Friday, March 22, 2019

Cultivating a Resilient Spirit (Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness)

The Lord is my light and my salvation.
        Should I fear anyone?
    The Lord is a fortress protecting my life.
        Should I be frightened of anything?
When evildoers come at me trying to eat me up—
    it’s they, my foes and my enemies,
    who stumble and fall!
If an army camps against me,
        my heart won’t be afraid.
    If war comes up against me,
        I will continue to trust in this:
    I have asked one thing from the Lord—
    it’s all I seek:
        to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
        seeing the Lord’s beauty
        and constantly adoring his temple.
Because he will shelter me in his own dwelling
    during troubling times;
    he will hide me in a secret place in his own tent;
        he will set me up high, safe on a rock.

Now my head is higher than the enemies surrounding me,
    and I will offer sacrifices in God’s tent—
        sacrifices with shouts of joy!
    I will sing and praise the Lord.

Lord, listen to my voice when I cry out—
    have mercy on me and answer me!
Come, my heart says, seek God’s face.
    Lord, I do seek your face!
Please don’t hide it from me!
    Don’t push your servant aside angrily—
        you have been my help!
    God who saves me,
        don’t neglect me!
        Don’t leave me all alone!
Even if my father and mother left me all alone,
    the Lord would take me in.
Lord, teach me your way;
    because of my opponents, lead me on a good path.
Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies,
    because false witnesses and violent accusers
    have taken their stand against me.
But I have sure faith
    that I will experience the Lord’s goodness
    in the land of the living!

Hope in the Lord!
    Be strong! Let your heart take courage!
        Hope in the Lord!  -Psalm 27 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and from the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. Amen. 

Throughout this season of Lent, we’re doing a little gardening. Cultivating those things that bring us into deeper relationship with God and letting go of those things that separate us from God or keep us from being the wholehearted (or shalom) people God intends us to be. We’re using a different psalm each week, along with The Gifts of Imperfection, a book written by contemporary sociologist and researcher, Dr. Brene Brown. 

Last week, our topic was on Cultivating Calm and Stillness and Letting go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle, using Psalm 92. Tonight, we are looking at Psalm 27 and focusing on how we might let go of numbing and powerlessness and begin to cultivate a more resilient spirit.

Resiliency has been a growing area of study since the early 1970’s. It arose out a desire by professional caregivers to better understand why and how some folks are better at bouncing back from hardship than others. As Dr. Brown has analyzed the data she’s collected in her research, she has noticed that many of the people she identified as living wholehearted lives described living lives of resilience. 

As part of my own process to become a pastor, my candidacy committee requested that I seek out grief counseling to deal with the death of my sister, which had happened some 3-4 years before I applied. In the course of that counseling, which wasn’t the first time I sought help, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, as you might know it. I was diagnosed with this because of the extensive amount of loss I had experienced in my life, beginning with my father’s death when I was 14. Yet, even though I was given this diagnosis, my counselor also indicated that I was very resilient. 

So, what is it that makes one resilient? In Dr. Brown’s research, she has found that resilient people primarily have five “protective factors.” Resilient people are resourceful and have good problem-solving skills. They are more likely to seek help. They also hold the belief that they can do something that will help them manage their feelings and to cope. They have a social support network available to them. And, as part of that network, they are connected with others, such as family and friends.

Yet, in all of the stories, what Dr. Brown identified as most common wasn’t resilience. But, spirit. According to the people she interviewed, the foundation for these five “protective factors” - the things that made them "bouncy" - was their spirituality. Now this spirituality wasn’t necessarily tied to a particular religion or theology, but it was a shared and deeply held belief that we are all inextricably linked to each other by a power that is greater than all of us. And that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. 

Out of this foundation of spirituality, then, three other significant patterns emerged as essential to resilience. The wholeheartedly resilient people Dr. Brown interviewed cultivated hope, practiced critical awareness, and let go of numbing.  Numbing is what we do, consciously and unconsciously, to take the edge off our vulnerability, our discomfort, and our pain. 

If you have a Bible or a hymnal near you, I’d invite you to turn to Psalm 27, our reading for tonight. Notice in the first verses, the confidence and faith of the psalmist. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” And in verse 5: “For in this day of trouble God will give me shelter, hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary…” Last week we learned that the temple - where God was present, was a place of safety. Of sanctuary.

The psalmist continues in this confidence and trust in God through to verse six. But, then, the tone changes dramatically. Beginning with verse 7 and continuing through to verse 14, the trust of the psalmist is tested by enemies. Look at verse 12: “Subject me not to the will of my foes, for they rise up against me, false witnesses breathing violence.” The psalmist is being persecuted and innocently accused. In the words of Dr. Brown, this psalmist is critically aware of his reality. He is also fully immersed in his own fear, particularly, the fear that God has cast him away. He is fully vulnerable. Yet, even in the midst of his reality and fear and vulnerability, the psalmist continues to practice hope. Believing, as we note in verse 13, that he will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! 

The psalm closes then, not in the psalmist’s own words, but with a word from the Lord - an “oracle of salvation” in verse 14. The answer to his prayer: “Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord.”

This spirituality - this belief in our interconnectedness, both with each other and with God, is what brings perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives. It is at the heart of resiliency. It requires that we are deliberate about caring for ourselves and for others. It requires that we be inspired - that the light of Christ reside within us. And, finally, it requires that we get going. That we engage in daily meditation and prayer so that that light might grow, that our belief and our hope in God might continue and be strengthened. So that we might become the resilient, wholehearted, shalom people God desires us to be. 

