Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Careless Sower 7.16.17 Sermon, Rev. Kirsten

Sermon 7.16.17

Let anyone with ears listen!   Today we hear the parable of the sower.  There are few remarkable things about this parable.  First, I wonder about how careless this sower is.  It’s not immediately clear who the sower is in this parable—is the sower God?  If God is the sower, then why is God so careless, just letting the seed fall on the path, on rocky soil, amidst thorns or on good soil? 

Maybe it’s not that God is careless; it’s about the bounty of God’s grace.  There is so much love and forgiveness and creativity in God that it falls everywhere.  But it doesn’t always grow because the soil is not properly prepared. 

Maybe the sower is not God, but rather the disciples.  In this parable we see Jesus going to the sea to preach to the crowds.  So many people have gathered around him that he goes out into a boat to preach.  He gives the crowds the parable, but then after the big talk, he calls his disciples together and explains the parable to them.  He is sending the disciples out to preach about the kingdom.  Maybe by this parable, Jesus is telling the disciples to go out and do the work of preaching the Word everywhere they go, knowing that sometimes it will not be heard—it will fall on the path, on the rocky ground, amidst thorns or on good soil.  Maybe Jesus is telling his disciples, that when they preach, the Word might fall on fertile soil, but you never know how it will grow—maybe it will yield a hundredfold, or sixty or thirty.

 Second, I wonder about the different kinds of soil.  Am I the soil?  The listener (the hearer) needs to be prepared to receive the seed.  What does that mean?  When Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he says if they don’t understand the word of the kingdom, the evil one snatches away what is “sown in the heart.”  So we can imagaine words that fall on the ears, or the Word that is sown in the heart.  When do we hear with our hearts as compared to hearing with our ears?  It is a different kind of understanding that engages our hearts.  Beyond making rational sense, some things make heart sense. 

And then I wonder about why the seed sometimes yields a hundredfold, sometimes sixty or sometimes thirty.  When seeds bear fruit, why are some plants laden , just covered with good fruit and other plants producing just a few?  If we are the soil, are we actually producing the fruit—are we doing the work of bringing forth the fruit of the seed?  I am struck that farming is always a combination of good seed, careful planting, watering and tending,  enough sun and good nutrients.  The soil needs to be prepared, but then the plants need to be nurtured—the weeds removed, the stones removed,  the beans tied up, or the tomato plants staked.  And sometimes even with all the ingredients, a plant withers and dies.  And then other plants are just so strong that they thrive in the most unlikely places—a prolific blackberry bush that is growing uncared for by the side of the road.  It’s not one factor that determines whether the Word will yield a lot or a little.  As we contemplate the parable we can think about this combination of God’s bountiful love, the seed that overflowing, the grace that is readily available to everyone, to everything, everywhere.  We are called as disciples to share that grace, that love everywhere—even in places where the hearer’s heart is closed, where the evil one will snatch it away.  We are called to nurture this grace, to listen with our hearts—not just our minds and let the word bear fruit in us.  And how much fruit it will bear will be determined by a combination of things—did we hear fully, did we cultivate and pay attention to God’s grace, did we use the gifts we have been given by God wisely, to the glory of God?  Or did we squander the opportunity and just produce a little fruit?

Our other readings today help us to deepen our work with this parable.  In the Hebrew
bible text from Isaiah, we hear God telling the prophet he must take God’s word out.  Don’t let the rain fall without purpose.  God is encouraging Isaiah to share the message of the kingdom so that it will grow and bear fruit.  “Go out in joy and return in peace.” “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;”  We can hear that encouragement that came to Isaiah as encouragement for us.  When we carry the message, the Word in our hearts, we are the sowers who are bringing God’s love to the world.  If we carry the message with joy, we will come back in peace.

In the psalm, we also have images of God planting and tending:
9 You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
10 You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
11 You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

God is doing this work in us.  There is always enough from God to help us grow—enough water, good grain, carefully tilled soil, but we have to hear with our hearts and let this goodness bear fruits in us.

