Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Come to the Party!

The capitol dome in Madison, Wisconsin.

OK, so I haven't been updating this blog like I thought I would so I will be trying to catch up.

This is a sermon that I gave at The Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on October 12, 2008. The basis for the message is
Matthew 22:1-22:14.

Jesus says "The Kingdom of God is like a party", and that sounds like good news, especially if you are a lover of parties.

Personally, I am not a great lover of parties. Indeed, I generally dread it when I am invited to a party. Questions immediately come to mind: ’who else is going to be there?’, ’do I have to get dressed up?’, ’can I get out of it?’

Now just so you don't think I'm really the world's most boring person, I did enjoy Fiesta Lopez that we had here in August.

Parties are meant to be fun of course, but we all know that some parties are just a hard to get through. If you have ever watched “Keeping up Appearances” on public TV or on BBC, you would recognize that Hyacinth Bucket's candlelight suppers are that type of party. It is not the sort of party where you stand around drinking beer and telling bad jokes. This is the sort of party where you dress well, speak appropriately, and make sure you pass the port in the right direction. These are the sorts of parties I really try to avoid.

Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God is like a party". What sort of party is it?

The party Jesus is talking about is a royal wedding party, which means that it’s a rather significant party, and it starts out with a more exclusive guest list than you’d find at any of Hyacinth's dinner parties. All the important people have been invited, the nobles, the clergy, politicians and legal people, community leaders, business people, the movers and shakers from across the king’s domain, but, strangely, none of them want to come.

The king is a bit taken aback by this, so he reissues his invitation a little more forcefully, lest anyone should have misunderstood the exact nature of the party, or perhaps missed the fact that not attending was not really an option.

But still the invited guests just don’t take the king seriously at all. Y'know, one woman has an appointment with her hairdresser that day. Another guy had that day set aside to go looking for a new car. And some of the invited guests got so annoyed at being bothered again by the king that they set the dogs onto his messengers, and some of these messengers were even killed.

So the king is now royally ticked off, and he sends the army out, and they work through the same guest list, butchering each of the invited guests who decided that they had better things to do than go to the kings party. And then the army goes through and burns the villages where each of these people lived.

When the king’s servants return from their grisly work they find that their master, oddly enough, is still in the mood for a party. So he sends his messengers out again, but this time, instead of sending them out to the kingdom's corridors of power, which all have now been burnt to the ground, he sends them anywhere and everywhere, telling them "invite everybody" - rich and poor, black and white, slave and free, young and old, male and female, wise and stupid, gay and straight, good and bad. And this time, not surprisingly perhaps, it seems that nobody takes the king’s invitation lightly.

And so the story seems to be concluding with a happy scene of a palace filled with guests enjoying a great party, despite the lingering smell of the recently scorched villages in the background. Everybody appears to be having a good time, and the king is there, strolling amongst his invited guests, greeting each of them, regardless of their status or station in life, until he finds one character who didn’t bother to get dressed properly, and he says ’buddy, where is your tux?’ And this guy, who has come straight from work and is still in his grungy work clothes, doesn’t know what to say, so the king calls the security guards, who slap the guy around a bit and then throw him out into the parking lot, where we all know that men weep and gnash their teeth.

And Jesus says, "the Kingdom of God is just like that, many are called, but few are chosen."

That is the one barb at the end, that I have trouble with. A man comes to the wedding who isn’t wearing wedding clothes, and he is thrown out and then we are told that many are called but few are chosen.


St Augustine suggests that the reason was that the king has provided wedding clothes for all who came to the wedding banquet.

He has not only invited everyone to the feast but he has provided the clothes to go with it.

The man who was thrown out, was thrown out because he rejected the king’s festal robes.

Now, this is not my favorite parable. This isn’t even my favorite ’parable of the wedding feast’. There’s another version of this parable in Luke, where a lot less people get killed and beaten up.

Luke says ’Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame... Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’ (Luke 14:21-23)

The parable in Luke is told as part of Jesus’ explanation as to why he hangs about with so many social misfits. In Matthew though the parable is delivered as part of Jesus’ tirade against the establishment, and it is the third volley of a triple barreled shotgun.

In quick succession ,Jesus comes out with the ’parable of the two sons’ (one son who says the right thing and one son who does the right thing), ’the parable of the bad tenants’ (who refuse to pay the rent to the owner and end up murdering the owners son), and then this ’parable of the great party’ -where the party celebrations are set against this backdrop of violence.

"The Kingdom of God is like a party," says Jesus, but what sort of party is this? It’s a very serious party. It’s the sort of party that makes Hyacinth's dinner party look like a kegger. This is not the sort of party where you turn up when you like and come as you are. This is the sort of party where you turn up at the right place and at the right time and where you come dressed appropriately, and where, if you decide to stay home to work on your sermon, you do so at your own risk.

What sort of party is this? It’s a serious party. And perhaps the even more important question here is ’what sort of king is this who is throwing this party?’ And he seems to be a serious king, who in the end is going to demand people’s respect.

And there are lots of ways of getting on the wrong side of this king:

Ignore his party invitation. That will tick him off.
Murder his messengers. That will really make him mad.
Turn up to his wedding banquet dressed like a slob. That will work too.

And I’m sure we can think of other ways that we've seen people being rude at a party that would make him upset too.

There are plenty of ways of upsetting the king. There seems to be just one way of making him happy. Come to the party, and come on the king’s own terms.

A guy called David Randolph spoke about a time when he was in Milan, Italy, and was watching a circus parade moving through the streets. Suddenly one of the elephants veered off and marched into a church. The church doors were large, and were open because of the summer heat. So the elephant wandered up the aisle, trumpeted a bit, swung her trunk around and then headed back to the parade. Randolph said that it occurred to him at that moment, the extent to which his own spiritual life was embodied in the behavior of this elephant, lurching into church, making a few noises, and then resuming his place in the parade.

In the end, the Kingdom of God is serious business, and the invitation of the King, to come and join his party, is to be taken seriously.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sermon on Camp Out Sunday

This is the sermon that I gave at Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on September 14, 2008. It was on this weekend that the Church of the Saviour hosted a diocesan wide youth camp out with nearly 50 youth attending.

It is we, 'Christians', who know the magnitude of our debt to God. As we stand before the Cross of our Lord and Savior we know how much it has cost God for our redemption. We know that the cost of our redemption cannot be measured in terms of gold or silver, for it has cost a life, the life of the one and only son of God. So this parable from Matthew, addressed to Peter, is addressed to us. It is not a prescription for others to take to make the world a better place - it is fairly and squarely directed at us and all who call themselves 'Christians'.

It tells us how readily God forgives us - and by extension all people, for there is no distinction between us if we don't forgive others and others who don't forgive either.

The parable tells us that we are not to spend our lives repaying our debt to God as each of the servants pleads for time to do. God forgives and forgets. God remits our sins entirely. We owe God nothing in return - provided only that we do likewise to others.

