Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Loaves and Fishes and Parking Spaces...

Matthew 14:13-21

It's such a familiar story before us now that it's hard to hear anything new in it.  Indeed, it rolls around with slight variations again and again.  Even so, while for the most part these are not 'original' thoughts on this story, these are what come to mind today...

One is this.  I know what it feels like to be told, "You give them something to eat..." and to feel as though there is so little to give, it's hardly worth starting to prepare the meal.

Another is this. This all happens in Matthew's telling right after Jesus hears about the gruesome, pointless death of his cousin, John the Baptist.   Perhaps in response to this horrific news, Jesus was heading 'on retreat' --- and I can't think of a more necessary time to seek such solitude.  But by now word has gotten out that this Jesus has something to offer that can't be found just anywhere.  The crowds with their sick and suffering in tow catch up with him.  And then they don't leave.  Like an unexpected guest with no manners whatsoever, they don't leave.  And a handful of disciples are left to carry out the ministry of hospitality which Jesus personifies.

And there is this. I'm wondering about the guy at the back of the crowd.  The one who hardly knows why he is there.  There is no big screen projection to give him a sense of what is going on down front.  Jesus has no way to amplify his voice for the blessing of those five loaves and two fish.  He's only hearing what's going on because the one in front of him is telling him.  In fact, he may never fully comprehend or appreciate the actual source of the meal he is enjoying.  He may never realize it is actually a gift from God's own hand.  But that doesn't make it any less so. Indeed, I wonder how many moments in how many days I am like that.  A lot, I would expect.  I need to remember that and give thanks even when I can't quite put it all together.

And there is this, too.  How does one end up with more than what one started out with?  Twelve baskets full, in fact.  How does that happen?

So here are some initial thoughts on possible directions to take: 

Opportunities to be about the work that Jesus calls us to don't necessarily come at convenient times.
They are, in fact, likely to come when we find ourselves most sad, most tired, most fearful about the future.  Even as Jesus would have every right to have been.

Often we just have to start.  We may not be able to see the ending --- in fact most of the time we surely can't --- but if we don't at least start, we will certainly never get there. For the disciples in this story, the only logical thing to do was to send that hungry crowd away.  They could not, at first, have fathomed the possibility that all those growling stomachs would be satisfied with what began as a meager meal.  But they trusted Jesus enough to hand him the five loaves and two fish and pretty soon it was a party.

And there is this.  This really is a story about scarcity and abundance.  I live in a time and place where I find myself never worried about a scarcity of food. That is not true, of course, for all of my neighbors --- but it is true for most of the people I interact with much of the time.  I do know what it feels like to believe there is never enough though.  I expect we all do.  Indeed, I have known this profoundly of late.  For here is how it has been:

Yesterday morning at 11 a.m. I officiated at the memorial service of one of our dear ones.  It turned out to be one of the largest gatherings of its kind that we had shared in for some time.  At 10 a.m., though, I was next door speaking briefly at our local public library's groundbreaking.

For the library is expanding, you see.  The building is dated, their space is limited, and this dream has been in the works for some time.

Now let me paint the picture for you.  Our church building shares a city block with another church building, yet another church's parking lot and the public library.  Parking is at a premium anyway and now this new construction will permanently close our street, limiting access to and visibility of our building and at least for the next eighteen months, making access to convenient parking a whole lot more challenging than it has been.  And it has always been challenging.

It is a situation which has had me shaking my head for some time.  I have wondered how we would do this.  It has been easy to bow to frustration and fear that there will not be enough --- there will never be enough.

Even so, the challenge was before us and so we dove in in this way: First, we've been talking it up for a couple of weeks.  On Sunday mornings we've been encouraging folks who are able to park further out, or to share rides, or if they're close enough, to actually just walk to church.  We're starting to think about a valet/parking lot ministry for those who are less mobile.  We've begun positioning greeters outside to help people find their way in.  And yesterday morning was our first real test.  

Now normally when the people gather, I'm among the first to arrive.  I'm already inside getting ready. But yesterday morning, I found myself sitting on the other side of the recently erected chain link fence watching the people of First Lutheran Church step up to this challenge. In spite of their own frustration and fear, I could see them there standing at the street corners and welcoming our guests and showing them their way in.  I was, quite simply, proud of them.

