Sunday, July 27, 2008

1 Killed as Gunman Opens Fire at Church

As we worshipped God this morning at Trinity Church, just moments away a gunman entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church during a children's presentation and, armed with a shotgun, killed one church member and wounded eight more, five of them critically.
(Click on the post title for a local, Knoxville news report.)
We grieve with those affected by this tragedy; our prayers are with them and with the gunman.

O merciful Father, who hast taught us in thy holy Word that thou dost not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity upon the sorrows of thy servants for whom our prayers are offered. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of thy goodness, lift up thy countenance upon them, and give them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sermon: 10 Pentecost (27 July 2008)

Proper 11 (10 Pentecost): 27 July 2008
(Gen 28:10-19a/Ps 139:1-12, 23-24/Rom 8:12-25/Mt 13:24-30. 36-43)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The parables of Jesus are like a carpet cut too large for a room. Nail it down around the edges and a wrinkle appears in the middle. Smooth out the wrinkle and it just moves elsewhere, or the nails pop loose at the wall and the carpet flaps up. The carpet is simply too large – or the room too small – and no matter how you try, one will not fit the other.

This is, of course, a meta-parable, a parable about parables. If Jesus were telling it, he might now ask his disciples, Do you understand? And, finding they did not, he might offer an explanation. The carpet is the word of truth contained in the parables. The room is human understanding. Is that clear? Let the ones with ears hear.

This parable is simple enough that the minimal explanation makes it clear. The truth of the parables is simply too large for the size of our human understanding. Just when we think we have everything all nailed down, a new wrinkle appears. When we smooth out that wrinkle we find it cropping up elsewhere or what we had nailed down pulls loose. The truth contained in the parables (and the Truth telling the parables) is simple too large – and our understanding too small – and no matter how we try, one will not fit the other.

Though, of course, we must try. And in trying we find out something at first surprising about both the carpet and the room. The carpet shrinks a bit to better fit the room and the room expands a bit to better accommodate the carpet. There will never be a perfect fit, but the situation does continue to improve. We’ll never get all the carpet into the room, but we can always get more.

The parable given to us this day is a carpet cut too large. At best we can nail it down in a place or two, but wrinkles will appear: We won’t be able to smooth them all out, but by smoothing even a little we will get a bit more of the carpet into the room.

In the parable of the weeds Jesus returns to familiar images – planting and harvesting – that we saw earlier in the parable of the sower. A landowner sows good seed in his field. So far, so good; but, now comes a twist. The landowner has an enemy. And this enemy stealthily, by night, sows bad seed – weeds – in that same field. Of course, this act of sabotage goes unnoticed until the good seed sprouts and bears grain and the weeds do not. The landowner’s servants are confused and probably defensive: Hadn’t they planted the good seed they were given? Why now were there also weeds? The solution is obvious to them: go immediately into the field and pull up the weeds. But no – the landowner tells them to be patient and to wait until the harvest. Pulling the weeds now might damage some of the grain as well. All will be separated at the right time: the weeds gathered and burned and the grain harvested and stored.

This is the parable of the weeds – the carpet we have to work with. Is there anything here we can nail down with some certainty? Well, let me suggest three fixed points, three major ideas: (1) Both good and evil coexist in the world; (2) We need to be patient and avoid the rush to root out the evil from among the good; and (3) God will, in his own, perfect time render his own, perfect judgment – for the good and against the evil. Now a bit of a warning: nailing these three down may cause some wrinkles, but at least it will give us a place to start.

The first point is obvious, isn’t it? Both good and evil coexist in the world. Is there any more to be said about that, really? Well, yes, quite a bit actually, starting with the question, If an all-good, all-powerful God created the world, why is there any evil present in it?