And then in Paul’s letter to the Roman’s, we hear about the indwelling of the Spirit, this is the way that God is moving in us.  If we are the soil, we have this image of God the Spirit preparing us to bear fruit. 

So my three queries come back—How to understand God the sower with seed so bountiful that it falls everywhere for everyone, for everything in creation—God’s love, God’s grace, God’s comfort and healing power, God’s creative Spirit falling on everyone.  Then how do I make myself the fruitful soil, the one who will receive this grace, hearing the Word with my heart, not just with my mind.  How will I live in the Spirit as the Spirit lives in me—knowing God so that I may bear the fruit of this grace?  And finally, what am I called to do to be the place where the seed bears a hundredfold?  What does it mean to give back to God in the most productive ways? 

Sometimes it’s hard for me to be the one with ears who listens with my heart open.  I hear about pain and death, about suffering among friends.  Yesterday a friend called and told me that his sixteen year old daughter has just received a potentially very serious diagnosis.  This is only two weeks after his sister died.  It is a month after his son had to leave his college.  It seems like too many troubles.  My friend asked, how can you believe in God when this many bad things happen to one person all at once.  It seems like there should be a balance if some bad things happen, then you’ve gotten your share and some good things should come, but there is nothing good coming my way.

I really listened, I tried to open my heart.  I tried to hear God’s overwhelming grace coming into my friend’s life.  I was doing my very best to be the fruitful soil, but my friend was so down, so anxious, so overwhelmed that it was hard to feel the joy, the new life, the bounty.  I found myself wishing that I could fix it—any one piece of the hard things that my friend is facing, but there’s no fixing.  I found myself saying, that God’s presence is in the hope and the love.  In the midst of these tragedies, we have to hold onto God’s promise that there is a way forward—a way forward without his sister, a way forward  without continuing college for his son, a way forward through this bad diagnosis of a life threatening illness.  That hope is where God’s grace is.  And then we talked about loving people so much that it hurts.  Loving them so much that their pain is your pain.  Loving them so much that you would do anything to make their lives better.  And this is certainly how God is working.  It’s painful, but it’s also powerful and rich and renewing.  It’s creative love that is working in this family.  New possibilities will emerge as David and his wife and children face these hard challenges together.  I cannot see those possibilities, but when I listen with my heart open,  when I engage in spiritual listening, I can be part of that loving—even though I don’t have any answers. 

There’s a danger that I might be the path that doesn’t even look for God’s love in this situation, or I might be the stony ground that hears one bit of good news and attributes it to God, but then hears four bits of bad news and forgets that God’s grace is here.  I could be the thicket of thorns that feels the love in this family, but gets so overwhelmed by the medical details that I choke out God’s healing power.  I will be spending time with this family over the next weeks and months and I wonder, will I be the good soil where God’s grace can bear so much fruit that my atheist friend will feel it and know the goodness of God’s love in our friendship?  Or will I get overwhelmed and withdraw so that even if there was some good fruit, it is not as bountiful as if I had continued to live fully  in the Spirit. 

I think about this parable in the public sphere too.  How is God working in our community, sowing bountiful seed, bringing good things everywhere?  And how am I the sower working with God to plant, cultivate and nurture the new life that will bring the kingdom here?  I am listening to the radio and hearing about the fights over health care in Congress, I am hearing about the fear that immigrant families are feeling as the travel bans and ICE raids continue.  I hear just vicious accusations and rhetoric that silences constructive solutions between Republicans and Democrats—supporters of President Trump and those who voted for Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton.  Where in the public sphere is the Word?  How is the sower working? 

