Sunday, July 27, 2014


Genesis 29:15-28, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

If you spend much time – well, any time, really – on social media these days, you can’t miss the fact that the internet is full of quizzes.  These quizzes promise to tell you which Star Trek or Game of Thrones character you are; what city you should live in, or the color of your aura.
There are so many quizzes that you can’t take even a fraction of them, but in the last week I happened to notice that many of my friends had been taking a quiz that promised to measure how good and evil you are: 100 percent? 80/20? 68/32?

The multiple choice questions that offer such precise measures of character are along the lines of whether you’d park in a handicapped space, rejoice in a “snow day” provided by a natural disaster that endangers others, break up a street fight, or take literal candy from an actual baby.  (I took the candy purely out of the goodness of my heart and fear of choking – who gave that infant a Snickers bar in the first place??)
It’s entertaining to see the results of that quiz – and particularly the reactions to those results – that people post on Facebook.  But I’d really love to give this quiz to the various characters in our Old Testament story today.

We start with Jacob, the apparent victim of a dirty trick in this story, who has shown up at his Uncle Laban’s house fresh from stealing his brother’s inheritance and tricking his dying father.
Then there’s Laban, taking advantage of Jacob’s infatuation with his younger daughter, plus a little wedding-party drinking, to get the less-attractive older daughter married off first (not to mention gaining 14 years of labor in the household business!)
There’s Leah, even more the victim in this part of story, used as the object of the trick – who goes on to display a fair amount of ruthlessness herself as the marriage unfolds and the family grows.
And finally there’s Rachel, beautiful and romantic, whose perfect match with Jacob turns out to include some dirty tricks of her own including stealing her own father’s household gods to give Jacob extra advantage.

These are the people we honor as ancestors of our faith, God’s particularly and especially chosen agents of blessing for the world.

The Bible records that on his way to Uncle Laban’s house, Jacob hears God promise that “Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants…I will protect you everywhere you go, and…I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you."  (Gen 28:14-15) Jacob’s family of cheaters and tricksters is the family God chooses, nurtures, and blesses as the core of God’s chosen people.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

It’s not just one or two episodes, either.  The entire story of Jacob and his family, birth to death, is filled with manipulation, deceit, cheating, rivalry, generous blessing, and hedging of bets.  Jacob would have parked in the handicapped spot. And he’d probably have taken that candy from the baby.
Is that what you were taught about the Bible in Sunday School?
Is that how Godly people are supposed to behave??

There’s actually quite a bit of that kind of behavior in the Bible, frequently among the favored and chosen of God.  In fact, there’s even a bit of underhanded maneuvering in the gospel parables we heard from Jesus today. Remember the one where a man plowing someone else’s field discovers treasure?  What did he do – alert the owner of the field (who is presumably the owner of the treasure)?
Nope. Kept his mouth shut, hid the treasure, hurried to sell everything he owned to buy the field and claim the hidden treasure for himself.

Cheating, tricks, and self-interest are deeply rooted parts of the holiest story in the world.
If you come to church to escape that, or turn to faith for relief from the messiness of the world, I’m sorry to break it to you, but it’s not going to work out so well.
We confess our sin every Sunday, and we pray to God to guide us in justice, right choices and actions, care for our neighbors and those in need, and good and holy behavior. But we can’t forget that the kingdom of God, and God’s agents of blessing, are tricky, unexpected, messy and manipulative. Nothing in the kingdom of heaven can be described as rule-bound, and nothing in the kingdom happens “decently and in order,” (in a favored phrase of Episcopalians and other mainline protestants)!

Forty years ago this Tuesday, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, eleven Episcopal women and four bishops deliberately broke the rules.  They made a lot of people angry and left some friends feeling betrayed or frightened. And now the anniversary of this subversive act is being celebrated with prayer and joy all over my Facebook feed (in between the quizzes!) and at the highest levels of the Episcopal Church today.