Now as I've gone through my life being exposed to many different types of churches – it has often come across to me that God must be finicky about worship - it has to be done in a correct way or it will be entirely unacceptable. In the 'high-church' type of liturgy the only kosher worship is where the priest uses vestments and there are 'bells and smells'. In the so called 'low church' type of worship it is where the minister's emphasis is on the Bible and preaching. In the charismatic or pentecostal side of the church the emphasis is on the sincerity of the praying by the people in the congregation during worship. Each is valid in its own right, but many times each looks to others as deficient – that others owe God something that their own members don't. The 'god' they worship is essentially unforgiving towards others.

How have we have turned around this Gospel passage to avoid it speaking to us? We only assume it is speaking to others.

In each and every church that I've ever seen, that church has been proud of their building, of their people, and of their programs. And one gets the impression that the only difficulty that they face is that more people don't join in. And this is where the priest or pastor comes in. It is his or her job to get others involved - not to change anything but to admire the building, to delight in the welcoming committee, the efforts to raise money, attract young people, have fellowship groups and bible studies. And, surprise, surprise, suddenly God has got nothing to say to these seemingly devout people - the only words are for those outside of their walls.

In a conversation I had a while back a non denominational church pastor was admiring the system other denominations have (including the Episcopal Church) of having rules and regulations so that clergy could avoid stepping on people's toes. In his church the rules weren't written down so one spent time wondering how to proceed. I think that the reality is that changing anything, anywhere is essentially forbidden.

Sadly, of course, often parishioners have spent their lives 'busting their guts' for the church. To suggest change is perhaps to imply that they haven't done enough, or what they have done is wrong. They have been fed a tradition of 'do it this way and you'll be saved'. I know from my own experience how difficult it is to free myself from this and to learn to think for myself and discover my own spirituality. I would not claim to have achieved this yet, now or at any time in my life. In many ways this is why I study the lectionary and write sermons, even when I won't have a chance to give them anywhere. They are not actually for anyone else. They enable me to extricate myself from simply not going through the motions to an appreciation that God loves me without theological, moral or academic credentials. My sermons to others are, I pray, how God speaks to me.

I was interested to hear recently a radio program on historical denial - like the denial of the holocaust. And I suddenly realized that this is perhaps why I continue to kick myself for the stupid things I did and continue to do - even though I know that God has long ago forgiven and forgotten them. It is a far more healthy place to be to have sinned and been forgiven and continue to berate myself, than to be in denial - suggesting that the things I did were someone else's fault or didn't happen at all. Denial is downright dangerous.

So too the church has to recognize that it has got things wrong in the past and continues to do some things wrong some times in the present. People are not saved by doing things by the church's rule book. Salvation is about how we are loved as we are, and how loved other people are as they are, not because we or they have necessarily followed the rules.

So difference is basic to the Christian community, as it is for the community at large. So if God is so forgiving of difference within the Christian community, why would God be less forgiving of difference outside the Christian community? Indeed if forgiveness of difference is fundamental to our faith as these words of Jesus suggest, why should we restrict them to members inside the Christian community – where, presumably, there is less cause of difference and so less need to forgive?

So is God unforgiving of others if they call on God by a different name to us? Do other people owe us anything if they don't worship in precisely the same manner as we do? And if they do owe us something aren't we bound to forgive and forget any debt, on pain of having to pay back to God all we owe?

It seems that each and every time people find themselves face to face with the Almighty, they fall flat on their faces, and each and every time God lifts them to their feet. Our primal dignity, to stand before the Almighty and to think for ourselves is not taken from anyone. God does not want people to grovel eternally before the divine presence, and God certainly doesn't want us to spend our lives trying to repay all we owe the divine - this would indeed be hell here on earth. God wants us to forget the times when we have offended God and get on with loving our brothers and sisters. God wants us to forgive and accept the differences of those around us - the differences between genders, sexual orientations, ethnic, racial, and religious differences. For it is only in doing this that we can claim to have a Gospel for all of humanity and we stand any chance of avoiding the fate of the unforgiving servant in our reading of Matthew for today. Indeed in the light of these words - the acceptance and forgiveness of difference is the only rule we have to follow.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Of Rocks and Blocks

Rock outcropping near Colorado Springs, Colorado

This is the sermon I gave at Church of the Saviour Episcopal Church in Clermont, Iowa on August 31, 2008.

Have you noticed? Over recent weeks quite a few of the readings have featured Peter in some shape or form. From walking on water to the recognition of who Christ was and today the rock who Jesus said Peter was became the rock which caused Jesus to stumble. What had Peter said that made Jesus react in the way he did? The answer lies in what Jesus said to Peter following his remarks on how he cannot let Jesus suffer. “You think as men think not as God thinks”. Words don’t come easy and when they do they can often be wrong, misunderstood, misinterpreted or be taken out of context.

Peter, understandably, was appalled to think that the Messiah, the Christ must be put to death. We have the benefit of knowing the complete story. We know that this passage of scripture falls between the miracles and was Jesus was teaching.

It must have been like doing a jigsaw puzzle but without the picture. Peter’s reaction was natural. Kings don’t suffer for their people, it is the people who suffer for the king. Perhaps Peter was waiting for Jesus to tell him how he planned to overthrow and oust the Romans, but this is Jesus standing and speaking on true authority that a true disciple and follower of God is also expected to suffer. This will involve self-denial, putting God and other people first. Jesus, when in the Garden of Gethsememe was not looking forward to dying on the cross but he prayed “Not my will but yours will be done”. As I said earlier, words don’t come easy.

It is not popular, it is not easy but God calls and equips us to do it in the power of the Holy Spirit. But we have to rely upon His spirit and not our own.

There are times in our lives when words fail us, but it is not just finding the words that is important, words without meaning are worthless, words without understanding and action are worthless. The message that we need to understand, and understand clearly, that God chose Jesus’s death on the cross as the only way by which all humankind could be restored to a right relationship. It is a way that would have been unthinkable to a first century Jew like Peter. It is a way that can seem barbaric and unjust to people today.

We have to give our life to Jesus in order to gain a true life. Not existing but living it to the full knowing that we wake up each day with God as our best friend.

Our life is precious, priceless, and more important than owning the whole world. We cannot give anything to buy our soul - the only price that could buy us has already been paid by Jesus.

When we fully recognize this, it shows that we really understand the lengths that God has gone to in saving us. This shows that we have given up our lives in order to gain life. This life is eternal life, eternal not only in its length but also its breadth. Eternal life is not only everlasting it is a quality of life, a life in the right relationship with God. A life where one day there will be no more death of mourning, weeping or pain because the old order of things has passed.

In the previous chapter of Matthew we had Peter being described by Jesus as a rock on which I will build my church. Now he goes from being a solid rock to being a stumbling block, from being a hero to being a zero. How do we see ourselves? Building blocks or stumbling blocks?

In todays reading of Paul's letter to the Church in Rome, Paul reminds us to do things that will make us building blocks, by holding fast to what is good, blessing all people whether friends or enemies, and overcoming evil with good.

So that’s how Christ sees us as building blocks. What about stumbling blocks? Living for yourself, looking after number one. Living for self is an attitude of seeking yourself first, Jesus warned many times about the fool hardiness of living for self. Most of us here today would see ourselves as building blocks, but like all building blocks they have to be maintained and made sure that they are strong enough to withstand all weight that’s placed upon it and the various storms that will confront it.

