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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

July 23, 2017      

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43            
1st Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8
2nd Reading: Romans 8:12-25

                After reading this Gospel reading, I have to reverse my decision from last week.  I was going to pull up the volunteer tomato from my yard, which was crowding my kale, but now I think I should leave it In.  “Let both of them grow together,” the master tells the slaves.  However, maybe it isn’t that great of a plan to shape your gardening plans and advice from Jesus’ Parables.  After all, they aren’t about plants, or are they?

                I have here, this week a showy milkweed plant.  This plant has the word “weed” right in it.  It has a lot of traits of weeds.  It grows and spreads quickly, both by seeds and rhizomes.  It is low maintenance, not very picky.  For years milkweed was called a noxious plant, that must be eradicated.  People removed the plants.  They were sprayed and destroyed until very few were left.  Then we all became aware that the milkweed plant is the only place a Monarch butterfly will lay its eggs, the only food monarch caterpillars can eat.  So with the decline of such a magnificent butterfly, we begin to realize that a weed to us, an annoyance and troublemaker, is home to someone else, and someone we might even care about.

                This particular milkweed plant was placed in the yard of a member of this church and this plant began to spread and spread and started to take over, so these kind people offered it to us at church.  We’ve been talking since the beginning of the garden group of putting in some showy milkweed here on the church property, so when it was offered, I said yes.  Why not bring in a plant that will attract butterflies, and maybe take over some of this bare ground that just keeps producing weeds that we have to keep pulling.  The milkweed may even be able to choke out my arch-nemesis weed, the horsetail.

                Whether something is a weed or not is in the eye of the beholder.  I remember as a kid being baffled by what my mom and grandma told me were weeds.  Delicate little blue and salmon colored flowers that grew in the yard that made beautiful little bouquets for my Barbies, dandelions that we would give our mom to show her how much we loved her and whose seeds we would blow and make wishes as we observed them floating like little fairies, little yellow flowers we would hold up to our chins to make sure we liked butter, and on and on. 

As kids, we scoffed at the other flowers.  They needed all this special attention and care.  They had to be babied: they had to be watered, they had to weeded, they had to be deadheaded, they had to be fertilized.  They were wimps!  Who wanted to do all that work, when you had these perfectly good weeds everywhere, providing beautiful flowers?

                In the eyes of some, I’m sure Jesus would have been considered a weed.  He was born to an unwed mother, came from Nazareth, of all places.  This weed was popping up where none would be expected.  He was a wiley weed, resilient, a little thorny, not conforming to popular views of beauty, and decorum.  He wouldn’t stand in his row, he wouldn’t flower when he was supposed to, and all those pests kept buzzing around him, like women, and tax collectors, the homeless, and sick.  Jesus was seen by some as a weed, but we know he is God’s own Son.

                In the readings from Romans, it says, “The Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  It isn’t just people that wait for redemption, for healing, for unity with God.  All creation does.  And not just the roses and the cedars, but the so-called weeds.  God created them, too, and not just to make extra work for us.  But they do what God created them to do.  They convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.  Their roots break up rocks and aggregates of soil.  They shade the ground.  They provide food and homes for animals and insects.  Some of them fix nitrogen in the soil so that other plants can grow.  God created them and God created them good.  We can’t put them in categories like “bad” just because they are inconvenient to us.  The weeds are waiting with eager longing, too, to take their rightful place in the balance of God’s good creation, in the new life that God is bringing, in the Kingdom itself.  Maybe the master says, “Let both of them grow until the harvest,” because God knows their use.  Maybe God sees what we can’t see.  A diverse landscape is how it has been naturally in creation.  It was us humans who had the gall to try to make all one plant grow in an area, to support our own growing population.  We forget that is unnatural and even at times unhealthy for the earth to be forced to grow things for our convenience.  To the other animals, maybe we are the weeds, an inconvenience, an evil to other species trying to survive, let alone experience abundant life that God is bringing to them in the peaceable Kingdom.