Those bishops ordained those eleven women as priests in the Episcopal Church, against our canons, which restricted priesthood to men.  The ordinations were promptly declared invalid, and it took two years and four more “irregular” ordinations before The Episcopal Church formally approved the ordination of women as priests.

We look at them differently now, but it was quite clear at the time that those women and bishops were rule-breakers, “cheaters,” and troublemakers – and called by God to be agents of God’s blessing.  That makes them Jacob’s heirs, and the kind of people we like to think don’t hang out in the church.
But we know the world is full of them.

You watch the news – I’m sure you can easily name some of the people in our world today who are cheaters, manipulators, and rule-breakers. [People respondedPoliticians, doping athletes, Vladimir Putin, Rosa Parks, Hamas, the NSA…]

Just because someone’s good at dirty tricks doesn’t automatically make them God’s chosen – but what if we prayed for those people and groups today? 
What if we prayed for Putin and doping athletes  this week, and asked God to show us the blessings that they might spark, even by accident, in our world?  What if we prayed for God to work through politicians, Hamas, and the NSA, inviting us into the kingdom of heaven through odd and possibly illegal doors?

The good news -the best news - of the gospel and of God’s messy blessings, is that God doesn’t judge us on whether we park in handicapped spaces, take candy from a baby, or break the laws of church or state. 
God judges us, invests in us, and rejoices in us on the basis of how readily we take risks for a gospel that doesn’t always seem fair.  God invests in us and blesses us on the basis of what we’ll do for freedom and love – and how willing we are to pursue that freedom and love for everyone in spite of custom and rules.

So you might spend a few minutes on the internet today: Take a quiz about good and evil, just to laugh at the result.  Read a story about how the church changed one July day in 1974, and look at the messy, shocking, manipulative stories in the news today.

Then pray for the cheaters, the tricksters, the rule-breakers, and for you and me – pray that God works through us, that the dirty tricks spark generous blessings, and that none of us are afraid to take risks on the coming of the kingdom of heaven, now and always.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Let Them Grow

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I had a chance last week to visit with an old friend, and as we caught up on our lives, she happened to tell me about how hard it was to talk about her own faith when she was talking with a friend of hers who is an atheist. Their conversation was stuck on one particular question: Why do bad things happen? 
If there really is a good God, how can war and disaster rage across the world, and why doesn’t that good God protect innocent people from tragedy?

This is a good question.  It’s one that many of you have asked me in one way or another, and honestly, it’s one that most Christians and many theologians wrestle with. So I’d like to turn to Jesus for help with this question, but I’ve known Jesus long enough that I am pretty sure that instead of a simple answer, I’d get a story. And in fact, I’ve got a pretty good guess what story it would be.

“Listen,” Jesus would say, “it’s like when a farmer planted excellent seed in his fields….”
Sound familiar? You heard this story this morning, didn’t you?
The farmer planted good seed, and then weeks later, as all the plants grew, the farmer’s staff realized that half of the crop was inedible, dangerous weeds – the kind of weed that looks a lot like wheat, until you try to use it or eat it.
The staff are horrified, naturally.  These weeds might take water and soil and sunlight away from the good wheat!  They might choke the good stuff to death.  People who don’t know better might think the weed is actually wheat, and get hurt by it. Bad things are happening!
So they go to their boss, horrified and puzzled, and they ask that important question:
“We thought you planted just the good stuff. How did this bad stuff happen???”

And suddenly they are asking the hardest question of our faith:
If God is good, and nurtures good, how can these weeds – these deceptive, dangerous, and destructive things – happen to the good seed? 
How can tragedy and pain and illness happen to good and innocent people?  How can war grow and renew itself and spread danger and anger and fear among good people?
It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot this week, as I watch news of the rising conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine and Iraq, and speculation about what brings down airlines over Ukraine.
How can God let disaster and violence kill so many people, and destroy the world?

Do you have an answer?