Peter was the one who found himself with the awkward questions. I believe that there is a bit of Peter in everybody. It always seemed that Jesus was forever correcting the disciples on the way they saw his messiahship. But after Jesus ascended; the acts of the apostles are full of instances where the disciples went around healing and expanding Christ’s ministry. But here's the miracle—Peter STAYED. Stumbling block or building block, or both—it doesn't matter, because Peter stayed, in spite of the fact that he had just endured a public chewing out in front of his closest friends and a total loss of face. I wonder if the disciples were here this morning, if Peter was right in front of us, I wonder what we would say to them, how would we question them, is that what you really meant Peter? Were you trying to subvert God or protect Him. And how does that make Peter any different than the rest of us. My will, not the will of God whom I serve—isn't that a natural reaction when a loved one gets cancer, or loses a job, or experiences heartache?

There’s a prayer I remember learning when I was growing up and I've found out that it’s been turned into a hymn, if you have a look in your hymnals it’s hymn number 694. It says:

God be in my head

and in my understanding;

God be in mine eyes

and in my looking;

God be in my mouth

and in my speaking;

God be in my heart

and in my thinking

God be at mine end

and at my departing

And it sums up for me in the way in which we channel God into our lives. Most of us will probably never find ourselves in the exact position that Peter did. But there will be countless times when we will find ourselves asking my will or yours Lord? I wonder how we will respond. We hope that we will make the right decision.

Jesus showed the way forward by living and demonstrating a way of life that most had never thought of let alone seen. The challenge that Christ set the disciples becomes our challenge.

So today let that challenge become a reality for us.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Who Is Jesus Sermon

This is the sermon I gave at Church of the Saviour Episcopal Church in Clermont, Iowa on August 24, 2008. The question I asked was: Who is Jesus?

In todays readings names have a central role. In the reading from Exodus, the story is about how the descendants of Jacob become the twelve tribes of Israel and how they become enslaved to the Egyptians. One of those descendants is a baby boy who is put in a basket by his mother so he escapes death by the hands of the Egyptians. Well, the little one is found by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh, who will raise him as her child, and she names him Moses because she “drew him out of the water”. The name Moses is very significant because it is a royal Egyptian name, the names of the Pharaohs themselves often have Moses as part of their name because the Pharaohs were considered gods and their power as a god came from the Nile river, from the water. Without the water of the Nile, Egypt would cease to exist. So it is very significant that this Hebrew boy, who was to be a slave, becomes part of the royal household of Egypt and then eventually leads the Hebrews out of Egypt on their journey to the promised land.

In the Romans reading, Paul says we all have names: prophet, minister, teacher, exhorter, giver, leader; to each according to their ability.

Then in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks of his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

I want to ask two questions:

1. What did Peter mean?
2. What does this mean to us today?

1. What did Peter mean when he said “ You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”

The word Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah – which simply means God’s anointed One

There were three types of people who would be anointed:

1. Prophets
2. Priests
3. Kings
And in Jesus we find all three.

However, the Jews were expecting a Messiah who would exercise God’s rule over God’s people.

But Jesus wasn’t the all conquering hero that the Jews were expecting, similar to Judas Maccabeus who had kicked the occupying powers out in 167 BC.

Rather he was the suffering servant that Isaiah spoke about.

The last prophet in the Old Testament Malachi prophesied three hundred years before Jesus was born and said this:
"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3:1)
Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah – the one sent by God.

But he recognized more. That Jesus wasn’t just human, but that he was divine too.

For a Jew like St Peter this was, this was a seismic shift in his thinking, to call Jesus the Son of God.

All his life Peter had been taught that there is one God and never to worship a man as God.

It was one of the reasons which caused both the Jewish and Christian faiths to clash with Roman authority – because emperor worship was the touchstone of loyalty to the empire.

And the city where Jesus asked the disciples the question was not insignificant either. For he asked them the question in Caesarea Philippi, a city about 25 miles northeast of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown.

Caesarea Philippi was know for its plurality of religions. In that city alone there were 14 temples dedicated to the worship of Ba’al.

And high up on a prominent mountain peak you could see the ultimate blasphemy for a Jew – a temple dedicated to the worship of Caesar.
The famous Bible commentator William Barclay put it all in perspective:

Here indeed is a dramatic picture. Here is a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter, with twelve very ordinary men around him.

At the moment the orthodox are actually plotting and planning to destroy him as a dangerous heretic.

He stands in an area littered with the temples of Syrian gods; in a place where the ancient Greek gods looked down; in a place where the history of Israel crowded upon the minds of men; where the white marble splendor of the home of Caesar-worship dominated the landscape and compelled the eye.

And there – of all places – this amazing carpenter stands and asks men who they believe him to be, and expects the answer, the Son of God.

So what does that mean for us today?

If Jesus is God’s anointed One and he is divine, then we need to take what he says seriously

Jesus made some startling and very exclusive claims.

For example in the Gospel of John he said: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)

I often hear people say that “All religions are basically the same – they all worship the same God”.

But I don't necessarily agree. Because Jesus doesn’t leave us that option.

If Christianity is all about following Christ – rather than the common misconception that a Christian is simply someone who is nice and good - then universalism (that is the belief that all religions will bring us to God) is not a Christian option. This does not invalidate other religions, or lead us to judge them, but it gives their path over to God's grace and leads us on a radically different journey.

Why? Because of who Jesus is.

In today’s Gospel reading the question is asked:

Who do you think Jesus is?.

There were a number of answers

Firstly, we have the crowd’s answer in our Bible passage today.

The disciples in answering the question replied:

Some say; John the Baptist, other Elijah and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

Why Elijah. The Jews steeped in the Old Testament knew the prophecy from Malachi that Elijah must come before the Messiah would return.

Why John the Baptist? Many thought John the Baptist was the return of Elijah – indeed Jesus himself announces John as a prophet like Elijah.
Why Jeremiah: Because Jesus, like Jeremiah “was a prophet of judgment, declaring God’s impending destruction on his own nation and therefore opposed and persecuted by its leaders” (RT France )

But let us also look at some other answers given over the centuries by famous figures in recent history.

Consider Albert Schweitzer the famous theologian and one of the 113 Swiss Nobel Prize winners; who says, if we don't believe Jesus is Christ, then he was a deluded fanatic who futilely threw away his life in blind devotion to a mad dream.

Then there is the famous writer, George Bernard Shaw, who was also an atheist who said

“Jesus was a man who was sane until Peter hailed him as the Christ and who then became a monomaniac…his delusion is a very common delusion among the insane…”

Or if you ask the question to a practicing Muslim and you will get the answer that Jesus was simply a great prophet , second only to Mohamed and that he was not divine.

But there have been other answers.

Such as CS Lewis

And in his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis made this poignant statement,

"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.

He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a
man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be
the devil of hell.

You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."

Being a Christian is not simply about being a “good” person.

It is indeed not about who the follower is.

Rather it is all about Him who we follow.

A Christian is a person who has recognized who Jesus is and has then decided to follow him.

