A Copy of this month's sermon:Beyond Basic Gardening
Opening Words So, places, places matter. Some places matter more than others; just a small observation. My wife and I were watching a dvd the other night; one that had the commercials for other movies coming out. And, it dawned on me, thinking about Jacob resting his head on that pillow that you can tell a lot about a story based on the place. So, the previews and their places. Stalingrad? Betting not too peaceful. Pompei? Betting it doesn’t end well? And, America. Well? The last one is the most tricky. Conflicting emotions on that one; I bet. Each time I lead a service: I like to paint a picture, put up some sign posts, to sort of help frame where we’re going this morning. This morning: places and the meanings they bring.
Sermon begins: Picture this: I’m pulling my little red Volvo off the Berine Street exit in Springfield. This week. Routine trip to the doctor’s office; my physical checked out! And, I slow down, because the road is all torn up. You’ve all been there. Probably. And, I slow down, to pull off the exit, to turn right, to head towards Bay State. And, these two wonderful ladies, were standing there right near the exit ramp. In that no man, or woman’s land, of the ramp, and they were just picking these wonderful wild flowers growing among the weeds. They were gathering Black Eyed Susans. They had some daisies. And, other little white flowers. Now, I know what your thinking; you got a pretty good look. I’m not weird. Ok. Maybe a little. But, this was one of those sorts of split second looks, which seemed to tell a whole story. And, what matters about this? Why am I telling you this? Although, for all I know, one of you could have been one of those ladies? I think, what it means to me, at least, is the surprising beauty that can happen in the most unexpected places. Here I was: a traveler. On the way to something; coming from somewhere else. And, these people, were just there harvesting the beauty that I would have casually driven by, without much of a glance. It’s as though, by their being there, I was able to notice the place more clearly. I think, I really think, something like this was happening for Jacob on that night so long ago. He was alone. A little isolated. Missing any sort of a place to call home. Wanting a family; not really wanting the one he’s got. And, in that moment, God steps in. And, Jacob discovers, that something more is going on, that he’s got a promise from God, and the world is a much bigger and stranger, and more amazing, place than it was before. And, here I am dropping Jacob into our story, this time, together, like you already know him. And, maybe you do, but just in case. Jacob is a biblical patriarch I can admire. Here is a guy that was always looking for a better deal - a better lot on life. Look at what the man did. He became rich and powerful. Helped to found the great nation of Israel. Married a beautiful girl. Fought an angel, or something like one, and won, or at least had a draw: all pretty good stuff. He was a definitely a winner. But, what really makes me like him is what we see in this passage. “He had a dream in which he saw a stairway [d] resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it,” Genesis 28:12. Fewer images in the Old Testament have been so considered by the sages and the scholars. People have wondered all sorts of things about the ladder, but one detail stands out – why were the angels going up and down? Why not the reverse? Wouldn’t angels have been coming down from heaven and then going back up? What were the angels doing down here? Dreams are like that sometimes. They are scary, or exciting, and sometimes even trying to figure them out can be tough. God doesn’t really explain the dream to Jacob. He doesn’t tell us what it means. He just asks him to take an action; to take that first step of faith; to move or, maybe, particularly in Jacob’s case, to grow. To become one of those happy little plants in God’s garden. Probably not a black eyed Susan. Something more manly; an aloe plant say. All spiky and green. This leads me to our second passage from the book of Matthew. We have things growing all over the place in this passage: weeds, plants, and gardens. There is a harvest. A kingdom. And Jesus telling another parable. Just like the dreaming Jacob the disciples don’t know what to make of the lesson. Jesus even takes the time to explain it, but I suspect some still didn’t know what it meant. I could go on about Jacob, but I’d like to instead turn to those confused little disciples, and that little parable of the weeds among the wheat. Because, while I love Jacob; I think most people of faith today are more like the people in Matthew’s Gospel. Remember Matthew’s community was a community under siege. They were a minority community. The small group was likely one of many small new faith groups swallowed in the Roman empire. We know that other early Christian groups choose to withdraw. Heading to the deserts. Escaping the challenges, or embracing different ones, choosing to leave the world to the world. Matthew’s community chooses to stay, but because of the message of Jesus, they could not embrace the values and practices of their society. They represented an alternative, inclusive community, which worked hard to rebuild its relationships and worked to address some of the damage in the larger society. The Roman empire was not a nice place to live for most of its people; and especially the cities filled with disease, bad water, and the threat of violence. Little wonder then, that they dreamed, these old proto-Christians, of a Kingdom. And, so, I’d like to imagine them combing over the old accounts of Christ’s message, hunting for anything Jesus had to say about the Kingdom. And, with this little passage, they have a doozey. They have something wonderfully unique: a kingdom that includes not just the good things – justice, salvation, freedom, mercy, and all the rest – stuff real dreams are made of – no they have a kingdom that is mixed up. A kingdom, that has some bad mixed in with the Good. Sure, they blame the devil, for that mixing, but still. There it is. The world. The field we live in. Is just not a perfect place. But, I don’t need to tell any of you that. Do I? No, I see in your eyes, eyes that have seen too many things that ought not to have been, too many friendships, relationships, or marriages cut short, too many ought nots when it actually did. Too many weeds; when God wants only to offer you the bread of life. For, remember, that’s grain we have there. That’s grain to make bread. Bread for Christ to break, and us to share, for the world to change. Because, honestly, dear friends, after I came to think about this passage, seeking the Good News to share with you this morning. It came down to one word: ratio. Because, in my cold, calculating, New England farmer brain, I was thinking about how many weeds there were. And, I was sort of doing the mental calculus, the old Puritan dance, of am I good enough? Am I enough grain and not enough weed? And, then I began to think, and I think this is where God’s mercy began to dawn…. The text tells us nothing about the ration of Good Seed to Bad Weed. You can get all pessimistic about it, but really the text tells us we don’t get to judge. No. Only the angels get to do that. So, we know, we suspect, that there must have been some? Right? Enough to make the fire, to break the bread, to change the world right? Some folks to be out there, outside, in the land of the weeping and the gnashing of teeth? Right. But, the text doesn’t tell you, how many. Any good farmer will tell you that sometimes a field can become a loss. Too much rain. Not enough rain. Too many bugs. Not enough bees. And, on and on. Here is God the farmer telling us there is enough in this world to save, even with the world’s weeds, and nasty bits, and all the rest. And, dear friends, doesn’t that sound like a God you already know? A God that would love you enough to become one of us? One that would face all those weeds—the betrayal, the desertion, the trials, and the death – simply for the chance to come through all that fire and find you there? Maybe a little broken, maybe a little battered, but more than a little loved? So, what is my point? I don’t really think any of us here today are weeds. And, I’m not even really sure there are any weeds out there either. What I want to leave you with this morning: a little nudge, a little push, let’s say you are in fact one of those happy little growing stalks of grain. Call it beyond basic Gardening. Here’s my point: both the story of Jacob and the story of Matthew’s field is about the surprising way God works in the world. It would be easy to look at Jacob and his building a little shrine to that dream and think that the space that he marked was the most important thing. It would be easy to think, that coming to wonderful places like this, would make you connect to the Holy. In sort of the same way, as you go to the beach, to see the waves, and feel the wind, and taste the salt. Sort of make meeting God something to check off on your itinerary. See god? Check. Done. And, if we are all honest, this is often what we do. Because, it is all to easy, to think, God is over there, or in that place, or in that moment, and not in these other spaces we find ourselves. At least, for me. Or, the reverse, to think in such parochial little windows, that God must be here, most nearly, in a space and place, that I already love. We in the established churches of America have often fallen for this line of thinking. It’s we, in New England, put our meeting places in the center of the town. To remind folks; God is here. The trouble, you see, and the trouble, Christ brings, is that even in that moment with Jacob sleeping on the ground. God was not stable. God was not secure. God was in motion. Jacob met God on the road. Christ plants the field. Looks away. And the Devil slips in. Lest we all think: the field is the kingdom. No. That’s the spin on the ball. The field isn’t the Kingdom. The shrine isn’t God’s house. The Kingdom of God. Jesus tells us. Is the whole collection of action. The spreading, the gathering, the harvest, the final judgment. This is a God, we see this morning, that delights in meeting people along the way. Every good sermon, they tell me, ought to do a couple things. It ought to explore something about God. And, then tell you something about humanity. Begin a person crafted in God’s image. God is a God in motion. And, the motion, I believe God is mostly about, and this parable tells us so clearly, is about bringing the judgment of justice. God’s justice into the world. And, friends, Google tells me, that when people dream, they in our nation, most nearly, dream of vacations, and money, and status. How to get a good job? How to strike it rich? How to live a good life? And, there is nothing particularly wrong with that. But, this morning, I want you to remember that when Jacob dreamed. And the angles came and went. They were not bringing money, or the perfect spouse, or a fancy car. Those angels, I believe, we’re bringing in the harvest, gathering, and spreading the thing God cares most about in this world: justice. Justice! And, dear friends, when I say justice, I don’t mean a broken system down at the court house, I mean the great hope that when all is said and done, the devil, may spread some seed, and you know what I am talking about. But, God will bring that harvest in and we will taste the joy of victory. And spirits will sing of salvation. And, our hope, our hope will echo from the mountain tops. That’s a long way of saying, when you are out on the roads this summer. Seek the possibilities that being in motion offer to meet God in a new way. And, offer the peace, and hope, and joy, that God has brought to you, and spread it around to those you meet. Offer smiles. Blessings. Laughter. And Peace.