know.

Will you do this with me?
Will you choose a buddy – someone you will check in with every day, to support each other in this habit – and look, with intense curiosity, for what God is up to, right here and now?


If we do this, this Lent, I can almost guarantee that it will increase our trust in God; it will make our dependence on God’s grace a joyful thing; and it will defeat temptation before we know we’re tempted.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Be Like God

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

Do you remember how, a few years ago, it suddenly became trendy to wear bracelets – or occasionally t-shirts or other items – emblazoned with the letters “WWJD”?
It was a clever spiritual tool – a constant reminder to ask oneself, in any situation, “What Would Jesus Do?” – and a bonus evangelism opportunity, if someone asked about your coded bracelet, pencil, or coffee mug.

It’s an excellent guiding question for everyday spirituality. But if you prefer answers to questions, you are in luck today. It turns out we know how Jesus would answer this one, and we’ve known for thousands of years. Because he told the disciples:
Be Like God.

Be perfect, he says, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be generous, loving, indiscriminate, fair - like your Father in heaven.

That’s an idea that’s been around since long before Jesus taught it to his disciples.
We heard it again today:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, [Tell all the Israelites]: you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
God is holy. So God’s people shall be (not ought to be – will be) holy.
Be like God.
It’s that simple.

Simple doesn’t equal easy, of course.
And since being holy, perfect, like God is a tall order, for flawed human beings like us, and since we might not know exactly how to do it when we ask ourselves what Jesus would do,
God spells it out to Moses, and Jesus spells it out to the disciples in specific, practical terms, using examples from their daily lives.

Do not reap to the edges of your field,” God tells the Israelites. In other words: Do not keep for yourself all that you have, or all that you can get. Make sure to make some of your harvest available to those who are poor, or strangers.
Pay immediately what someone has earned.
Do not lie, steal, cheat, or use God’s name for false assurance.
Do not mock or obstruct those who are in some way disabled. 
Don’t suck up to either rich or poor.
Do not slander, do not profit from another’s loss. Do not hate. 
Keep your fellow people of God accountable. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

That’s holiness, as the Lord your God is holy: Generosity. Honesty. Respect.
It’s what your parents taught you. But holiness as God is holy cannot be passive about these things, but is emphatically proactive.

Jesus tells his disciples how to do that.  Don’t just love your neighbor and be fair. Complete the circle. Love your enemies and those who persecute you. Put aside the kind of fairness that takes “an eye for an eye” and give more than you can be asked. When someone sues you for your cloak, give all the clothing you have to wear. When a soldier of the occupying government conscripts you, go the extra mile. When someone hits you once, turn the other cheek.

While this is not advice that translates to all situations – and it’s advice that should never ever have been used in abusive families – it is a serious approach to being like God for a community, because it can unbalance oppression and transform “fairness” into wholeness.

Nonviolent response to violence and extra miles helped unbalance the oppression of discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws in our country’s recent memory. The hundreds – or more probably thousands – of extra miles walked during the Montgomery Bus Boycott were a vivid lesson in making discrimination both visible and unsustainable. Hundreds of other cheeks were turned on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, making the horror of violent suppression visible and unsustainable. And slowly, mile by mile, our country's “separate but equal” moved a little closer to the wholeness of knowing your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus teaches a holiness made up of actions that transform our own hearts.
When a Roman soldier required you – completely legally – to carry his gear a mile out of your way, going the second mile makes the first mile voluntary by association.
It takes the power to force compliance out of the hands of the powerful, and puts the power to give generously into the hands of the powerless.
 That is how we love our enemies, and why we pray for those who persecute us.

That extra mile is also a profoundly concrete way of being like God – God who bears our burdens for us, much further than we could ask: Generosity regardless of the merits of the one who receives it. 

Jesus insists on that indiscriminate generosity, come to think of it. “Love your enemies,” he says, “Welcome those who genuinely don’t belong. Give to anyone who asks.” 

Oh dear.
There aren’t a lot of Roman soliders around today, to take Jesus’ words literally, but there are a lot of people who ask for money, time, and attention. Giving to all who ask quickly becomes a full time job. And every clergy person and most Christians know that we have been scammed, some time, in our giving to those who ask. 
Can Jesus really mean for us to give to people who might be lying to us?
Who might take that money for their child’s food, and buy cigarettes?
What would Jesus do?
Of course the answer is simple:
Be like God.
 God, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, gives water to the righteous and the unrighteous.

We have resources to manage – at the church, at home – yes. But to be like God is to remember that the unrighteous need the sunlight, the water, the money, too. Not the way I might prefer they use it, perhaps, but generosity does not require righteousness of the receiver – instead it enables righteousness and love.

Practicing God’s generosity teaches us a new perspective: one without the fear and anxiety and greed that fuel every human system of discrimination or oppression. After all, God’s gifts do not run out. God has no loss to fear, no more to desire. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to give away what we know we have received as gifts from God than what we believe we have earned for ourselves.

And perhaps that’s another way Jesus wants us to be like God – to know that when we give it all away we will never run out, because we are giving from God’s abundance, no matter how little of it is in our own hands.

These high standards that God taught to Moses, these difficult actions that Jesus taught his disciples, are meant, I believe, to release us from the fears of not having enough, from the anxiety of trying to sort out other people’s motives, from the heart-tightening hate or exclusion that comes from our fear of loss, so that our hearts and daily lives can be like God’s: filled with wonder and grace.

Being like God is not easy.
It’s not meant to be.
But it is, I believe, meant to be joyful, and freeing, and utterly glorious, in literal, practical ways, here, and now, and always.