As Peter put it: Jesus is The Messiah: the Son of the living God.

My prayer is that, with Simon Peter, you would simply say with every fiber of your being, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

The question I’d like to leave you with today is this: Who do you think Jesus is?

Because your answer, the way you name Him, will affect the way you live your life.


Friday, August 22, 2008

St. James and the computer

In my travels yesterday, I happened to drive by St. James Episcopal Church in Independence, Iowa. I noticed a sign saying that they had a computer center with free internet open from 2-5 every weekday afternoon. I jotted that fact down in my mental notebook and continued on with my day.

Well in the afternoon, I was driving back home and was going close to Independence so I decided to swing by and check this computer center out for myself. It is a rather simple affair, five computers in their parish hall and all of them had someone working on it. I spoke with the church member that was monitoring the center and she said that it had been open for a couple of weeks and had been getting more people every day that they were open. The reason that they decided to do this is that they are very close to the city library that is being closed because the library is moving to a new, more spacious building. However, the new building is quite a ways away from the current building and the people who have a tendency to use the computer services in the library tend to be disadvantaged and live within a four block area of the current library. Traveling to the new library would be difficult, especially in the winter. So the congregation decided to open up this center to help out their neighbors. In the hour that I was there, a total of seven people came and went using the computers to check email, apply for jobs, type correspondence, or just to surf the web for awhile.

I really compliment the St. James congregation for doing this outreach to the community. May we all have this attitude and forethought to help our neighbors.

Grace to all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tree Planting

On Monday evening a group of Democrats from Clayton County, Iowa gathered for a photo with a tree that was donated by the county party to the Elkader city park. The tree was actually planted in the spring but alas, there was a flood that closed the park. The tree survived the flood (there was about a foot of water covering the ground for a day where the tree is located) and so we decided that we should visit our tree and have a photo taken with it.

Afterwards we had our monthly meeting, which didn't have the attendance that I had hoped that it would since this is an election year. I have a feeling that many people in Iowa are still suffering from PCSD (Post Caucus Stress Disorder) in which they won't get interested until a month before the election.

Overall, it is looking good for Democrats in the county, but as I well know, there is no candidate that is ever assured of winning in any contested election.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First Day of School

Today is the first day of school for my kids. They are starting 10th, 8th, 4th, & 2nd grade at our local school which is about 8 miles away from where we live. All of the grades are in one building and the total enrollment of the school is about 675 students. It is also the school that I graduated from a few years ago.... But then I went to school in Strawberry Point for K-4, then Lamont for 5th grade, then Arlington for 6th grade, then back to Strawberry Point for 7-8, and then out to the central school (Starmont) site that is located between the three towns. It is much nicer to have everything all in one site now.

The youngest who is 4 years old is going to "Grandma's Preschool", which is actually my mom who works with her on a number of activities. Hopefully, when I'm 84 years old I will have half the energy of my mom.

Well that is about it for today. Grace and Peace to all.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Crop Dusting

On Friday of last week we had an unusual occurrence over our farm. A neighbor apparently was having some of their corn sprayed with a crop duster. I can only remember one other time when there was a crop duster in our neighborhood. That is when there was an outbreak of army worms about 25 years ago. I haven't heard what the reason was for the spraying but it must be some sort of serious infestation because the cost of employing a crop duster is very high.

I know that the pilots that fly these aircraft must be crazy because they go very low over the fields and seem like they barely miss the electric lines and/or trees at the ends of the fields.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Twenty Years of Wedded Bliss (ok, sometimes it wasn't blissful...)

On August 13, 1988 in West Bend, Iowa, two young idealistic people got married. Now, twenty years later, they have been through ups and downs, the births of five beautiful children, the grief of losing parents, dreams realized, and dreams not realized. Through it all they stayed together which sometimes was very hard but it all was worth it. Marriage isn't just about love; it is about commitment. When I see friends and family that have gotten divorced I feel very sad because they don't have the special bond that my wife and I have. Maybe they never had a bond like we have and that is the reason for the couple going separate ways.

I pray for all couples, that they have the bond that true love and commitment gives them and that it will endure always.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bye Bye Bull

Well today is Tuesday which is when the Edgewood Livestock Auction has their weekly sale. And today our Simmental bull, Wolf, headed to the sale barn. It is kind of a sad day for me since I purchased him when he was a yearling and I've had him for four years. But as in all things on a farm, he was livestock and not a pet. So it came to the time when he headed down the road. At least now I won't be getting any phone calls from a neighbor that he is out and in with their cows....

Monday, August 11, 2008

It is Monday again....

Kizzy the calf lounging around at the Clayton County Fair

It is Monday again and I'm taking a wee break between reports. The kids have a week to go before school starts again. My lovely wife is trying to finish up her final paper for a class she took this summer. To top it off, it is a very nice day out today.

With all the conflicts in the world, Iraq, Afganistan, Sudan, and now Georgia, I am reminded of the first verse of Psalm 133 which says, Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity! My prayer for today is not necessarily of unity but of peace.

O God, may peace come to those areas and peoples that are experiencing wars and conflicts that they may find peace not just for themselves but for their neighbors as well. Amen

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Walking on Water Sermon

A photo of the Mississippi River near Waukon Junction, Iowa

This is the sermon that I gave at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on Sunday, Augsust 10th.

Once, on a church bulletin board there was the following notice:
Morning Bible Study: Jesus walks on water
Evening Bible Study: Searching for Jesus.

Somehow it seemed no one in that church had foreseen the confusing message their bulletin board was going to tell that day. Anyway this morning we have the familiar story about Jesus walking on water.

First a bit of background: John the Baptist has just been beheaded and the disciples (some of whom were followers of John) have not had time to grieve for him. They are immediately plunged into feeding the 5000, gathering up the 12 baskets of fragments left over and trying now to quell a crowd of people who want to proclaim Jesus as king. Jesus then sends them on ahead of him in a boat. Then Matthew says that Jesus dismissed the people and went alone up the mountain to pray. You know we could ignore this verse, see it as just setting the context of the next episode in the gospel and yet it contains some very important lessons for us all this morning.

First – Jesus is genuinely concerned in the welfare of us his disciples. They need rest after all that has happened. So he sends them ahead, away from the crowd and the demands of people. He sends them ahead so that the demands of ministry which have drained them cannot exert pressure on them for a time. We all need to learn to take time out from people and the demands of others.

Secondly – they obey and in obeying they will in fact come face to face with a storm. Learn from that – obedience to the will, to the Word of God does not guarantee a quiet life. It may in fact lead us through a storm. But remember this also – the storm was not unforeseen by Christ. He was not being careless or care free with the life of his disciples. There was a lesson that they could learn only in the midst of that storm.

Thirdly – Jesus had not forgotten them, even when he was praying. He went up a mountainside. Obviously because it enabled him to be alone to pray, but also because it enabled him to see the disciples in the boat rowing across the lake. Who was Jesus praying for? Himself, yes but I am also sure, from the example he set the disciples elsewhere in prayer, the disciples also. Here is an important lesson from Jesus about ministry. You are most vulnerable after the miracle has happened. You are most vulnerable and need to seek the face of God in prayer immediately you have done something for the glory of God. If Christ needed to seek his Father’s face in prayer immediately after feeding 5000 then how much more do we after the things we do for God’s glory.