May God make it so. Amen.

Preached March 20, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Midweek Lenten Worship
Reading: Psalm 27

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Ways of the Kingdom: Generosity

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the blessed Trinity: Creator, Sustainer, and Comforter. Amen.

Throughout Lent, we’re continuing to think about what God’s reign looks like, using the theme “The Ways of the Kingdom.” As Jesus has done before, in our reading this morning, he uses a parable to help us understand.

We’re going to play a little game this morning to help us better understand the unexpected and unpredictable nature of parables. I need six of you this morning to help me tell a story. In this basket, I have several different words. I’ll start the story with the words “Once upon a time…”. Then, as I point to each of you, you will continue the story by adding one sentence that must contain the word you drew. The last person should end his or her sentence with the words, “The End.” Got it? Let’s begin.

Did this story that we just told end the way you expected it would from the opening sentence? I think it’s fair to say that the story was very different than any of us could have expected. There were twists and turns and things that might have seemed a little unpredictable.

As we learn the parables in this series, we will realize that God’s kingdom often flips things around. Catching us off guard. A few weeks ago, when we were studying the parables of the wheat and the weeds, and the mustard seed, we learned that Jesus’ parables were intended to have little twists in them that surprised the listeners. These twists highlight the fact that God’s ways are often different than ours. And different from what we might expect. God’s ways can also seem a little unpredictable. 

In today’s story, the workers who were hired first thought they knew what was going to happen. But, in the end, they were surprised. And a little grumpy.

So, let’s move to our story. Our story is one of these surprising parables that, once again, tries to help us understand how God’s kingdom operates. To tell the story today, I need a little help. I need five volunteers to be workers. I’ll play the part of the landowner.

The story opens with the landowner needing help in his vineyard. (You all know how much I like vineyards, right? I’ve even been able to help with a grape harvest, so I know how backbreaking this work can be.)

The landowner goes out early around 6 a.m. to the nearest Home Depot, because he (or she) knows that this is a place is where one can find workers. Day laborers. So, that’s what I’m going to do.

After the landowner gets to Home Depot and finds the day laborers, he negotiates with them a daily wage. I have a lot of experience negotiating, so I’m going to do this with these workers. 

We all agreed that $60 was a fair wage for the day. So, then, the landowner hired one of the workers, who he took back to work in the vineyard. About nine o’clock, he went back and hired one more. Then, around noon, he did it again. And, around 3 in the afternoon, he did it a fourth time. Around five he went back out and found others standing around. He asked them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They answered him, “Because no one has hired us.”

So, the landowner hired the remaining workers and sent them into the vineyard to work. 

Then, it was evening time. An hour later. Around 6 o’clock. It was the end of the work day. So the owner of the vineyard told his manager to give the workers their pay. The owner said, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last. And then going to the first.” When the workers who were hired at 5 o’clock came, they received the daily wage of $60. When the other workers came - the one hired at 3 in the afternoon, the one at noon, the one at 9 in the morning, and the one at 6 a.m. - when those other workers came for their pay, they expected that they would receive more. Because they had worked longer than the one hired at 5 in the afternoon. But they each received the usual daily wage. Sixty dollars. A fair day's wage. The amount that had been agreed upon at the beginning of the day. 

When these four got their wage, they started to grumble. (Can each of you grumble?) “These last workers only worked for one hour. You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

The landowner said to them: “Friends, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Thank you for helping me with the story. Now, let’s talk about it for a few minutes. In our story, the workers who were hired early in the day, felt like the landowner wasn’t being fair to them. Do you agree with this? Or disagree? 

If we look at the story from their perspective, then I would agree that it doesn’t seem fair. If that same landowner did this in our world today, he or she would probably be reported to the Department of Labor. For not being fair. For not paying each of the workers for the hours they had worked. What they deserved. This is how we most likely see this story.

Now, I want you to think of a time when someone was surprisingly generous to you. Think of a time, if you can, when someone completely surprised you with their generosity. When they didn’t have to. How did that feel to you? 

What if we looked at this story from the perspective of the last worker who was hired? He had waited all day long to be hired. Standing there. With nothing to do. Thinking about his family at home. And the money he needed to bring home so they could have food on their table that night. Needing a full day’s wages, yet not getting hired. Until the very end of the day. What if, the entire hour he was working, all he could think about was what he would tell his wife when he came home with less than a full day’s wages? And how, once again, they wouldn’t have enough food on their table to feed their family?

But, then, when it came time to be paid, he received a full day’s wages. He was beyond joy. And fell to his knees with gratitude. That even though he was hired last - after all of the other workers - the landowner, in his generosity, knew that, to feed his family, he needed that full day’s wage.

How might our perspective change if we looked at it from his perspective? Instead of from a perspective that brings envy. Or, as the Greek puts it, with an “evil eye?”

We live in systems that are characterized by status differences and by privilege that result in some people being valued more than others.  This results in a system of “haves” and “have nots.” A system that becomes our way of living. What if this was the way of God's kingdom? What if, in God's kingdom, we got what we deserved? 

But, thanks be to God, this is not the way of God’s kingdom. In God’s reign, we don’t get what we deserve. Instead, we receive what we don’t deserve. We receive God’s grace - an undeserved love that is given to everyone. In equal measure. God’s reign is marked by a surprising equality. The same equality witnessed in today’s parable. Where all receive an equal measure of God’s grace. And where we witness the extreme generosity of God. A generosity fully embodied in Jesus. Dying on the cross. For us. And for all people.