Maybe in the proposals for health care reform there is a desire to give people choices about their own care, to make healthcare more affordable for everyone, to stimulate economic growth so that more jobs will be created.  Maybe we are not listening with our hearts and we hear only the details about who will have to pay more, who will lose coverage.  Maybe our fears are the thorns that will choke the desire to make the system better.  Maybe we are not listening with our hearts at all, and we are not holding the people who need health care most with love.  Is there a way for us, the disciples to be the sowers who say there has to be a way to make a healthcare system that provides for all of God’s people here.  We cannot get bogged down in political fights, we have to be the place where love prevails and God’s healing can happen.  Maybe when there are local solutions—like the amazing care that is provided by Marin General Hospital or the incredible dedication of the nurses and doctors and midwives—maybe instead of fighting about insurance, we need to focus on how we build up the systems that are working well to provide care.  In a broken system, God’s goodness, God’s healing is here.  Let us be the fieldworkers who will tend the new shoots so that they will bear a hundredfold fruit, not just wither in the rocky soil.

Is there a way for us to be the sowers of the Word for our immigrant neighbors.  We have a role to play in supporting families here, bringing a sense of security where there is fear.  Can we say to someone we meet, you are part of us,  we want you in our school, we want you in our clinic, we want you to work here and contribute to our community.  We see you not as a threat, but as our neighbor.  When we see a woman in a veil, do we recognize her as mother, a wife, a person of God—or do we suspect her of being a terrorist?  How can we as the community of Nativity be the soil where God’s grace blossoms? 

Let our prayer today be that we might be part of God’s farm. 

God, You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
10 You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
11 You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

Let us know your bounty in every aspect of our lives.  Let us be the sowers of the Word.  Let us be spiritual listeners, hearing with our hearts.  Let us be fertile soil where Your love can grow.  And let us work with You to bring forth the fruits of your harvest—a hundredfold.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. 

Rev. Kirsten July 2 Interdependence Day

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42    

This week, I found in our readings themes of vulnerability and welcome.  And they resonated with me.   Let me show you where I heard those themes.

First in our reading from Jeremiah.  We enter into the book of Jeremiah today just at the climax of the story.  The prophet Jeremiah is having it out with the false prophet, Hannaniah.  Hannaniah has been preaching the end of Babylonian rule.  He tells the people that in a short two years, Babylon will fall and peace will come.  Hannaniah is promoting “Temple Theology” the ideas that God will make Judah and it’s temple rise again.  A strong God will keep God’s people safe.  But Jeremiah has a different message and he says,  listen to the prophets from before—they preached war and famine and exile.  He’s telling Hannaniah that these prophets of old, they told the truth.  This is what happened.  God doesn’t swoop in and save the people from human rules.  Jeremiah  has been telling the people not to rebel against the Babylonian rulers.  You’ll know the truth when you see it, when peace comes, then you can believe the prophet of peace.  Jeremiah is promoting a Covenant Theology—an understanding of a God who makes promises to be with his people.  This is a God who hopes that all people will be obedient to God’s commandments and bring peace—not a God who imposes peace.  Jeremiah has been told by God to wear an oxen yoke—he’s walking around wearing this yoke to show people that they are enslaved by Babylonian rulers.  The false prophet Hannaniah takes the yoke off Jeremiah and smashes it. 

It’s kind of a hard passage to understand without all that context that isn’t in our snippet of a reading.  Who is really telling the truth—Jeremiah or Hannaniah.    I think we’d rather hear Hannaniah’s message.  We’d like to hear that peace is coming soon that our powerful God is going to save us.  But the uncomfortable message from Jeremiah is that God doesn’t work this way.  God is instead in relationship with God’s people, holding them and keeping them safe while they are in exile, while they are suffering, while they are in hard economic times. 

When I think about Jeremiah going around wearing a yoke.  He is the epitomy of vulnerability—he is like an animal being led around to do work.  And this is who we are, ultimately pretty fragile, vulnerable people.  We are not able to stop pain from coming into the world.  We live in systems of injustice.  We might like a God who would come and break this yoke, but our God is simply with us while we carry our burdens.

Then I turn to the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Here in verse 6, Paul is contrasting two different models of slavery.  He tells the disciples—you used to be slaves to sin, but now you are slaves to righteousness.  You used to think that the you were going to get ahead by the things of this world, but now you know that the only way to eternal life is through righteousness.  Righteousness here is about faith in Jesus, being a follower, building up the community of people who are disciples.  Paul is warning the Romans not to go back to worshipping idols, that only leads to more sin.  Instead present yourself as a slave to righteousness.  In the passage from Jeremiah we see the prophet wearing a yoke.  Here in Romans, Paul is describing the people as slaves to righteousness. 