Then we learn that the disciples are now caught in a storm. The wind has come up against them and their little boat is being buffeted about by the waves. They are struggling for all they are worth to keep the boat on course. Then Jesus comes walking on the water towards them. Matthew tells us it was the fourth watch of the night, that is about 3am.

Well the disciples are absolutely terrified, hardly surprising. They fail to recognize him because they do not expect him to come to them. After all they had left him on the shore many hours ago. They did not expect him and they certainly had not entertained the idea that he could walk on water. In fact Matthew says they think he is some sort of a ghost. Their fear is real and it is clear to Christ because he speaks to them. Note the middle phrase – ‘It is I’ or ‘I AM.’ This phrase again points to a self-revelation of God. But it is prefaced and followed by an exhortation to take courage and not be afraid. It is only at this point, the voice of Christ, the Word of God spoken that the disciples eyes are opened as to who it is that comes walking on the water towards them. You see, their eyes are blinded by the storm around them. They cannot see that it is Christ coming towards them because their eyes, their heart, their minds are full of waves, wind and rain. They are focused on the storm and they do not expect Jesus to come. With the result that when he does they fail to recognize him amidst the storm.

But Peter, does recognize Jesus. Not only does he recognize him he also has faith in him. So Peter calls out to Christ in the midst of the storm. You know, courage alone is not enough to walk on water. Courage must have wisdom and discernment. That is why Peter calls for Jesus to call him forth. Peter wanted to go to Christ but he would and could only do so if Christ called him forth. Why did Peter ask such a question of Jesus? I think Peter knew that where Jesus was no matter how dark the night, no matter how high the waves, strong the wind or wet the water –it was in fact safer than being in a boat without him. I think it is central to this whole story

Jesus says ‘come’ and Peter obeys. It took faith and courage to climb over the side of the boat and to let go and walk towards Jesus. We are not told how far Peter walked before he began to sink. I will come to the sinking in a moment. But stop for a moment and think abut what Peter has just done. There were, and are, all sorts of reasons for not getting out of the boat in the midst of the storm.

You can’t walk on water – it is impossible.
You will look foolish and get even wetter than you already are.
It is dangerous, the boat is the safest place to be.
You are needed here in the boat – we need all the help we can get to fight this storm.
You are putting too much faith in that call.

There was only one reason to get out of that boat – Jesus had said ‘come.’ There is no other reason to climb over the side of that boat and to walk on water. Everything said to do the very opposite but Peter obeyed the command of Jesus. The reality is that no other disciple in that boat obeyed. They sat there cowering in fear, blinded by their fear of the storm. The other eleven remained terrified in the boat and never experienced walking on water – only Peter did. Remain in the boat and you never know what it is like to walk on the water with Christ. And the truth is that only the call of Christ could and would make it possible – that is why Peter asks the question.

Then it all begins to go horribly wrong. For some reason this is the part that most people focus on – the fact that Peter’s faith failed him. Yes it did but not until after he had walked on water. Let me ask you a question: Which would you rather? Taking a few steps on the water towards Jesus and then sinking or never getting out of the boat? Yes Peter looked around him and when his eyes had moved off Christ and on to the wind and the waves he began to sink. He began to doubt the reality that had happened and it all began to unravel. He begins to listen to those voices that would have kept him in the boat in the first place. ‘What was I thinking?’ ‘I can’t walk on water.’ ‘I am going to drown.’ ‘What am I doing out here on the water?’ Immediately he yells ‘save me Lord!’ Jesus does save Peter and in the midst of the water, away from the hearing of those disciples in the boat he helps Peter to locate the source of his sinking – doubt and lack of faith. Peter had not doubted when he climbed out over the side of the boat. He had no lack of faith as he walked towards Christ on the water. It was when his focus left Christ and went on to the wind and the waves that faith left him and doubt assailed his soul.

But is that not the story of your faith and my faith? We walk on water, we begin to sink. We tell Christ to go away and then when we begin to drown we cry for him to save us. You see the reality for us all is that the world is a pretty stormy place. There are setbacks, opposition, unexpected obstacles and any one of them will shift our gaze off Jesus and we begin to sink and drown. The reality also is that people are very quick to come and say ‘I told you so!’ There are many who refuse to get out of the boat because of the storms of life and they sit around just waiting to point out the drowning of others because they stepped out in faith.

Here is the heart of this passage. You cannot grow unless you get out of the boat and experience both walking on water and that sinking drowning experience which leads you to cry from the depths of your soul for Christ to save you. Peter needed to sink in order to grow. He needed to sink in order that he might move to the next step of his faith in Christ. You see walking on water does not ultimately lead to spiritual growth. How often we read in the gospels of the miracles of Christ but how many followed only to see a miracle happen – they never came to faith because of the miracle. Those experiences may bring people back to see and experience more but it is the experience of suffering which drives them to cry out to Christ.

You see by sinking and being saved Peter would never forget. He would never forget the experience of taking that step of faith out of the boat and walking on the water. He would never forget that fear in his soul as he began to sink nor the cry for salvation. He would not forget the hands of Jesus lifting him up out of the wet and the experience of walking back to the boat together. He would never forget what it felt like to have the arms of Christ around him supporting him as together they got back into the boat. You know one of the things we fail to see and understand about the disciples in the gospel is that their faith and understanding of who Jesus was came grew gradually. They constantly come back to the same point time and time again. Each time their understanding has grown a little deeper and their eyes are opened a little more to who Jesus is and why he had come. It is not until the cross and the resurrection that their eyes are truly opened and their understanding deepened further. I would suggest that is the normal pattern for how people come to faith in Christ Jesus – over a longer period of time than we think or would like. But gradually eyes are opened, understanding deepened and the same point is returned to many times. It happened with the disciples and they had Christ as their teacher – why would we expect anything differently?

There are some lessons here for us this morning.

Obedience does not guarantee that we will escape adversity. Obedience may in fact lead us through some severe storms. When that happens let us remember Jesus has not forgotten us – he has foreseen every storm along the way.

When we least expect it, in the darkest moment of the storm He will come to us, walking on the very waves, through the wind and rain – the very things which frighten us and buffet us. He comes to rescue us and to bring us safely to our journeys end. Yet the danger is that our eyes will be so focused on the storm that we will fail to recognise him when he comes. I pray that will not be so.

Courage requires discernment and wisdom – but when Christ calls us to get out of the boat and walk on water – it is a call to obedience and faith. Yes there will be fear, there will always be fear when we step out in faith – but remember Peter had to step out in faith. Christ called him to come forth but Peter had to take the step of faith.

Yes we will experience great moments in our faith, walking on the water but we will also experience those moments when we are sinking and drowning. It is those moments when we cry to Christ to save us that we grow – because when all else fails, when there is no hope except him – he comes and lifts us and saves us. He brings us back to safety and takes us to where he had instructed us to go in the first place.