This is the way of God’s kingdom. In the world’s eyes, it is a way that is twisted and unexpected. It may seem unfair to us, who are so influenced by the world’s perspective. Yet, it is the way of God. A way of love. And a way of amazing generosity. For everyone.

May it be our way. May we, who have received everything we need from God and so much more - may we live with gratitude. May we model God’s unquestioning generosity. May we love and serve all people. Generously. Without envy. Amen.

Preached March 17, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Lent 2.
Readings: Matthew 20:1-16; Psalm 16:5-8.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Cultivating Calm and Stillness (Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle)

Living in the Most High’s shelter,
    camping in the Almighty’s shade,
I say to the Lord, “You are my refuge, my stronghold!
    You are my God—the one I trust!”

God will save you from the hunter’s trap
    and from deadly sickness.
God will protect you with his pinions;
    you’ll find refuge under his wings.
    His faithfulness is a protective shield.
Don’t be afraid of terrors at night,
    arrows that fly in daylight,
    or sickness that prowls in the dark,
    destruction that ravages at noontime.
Even if one thousand people fall dead next to you,
    ten thousand right beside you—
    it won’t happen to you.
Just look with your eyes,
    and you will see the wicked punished.
Because you’ve made the Lord my refuge,
    the Most High, your place of residence—
        no evil will happen to you;
        no disease will come close to your tent.
Because he will order his messengers to help you,
    to protect you wherever you go.
They will carry you with their own hands
    so you don’t bruise your foot on a stone.
You’ll march on top of lions and vipers;
    you’ll trample young lions and serpents underfoot.

God says, “Because you are devoted to me,
    I’ll rescue you.
    I’ll protect you because you know my name.
Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.
    I’ll be with you in troubling times.
    I’ll save you and glorify you.
    I’ll fill you full with old age.
    I’ll show you my salvation.” Psalm 91 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last Wednesday, I introduced to you the theme of our conversations on this midweek Lenten evenings - that of “Cultivating and Letting Go.” We’re using a different psalm each week, corresponding to the psalm used each week in the Lenten devotionals we’re using this year. We’re also using elements of Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection.

Tonight, our focus is on letting go of anxiety and cultivating calm and stillness in our lives.

In my late 20’s, I separated from the man who is now my former husband. What we did not understand at the time and fully appreciate was how expensive it was to go through a separation or a divorce. Instead of having two incomes to cover the costs of one household, this change resulted in having to cover the costs of two households.  As a result, it seemed that there was never enough money. For me, this led to many sleepless nights. And, then, to nights when I would wake up sweating, unable to breathe and feeling pain in my chest. I was experiencing what I now know to be anxiety attacks.

Because of my own shame related to our separation and lack of money, I never reached out to anyone for any kind of help or assistance. Instead I kept it all inside and simply lived with it.

I mentioned last week that the focus of Dr. Brene Brown’s research is shame. I also mentioned the theological connection between shame and original sin. That shame is at the heart of our sin. It is deep-seated. It is at the root of many of our individual and societal challenges. It is an ugly part of us. In Jungian psychology, shame is referred to as the “swampland of the soul.”

Now, anxiety is a normal thing for us. We can reasonably be anxious over things in our lives. Yet, when anxiety grows to the point that it begins to take over our life - well, this is a problem. It becomes a psychological disorder. The technical name for this is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. The definition of this disorder is “feelings that extend beyond logical worry in a way that is unreasonable, unwarranted, or uncontrollable.”

In the United States, we are head and shoulders above the rest of the world with diagnosed cases of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

This disorder often arises from a sense that we fail to meet expectations, from feelings that we aren’t good enough. From shame.

And, so, like my response, the typical reaction is to isolate ourselves. To keep our anxiety to ourselves. To not talk about it. If we are fortunate, we have someone who notices. And asks.

Tonight, our reading is from Psalm 91. Notice, beginning with the first verse, that this is the tale of someone who is on a journey. Someone who is “living in God’s shelter.” Someone who is “camping in God’s shade.” It is a picture of a God who is a refuge.

In Hebrew culture, this word “refuge” was understood to be the temple. That space set apart from the world with special protective rights, which included asylum and an obligation to keep peace within its very walls. The temple was a place of sanctuary. And, yet, even though it was a place of asylum, peace, and sanctuary, it was also a place of life. A place central to the community for its festivals. Festivals that included meals, music, and dance. But, mostly, the temple was the place where God promised to be present.

In Psalm 91, this refuge, this temple, this place of sanctuary is not a physical place. But, this refuge is God. Our very God is this place of sanctuary and asylum.

Notice, also, in the psalm, the protective imagery that is used to describe God. 

A walled fortress. Walled cities and forts on the heights provided “secure” refuge for people who lived in surrounding and unprotected villages and farmsteads.

Then, there is the image of God’s wings and the refuge that is found there. Reminding us of the feminine imagery of a mother hen protecting her young chicks. This same imagery is intended to remind us of the protective area in the temple - in the secure area underneath the outstretched wings of the cherubim that protected the holy of holies in that most sacred part of the temple.

Then, notice, God image as protective shield. Particularly, God’s faithful protection. That arrows shot by our enemies will simply bounce off and not strike us.

Then, finally, there is this image of God’s protection that exists day and night, 24/7. All the time.

Given all of these images, how might we respond when we begin to feel anxiety, whether it is normal and reasonable, or abnormal and unreasonable?

According to Brene Brown, the first step is to notice it. To first become aware of when we are feeling it.