Now, there are at least three ways to answer that. A materialist – one who believes only in Nature (with a capital N) and does not allow for God or gods – might say that what we call evil is really nothing more than evolution and social conditioning. Certain behaviors are harmful to the human species and have been selected against by evolution and therefore discouraged by social conditioning; these we call evil. Others which benefit our species we promote and call good. Of course, there is an ounce or two of truth in this, but, I think, a pound or so of error. First, many of the things we call good aren’t those things that benefit the species’ survival at all. Please, now, I’m expressing the opinions of a thorough-going materialist, and not my own. Why should we devote large amounts of resources – time, money, energy, and the like – to the weakest among us? Why educate everyone? Why even ponder health care for all? Why provide foreign aid to countries with nothing to offer us in return? Why not instead divert those resources to the ones likeliest to contribute to society, particularly to our society? When a pregnancy proves inconvenient, why not abortion? When old folks become a burden, why not euthanasia? If good and evil are merely the products of evolution and social conditioning, then why not indeed? Second, if good and evil are merely the products of evolution, then what we call good should be increasing and what we call evil should be diminishing. Let me deal with that claim simply: the Holocaust, Apartheid, Rwanda, Darfur. Need I say more? No, the materialist position simply won’t do. When push comes to shove – just let someone push or shove a materialist and he’ll see – we really do act as if we believe in the existence of real good and real evil, not just our preferences or society’s choices, but something from outside us that intrudes upon us.

The remaining two answers to the question of evil in the world are religious ones. A dualist would say that there are equal and opposite forces at work in creation – yin and yang in constant flux, sometimes more of one and sometimes more of the other. It is the interplay between them that provides the dynamic power behind creation. One force we call good and the other evil, though these are simply our designations and may have no moral implications. These forces are locked in endless combat – or an endless dance, depending how you look at it – which neither can win. That’s one possible religious explanation; but, it’s not our story. No, not at all.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen (The Nicene Creed, BCP 358).

We believe this God has no equal, no opposite number. But we do believe, as the parable of the weeds tells us, that this all-good, all-powerful, Creator God has an enemy – one who is evil, one who is the father of evil. We believe that this evil one was once a being of light, a joy to the Creator. We believe that he removed his focus from the glory of God and turned his gaze inward, and in his resulting pride and arrogance rebelled against God. And we believe that in his resolute determination to thwart God and despoil God’s good creation he now plants evil and grows destruction in the world of God’s creation. Yes, there is real good and real evil present in the world. All good is a reflection of the one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. All evil is a reflection of the enemy, the evil one, the one who sows discord, hatred, pride, envy, lust, greed, arrogance, bitterness – everything contrary to the God who made us. Yes, as the parable tells us, both good and evil coexist in the world. That much is easy to see.

What is harder to see is why our all-good, all-powerful God allows this situation to persist. We wouldn’t, would we? Given the choice and the power we would stomp right into the field and start pulling out anything that remotely resembles a weed.

Once Clare and I took a class through The University of Tennessee, a one-day workshop called Feasting Free On Wild Edibles, or some such name. We went to the Smokey Mountains with a field guide who showed us how to identify indigenous edible and medicinal plants: sassafras, spicebush, ginseng, and others. She pointed to one plant and said, “The dried roots of this one make a fine substitute for coffee.” (That might not mean much to you, but if I’m ever lost in the woods it’s an essential piece of information.) The she turned to a seemingly identical plant right beside it and said, “And this one, which mimics the other in appearance, is poison. Its roots produce a toxin that swells your throat and causes an excruciating burning sensation.” I learned something that day. In the safe, small world of the grocery store I can tell good foods from bad ones. Vegetables, good. Cookies and chips, not so good. Fruit juice and milk, good. Drain cleaner and bleach, bad. Easy enough. But put me in the wider and wilder world – in the forest or mountains – and the differences between nutritional and poisonous are not so clear. It would be easy for me to pluck the wrong plant, the harmful one – the toxic weed instead of the healthy grain.

This is something like the second point of the parable, though in reverse. The sower knows that we lack the skill to identify and remove the weeds without also plucking and destroying some valuable grain. So he tells us to be patient, to allow both to grow together until the harvest, until he sends his expert “field guides” into the field to separate the good from the evil. In this way no good will be lost and no evil will escape.