Now I don't know how it worked in the marvelous story before us now.  I don't know how it is that 10,000 people and more were fed with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  I do know it was a story about hospitality.  People were there and they needed to be fed and so those who were hosting fed their guests.  I do know that Jesus was at the center of it --- who always saw people and their needs and who always found a way to meet those needs.  And I do know that the story ends by reminding us that they wound up with a whole lot more than what the disciples first placed in Jesus' hands.

To tell you the truth, I still cannot see how there will be --- at least not for some time --- enough parking with easy access to our building.  And it's hard to see how we will ever have the easy visibility we have enjoyed for a hundred years.  But at the same time, this has forced us from behind our doors and out into the street to be even more welcoming than we have sought to be before.  And there is abundance in that which I certainly could not have envisioned all on my own.   Indeed, even now while I cannot yet see the 'ending,' I'm still starting to wonder if this might just find us able to 'feed' a whole lot more people than we ever have before.

  • How do you understand the miracle story of the feeding of the 'five thousand plus women and children?'  What do you think happened here?
  • Is there any significance to the fact that in Matthew's telling, this falls right after the news about John the Baptist's death?  Does knowing this alter your hearing of the story in any way?  Why or why not?
  • I offer one example of perceived scarcity and abundance above.  Can you think of others?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast...

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

There are so many images of the Kingdom of Heaven in this week's Gospel reading that it's hard to know where to begin.  We are reminded of its similarity to a mustard seed, to the yeast that leavens a family's bread, to hidden treasure, to fine pearls, and to a net cast into the sea which brings in fish of every kind.  Wow.  One would do well, it seems to me, to spend a little time each day in the days to come, simply letting these images sink in.  Indeed, there is almost too much before us now, which could just be a perfect match for our world which is literally dying for precisely this sort of Good News.  Even so, I'm settling in on one:

I find myself remembering now Christmas Eve some seventeen years ago when one of the images of the Good News offered in this Gospel lesson came home to me in a vivid and memorable way.

My dad had died the January before.  I was dreading this holiday as do so many who grieve.  And yet, given my call as pastor, I could not avoid it.  At the same time, I was desperate to keep my grief at bay so as December deepened I made some decisions.  I asked family to stay away --- promising to catch up with them on Christmas Day. And I planned the day with great care.  I planned it so I would stay busy and not have too much time to think, hoping that the losses of the past year would not have time or space to catch up with me.

The morning of the 24th was open though and so when I got up I decided to bake bread.

I am no stranger to baking bread.  I learned the skill from my mother who learned it from her mother who, no doubt, learned it from hers.  I hoped that the hands-on routine of measuring the flour, proofing the yeast, and sinking my hands deep into the dough to knead it would be a comfort. I knew the sight, the sounds, the texture, the smells would tie me to my own past in ways that promised to be a much needed gift.

And so I went to work.  I was elbow deep in bread dough when my doorbell rang and I was called away.  Quickly, I scraped the dough from beneath my fingernails, brushed the flour from my hair, and not knowing what else to do, I plopped the half-kneaded dough into a bowl, covered it, and shoved it into the refrigerator.

It was many hours later when I finally arrived home.  I had a little time before our first service that night, so I changed back into my blue jeans and sweatshirt and with no hope at all, I opened the refrigerator door.  And do you know, to my utter surprise, that dough had risen! 

I was shocked.  I had, even by then, worked with yeast for years and so I had first hand knowledge of how finicky it could be.  Oh yes, I had 'killed yeast' plenty of times --- with liquid too warm or too cold -- or with rising conditions not quite right --- so that the bread would wind up a heavy, unpleasant, nearly inedible combination of flour and water which was entirely unappealing.  But this time? Even when everything was working against it, that dough still rose.  And that Christmas, the bread was somehow all the more wonderful for it having come to me in this way!