And this brings me to the passage from Matthew.  Here we hear Jesus instructing the disciples about what it means to welcome him (and thereby welcome the one who sent me).  Welcome the prophet in the name of the prophet,  welcome the righteous one in the name of the righteous one, welcome the little one in the name of a disciple, give him a cup of cold water.  Look for the most vulnerable and give him comfort, just a cup of cold water. 

Vulnerability and welcome.  I think that these passages today give us a sense of ourselves as vulnerable people.  We are those who are yoked, enslaved.  We are the little one who just needs a cup of water.  We can’t even try to be powerful, because to seek power is to be a slave to sin.  The only way to be is to embrace our vulnerability.    And these passages point us to our work.  It is our job to welcome the weakest.  Just give a cup of cold water.  Jesus is saying again,  tend my sheep,  love one another as I have loved you.  It’s a consistent message—from Jeremiah—don’t go out and start a war against the Babylonian leaders to get power, instead work like an ox to make peace a reality.  Don’t expect God fix things, but do know that God is with you while you working on God’s projects.  Paul admonishes, don’t be a slave to sin (to your desires or to idols) but instead be a slave to righteousness.  We’re encouraged not to get more power, but to live into our vulnerability.  These passages comfort us with the knowledge that we are the ones who God speaks to, who God knows and loves.  When we feel least worthy, this is when God is closest to us.  When we feel most important, or big or wealthy, this is when we, like Hannaniah may be false prophets. 

This theme of vulnerability speaks to our human nature, but it also says something really important about God.  God sent his only begotten Son to live and die as one of us.  We think often about Jesus’ vulnerability on the cross.  But these passages remind us that God took human form and by becoming human, God showed us God’s vulnerability.  Jesus depended on the people around him—his family Mary and Joseph; his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the disciples; and the people everywhere they went—those who prepared meals for him, those who let him stay in their homes.  Jesus showed us that God relates to humanity not only by healing and teaching, but also by coming close and counting on us.  Our role with God is to be the ones who welcome him with a cup of cold water.  If we are looking for a God who will send an army to fix things, we’re looking in the wrong place.  Instead we need to look for the small child, who will show us that in needing one another, we find new life.

As I meditated on these themes,  I got thinking about our July 4th holiday.  What does our independence day mean?  When we think about Independence day, we think about what was important to those first settlers.  They came for religious freedom.  They sought a place where they could worship God without the hierarchy of the state church.  Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Our forefathers founded our country on the hope that we might create a place where every person would live into God’s vision for them—living fully, pursuing happiness and freedom. When we take this idea of true independence and hold it against today’s themes of vulnerability and welcome, we see that maybe a better term would be interdependence rather than independence.  God is not encouraging us to get our liberty by throwing off our yoke, or becoming Masters over other people.  God is encouraging us to know a different kind of freedom that comes from recognizing that we are all vulnerable and that we are interconnected.  When we welcome giving support and aid to one another, this is when we know the true liberty, the true happiness that God promises.

As we think about where our country is going and how we are living today, we need to ask always whether we are pursuing the freedoms that our founders imagined with God.  Are we prepared to recognize that being a superpower in the international arena does not mean having the power to obliterate an enemy.  It means recognizing that our fates are interrelated.  We are a vulnerable nation.  We cannot thrive without the support of other countries.  As people, our lives are connected to others around the globe.  When people are starving in Africa, our humanity is threatened.  The refugee who is escaping oppression, she is struggling to find life.  Our role is to give her the cup of cold water.  Our planet is a finite resource.  Our food sources, our atmosphere, our rivers and oceans—all depend on our care.  The planet is fragile and we must recognize our interrelatedness. 