Well, such patience is not easy. Already in Peter’s day there were complaints about God’s delay of the harvest.

9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,* not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.*
11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12waiting for and hastening
* the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home (2 Peter 3:9-13, NRSV).

What Peter writes smoothes out one part of the parable and gathers up a new wrinkle in another part. Why doesn’t God act immediately to weed out evil? Because, for the world’s sake, he’s patient – and so we must be, too – and because he wants everyone to be saved. Here’s the new wrinkle: unlike physical botany, in God’s spiritual botany some weeds – and we hope all weeds – may actually transform into good grain. We may know, at best, what a plant presently is, but we have no way of know what it may yet become. We dare not risk pulling up a weed that God is busy transforming into grain. Leave it alone, God says; or, better still, nurture it. Leave the final separation for God, in his time, when all transformation is complete.

As an aside to the parable – though it’s right at the center of our faith – when people question why God doesn’t do something about the evil in the world our answer must be, “He has in the cross, and he is in the proclamation of the Gospel.” In Christ – supremely in his death and resurrection – God once for all decisively defeated evil and death. In the ongoing proclamation of this good news (gospel) God is implementing Christ’s victory in the world precisely by transforming weeds into grain. Evil is still present, but only as a defeated, though still dangerous, enemy. God is even now in the long-term process of eradicating it completely.

Though the process is long-term, the parable assures us, in its third point, that a final judgment will come in which all evil is separated and destroyed and all good separated and preserved.

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 (Mt 13:40-43, NRSV).

God alone knows how and when to accomplish this judgment. What are we given to know about it? That it will certainly come. That it will perfectly blend mercy and justice. That the righteous will inherit the world for which they were made and for which they long: a world free from every source of evil and from everyone devoted to evil. And that the righteous, themselves, will finally be free from the evil that still besets them – free and shining like the sun, fully reflecting the glory of God.

And there is the parable of the weeds. Weeds and grain coexist in the world: children of the kingdom sown by God and children of evil sown by the enemy. We dare not rush to harvest, because God is even now transforming weeds into grain – not least in our own lives – and untimely separation means a smaller harvest, a great loss. The harvest will come, in God’s perfect time, and the field will be purified, overflowing with good grain, with not a weed to be found.

There is a Psalm that comes to mind when I read this parable, Psalm 126. It is one of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) that Jews sang as they completed each yearly pilgrimage to the temple. It is a song of deliverance, a return from exile song, and describes the experience of the Jewish exiles returning from Babylon to rebuild Zion (Jerusalem). It is also a song of harvest. I can just imagine singing it on that great day when the angels gather from exile all the children of God, and all shines with God’s glory.

126 In convertendo

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sermon: 9 Pentecost (13 July 2008)

Proper 10 (9 Pentecost): 13 July 2008
(Genesis 25:19-34/Psalm 119:105-112/Romans 8:1-11/Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The monastic Rule of St. Benedict opens with the word listen, calling its readers or hearers to holy attention. It matters little whether you are Benedictine or not: listen is a good place to start. Our God is loquacious – talkative – and it just makes good sense to pay attention when the Creator of the universe speaks. When He speaks things happen: worlds are created, light shines forth from the darkness, cosmos arises out of chaos, new and eternal life conquers death. Listen, Benedict says, and if we are smart we will.

Today, Jesus speaks, many parables. He opens with the word listenIdou – calling the crowds to holy attention. Idou – Behold! Look! Listen! – pay attention. Listen is a good place to start. Jesus is the Logos, the very word of God and it just makes good sense to pay attention when the first and the last, the living one, the one who was dead but is now alive forever speaks. When he speaks things happen: the sick are healed, the demons tremble, sins are forgiven, the dead are raised. Listen, Jesus says, and if we are smart we will.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen (Mt 13:3b-9, NRSV)!