And, then, to breathe. At creation, God breathed God’s very breath into us. God’s ruach. God’s very Spirit.

The next step is to practice. To practice seeking out calm and stillness. We’re reminded of the passage from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” And from Romans 8: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then, lastly, to reach out. Whether it is to a trusted family member, a friend, a counselor, a pastor. We should not be ashamed to reach out and ask for help and support.

Finally, if you noticed the closing of tonight's psalm, it ends with finding “salvation.” The same word that we heard last week in Psalm 51. A word that means healing, wholeness, shalom. Or, according to Brene Brown, wholeheartedness.

This week, as I was reading in our Lenten devotional, I came across these words:

“As we read this psalm during the season of Lent, it serves as a reminder that with God at our side, our trials and tribulations won’t overcome us. More than that, as we look to Jesus and his journey to the cross, we are reminded again of how seriously God took his word to be with us in our suffering. Taking on our sin, our sorrows, and our suffering, Jesus bore them on the cross and laid the foundation for their ultimate defeat. In Christ, God truly has rescued us and shown us his salvation.”

May we continue to cultivate and let go. Amen.

Preached March 13, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Midweek Lenten Worship 1.
Reading: Psalm 91.

Cultivating and Letting Go

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. Psalm 51:1-12 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. Amen.

Welcome to Ash Wednesday and to Lent. These 40 days (excluding Sundays) are a time where we seek to move into a deeper level of discipleship with God. This year our theme throughout these Wednesday evenings will be that of “Cultivating and Letting Go.” 

It’s been tradition in the church for centuries that Lent is to be a time of giving something up. Perhaps red meat. Or chocolate. Or wine. Or sugar. Or some other thing we might consider a vice. 

I’d like us to rethink this a little bit this year. To consider how we might begin to cultivate those things that bring us into a deeper relationship with God. And to let go of those things that keep us apart from God. Now, I’m not certain if chocolate fits into that category. Perhaps, for some of us it does - that our desire for chocolate overrides our desire for relationship with God. So, I’ll let you figure that out yourselves, okay?

God’s truest desire for us and for all people is shalom. We’ve talked about that concept before - shalom is related to fullness or wholeness. It’s a wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. If someone is suffering, for example, from a lack of food, they are not experiencing shalom. Likewise if someone suffers from a physical affliction or an emotional loss or a spiritual emptiness, shalom is not present for them. Shalom is the wholeness that God desires for us. That, even in the midst of our imperfections - we might be transformed to be the whole people that God has created us to be.

In our weekly studies this Lent, we’ll be using a few different resources. First, will be scripture. Particularly, our focus will be on the Psalms. If you received a Lenten devotional last Sunday (If not, please take one with you tonight.), you may have perhaps noticed that each week’s focus is on a different psalm. Our Wednesday evening conversation will focus on the psalm appointed for the week. As part of our study of the psalms, we’ll be using a model developed by Walter Brueggemann, who is a contemporary Old Testament theologian. The model that he has developed in studying the psalms is that they are structured in a process that is much like our lives: from orientation, to disorientation, to reorientation. More about that in future weeks.

Then, we’ll also be using a book written by Dr. Brene Brown. The entire title of this book is The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are - Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life. Brene Brown is a noted research sociologist, author, and teacher at the University of Houston. She has done extensive research and teaching, written numerous books, and spoken extensively on this subject of “wholeheartedness.” It’s an idea that is the equivalent of shalom - of wholeness, of living fully into who we are and who God has created us to be. 

The heart of Dr. Brown’s research, though, is not wholeheartedness or shalom. The heart of her research is shame. Because, ultimately, it is shame that keeps us from shalom

Before we move into this week’s focus, there are two words that we often pair together that we need to define and clarify. We need to look at the difference between guilt and shame. Anyone want to take a shot at this?

Guilt is a recognition that we’ve done something bad. That, we’ve sinned, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Guilt is about our behavior. “I did something bad.” 

Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. “I am bad.” In our Lutheran understanding, shame is connected to original sin. It was mentioned in our reading tonight in Psalm 51: “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” These words take us back to the story of Adam and Eve. And, if you’ve ever looked closely at that story, you may have noticed that shame is the first outcome of sin. 

In the story, after Adam and Eve had eaten the apple, God walks in the garden in the afternoon looking for them. They’ve always been there before. But, this time, God is unable to find them. God calls out to them, “Where are you?” Their response: “We were naked and we didn’t want you to see us naked.” In other words, “we are ashamed.” For Luther, the idea of original sin was related to this shame and the belief of Adam and Eve that they were not good enough. It was not that they ate of the tree forbidden by God. It was that they felt shame: a belief that God could not love them. Even though they were God’s very own creation. Shame comes from a lack of trust in God and in God’s promises of faithfulness, grace, and forgiveness. Stuff that is right out of the first commandment. 

Shame is the fear that we are unlovable. It is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love and belonging. When we experience it, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. We’re then more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others. In fact, shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying. Children, who use more shame self-talk (I am bad) versus guilt self-talk (I did something bad), struggle with issues of self-worth and self-loathing. We all experience some level of shame.

Unless we overcome this, we can never fully experience love and belonging. It is this - a deep sense of love and belonging - that is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are wired this way by God. We are wired to be loved and to belong and to be authentically who God has created us to be. It is our shame that gets in the way of this.

But, we’re afraid to talk about shame. Yet, the less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives. And the more control it has over us, the less we are able to find shalom, or the wholeheartedness that God desires for us and for our lives. To find love and belonging and authenticity.