Jesus offers us today a brief one sentence comparison in this 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."
Now I don't know if mine is a Christmas Story or an Easter Story or just an Ordinary Every Day Much Needed Story of the power of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I do know that it is an image, a story which brings me hope in a world which needs it more than ever... where my news feed is overwhelmed by news of war being waged in the Middle East once again, where against all that we know is right and good and just we hear that people on their way to holiday or home to family are suddenly shot from the sky, where little children are risking their lives for the chance at any kind of life at all, where yet again this week-end children have been shot and killed by stray bullets in nearby Chicago, leaving loved ones to grieve entirely avoidable and inexplicable losses.  I need this promise of 'the yeast' and the certainty that it can and does work even when I least expect it, even when everything is working against it.  Without a doubt, the world needs it, too. For if it could happen in my refrigerator, Jesus would say it can happen anywhere: that hope beats despair and life prevails over death.  Even here. Even now. Even in this.  And perhaps, yes, much like ordinary yeast which makes our bread rise --- perhaps even through altogether ordinary 'us.'  For like yeast can be a powerful thing, so are you and I who bear the news of this Kingdom which also rises in cold, dark, unlikely places. 

  • Jesus offers a number of marvelous images of the Kingdom of Heaven in this week's Gospel. Which one especially speaks to you?  How have you seen it live in the world now?
  • What are the circumstances in your life or in the life of the larger world which especially need the promise of the image you have chosen?  How does it speak to that?
  • Consider setting aside a little time on each day in the days to come to meditate on each of these marvelous every day images.  Then think about 'writing your own parable.'  How might you complete the sentence:  "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like..." ?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wheat and Weeds and Birthday Calls

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I am a terrible gardener.

It could be that I just don't care about it enough.  Or that I have simply not taken the time to develop the skill.  Or maybe I'm just never going to be good at it, because you see I often have a hard time telling the difference between the weeds and what's supposed to be growing there.  Or maybe it's just that until recently, I have not been blessed with adequate garden space or adequate garden space with enough sunshine or adequate time at those times of the year when gardening needs to happen to bother to put the effort in.

Whatever the reason, I can't tell weeds from wheat or anything else for that matter.  And if that is true when it comes to green growing things, for me this is all the more true among human beings.  I can't tell the "weed" from the "wheat."

Oh, it's not that I don't live in a world full of such categories and its not that my mind doesn't still go there. I expect we all think in terms of insiders and outsiders, producers and those who simply consume, those who belong and those who don't. I have had plenty of times in my life when I've felt like a 'weed.' Just think Junior High or getting cut from the team or, even now, as I experienced a few weeks ago simply walking into a shop which was so 'high end' I just knew I didn't belong. I know what it is to feel like a 'weed' and I don't doubt I have made others to feel the same way.  Only I've been wrong enough times --- especially when it comes to matters of faith --- that I am immensely grateful that I'm a terrible gardener. 

Let me offer one small example of how this has played out where I am today.

A couple of years ago when I began as pastor here, the congregation was still in turmoil after a long, drawn out battle. To carry out the metaphor, casualties were everywhere: some we knew about and others we were simply left to guess at.  In that tender time, when our healing had only just begun, one of our leaders suggested that I begin to make birthday calls. The thought was that this would promote a sort of simple kindness which was so very needed then. Well, we have an easy system for accessing birthdays and phone numbers and it seemed like an easy enough thing to do.

And so it is that for the last couple of years, every day I am in the office, I have made birthday calls.  Sometimes I'm calling a day or two early. Sometimes I'm up to a week late.  Often I'm leaving messages.  Occasionally I'm finding the number we have is no longer in service.  I just make the calls.

Only there is this.  The list we have includes everyone.  It includes active members and those we haven't seen in years.  It includes children who were baptized, but whose parents never actually joined.  It includes those who live nearby and those who have long since moved away. 

I made no distinction.  I just called them all.  Early on, a couple of times I was asked, "Are you actually calling everyone?  Why aren't you just calling active members?"  In other words, "How come you're not just calling the 'wheat?'"

Well, when I first began making those calls, I wouldn't have known the difference.  I would not have been able to distinguish "the weeds from the wheat."  Even more than that though, and I mean this most sincerely, who am I to say who is 'weed' and who is 'wheat?' 

Now I know this is obvious, but people are different from green things which grow.  One's 'wheat-ness,' at least in this way, is not engraved on one's DNA.  Indeed, one may look like an awful lot like a 'weed' right now, but later turn out to be 'wheat' after all.  And it could just be that a thirty second birthday call from the pastor --- or any word of kindness or encouragement from anyone connected with a faith community --- might be just what makes the difference.