Here is a question: Would you rather sink having experienced walking on the water towards Christ or remain in the boat? There will always be reasons to stay in the boat. There will always be voices telling you how foolish, how stupid, how dangerous, etc it is to step out in faith on to the water. There is only one reason to get out of the boat and walk on the water – the command of Jesus to come.

Let me finish by saying this. Do you ever think that in quiet reflective moments Peter’s heart surged with the memories of that night and walking on the water? He experienced something none of the other disciples ever did because they stayed in the boat. There is a knowledge of Jesus that only comes through the action and experience of getting out of our boats and walking on the water with him. Peter walked on water, he sank and was rescued. The result was his eyes, the eyes of the others were opened further to who Jesus was. So when you begin to sink – your response is the key. Remember Christ will be there to save you all you have to do is call on him. But also remember you wont ever experience walking on water if you never get out of your boat – and that means taking a risk at answering the voice of Christ.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

A midsummer's afternoon

The above photo is of the four Mulefoot piglets that my fifteen year old daughter exhibited at the Clayton County, Iowa Fair.

These are the critters that she received a trophy for 'Best Overall Other Animal' exhibit. She is now up to two fair trophies. That is the number that I received for all of my years exhibiting at the county fair and she has three years left. Of course my thirteen year old already had two trophies so she will probably end up with more than either of us.

The majority of my family is down in Des Moines, Iowa. My lovely wife had a educational conference there. Three of the kids and my mom went with her, they are staying at my brother's house where the youngest two can play with my niece's kids. My thirteen year old daughter and my nine year old son are lucky enough to get to stay with their dad for a few days.

Well I suppose I should get back to working on another appraisal report....

Grace and Peace to all!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The County Fair

This past week was our county fair in National, Iowa. My wife and I are both 4-H leaders and four out of the five kids are involved some way in 4-H. The four year old isn't old enough yet to be an official part of it but she tries to help out with everyone else.

If you don't know, 4-H is a youth organization that originally started out in rural areas but is now in both large and small places. In Iowa, the Iowa State University extension service administers the program. I think that 4-H is best summed up by the 4-H pledge that is said at every meeting.

I pledge
My head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service, and
My health to better living,
For my club, my community, my country, and my world.

Our kids did well, they received some purple ribbons, mostly blue ribbons, and a few red ribbons. One trophy was won by the oldest daughter in the "Other Animals" category for the mulefoot pigs that she took.

The fair is an event that the whole family looks forward to but I think that everyone is relieved when it ends after a few days. The oldest two stayed overnight in the barn with the livestock. Yours truly got to chaperone two nights to make sure that no one got into too much mischief. Now school will be starting in a couple of weeks so the kids are winding down the summer.

I hope everyone has had a wonderful day!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Heaven is Like Parables Sermon

Organ Pipes at St. Sebald Lutheran Church, rural Strawberry Point, Iowa

This is the sermon that I gave at the Skip-A-Way Campgrounds at Clermont, Iowa and at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour which is also in Clermont, Iowa on Sunday, July 27th.

I believe that sometimes we human beings have a perception problem. Often we think we have the proper perspective on an issue when in fact we are way off. It causes someone to look ridiculous.

That is the focus of the readings today. In the first lesson, Jacob works for seven years for a precious treasure—Rachel, only to be given Leah instead. Jacob felt ridiculous, because it was dark and he did not realize it was Leah until the morning after the wedding! And he still wanted the treasure, Rachel, but Leah was part of the package. We look at that story and it is ridiculous by today's standards.

There's a story that Thomas Wheeler who was CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, tells on himself: Mr. Wheeler and his wife were driving along an interstate highway when he noticed that their car was low on gas. Wheeler got off the highway at the next exit and soon found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump. He asked the lone attendant to fill the tank and check the oil; then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs.

As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant. But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, "It was great talking to you."

As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She readily admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year.

"Boy, were you lucky that I came along," bragged Wheeler.

"If you had married him, you'd be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer."

"My dear," replied his wife, "if I had married him, he'd be the chief executive officer and you'd be the gas station attendant."

Often we think we have the proper perspective on something when in fact we are way off. Jesus understood this propensity for us humans to get it wrong. Especially when it comes to things spiritual. So he told us parables. In fact sometimes the Gospels seem like a parade full of parables, - moving from one significant parable to the next – the parable of the sower, the parable of the weeds (that we heard last week), the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the prodigal son, and so on. But when we get to this small group of parables, we've reached a float in the parade that doesn't seem too remarkable. It's like a civic group that we've heard of but don't know too much about and they always have the same old hay rack as their entry. We've noticed them before in other year's parades but they've never seemed significant enough to hold our attention for long.

Let’s see if we can come up with some fresh insights into them today.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (vs. 31-32)

I don’t know if you deal much in mustard seeds. I don’t. I looked around to see if we had any mustard seeds at home. We did. I'm not sure why we have some, I know I haven't used any before. But apparently my wife, Marcia, has used some before.

Parables are often intended as dry jokes, with camels going through the eye of a needle, and finding dust in someone else’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own. And here, with the mustard seed, where you’ve got the smallest of all seeds developing into a magnificent piece of foliage.

True? Well, from what I understand, and I've found out more about the mustard plant this week than I ever wanted to know, the mustard tree is hardly an impressive plant in its adult form - more like an over sized weed from the descriptions I’ve been given.

‘And birds of the air come and build their nests in this over sized shrub’, Jesus says. ‘Very small birds’, he neglects to add. A ridiculous proposition.

And what about this woman?

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (vs.33)

Unless you’re a baker by trade, you might miss the fact that Jesus is talking about an absurdly large amount of dough in this parable - using the equivalent of about 90 pounds of flour, as I understand it! We’re talking about a lot of dough, and very industrious woman...or a woman who has just wasted yeast and contaminated 'unleavened flour' It is a matter of perspective.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (vs.44)

I remember as a kid, using my dad's metal detector to see what I could find. I enthusiastically dug lots of holes in the yard, hoping that I might uncover some buried treasure. All I ever found were some rusty nails.

I accept now that there’s not a lot of pirates’ gold buried in rural Iowa. Even so, in the Middle East, in areas of land where Jesus was, where numerous tribes, peoples, and civilizations had fought over the same plots of ground over many generations, it was always possible that one of the previous owners of your property had stashed his treasure deep in the ground when he saw the enemy coming, and didn’t get an opportunity to redeem it.

Treasure law is complicated. In ancient days there were clear laws about treasure. And there were common stories about people discovering treasure. Those stories had to do with being rewarded for some righteous behavior.

One such story was about Abba-Judah. He was wealthy and generous but he lost his wealth. He was saddened that he couldn't give anymore to the rabbis and in his despair his wife said to him, "Well you still have a field, sell half of it, give to the rabbis and then just plow the other half." Which he did and they blessed him for his generosity. They said, "May the Holy One, blessed be He, make up all the things that you lack." And one day when, Abba-Judah went to plow his field, his cow broke a leg and he went to lift the leg of the cow and there right where the leg was, he found a jewel worth a great deal of money. These were the kinds of stories that were floating around in the 1st century as well as all the rules about what you could find and keep.