So, what does shame look like? For some of us, it’s moving away from people by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward others, seeking to appease and to please. And some of us move against others by trying to gain power, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending mean emails or posting mean things on Facebook). Most of us use all of these at different times with different people.

What do your shame behaviors look like? Well, to answer this, consider these questions: Who do you become when you’re backed into that shame corner? How do you protect yourself when you’re hurt? Do you strike out and hurt back? Do you move away and withdraw? Do you people-please? 

One of the things I do out of shame is to self-protect. Here’s a perfect example of this. Yesterday, I had a text from Lisa May, the pastor at Shiloh. Because I’m going to be gone this coming weekend, she’s covering for me here at Grace & Glory. I sent her a copy of this Sunday’s bulletin. She texted to question me whether I had the right Gospel reading. Now, because she’s preaching twice this week, it’s easy to get confused. She was confusing our Ash Wednesday Gospel reading with Sunday’s reading. This has happened to me. In fact, it happened three days ago. I got confused between the very same two readings. Now, my normal shame-based response would be to reply and correct her, without mentioning that I’d made the very same mistake. Because to admit that I’d made the mistake would mean that I am imperfect, that I make mistakes. But, as this topic of shame has been on my mind, I decided to practice what is called "shame resilience." To stop for a moment, to think about shame and my usual response, and then to practice courage, compassion, and connection - the three things Dr. Brown has found in her research that help us begin to overcome shame. So, instead of only texting Lisa about her mistake, I added that I made the same mistake earlier this week. Lisa’s response? Glad to know it wasn’t just me. 

The more aware we are of our shame responses, the more resilient we can become toward shame. The more we can own our own stories - stories as people of God. Stories of worthiness. Of love. Of belonging. And of authenticity. We become more connected to God and to each other. We experience wholeheartedness. Or the shalom that God desires for us.

Now, this has been a very long introduction to the conversations we’ll be having on these Wednesday evenings. Before I close, though, I’d like to look at tonight’s theme about “Cultivating Joy and Gratitude.” It’s easy to just say we should have more joy and gratitude in our lives. But, this can’t happen unless we let go of scarcity or fear of the dark.

There are many different aspects to scarcity and fear. They can be related to safety and uncertainty, to fear of the dark or the unknown. They can be related to the idea that we’re not enough. (There’s that shame creeping in.) We’re not thin enough, or smart enough, or fit enough, or adequate enough to be loved by God, much less by anyone else. 

So, where in your life are you “not enough?” What aspect of scarcity or fear do you need to let go of to move toward a mindset of sufficiency? To trust in God’s promises - that God will provide for you and preserve you? 

I invite you tonight to begin pruning scarcity and fear away. To begin practicing gratitude. To trust that God loves you, that God will preserve you and provide for you. And that God keeps God’s promises so that you may fully experience joy - the “joy of salvation” referenced in our psalm. A phrase that really means the joy of healing. That you might begin to be healed and to experience the wholeheartedness of shalom.

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached March 6, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Ash Wednesday.
Readings: Matthew 18:1-9; Psalm 51:1-12.

God's Power: Power in Brokenness

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  Matthew 16:24 - 17:8 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? The first one I fully remember happened the summer of between seventh and eighth grade.

Summer for us was usually a time that was this mix of laziness and hard work. My brother and sister and I were on summer break from school. My dad and my brother were busy out in our fields farming or doing other chores. My mom worked part-time, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the post office each day. So, it was up to my sister and I to handle chores around our house - stuff like cleaning the house, doing laundry, washing dishes, and gardening. My sister and I would sleep in late every morning and mess around doing stuff that we wanted to do. Then, about 1 o’clock, we’d jump up and jam to get everything done on the list that my mom had left for us to do. 

But, that summer was different. None of us had ever experienced anything like summer camp. I think, honestly, that my parents weren’t able to afford it. Yet, that summer, they offered the chance for us to go to Lutheran Bible camp. For some reason, which I don’t remember, neither my sister nor brother wanted to go. I was, however, interested. So, along with another friend from my confirmation class, we went to camp. 

Lutheran camp was held at a Lutheran academy in a neighboring town about 45-50 miles away from our farm. This was the first time I had ever been away from home on my own for such a long period of time. 

It. Was. Amazing! And although I can’t even really explain in words what was so amazing about it...It. Was. Amazing! Maybe it was meeting so many other teenagers from different places. So many other Lutheran teenagers. Maybe it was that I developed a huge crush on this really cute guy there. Or maybe it was that sense of community that we experienced together - having fun, talking about our faith - that community that happens that is so hard to put into words. It’s more like a feeling. The same feeling that happens here in worship - not always - but that, when it does, you know something is happening that is just amazing. And, it stays with you.

A mountaintop experience. This is what’s happening in our story today. With Peter and James and John, on the mountaintop with Jesus.

But, before we get to the story, we need to get caught up on what has happened since last week’s miracle stories - the feeding of the 5,000 plus and Jesus and Peter walking on water.

If you remember the end of last week’s story, Jesus and the disciples had crossed over the Sea of Galilee to its western shore. They are still in the northern and more rural areas of Palestine. Jesus is still teaching and performing miracles. He has healed many people. He has fed another large crowd of 4,000 plus with a small amount of food. He is becoming more known as he continues his ministry along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He has, also, for the first time been confronted by the religious authorities - the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

Jesus continues traveling southward, moving ever closer to Jerusalem. At one point, he asks the disciples what people are saying about him. In our terms, he was wondering what the buzz was about him. Some of the disciples say that people think he is John the Baptist. Others say Elijah. And yet others say that the crowds think he is Jeremiah, or another one of the prophets.