And there is this.  Even though one is not showing up as 'wheat' here, doesn't mean they aren't showing up as 'wheat' somewhere else.  And shouldn't I be encouraging that?  For that matter, at some time everyone I call had some concrete connection to this 'wheat field' we call First Lutheran Church.  Maybe they'll find their way back and maybe they won't.  I wouldn't want to be the one to stand in the way.

So here is what I've learned in a couple of seasons of making these calls.  Those we might be tempted to think of as 'weeds' are more open to picking up the phone the second and third and fourth time a family birthday rolls around.  The conversation seems to come easier.  I have to say that I can't help but wonder if this is because they thought I thought they were 'weeds' before and have since discovered I don't think that at all.  I am just calling to wish them happy birthday.  I'm a gardener who can't tell the difference.  More than that, I suppose, I don't want to tell the difference. Not really.

Now I know that Jesus doesn't say exactly this in this parable.  Evidently, in the image he offers now, one can easily tell which is wheat and which are weeds.  Even so, he seems to be saying that we are to let someone else sort it out.  That to pull out the weeds too early could mean uprooting all the rest. Either way, I'm glad I'm not the one sorting. Because people are harder to categorize than your ordinary wheat and weeds. 

And I'll say it again.  I can't tell the difference. 

I am a terrible gardener.

  • I have a hard time making the parallel between the weeds and the wheat and human beings?  How do you sort that out?
  • What kind of 'gardener' are you?  When might it be helpful to be able to discern the difference between 'weeds' and 'wheat?'  How might the Kingdom be served if you and I simply can't tell the difference?
  • I have proposed another reason to wait until 'harvest' until the weeds are separated from the wheat --- namely that I can't tell the difference --- and maybe what at first appears to be a 'weed' might actually be 'wheat.'  Does that work? Why or why not?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Sower Went Out to Sow

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

I gave blood the other day.  As I was laying on the cot with a needle in my arm, I tried to get acquainted with the young woman who was tending me.  First I asked how long she had been doing this. "Three years," she replied.  Then I asked where she had gone to school.  And she said, "For phlebotomy?"  It's what I meant, of course, but Omauria had another story altogether.  She said she had gone to Columbia School of Fine Arts in Chicago where she had studied film. Apparently, this job is just to make ends meet until she gets to do what she wants to do most of all. She went on to tell me about a screenplay she is working on. She's calling it "The Heart of a Lion" and described it as being about a young man from the inner city who is going to college and trying to take care of two young siblings at the same time.  When asked if it was a true story, she said "Yes and no.  Its based on several people I know."  A few minutes later she went on to say, "Right now I'm saving lives.  Later I'll get to tell stories." And I said, "Oh, I don't know.  I think that telling stories can also save lives."

Actually, I'm not sure I knew I fully believed that until the words came out of my mouth.  And yet, along with so many of you, I've given my life to this: to the telling of stories.  That being said, it is also so that along with the Sower in today's parable, I often can't help but wonder what difference these stories make.

For it's not like what young Omauria is doing to make money until she gets her big break. She reminded me that for every pint of blood that is drawn, potentially three lives are saved.  It is concrete.  It is measurable.  It is easily proven. And it goes without saying, of course that this is not normally the case with the seeds that you and I are called to scatter. And yet we trust, we know, that these words save. That when they land on good soil, and take root, they can flourish and multiply and change lives, save lives even.

Indeed, I wonder if that's not just what Jesus intended when he sat in the boat and spoke to the crowds on the beach so long ago.  I wonder if his goal was to encourage his listeners to not only be receptive to what God would have for them, but also to not be discouraged should they --- should we --- seek to share it and the harvest is slow in coming. For the harvest, when it comes, is also made up of seeds. And seeds are meant to be planted all over again. 

In the midst of the conversation I had with Omauria the other day I shared with her a story I've been pursuing of late. The seeds for this one were planted twenty years ago and more --- the first time I drove down 'Widows Road' when I was serving as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Wilmington, Illinois.  Now perhaps she was just being kind to this stranger on her gurney, but she nodded and said she thought it sounded like a story worth pursuing.

Now I surely don't know why my imagination wasn't piqued by the name of that road the first time or the hundredth time I drove down it.  It was only a shortcut to the highway for me --- a help in getting me to my destination, but never a destination in and of itself.  I never thought to ask about it, but still the 'seed' must somehow have been planted, for I also never forgot it.