This was the backdrop for this parable. And so Jesus opened his mouth and said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again and then in his joy, went and sold all that he had and bought the field." What does this mean? Now we read this and we assume maybe at first glance, that the kingdom of heaven is about joy.

And certainly it is, but the hearers who heard this parable would say, "Wait a minute, that man did not own that field. He was a day laborer who found treasure marked; it was hidden. It was marked and yet he was so excited that he bought the field." They are thinking that he just snookered the owner of the field, like we are tempted to snooker the person in a yard sale find.

And probably the clearest proof of that assumption is this. If he could have legally lifted the treasure, why not just take it? But he didn't. He had to go and sell everything he had to buy the field in order for it to be legal. And unlike the Jewish treasure stories, there is no sense in Jesus' parable about whether the man who finds this treasure is good or bad. Often Jesus reverses things to drive home a point. So why is the kingdom of God like this hidden treasure? Because the kingdom of God comes to us before our deeds can dictate anything. The kingdom of God is discovered by "morally good people" and by "terrible people."

Jesus tells them another parable:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Now I know nothing about pearls. I’m rather uncultured in the way of pearls. I don’t know if pearls are valued today as they once were.

Legend has it that Julius Caesar gave Brutus’ mother a pearl worth six million sesterti. (and no doubt lived to regret it since Brutus was the one who assassinated Caesar). Cleopatra was supposed to have a pearl worth 100 million sesterti.

Certain pearls were evidently worth a lot to certain persons in the first century. You’d sell everything you had in order to get the right one. That doesn’t make much sense to me, but then again I’m not an pearl addict. It's absurd to think about.

The parables today either speak of a ridiculous proposition, or a treasure. The Kingdom of God is waiting here to be discovered. Sometimes it will be discovered with joy and ease; other times it will be hidden, waiting. Our struggles as Christians can miss that. Sometimes, despite all our efforts, our achievements in Christian ministry may well seem to us to be as minuscule as that mustard seed, or that hidden yeast.

And that brings in the question of time lines and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes in many Churches, after years and years of hard work by dedicated people, all we’ve have to show for it is this little mustard seed. Where are the results? Hidden! Like yeast that’s hidden somewhere in the dough. Oh yeah, the Holy Spirit is growing Kingdom of God through our efforts, you can be sure, but don’t put a time line on exactly how long you think it’s going to take before you see the results.

One day … you’ll be able to put that magnificent pearl around your neck. One day ... you’ll be able to cash in your treasure. One day you’ll see how that mysterious and invisible yeast has transformed the whole enormous lump of bread dough. One day … that tiny seed will become a huge over sized bush. They are all representations of the Holy Spirit's treasure--grace and goodness in our lives

In the meantime, we pay the price, we give up everything we have, we hang on to the mustard seed, and we keep on kneading the dough, because we know that the Kingdom of God was given to us when Jesus died, and we work each day through our lives to bring it to its fullness.

Well … what do you think? Was it worth taking a closer look at this entry in the parade? Did you perceive anything new in them today?

God knows that we need fresh insight into the Scriptures and into our world,. We need fresh perspectives on life and ministry, but we need too the old, old story, and we need to keep being reminded of the basic truths - that following Jesus is not a promise that we can see results for our efforts. Yet we can be confident that our work is having its effect, and as sure as there’s a mustard plant blooms, we can be sure, that one day, that we will arrive at the fullness of the Kingdom.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mississippi River Tour

Dusk on Harper's Slough, a backwater of the Mississippi River

Last night my wife and I went on a couple hour Mississippi River boat tour at Harpers Ferry, Iowa. It was a group tour with a group from the Clayton County Democrats. We had a potluck and a short meeting and then we went on our cruise. We went up and down and around the various backwaters of the river with the captain of the boat telling us different stories of the history and ecology of the river. When on the main channel of the Mississippi we went up below the lock and dam at Lynxville, Wisconsin. Then we returned via a series of backwater sloughs.

It was a very enjoyable time and I would recommend a tour if you are ever in the Northeast Iowa area. Their website is

I hope that all of you are having a wonderful day!

Grace and Peace to you all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Monday musings

The above photo was snapped by your truly this morning in the flower bed in our front yard. Two bumble bees are busily sipping the nectar out of this coneflower.

Mondays have a tendency to be busy for me, I have to catch up with the things that I've let slip over the weekend. Today, I have an update on an appraisal report (which is now done), do some additional research on a report that the bank didn't like, work on a government foreclosure report, do my normal chores, and this evening my lovely wife and I get to go on an evening cruise on the Mississippi River.

Of course through this all I will be musing next Sunday's readings to find the common thread so I can figure out what sort of thing to talk about in my sermon.

Today the kids are off at driver's ed class, babysitting, at a Church camp, and the youngest two are in the other room watching the TV.

I hope all of you are having a marvelous Monday!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Parable of the Weeds Sermon

This is darnel which is the tares (weeds) of the Parable of the Tares.
(photo from Wikipedia)

Here is the sermon that I gave at the Skip-A-Way campground and the Church of the Saviour, both in Clermont, Iowa.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I have heard it said that Heaven really must be a wonderful place, because no-one has yet come back to complain!

We hear a lot about heaven today. In the old testament today, Jacob dreams of Heaven, complete with a ladder and angels ascending and descending. Jacob is told his family will stretch across the generations, just as it was foretold to Abraham, his grandfather. For Jacob, this dream of multiplying his family is a cultural heaven, a promise fulfilled.

Paul, too, talks about Heaven and judgment, and is thankful for the Holy Spirit, who Intercedes for us and calls on our behalf, giving us the ability to pray and to audaciously call God our Father.

As Christians, heaven is something which we think we have an idea about, it is certainly our goal and perhaps through the grace of God, it will be our reward also. But we do not properly know what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like: I've seen cartoon images abound of clouds and angels with halos and wings compete with pastoral images of rolling golf courses and big houses. But is that what Heaven is really like?

Christ spoke frequently of the kingdom of heaven and its relationship to this earth, but didn't really describe it in practical terms. It was far more important for him to outline the nature of heaven than its substance. For us, it is the nature of heaven which should be our concern, not the substance. Because, coming from God, it will naturally be a good place.

Thus, this chapter of Matthew, chapter 13, serves to bring together three explorations of the Kingdom of Heaven by likening it to something familiar to the people of the age. Three times in this chapter he uses the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

Like a man who sowed good seed and had it ruined by an enemy
Like a mustard seed which starts small and grows into something mighty
Like yeast which moves through bread, leavening it and transforming it

We should be careful not to overstep our understanding of these parables, for Christ does not say “The Kingdom of Heaven is”. He says “The Kingdom of Heaven is LIKE”. We are not ready yet for what the kingdom actually is, and so it is revealed to us in language and concepts that we mere human beings can handle.

Each of these examples gives us a glimpse of an aspect of heaven, but without the full picture. Christ, who came from heaven to earth is the only one who is gifted with that full picture.