Then, Jesus turns to the disciples. And says to them, “Who do YOU say that I am?” It is at this moment that we hear this declaration of faith for the very first time from any of the disciples. Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The disciples are getting it. No longer is their faith immature. It is maturing into a deep understanding of who this Jesus is. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So, when Jesus hears their mature response, he knows it is now time to prepare them for the coming events in Jerusalem. Yet, Peter does not want to hear Jesus’ prediction. Bold Peter - the first to climb out of the boat and walk on water - does not want hear that Jesus will suffer and die. And even be raised on the third day. Peter doesn’t want to hear this because Peter is focused on himself. And on how all of this will affect him.

We’re a lot like Peter. Like him, we’ve been well-trained by the world to be focused on ourselves. On our needs. On what we can get out of something or from someone. Thomas Keating in his book, Intimacy With God, writes, ”We are living in a world that rejects love and that affirms selfishness as the ultimate value. The pressure from society is constantly insinuating itself through our upbringing, education, and culture.” He goes on, “We bring [that] false self with us into the spiritual journey and into our relationship with God. Perhaps for many years our relationship with God might be termed co-dependent, because we deal with God in the magical way that is characteristic of children. An important fruit of our contemplative prayer is to be purified of our childish ideas about God. As our idea of God expands, there is no word, no way, no gesture, that can articulate it anymore. Hence we fall into silence, the place we should have been in the first place...As Saint John of the Cross writes; ‘It was said once, and said in absolute silence. And it is only in silence that we hear it.'"

When we have a mature faith, we have moved away from the place where it is all about us. And about our needs. That’s the point of Jesus’ response to Peter in the very next verses. “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”

Our cross - the cross that Jesus makes reference to in these verses - is not a cross of our own sufferings, or of the challenges or difficulties in our lives. Those are ours because of our own brokenness or because of the brokenness of our world. It is when we, in that brokenness are turned back to God. When we recognize our own powerlessness and inability to fix things. It is then, that we turn back to God. And we are witness to the self-sacrificial love of Christ on the cross, who loves us. Who forgives us. And who brings us to that place of absolute silence. Where we can finally hear God speaking to us. Where we see God’s glory. Where we have our own mountaintop experience.

It’s like this. How many of you know what this is? (A glow stick.) Is this glowing right now? (Nope.) Why not? (Because it hasn’t been bent.) Right.

Now, everyone gets a glow stick. But don’t break it until everyone has one. Now, bend your glow stick into the shape of a "J," for Jesus. Do you notice that the stick begins to glow? Why? (Glow sticks first have to be broken in order for us to see them glow.) The glow material is always in the stick. But we can’t see it until the stick has been broken. 

We’re a lot like these glow sticks. Sometimes it feels like we have to be broken before we see God’s glory. And before the light of Jesus shines in us. We can have really difficult times. But, the power of Jesus is always inside us, waiting to help us glow. Waiting for us to take up our own cross. Just like the cross of Jesus. Which wasn’t about him. But about us. And about serving us. And all humankind.

We, as Lutherans, have a gift to share with the world. We believe that it is in our brokenness where we experience the glory of God. Where we are then freed by God from our sin and our shame and that very brokenness through the cross of Jesus. We believe that God has freed us from this so that we then take up our own cross - a cross that is like the cross of Jesus. A cross that involves losing our own lives. A cross that is sacrificial. A cross that calls us to come down off the mountaintop. To give of ourselves to serve others. To share this amazing gift of grace through our words and our actions.

And, trusting, that the power of Jesus is always with us and inside us. A power that is found in our brokenness and in turning back to God. A power that is waiting to glow for the rest of the world. Amen.

Preached March 3, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Transfiguration of our Lord.
Readings: Matthew 16:24 - 17:8; Psalm 41:7-10.

God's Power: Awe-some Power

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:13-33 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Did you catch the opening phrase of our reading today? Did you notice it? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat…” When Jesus heard this. Did you wonder what exactly it was that Jesus heard?

If, this past Friday, you read the appointed reading for the day in the handout that I push towards you each week at the door as you’re leaving, you already know that John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod. John had become a problem for Herod, because John had begun to publicly criticize Herod about a woman he was involved with - a woman who happened to be the wife of his brother. And, so, at the beginning of this chapter - chapter 14 - we hear that John is arrested. Then, in the verse just before today’s reading, Jesus learns that John is dead. That he has been beheaded by Herod.

So, it’s no wonder, is it, that, after hearing this devastating news, Jesus retreats in a boat to a deserted place? One has to wonder what he is thinking and feeling. Certainly, he was grieving over the loss of his friend and forerunner. Yet, it’s also hard to ignore that things seem to be escalating. That the conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders over the Sabbath and other issues have begun. Conflicts that, we know will eventually result in Good Friday. 

This moment at the beginning of our story seems particularly dark, doesn’t it?

It’s kind of how I’ve been feeling over the past few weeks as I’ve accompanied several of you who have been going through hard challenges in your lives - issues related to health, to work, to the very real potential of losing loved ones in your lives. Then, with this winter weather in Kentucky, which, I guess, is the norm, but that I’m still adjusting to. Skies that are so constantly grey. The rain that seems never-ending. And the lack of sunshine. Then, if you add in the daily news out of Washington and from across the world - the ongoing news of our divided country and the seeming growth of totalitarian regimes - well, it all just feels so dark, doesn’t it? Is it just me that feels like this? I don't think so.