This is a countercultural message.  The images of bursting fireworks suggest powerful bombs and military strength.  We must reflect on the true freedom that we hold as inalienable—it’s freedom rooted in vulnerability and connectedness.  God’s presence with us is most powerful when we know that we cannot thrive alone.  God comes among us and calls out to us for welcome.  Let us celebrate this weekend our ability to offer that welcome to every person here in our community—coming together with our neighbors for the 4th of July BBQ at the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy, inviting someone who is alone, someone who is grieving, someone who is struggling to be with us.  Invite them to join us at church, go out for a cup of coffee, take a walk.  When you are feeling your own weakness, embrace that sense that you are the slave to righteousness—relying on one another and on God. 

This is the time to name independence as the freedom to live fully and to pursue happiness with every other part of God’s creation.  Our God is powerful in vulnerability, made known to us in the welcome that we offer to one another.

6.25.17, Rev. Kirsten Christian Living in a Secular World

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Our passage from Paul’s letter to the Roman’s today asks a powerful question:  How can we who died to sin go on living in it?

This week as a I prayed this passage, I found myself thinking about how hard it is to be a Christian in this modern world.  There are so many moments every day when we are confronted with choices.  How can we ask at every choice, “What is the Christian way?”  I think about my daily choices—what will I wear, what will I eat, how will I get to work, what work will I do, how do I support my family—my husband, my parents, my children.  What will I do for fun?  What will I read?  What will I spend my money on?  What will I spend my time on?

If we have to test every single question against Scripture, or practice, how will we be able to function?  And yet, if we don’t test these decisions, then we are just guided by our cultural norms, our social structure, or our human passions.  Does our culture support the right choices?  Does our society support the right choices?  Does our human nature support the right choices?

The Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish, have created a community that lives outside of modern society.  By creating a set of rules for how they live and following those rules, they believe that they are living a more Christ-centered life.   The Amish choose not to use technology.  They wear only very simple clothes without patterns or decoration.  They work primarily in agriculture or crafts—building things, growing things necessary for their sustainability.  They educate their children in one-room schoolhouses, focusing on teaching reading and writing, math and science necessary for community life.  They want their children to value family and community above all else.  They are a peacemaking community and will not participate in the military.  They don’t pay federal taxes, but they don’t accept any government assistance like social security or Medicare.  They do pay local taxes and contribute to the infrastructure of the local community.  When the Amish die, they are buried in cemetaries with identical markers—they don’t want to show any hierarchy, each person is equally valuable.

I think the Amish might answer Paul’s question to the Romans by saying it’s impossible to live in modern society without falling into sin.  I think that they would say that the only way to be a true Christian is to separate from the modern world and create a community in which the norms, the culture, the social structures all support living a Christian life.  Those of us who live in a secular world are constantly tempted by idols—there are things that the world says we need.  There are power structures that separate us and rank us, giving some of us privileges and leaving others with so little.  If we live in the midst of secular society, we are part of these power structures.  We can’t really get out of them.  We can try to reform them or resist them, but we are part of them.   

In our passage from Matthew today, Jesus tells the disciples that he has not come to bring peace, but to create conflict—setting son against father, daughter against mother or mother-in-law.  Jesus is warning the disciples that choosing to follow Christ is going to create family discord.  Even in your closest community, you are going to have to reject the way things are always done.  The Amish take this passage very seriously.  Amish teenagers are given a period of time to explore modern society.  While they are encouraged to stay in the community, they have the freedom to wear modern clothes, to use cars or cell phones.  At the end of this period, they have to decide whether they are going to rejoin the community or leave.  The article I read said that 80% choose to stay.  The others are shunned, excluded because they have chosen the modern world.  It seems that leaving must be an incredibly painful choice—literally setting son against father, daughter against mother. 

While the Amish set up the choice as living in their Christian community against leaving the family and society, for us who have always lived in the secular world, the choice to live as a Christian may be equally hard.  I think about the families who say that they simply can’t come to church on Sunday mornings because if they do, their children will miss soccer, or music or birthdays or even school activities.  Families need time together and Sunday morning may be the only time that is available for a family breakfast or a chance just to be at home together.  Coming to Church could literally be the thing that separates son from father, mother from daughter. 