                One weird thing happening in the Parable is that the weeds are sewn.  I have to tell you that weed seeds don’t have to be sewn.  They are occasionally when someone blows on the head of a dandelion that’s gone to seed, but in the vast majority of cases, they seed themselves.  In any handful of soil, if you look at it under a microscope, you’ll find hundreds of weed seeds already waiting in the soil.  Maybe this parable points to our tendency to want to blame someone for the bad things that we perceive are happening to us.  One thing to keep in mind is that isn’t always about us, it often isn’t personal, when things that are inconvenient to us happen.  And it often isn’t evil.  Often it is someone else trying to get through life with the tools they have, we’re just growing so close together, we forget we’re part of a field.

                Weeds aren’t all bad!  We know this because the Kingdom of Heaven will be compared to one, the Mustard seed, in our Gospel reading for next week.  What is a weed that grows out of control and takes over, is also a tree sheltering many birds.  Maybe this parable can help us to see the shades of gray instead of everything being either good or bad, black or white.  Take the perspective of the weed for a moment!  In fact, Christians have a lot of weedy traits, since we try to follow Jesus.  Christianity has spread like weeds and grows in unlikely places, despite efforts to root it out.  Weeds are described in the book “Weeds: In Defense of Natures Most Unloved Plants” as “gregarious, adventurous, prolific and profane.” Doesn’t that sound like Christianity at its best?  The church is must be all those things, because Jesus was and is and the church is the body of Christ!

                I am glad that God says to wait and let the weeds grow and when the time comes the angels will do the sorting.  For one thing, I have been known to mix up a weed and a good plant, both in my garden and in life.  I think I have someone figured out and placed in a category and they surprise me.  This way, I don’t have to decide, because I am just growing here in this field with the rest of you and I can’t see very far from my vantage point.  This way I can just concentrate on being the best of whatever I am that I am.  If I am a wheat, stalk, may I bear much fruit and not take more than my share of nutrients and water and sun.  If I am a weed, remember I didn’t decide to be, this is who I am and I have been created good like the rest of you, and may I play my part providing homes for our friends the insects, breaking up the soil, and keeping things from getting too boring and homogenous around here.

                This milkweed plant will soon be planted.  What was rejected will be accepted and invited.  It will take root and grow and spread.  And it is my hope that through this once denied and betrayed plant, new life will come, transformation will come.  Maybe next spring butterflies will lay their eggs there, caterpillars will devour this plant, make cocoons, and be transformed into to something beautiful, that reminds us of the resurrection, and our own capacity for transformation.  The stone that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone.  The plant that the gardeners have rejected has become the prized plant in the garden.  There is hope for weeds like us, that God can and will bring new life, and that worms will somehow soar, that people will be transformed, that we will grow together and let God do the sorting, that God will be merciful and bring eternal abundant life to all of Creation and once again declare us good.

Monday, July 17, 2017

July 16, 2017      

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23                 
1st Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13
2nd Reading:  Romans 8:1-11

                While I was on vacation, my neighbor watered my garden.  I just noticed Thursday morning that I had 2 volunteer tomato plants growing in the bed devoted to kale, where I grew tomatoes last year.  One is almost 5 inches high and the other is just a little thing at about 3 inches.  Now I have a debate going on with myself about whether to pull them out or let them continue, even though they probably won’t have time before the weather cools down to make tomatoes or at least to make red tomatoes.  So many gardeners have such trouble “thinning” their plants.  We begin to have empathy for that little runt of a plant, that little tenacious, rebellious little tomato, smelling so good, looking so confident.  But if you leave everything in there, that’s not going to be good for the garden, either.  How many of you think I should pull them out?  Oh but that plant is so beautiful and full of life right now!  It worked so hard to get where it is!  How many of you think I should let it grow and give it a chance?  Oh, but what good is that to me and what good does it do that plant?  It will never produce fruit in time and it will take nutrients from my other plants.

                Last month at the Council meeting, in light of the tree donation, I asked the council members if they were a tree, what kind of tree would you be.  We got some pretty interesting answers!  Maybe some of you think that’s silly, but sometimes we separate ourselves so much from nature, that we forget that we are part of it.  We are God’s good creation, too, just as the trees are, and the frogs, and slugs, etc.  Apart from all of them, we wouldn’t exist.  Yes, there are some key differences between us and the other creatures.  We have a bigger brain, but I’m not sure if we could be considered smarter.  We have a lot of power.  The truth is, we are part of God’s good creation, not separate, and the whole of creation was made to work together.  And there is a lot we can learn from the rest of God’s creation.