Jesus likely told this parable many times, all up and down throughout Galilee: here in the synagogue, there on the mountain side, today from aboard a fishing boat bobbing on the Sea of Galilee to a large crowd gathered ashore. He apparently told it without context or explanation, which almost certainly means no one understood it. Clearly, the Apostles didn’t – thanks be to God. Had they understood we would not have this explanation

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty (Mt 13:18-23, NRSV).

Any good farmer – particularly one whose life depends on his crops – prepares his field to receive the seed. A first century Galilean farmer who heard this parable was no different. As Jesus speaks this peasant farmer pictures his own small plot of ground at home. He’s worked the soil, broken it up, fertilized it. Running between adjacent plots there is a pathway along which he walks to tend the plants. In this corner there is an outcropping of rock that all his muscles and effort and sweat were unable to break up and haul off. And, around the edge of the field is uncultivated ground, covered with grass and weeds, prickly with thorns.

It is nearly time for the seed. Soon the farmer will walk along the pathway broadcasting handsful of seed to the right and left throughout his plot of ready ground. In each sweep of his arm some small amount of seed will drop on the foot path. The birds will circle overhead, land behind him, and peck the seed from the path – a small and tolerable loss; God provides for the birds of the air, after all. Some will land in that small corner among the rocks and still other seed beyond the edges of the garden, out among the weeds. This is all part of the process; the sower must scatter generously – even prodigally – for not all seed takes root, and of that which does, not all produces a harvest. And now the sower waits, waits for things beyond his control: sun, rain, germination, pollination. If the seed is good and the rains have come and the sun shines, it’s all up to the soil now. Of course he will tend the plants as they sprout later, but for the moment, his task is complete: scatter the seed and wait. It’s literally out of his hands.

This parable of the sower is a bit different from most of Jesus’ stories; it is an allegory. Each element is a symbol with a real-world counterpart. The seed is the word of God. The sower is Jesus, in the immediate instance. In a more general sense it is anyone who did, does, or yet will proclaim the word of God: prophets, priests, kings, apostles, and yes, perhaps even us. The path, the birds, the weeds and thorns – all these have symbolic meaning which Jesus is careful to explain.

But beyond the mere symbols – the externals of the parable – lies the meaning, the intent. To whom is Jesus speaking and what does he have to say?

Jesus calls this story the parable of the sower, though, in reality, the sower plays a small, albeit essential, role. The heart of the parable lies instead in the contrasting soils. And it is to the “soils” after all – the crowds on shore – that Jesus, the sower, speaks this day. Some of them will simply not understand what he has to say; his words are cryptic and require diligent effort and perhaps repeated hearing even to begin to decode. That might mean traveling with him, becoming a disciple: too much effort for most. So the evil one – perhaps Satan, perhaps one’s own laziness or self-interest – comes to snatch away the word spoken. Others will hear and enthusiastically accept the word – so exuberant, so sure this is the real thing, so ready to tell the world what they’ve found. You’ve met people like these: people always on the lookout for the next, new thing – people who jump aboard any bandwagon but who have no staying power. Flighty, we might call them, and we rarely take them too seriously. Let difficulty come or challenge or just something new and away they go again: shallow people, a mile long but only an inch deep. Then there are those who are a bit more substantive: they take the time and make the effort to understand, and they are not just looking for the next fad. No, they are more serious and more mature. They see something of real value in the word; they may even sense that they’ve stumbled across the truth. It begins to work on them as the word has a way of doing, which means the word becomes intrusive and demanding. You can have the word, but only on its own, costly terms. And these folk hadn’t counted on the cost. What do you mean, You can’t serve God and Mammon? What do you mean, Take up your cross and follow me? What do you mean, Anyone who doesn’t hate father or mother or son or daughter is not worthy to be your disciple? What do you mean, Foxes have dens and birds have nests but you have no place to lay your head? What will we eat? Where will we sleep? What will become of our businesses and families if we follow you any further? We’ve come this far – surely it’s enough. But, alas, no – if it is not to the death it is not nearly far enough, and so these, too, turn back, caught up in the ordinariness of life – the cares and worries that plague us all. For the rest of their ordinary lives they are haunted by a wistful sense of what might have been. But there are a few – Perhaps you’ve been blessed to meet one or two? – a few who hear the word and understand, who put down deep roots of faith, who count the cost and consider it nothing compared to the riches Jesus offers, who cast aside all doubts and anxieties and take up the cross with joy. These few – though the saints will become a numberless multitude – these few bear precious fruit, fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Idou, Jesus says: Behold! Look! Listen! Pay attention! And we do well to heed this call to listen, because he speaks the parable not just to the crowd gathered ashore on the Sea of Galilee that day, but to us gathered here this day. As we listen, the parable lives for us as it did for them. As we listen, Jesus scatters the seed of the word of God across the soil of our lives.