The boss in the story does. He says, “An enemy has done this.”
That’s the shortest and simplest answer to the problem of evil: It’s not God.  It’s an enemy.
That can reassure us that God is good, not prone to sow evil, just as the boss did not go crazy and plant weeds on purpose.
But then the servants ask the follow-up question: What are you going to do about it? Are you going to send us to pull up all the weeds? 
God must want to fight evil, right? Help us uproot it, eliminate it, make the world safe for the good seed.
Shouldn’t we expect God to take on evil, to get rid of the work of the devil to protect us? Yet evil clearly thrives in some places in our world.

That’s when the farmer in the parable says to his staff, “Just leave it alone. Let the weeds grow and thrive right along with the wheat.”
Let the evil and the danger stay rooted in with the good seed.
We’ll sort it all out at the harvest.

Well, that’s a pretty good answer if you’re the boss in the story, but it’s a heck of a disappointment if you see yourself as the wheat, stuck among the weeds – or if you care deeply about the well-being of that wheat, the way the servants seem to care.

“It’ll all come right at the end of the age,” is good to know, but in the middle of the suffering and destruction and pain that evil brings in our world right now it’s not always a satisfying answer.

It seemed like a lousy answer to the first disciples, and the early Christian communities, too.  It has seemed like a lousy answer to theologians for centuries, and it certainly doesn’t satisfy me in a world where refugee children are denied shelter, planes fall out of the sky, and wars rage around the world.

“It will come right in the end,” is an answer that only truly works at the end.  But Jesus is giving us some clues about how to live in the middle of the story; in the middle of evil, too.  Because that farmer’s decision to leave the weeds in the field is a decision to have confidence in abundance.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the weeds from the flowers, in a garden or in life.  And when we weed a garden, we’re judging the plants, deciding which ones are bad, dangerous, or simply ugly.  We’re trying to protect the plants we think are useful, good, and pretty – to save the resources of soil and sun and water for the “good’ ones.

But God is whispering to us that there really is enough to go around.  That there’s plenty of sun and soil and rain and nurture for the good seed even while the bad seed thrives.  We don’t lose God’s grace just because it also falls on the enemy, the uninvited immigrant, or the bullies.
And God is whispering that what looks wrong and evil and useless to us might look very different to God.

That’s probably not enough to convince a devout gardener or a convinced atheist. But Jesus isn’t telling this story to the gardeners or the atheists.  He’s telling it to people like us, the people who trust God to protect us from evil; people who look for God when disaster and tragedy strike.

And the deep and enduring truth of this weedy story is that in the presence of evil God is always enough, and more than enough.
No matter how thick and choking the weeds and the danger and the evil, God rains enough grace, shines enough love, is deep and nurturing enough that the evil cannot destroy the wheat, and the weeds are not the end of the good gift of our lives.

It can be hard to understand in a world of war and refugees and disaster and pain, but the farmer says, let them grow.
Because they cannot destroy you.
Not now.  Not ever.
It’s not an answer to the question of evil, but it is a promise.
God doesn’t pull the evil from the world, or the pain from our lives. But God is enough, and more than enough, to ensure that the pain and evil don’t destroy us, and the grace and the love will still bless our growth, and nourish our roots, until the end of the age.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Heavy Burdens

Matthew 11:16-30

Jesus must be pretty angry.
“What can I say about this generation?!” he says. “These people are like a bunch of children, arguing and complaining, ‘why won’t you play the way I want to play?!’ ”
"All these places where I have been hard at work," he goes on, "teaching and healing and revealing miracles and wonders – and you just sit there, you won’t recognize what I’m telling you about the kingdom of heaven,
you don’t want to change and grow and take God seriously!"

Yes, Jesus is angry, and probably frustrated. 
And that’s what pretty much everyone in my Facebook feed has been saying this week, too:
What’s wrong with you people?   Jesus wouldn’t do that! You can’t really be Christian – you just want to have it all your own way!!