                For instance, in Isaiah, rain and snow teach us about how God’s word is distributed.  The earth is watered by the rain and snow, and if you’re in Oregon, the drizzle, the downpour, the hail, and the liquid sunshine.  It evaporates into clouds that dump the rain or snow on the mountains, which then flows down streams, creeks, and rivers, to the sea. And along the way evaporating again to take the journey again.

                We can learn from this passage that just as rain is life-giving, so is God’s word.  Just as rain is distributed over the whole earth, so is God’s word.  God’s life-giving word brings peace and joy.  It isn’t meant to be pooled all in one place, but shared and cared for and passed along to the next living thing that is as much in need of it as we are. 

                In Isaiah, too, we learn to praise God as the rest of Creation does, by doing what each does best, what each was created to do.  The mountains and hills shall burst into song, and the trees will clap their hands!  These are clearly not Lutheran—too exuberant!  What holds us back from truly praising God and giving thanks with all our being?!  How did we get so self-conscious?

                We can learn from the plants in the Gospel reading, too.  Maybe they can help us understand why some people don’t receive God’s word and others do. But then we put ourselves in the place of God and start sorting people into categories, which doesn’t do us or them any good.

 More than that, this parable can challenge us to be good soil.  If we don’t understand, like the seed that fell on the path, do we sit passively by, or do we do something more to understand?  Do we do some personal devotions, or take part in a discussion group to help us understand?  Do we take some time to ponder difficult passages?  Do we take time in prayer for God to open our hearts to understand? 

                Are we like the seed that fell on the rocky ground?  Are we immediately excited and full of joy, but when the hard times come, do we become disillusioned and go away or give up?  Do we just blame the kind of soil we fell on and move on, or do we work on developing a thicker skin?  Do we practice going to someone who has hurt us and talking it out, or do we let it fester?  Do we find role-models in our faith community and learn from them, how they got such deep roots and learn what we can do to be steadfast and strong?

                Are we like the seed that fell among the thorns?  Do we let the lies of this world choke out our faith?  Do we value what the world values, thing like things, fancy things, shiny things, money?  Are we selfish?  Do we need to be important?  How can we change our values?  Can we set aside time for God?  Can we spend some time volunteering?  Can we do some random acts of kindness for someone in need in secret?  Can we do without that new thing and instead invest in some weed-whackers for those darned thorns?

                The reading from Romans doesn’t use any symbols from nature to teach us how to live, however Paul lets us know that something that sets us apart from the rest of nature is that we are not governed only by our instincts, but that we have responsibility, choices, free-will.  Maybe it is because we have a conscience, or because we have so much power and the choice of how to use it, and we know the consequences of our actions, how they impact everyone and everything around us.  Paul is saying we can live one of two ways.  We can live as a hostage to corruption, under the rule of sin, in the flesh, selfishly, hurting the rest of the community of Creation, or we can deny this death-dealing way, and live in the new reality God is handing us, live in the Spirit, under the rule of God, with a new set of priorities, a new focus on the whole, with the big picture in mind, sharing life in community and peace. 

                Sometimes all I see in myself are rocks, thorns, and hard compacted soil like that on the path!  There are so many ways to go wrong!  Sometimes it seems like life in the flesh is all I can focus on.  But there’s Good News!  Are you ready for it?  God’s word is going out in every direction.  It is full of life.  It is freely distributed! It is abundant! It is guaranteed to be fruitful!  It is a free gift of God’s grace!  Remember the passage from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  That’s what Jesus did for us, he died and the seed is sprouting in the community and in the world, and we can learn from him, that it isn’t about us as individuals, but it is about us as the community of Creation in Jesus Christ.  We need each other for the thriving of abundant life.  Because of Jesus’ love for us, we have the free gift of God’s grace and a place in God’s family.  The Kingdom of God is near!

                Do you want to participate in it?  Then go ahead.  The seed is good, the soil is prepared, and God is the one who provides the sun and rain, all we need for growth.