Then, just a couple of days ago, I received a text from my son, Michael. He sent me a message that Chip, their beloved guinea pig had died that morning. Now, I don’t mean to be trite. I grew up on a farm and have a very realistic understanding of the difference between the death of a human family member and that of a pet. Yet, our pets can certainly be as beloved as our family, can’t they? And in Chip’s case, well, for a guinea pig, he was pretty beloved. 

But, there’s another aspect to this that Chip’s life and death represents. You see, it was at the end of my son’s year-long deployment in Afghanistan, that Chip and Chestnut, another guinea pig, joined the family of my son and daughter-in-law. It’s as if their arrival marked a turning point for my son. Chip and Chestnut came at the end of a very dark period for him. And, in looking back these 7 years (Chip lived a long time for a guinea pig!), one can see how much Michael’s life has been renewed, finishing his degree in accounting and passing his CPA exam, plus beginning a new career and new life with his new wife. His life has been re-created, coming out of darkness into a new place. Into the light. 

There’s something about God and darkness. And, particularly, about God’s power in darkness. Did you notice in our reading this morning, that both of these events - the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ walking on water - take place in the darkness? In the evening?

In the feeding of the 5,000 - and we should note that the number 5,000 represents only the men and not the women and children who were also present. In this story, Jesus has spent the daylight hours healing people in the huge crowd that had gathered. People have come from miles around, bringing their loved ones to Jesus to be healed. The time has passed quickly. They’ve been incredibly busy. The disciples, recognizing that it is evening, that this crowd is huge, and that they are in the middle of nowhere with no provisions to feed 15-20,000 people - they go to Jesus and say to him, “Send them away!” 

One has to wonder what they are thinking when Jesus tells them to give the crowd something to eat. Especially after the disciples had taken stock of how much food they actually had. Five loaves of bread. Two fish. My guess is that they were not very happy with Jesus. My guess, too, is that they completely underestimated the power of Jesus. Perhaps, even doubted the depth and breadth of that power.

And, then, there’s the story of Jesus’ walking on water. We won’t even go into the rules of matter that Jesus destroys with this one act. This week in a meeting, a few of us were dwelling in this story, focused more on Peter. And laughing at him a little bit.  Initially, he seems so bold, doesn’t he? But, then, as we continued to wonder through the story, we came up with the scenario that, perhaps, it was the other disciples who sent Peter out there. That they knew that Peter would be bold (or, perhaps, stupid) enough to be the one to try to walk on water. And, so, they sent him to go first out into the darkness. And, he almost made it, didn’t he? But, then, he became just a little afraid. And began to sink. And called out to Jesus, who grabbed his hand and who then accompanied him - walking on water with him - back to the boat. And to safety.

You see, I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these stories happen in the evening. At night. In the darkness. Because it is the midst of darkness, where God seems to do God’s best work. Whether it is in the midst of the darkness of the doubt and fear that the disciples experienced that night in the countryside or the next night on the lake. Or whether it’s in the midst of the darkness of our own lives - in times of doubt and fear, or grief and despair. Times that we so often seek to avoid.  

Richard Rohr is a contemporary Roman Catholic theologian. He writes these words: “We can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it. That means that in our life we have some blue or dark days. Historic cultures saw it as the time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. It becomes sacred space, and yet this is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God who works in the darkness - where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret.”

Maybe that is the secret. That, in the darkness where we are not in control, where our fear has gotten the better of us. Or where we, as Emmet Fox writes, “...[H]ave more faith in evil than in God.” It is in this darkness, where we are not in control, that God is. And is at work. Because, it is in the darkness where God does God’s best work. It was on that Friday afternoon, as darkness unexpectedly fell in the middle of the day, that God performed God’s most amazing and awe-some display of power. For you. And for me. On the cross. Because God loves us. And continues to love us. Not just once. But over and over and over again. And comes to us, like Peter, gently nudging us in the midst of our doubt and fear. “Oh, you! My beloved! You of such little and weak faith. Why did you doubt? Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid!” 

May we be like those disciples, who witnessed Jesus feeding the thousands - Jesus, who continues to care for our every need. May we be like those disciples, after the winds and turbulence of our lives have settled down. May we be like those disciples, after we have witnessed the awe-some power of God at work in our lives. May we be like them. Worshipping Jesus. And declaring for all the world to hear, “Truly, You are the Son of God.” Amen.

Preached February 24, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 7.
Readings: Matthew 14:13-33, Psalm 95:1-5.

God's Power: Hidden Power

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
    I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!  Matthew 13:24-44 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

How many of you have ever heard of Aesop’s Fables? When I was younger, they were some of my favorite little stories to read. Can you remember the names of some of them? The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse; The Owl and the Grasshopper; The Hare and the Tortoise - to name just a few. So, do you remember how they were structured? There would be a short little story that was written to teach a lesson. Then, at the end of each of the stories, there was a short statement that was intended to summarize the lesson of the story.

Here’s one example. The fable of “The Fox and the Grapes.”  

A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine that had grown along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.

The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain.

Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust. “What a fool I am!” he said. “Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth going for.” And off he walked very, very, scornfully.

Moral: There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.

Aesop’s fables are examples of morality tales. Stories told to teach us a lesson or to express some moral idea that is intended to help us be better people.