There are many things we do as Christians that separate us from our friends and neighbors.  If we choose to participate in the Wellness Circle on Tuesday nights, friends and family may be frustrated when our participation in the Interfaith Street Chaplaincy conflicts with other things they’d like us to do or need us to do as a family.  Being with the Wellness gathering even once a month will not be convenient.  It may set us against friends and family who have other priorities.  If we choose a job that we believe is doing God’s work, we may pay a price—being forced to accept lower wages, working without the support that others have, not having the security that other jobs provide.  I hear about the Google campus with every imagineable luxury and convenience to support the Google workers.  And then I see people who are working at schools or hospitals, serving the community in non-profit organizations, or government;  choosing jobs where they don’t have a breakroom, or even a place to keep their lunch, never mind an on-site chef who is preparing them a wonderful free organic lunch. 

But for those of us who live in secular society,  “How can we who have died to sin go on living in it? “ is not a question that has absolute answers.  Good Christians can decide that working at Google is the right answer for them, and they can make choices about what they do in those jobs, how they spend their money, how they support their families that are good Christian choices.  There is not one choice that is good and Christian and another choice that is sinful. While the Amish believe that their way is the most Christian way,  as Episcopalians, we follow a more complicated path.

We believe that our discipleship, the way we live as Christians, requires discernment.  We talk about the three legged stool.  We base our lives on Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  We think about Jesus’ examples, and we listen to the prophets.  We have our prayerbook and the practice of our prayers and worship to guide us.  And we have to engage our minds.  We have to think and talk and experiment—it’s a process of making something new with each choice, not just relying on a set of strict rules.  Unlike the Amish, our discernment might lead us to make different choices than our community or our family, but we understand that these could be Christian choices that acknowledge our unique gifts and bring them to the service of God’s work in the world.  Some of our choices may be controversial and create conflicts, or even create enemies who will try to subvert our choices.

It seems to me that the Good News of our readings today is that even though being a Christian and living by our choices may put us at odds with our community, we are not alone or without support on this path.  The prophet Jeremiah in the poem we heard today imagines his community taunting him, mocking him, waiting for him to stumble as he tries to live according to God’s commandments.  But he knows that he will not stumble,  “ . . . the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.”

The psalmist points to God’s help when the world is against the righteous person: 

answer me with your unfailing help.
let me be rescued from those who hate me
and out of the deep waters.
18 Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; *
in your great compassion, turn to me.'
20 Draw near to me and redeem me; *
 . . .  deliver me.

Paul promises the Romans that when they make the choices necessary to live without sin, they will be united with Christ in new life.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  This is the reassurance.  If we emphasize the “How” in Paul’s question,  “How can we go on living after we have professed our faith?   Paul shows us that answer is by living in Christ.  While there are sinful choices all around us, by our Christianity, by our commitment to Jesus and new covenant with God through Jesus we are dead to that sin.  We are different and our choices are choices made in the Body of Christ. 

In Matthew, Jesus reassures them “Do not be afraid, your life is worth more than any sparrow.  . . .  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  If you make the choices necessary to follow me and you reject the temptations, the sins of the world; if you voluntarily give up the life that the world promises and choose a life in Jesus will be given the fullness that God promises.

My sermon for today is an attempt to answer Paul’s question.  “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”  While I might wish for the simplicity or the rigid rules of an Amish community to give me answers, I instead find my answers in the richness of our tradition.  In the midst of a sinful and broken world, I will try to make choices that  bring me closer to the Gospel,  I will discern my path with the support of our tradition—our prayers, our worship, and the witness of all who are here and all who have come before.  The ultimate answer is that I will live today by the grace of God.  God will stand by me, support me against my enemies, love me and hold me with compassion.  When I am most afraid,  God will show me new life in Jesus because our God is constant, all-loving and renewing even when the choices are hard or I make the wrong ones.