                Whether you participate in it or not, it is happening!  God will produce a harvest, beyond any of our expectations or hopes.  With or without us, there will be joy and peace.  There will be thriving life, eternal life for all God’s creatures.  In fact, it is happening even now!  100 new trees are growing in our neighborhood because of God’s generosity!  9 kids know the story of Noah’s ark and are on the lookout for rainbows reminding them how much God loves them and all of Creation.  57 Families are enjoying meals they received at this location, with the help of 5 partner churches and many community members.  Through Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, people from this church are telling our County Commissioners what we need to help the homeless in a zoning change that could allow tiny houses on some properties.  Who knows if they are going to listen to us, they might be rocky soil, they might be thorny soil, or the seed may lie for some time before sprouting, but it isn’t going to keep God from sewing the seed. 

                The point is, it is God’s work.  And God’s work is assured.  So let’s take our focus off our distractions and fears, and look around us at this beautiful world we live in.  Let’s praise God for it!  Let’s learn from it.  Let’s go out in joy and come back in peace.  Let’s be part of something that matters and lasts and is life-giving. 

                If I look at the whole of my garden, the big picture, I think the little tomato plant has got to go.  It will give its life so that others might have abundant life.  May the others take root and grow and produce fruit, and may we learn from the story of the sewer how to receive God’s grace and respond in joy.

July 2, 2017  

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42                          
1st Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9       
2nd Reading: Romans 6:12-23

                Jesus tells us today that there is something simple we can do to help each other, something anyone can do, no matter how young or old they are, they can give a drink of water to someone.  Water is very important.  We can’t live without it, and neither can our pets or plants.  Water is something that we need.

                I wanted to talk to you about needs and wants, because sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between something we really, really want, and something we need.

                If I had a stick of celery and a piece of candy, which of those would you want to have?

                How about if I had a book or a video game?

                How about a glass of water or a glass of juice?

                How about if I had water in a small, plain cup, would you want that or one in a fancy cup with superheroes or sparkles on it?

                But what do we really need?

                Between the celery and the candy, what do you need?

                The book or video game?

                How about the water or the juice?

                And finally the water in the plain cup or the water in the fancy cup?
Sometimes we want what isn’t good for us and sometimes we need things we don’t want.  How can we know the difference so we know what we need to keep us healthy?

                Sometimes we learn by experience.  Like my sister.  One Easter morning she ate every bite of her Easter candy out of her basket.  What do you think happened?  Did she want that candy?  Did she need it?  So the next year she learned not to do that and the Easter bunny learned to bring some granola bars and applesauce along with the candy.

                How else do we know the difference between wants and needs?

                Sometimes people with more experience than we have try to help us tell the difference.  Did you ever hear your parents say, “You need to brush your teeth?”  They aren’t trying to make your life miserable, they are trying to tell you something helpful, so you don’t get cavities.

                As you grow up, you’ll learn to tell the difference.  You’ll learn the good that can come when you choose to meet your needs, so you’ll want to make choices that are good for you.  But no one has this completely mastered.

                Sometimes adults too need help telling the difference.  This hasn’t happened in a while, but some adults might wear a little too much cologne or perfume.  They sometimes forget that what they want might not be what they or others around them need. 

                And we’ve been talking about this regarding coffee hour.  People like to have lots of snacks.  But there are a lot of hungrier people on this earth that could use that food so much more than we do.  We don’t really need all that food.  However, when we have snacks, we tend to stay and visit longer which is a need!

                God wants our needs to be met, and for us to help each other to meet needs.  Needs are things like food, water, shelter, love.

                God wants us to stay away from the things that aren’t good for us or that we don’t need, so that we can be healthy and happy people who use our brains and get along with others in our community, and share with others in our community so they have enough.  If we concentrate on the needs, there will be enough for everyone. 

                One last question for all of you.  How about God’s love, is that a want or a need?  It is a need, and thankfully we are all in God’s family.  God loves each of us, even when we take more than we need or make choices, we always have another chance to try again.  And when we share because we have more than what we need, people in need find out they are also loved and we are all part of God’s family.