Fast forward some sixteen years.  Last month I took a trip to Springfield, Illinois.  We had visited the Lincoln Museum, which is a must-see should you ever go that way.  The skies were threatening to open up when we ducked into the Lincoln Library.  It was almost an after thought, but I was curious.  The man who welcomed us reminded us that this was not a normal library --- but we were welcome to look around.  I wandered into the reading room where there were all sorts of books on Illinois history.  I pulled off the shelf a volume which had been published in 1900.  On its pages you can find small descriptions of every town in Illinois.  Now I've called a number of towns and cities home by now so it was fun to page through and see what was said about them more than a century ago.  I turned to Wilmington and there I read that in 1895 there had opened there a Soldiers' Widows Home for widows and daughters of Civil War veterans. At the time, it claimed to be the only one of its kind in the country.

I was transfixed.  I had no idea.  And yet, immediately I began to wonder about the stories of the women who lived there.

It turns out the home had existed until 1963 and that it stood empty at the time it burned to the ground in 1972. At one time it served as home to 112 women. Today in its place stands a water treatment plant.  I understand the old laundry house still exists --- although unfortunately, it has fallen into disrepair, and its future is in question. 

After I got home, I sent an email to a local historian in that community.  She sent me her notes and a few photographs and offered to give me more if I wanted to drive back to Wilmington.  In one of our email exchanges she commented at how my curiosity made her smile.  Apparently, she's been scattering these 'seeds' for some time now, and apparently, no one had shown any interest before.

I understand the Illinois State Archives have admission records on all the women who lived there.  As you can imagine, I'll be making a trip to Springfield again soon as I try to unearth the stories of hundreds of women who lived out their lives at the Soldiers' Widows Home in Wilmington.

I offer this example now even though it fleshes out a possibility which is not exactly reflected in the parable before us now.  For nowhere does Jesus talk about seed which waits sixteen years to sprout and grow.  But that is how it works sometimes.  Some seeds are carried away by birds.  Others find no depth of soil and look promising for a while and then fail. Still others get choked by thorns. Some find good soil and sprout and grow and yield.  And for some, it just takes a long time.

It's a wonderful parable Jesus offers now for it does, in fact, capture something important about our lives of faith.  You and I, of course, are called to be 'good soil.'  And you and I, all of us --- whether we are pastors or not --- we are also called to scatter 'seeds.'  Sometimes they are 'seeds' of kindness and compassion and generosity.  Other times they are 'seeds' shown in acts of courage.  And yes, at other times, we scatter 'seeds' as we tell stories --- especially this Story of  how Jesus has changed and shaped our own life stories.  And yes, I believe that all these 'seeds' save lives.  It may take a long time.  In fact, you and I may not be around to see the harvest.  But the promise is that when we scatter seeds such as these, some will take root and yield as Jesus says, "some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty..."

I hope that Omauria, the fledgling screenwriter who took my blood the other day, will one day also know this to be so. For 'stories do save lives.'   Indeed, even as she told me her own story she encouraged me in my own seeking out and telling stories. Or at least one in particular.  And I expect she doesn't even know it.  In that way, she's a part of making possible a harvest she probably won't even know to anticipate.

And yes, this also is so with all of us.  One of the 'seeds' we are called to sow is that of our encouragement of one another  -- all these other 'sowers of seeds' as we scatter those seeds in so many ways but perhaps most especially in and through in the telling of our stories --- most especially as they point to the Story of Jesus.  We may never know how much it matters. But it does. Part of the promise Jesus offers now is that it does matter.  And from time to time, if we are so blessed, like a certain historian in Wilmington, we get to see the 'seeds' we have scattered begin to take root and grow.

  1. How do you hear the familiar parable Jesus offers now?  Where have 'seeds' taken root and grown and flourished in you, in others, in your community?
  2. Like me, do you have an example of a 'seed' which took a long time to take root and grow in you?  In your life of faith?
  3. Jesus offers a number of reasons why the seed might not take root and grow.  Above I offered another way to think about it (that sometimes it just takes a long time.)  Do you think that 'works' with this parable?  Why or why not?
  4. Do you ever wonder at how the sower before us now kept at it --- even knowing that many of the seeds he scattered didn't actually take root and grow as he hoped they might?  What, do you suppose, kept him going?  What keeps you going in such times?