Of course the people in my Facebook feed aren’t talking about Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum – the places that got Jesus so riled up.  They’re talking about Hobby Lobby, and the US Supreme Court – and their friends, family and neighbors. I’ve been witness to a number of vivid and fairly personal online arguments about what’s Christian and godly this past week.

The issues are actually pretty similar, though – the ones in Bethsaida and Capernaum and Chorazin, and the ones among my Facebook friends. Jesus is on to something when he comments on how much the attitudes on display make us look like children who are whining because they want to play different games and no one will play according to my rules and whims.
Hobby Lobby wants to change the current rules of employment economics that our country has agreed to play by – for now at least.  I respect the reasons why they want to change those rules – but it’s true that they want to play by the rules that favor them – just like the cities that got Jesus steamed up. 
Many of my online and local friends have spent the past week offering their own sets of preferred rules, and complaining about the rules others play by.
And the Supreme Court is busy bending rules into pretzels to suit their appointed notions of how the game is supposed to be “officially” played.

So nobody – not the self-appointed defenders of “Christian” principle, not the official deciders of the rules, and not the people arguing with one another about it all – me included! – none of us are listening to Jesus point out that none of us get to make the rules of the game. 
And that, in fact, when we get so wound up in trying to choose the rules, we’re missing the game – we’re missing real and abundant life – entirely.

No wonder Jesus thanks God for giving wisdom to infants – not the sophisticates and scholars (and lawyers)! No wonder he makes a point of praying publicly in thanksgiving for relationship – the familial, intimate, trusting relationship between himself and God the Father.  And no wonder he’s trying to offer that trusting, intimate relationship to all the most heavily burdened, those most in need of a rest from the self-interest of the world.

Because self-interest is a heavy burden; it’s an exhausting way to live together, and relationship is what we need most. Relationship with one another, and above all, intimate, trusting relationship with God, our Creator, our Father and Mother.

That’s not “easy” in many senses, since one true thing about relationship is that you can never have it all your own way. But that’s exactly the yoke that Jesus is offering, and calling “easy.”  Relationship is a lighter burden than rules – but it binds us tighter and insists that we stick together and depend on one another when we’d much rather take our toys and go home.
You don’t get into a yoke to go your own way, after all. You get into a yoke because together we’re stronger than we are apart, and in a yoke you let someone else drive, even when it’s inconvenient to  you.

To be in that yoke, in that trusting, intimate, unbreakable relationship with God, with Jesus, is to know – not think, not believe, but know with your gut and heart – that the kingdom of heaven, God’s loving care for the poor, oppressed, and friendless – is more important than any rules we want to live by.

The kingdom of God is not represented by even the best of United States laws or court decisions.
It’s not represented by closing your stores on Sundays, or any particular stand on abortion, birth control, or health insurance.
The kingdom of God is represented by, and made real because of, our individual and community actions to care first for the lost, “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

The kingdom of God is made real in our day and time by a sense that God calls us to change, repent, and renew that relationship with God that stands above all others, and to let go of our personal sense of right and proper and normal.

That’s worth remembering this weekend – the weekend we have spent celebrating this nation’s independence; celebrating the promise of lighter yokes that make this country so attractive. 
And it’s especially worth remembering when the news media, major corporations, the agents of government, and thousands of individual self-appointed righteous persons around us get caught up in arguing about the most attractive interpretations of religious liberty and Christian freedom.
It’s worth remembering that laws and rules don’t make us free, or even right.  Even, or especially, the laws and rules that work best for me

So it’s especially appropriate this morning that Jesus calls us to remember that his light and binding yoke goes well beyond the best that a nation can do.
Because nations make rules.
And God makes relationships.

And you and I are called to pay more attention to the relationships, any time we’re tempted to get caught up in the rules. 
We’re called to yoke ourselves to God, to God’s vision for the world, and all the self-denial, compassion and abundant joy that relationship demands.

It’s an easy yoke, though, Jesus promises.  Easier in the long run than self-interest.
Because even though that yoke, that relationship, holds us tighter than any rules, and directs us to places we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, it is always as light and strong as love.