Today’s lesson from Matthew 13 consists of three small stories. Parables. The Parable of the Weeds in the Field, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Leaven or the Yeast. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that parables are like Aesop’s fables. That they are morality tales - ethical stories intend to teach us the right and wrong about God’s kingdom. To tell us the right and wrong ways to live in God’s kingdom. 

But parables are not morality tales. They are not intended to give us clear answers. In fact, they are just the opposite. They are intended to challenge our thinking. To raise questions for us. To make us doubt. 

Perhaps the best definition of a parable is found on the front page of your insert. It is a definition from C. H. Dodd, written originally in 1936. “At its simplest, a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it [the mind] into active thought.” Parables are not intended to give us easy answers. So, if in reading a parable, you reach an easy interpretation, then you are probably missing the entire point.

So, let’s see how this definition fits with the three parables in today’s lesson. First, it is a metaphor that is drawn from nature or common life. Now, it is important to understand that the entire parable - not just the elements in it - are the metaphor. In Jesus’ teaching, parables are usually metaphors for God’s reign. This is so in today’s parables. For example, the reign of God is not being compared just to a mustard seed. But, it’s being compared to the entire metaphor - to the whole story.

Within each parable there will be symbols or content that will be familiar to the listener. It’s why, in Jesus’ parables, so many of them are focused on farming, because Jesus was in the rural areas outside of Jerusalem, preaching in an agricultural area. Sowing seed was familiar to them. Making bread with yeast was familiar to them. Weeds growing in fields would have been a common experience for his listeners. 

Second. The parable “arrests the hearer by its vividness or strangeness.” Most parables have a twist to them. An unexpected element. Something uncommon that appears in the image that is drawn from common life. Something that we, with our 21st century sensibilities, might miss if we are not careful. For example, any person living in the rural areas of the ancient Mediterranean world would have know that there is no such thing as a mustard “tree.” There were large mustard shrubs, but not trees. 

In another example, the Parable of the Yeast opens with a woman using leaven. This would not be unusual for the listeners, who would assume that she was making the daily loaf of bread for her family. But, what would catch their attention, would be the amount of flour she was using. Three measures, our story tells us. This is the equivalent of about 60 pounds of flour. An amount that would easily make over a hundred loaves of bread.

And, then, there is the Parable of the Weeds. If you truly wanted to ruin someone’s field, would planting weeds really be the best strategy? Wouldn’t you, instead, pull out the wheat? And, certainly, every gardener know that you pull the weeds as soon as you see them to help your crop grow better. But, in this parable, the farmer waits until the harvest is ready to gather, to separate and, then, burn the weeds.

Third aspect of the definition. The parable "leaves the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise interpretation or application." This is the signal that these are not simply morality tales. Instead of giving us that “Aha!” moment, they give us a big “Huh?” This was clearly evident last week in our conversation in Adult Forum on the Parable of the Weeds. There were a lot of questions. And not very many answers. Which is exactly what the parable is intended to do. To create question or doubt in our minds about the precise meaning. It’s no wonder why, in the ancient world, the word “parable” meant riddle.

Fourth and final part of the definition. The purpose of the parable is "to tease the mind into active thought" even to the point of altering one’s world-view. This means that parables are intended to create puzzlement for us about the overall logic of the story. It makes no sense. Yet, if we remember that parables are intended to help us understand God’s reign, and, if we remember from the Jesus’ first teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about how God’s reign is a great reversal from that of the world - where things are upside-down, where the priorities of God’s kingdom are completely opposite from those of the world - then, and only then, will we begin to understand the parable and, particularly, the parable as a metaphor for the unexpected nature of God’s reign.

So, what is the answer then for today’s lesson? I would first suggest that there might be many different interpretations. Our understanding of each parable is often dependent upon where we see ourselves in the story. That understanding can be turned completely upside down if we put ourselves in another place in the story. So, there could likely be many possibilities.

Let me, however, suggest a couple. First, the Parable of the Weeds is not at all about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. Notice, in Jesus’ interpretation of it later for the disciples, he leaves out one of the key images of the story. The sower is the Son of the human. The field is the world. The good seed are the children of God’s reign. The enemy is the evil one. The bad seed are the children of the evil one. But, who are the slaves? This missing element would likely have invited Jesus’ disciples to see themselves represented in the parable by the slaves. Slaves who were concerned about the field (or the world). Who asked if they should do something about the weeds and were told no. This is reminder for us of the “already and not yet” nature of God’s kingdom. The “already” which requires us to live in the tension of a world where both good and evil exist. And the “not yet” which is a picture of the future fullness of God’s reign, where only good will exist. It is not our job to resolve the tension between the already and the not yet. It is the work of the farmer - of God’s Son - and not ours to resolve it.

And then, there are the two, nearly synonymous, parables about growth. Both of these parables are built around the image of contrast - that tiny beginnings mask the hidden power of God to bring about endings of growth that is beyond our own wildest imagination. That the beginning will be radically different from the ending. As Wes Allen, a New Testament professor at Lexington Theological Seminary writes, “To be a follower of Christ is to know God’s reign on earth already, but not fully, to know the mustard seed, but not yet the mustard tree. We live in the light of God’s salvific and liberating providence, but in the midst of the oppression of the reign of Caesar with all of the poverty, suffering, evil and death that comes with it.”

This is what the reign of God looks like. In the present already and the future not yet. It's what these parables point to.

Let us live into that tension and continue our work as God’s people, trusting in the light of God’s saving grace and in the hidden power of God to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom. May it be so! Amen. 

Preached February 17, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 6.
Readings: Matthew 13:24-44, Psalm 84:1-7.