If I were an evangelist preaching to the unbaptized I might now pose the “standard,” evangelical question, What kind of soil will you be this day: hard packed earth that refuses the seed? shallow, rocky soil that cannot support a rooted life? thorn-infested soil that chokes out the tender shoots of faith? or good soil that produces bountiful fruit for the sower? But, I’m not and you’re not; I’m not an evangelist and you’re not unbaptized. And for us, the question posed by this parable is more complex. Our lives are not a single kind of soil. No one here is all hard-packed foot path or rocky, shallow soil or uncultivated briar patches or good, ready soil. Our lives are vast gardens with trampled paths criss-crossing their length and breadth; with great hidden strata of rock and with boulders breaking the surface; with dandelion and ivy and poison oak and sticker-bushes encroaching along the borders and gaining foothold in the garden; with good, rich, black earth here and there. The question is not, What kind of soil are you this day? You are all the types of soil mentioned in the parable. The better question is, Where in you life are you each kind of soil?

Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – the word of God is even now falling on the path, on a place that has been so trampled down and hardened that the word cannot penetrate. The world has its ways of beating us down and hardening us to the word. Of course, so do we; we can be as stubborn and stiff-necked as Israel in the wilderness, and expert at hardening our own hearts. Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – you are resisting the word. The evil one is stealing this word from you – the very word you need to hear and understand. Where in your life are you like the path?

Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – the word of God is even now falling on rocky ground, on a place with soil so thin that no roots can reach the living water of the Spirit. Like the man who has quit smoking seven times already, you know the truth and you know that it has the power to set you free; yet, you lack – what? – the Spirit-filled conviction to put down roots of change? For a moment real life blossoms and flourishes. You get a sense of what can be, of what should be. And then the shallow roots give way to the harsh sun of inertia and real life withers and dies. Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – the word of God is even now falling on rocky ground.

Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – the word is even now falling among the weeds and thorns, a place so densely tangled with worry and care, with desire and the lure of the flesh, that the word is imprisoned there. In this tangled web you struggle to hear Jesus say, “Do not worry; the Father loves you. Do not fear; I am with you always, even to the ages of ages.” Who would you be if you had no fear? What would you do if you could not fail? How would you live if you believed this word, really believed it?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, 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 (Rom 8:35, 37-39, NRSV).

Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – the word is even now falling among the weeds and thorns.

And somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – the word is even now falling on good ground: soft, rich, fertile. Life is springing forth. Fruit is growing. The harvest is coming. Somewhere in your life – and only you and the sower know where – God’s word to Isaiah is coming true, Isaiah’s song is being sung over you:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth;
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
and prosper in that for which I sent it (Canticle 10, BCP 86-87).


Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen (Mt 13:3b-9, NRSV)!

You are that field in which the sower scatters the seed: hard-packed path; rocky ground and shallow soil; weed and thorn infested ground; and good soil. Listen to the parable; it is for you.

What makes me bold to speak this way? What gives me the right? Only these two things. First, I know that what I have said is true for me. And, since there is nothing special about me, nothing to distinguish me from other men and women, I assume it must also be true for you. Second, what I have said is not my word to you, but Jesus’ word to all of us.

Luke’s account of the parable of the sower ends with these words of Jesus – again, his words to all of us:

Therefore, be careful how you listen. For whoever has, more will be given to him. And whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.