The parable of the Weeds (or Tares as used in some versions) is for us an indication of future judgment. Throughout his ministry Christ strove to call to repentance rather than to condemn: to encourage inner change rather than to completely reject; to only spring to positive action when faced with absolute evil in the form of the possessed or the money changers of the Temple courts. The reason for his lack of condemnation is rooted less in Christ’s all-pervading forgiveness, but in the sure and certain knowledge that proper judgment will be upon us, and will be administered fairly. The parable we have before us, the weed is darnel which looks like wheat when it starts growing but turns into a plant that is not only a nuisance but is poisonous. Normally, one should try to remove the noxious darnel weeds before they take deep root and intermingle with the wheat but the experienced worker can separate them by the seed head. The owner’s response does not condemn the weeds immediately, but leaves it to the harvest time. He trusts in the judgment process, he trusts that no poison will be left to sour the entire harvest.

As frequently happens, Christ uses a parable, not because it is instantly recognized by the hearers, not in order to perpetuate the prejudices of the listeners, but to subvert their common understanding, to challenge the norm, to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.

Of course, this is what Christ does for us each and every day. He takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. He takes our ordinary lives and transforms us.

The humble mustard seed is transformed into a shrub, it expands and takes over, filling the area and beyond. That is growth, growth in the spirit, growth in faith and love, growth in our humanity. The flat unleavened bread is tasteless and uninspiring, and it is the yeast which transforms it. Just like our love, yeast grows in the warmth, grows under the pleasure of God. It is more than simply for ourselves that we experience this growth, for we have preached this faith for far longer than the modern ‘self-help’ gurus and life-trainers; the faith in Christ moves beyond the personal and into the collective, making us children of God.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Well, like nothing on earth really. The Kingdom of Heaven is beyond our human understanding, but on the authority of Christ it will be better than anything we can imagine. It will be broader than the mustard shrub, more fulfilled that the leavened bread, and it is not us or our values who will decide who is there – for that is God’s choice alone. For now, we must continue to grow in Christ’s likeness.

This is why coming to church, It is more than something we do, because we have always done so. We continue to do this, and to encourage others to do this, because it is a part of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives; it is the yeast which pervades us all, and takes something dull and flat and lifeless and makes it something which is good and wholesome and approved of by God. In short, we are building the Kingdom of God here on earth, and getting a taste our future! This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like!


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Parable of the Sower Sermon

Here is the sermon that I gave today at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa. Hopefully it makes some sense....

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Back before farmers had grain drills, they used an end gate seeder to seed oats or other small grains. Imagine a small wagon with a fan blade on at the end. The farmer drives his tractor or horses across the field, and the seed is thrown out across the field. Normally, the ground is plowed then disked to get the seedbed ready then the oats are seeded and then harrowed in with a drag. But in Jesus' time, in rural Judea and Galilee, the seed was sown by hand in a broadcast fashion and the sowing preceded the plowing or harrowing. The sower deliberately sowed the seed everywhere in the field, including any paths, in the rocky places, and among thorns and weeds as well as in the good soil. However, if the plowing was delayed for any reason, then they got the results that Jesus mentioned in this parable. It was that act of disturbing the ground that made all the difference.

The kingdom of God broke into the entire world when Jesus came. It was the seed that fell on many different kinds of soil in the human heart. The reception of the seed depends upon the receiver—where they are in their lives, and if they hear that tugging of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Romans reading today. The message then was received in a variety of ways just as it is today. The number of fruitless hearers was very great then even among those who heard Jesus speak in person.

Jesus often used parables or stories to relate spiritual truths to things that people were familiar with in their every-day lives. In this way he illustrated the word of God by calling it seed. The soil represented the receptivity or lack of receptivity of the human heart to receive the seed or Jesus' message. I find this image of us as soil, as dirt, hearkens back to the words we hear when we receive ashes at the beginning of Lent “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Today’s gospel reading in Matthew focuses on the soil rather than on the sower. Although there was no harvest resulting from three of the four types of soil, this parable points out that a person’s heart, like soil, is capable of improvement and capable of bearing a good harvest.

This parable calls to our attention the fact that although the soil is not the way it should be or the way that it can be, it can still be made into productive soil. That is the job of the Spirit in our lives. We can relate the soil of our hearts to this parable and know that change can begin to take place in spite of the

1. hardness of our heart
2. the shallowness of our experience
3. the many thorns that choke out the God's message in our lives

Today, I believe that we can learn some valuable truths from this parable that Jesus told to the crowds along the shore.

The effect of the word is dependent on the state of the heart. T Let us take a look and see if we can identify some things that need to be improved and where we need a bit of fertilizer, maybe some “Miracle Gro” in order to produce a better crop. If we find ourselves in one of the soils that is not producing a good crop, let us know that there is hope for us; Jesus can add the Miracle Gro to make us what we need to be. It's as if the reading of Isaiah is giving us a recipe, talking about the Word of Jesus nourishing us like water, helping us to bud and flourish. Jesus can change the hardness of our hearts, he can give us the stability and roots we need, and he can help us to aerate and work that patch of dirt that is robbing us of abundant life.

The first place the grain fell was on the pathway. It was a common thing for the paths to run through and around the unfenced fields. Any seed that fell on the paths never entered the ground and was trampled underfoot or the birds came and ate it. The path was so packed down that the seed couldn’t begin to get its roots into the ground. Here, the Spirit needs to aerate...use one of those plugger to pull out chunks for change. This sounds painful, and yet pain in our lives is one of the ways that we grow and soften. What will break up this hard packed ground? Many things happen in a person’s life that caus
e the hardness to begin to break up. It is not an overnight process. Most of all the Holy Spirit begins to bring about changes in the outer surface as prayer is constantly sent up for people.

Something can be done with even packed down soil; something can be done to plow up the hard, compacted soil of people's hearts. You might know people who have no interest in spiritual things whatsoever. You might say, nothing is getting through to them. The gospel message is not getting below the outer surface.

As we heard in Paul's letter to the Romans today, the Holy Spirit says we are God's children. And since everyone here today was a child at one time, is a child now, or had children in their family at one time, I think we can all relate that sometimes children just won't listen and will do the opposite of what their parent says. That is like the hard ground of the paths, everything bounces off and nothing gets through.

It is up to us to give proper value to the things of God. To guard the word as we receive it. To plow up the hard unplowed ground that is in our lives. In what ways is your heart like the soil along the pathway? In what ways have you become a little bit hardened and indifferent?

The second type of soil was rocky. This represents soil that is OK but it is a bit thin and has a lot of rocks just beneath the surface. The seed takes root quickly in the shallow soil but there is not a secure root structure. People often go to revivals and crusades and they receive the word in a thoughtless way. Maybe they are too eager to receive but it doesn’t last over the long haul. They hear and receive with joy and at first give promise of a good harvest but something happens. When they come down off of that 'spiritual high'. Here, we need to have the Spirit fertilize our souls, so that when trouble or persecution comes, we don't quickly fall away. These temporary disciples are numerous in times of revival when things are going great. Sometimes people receive the word and for a time are doing great. Then they become 'offended' by something. It could be rather trivial. They quit going to Church. Then they forget about God's message. The sun beats down and the plant withers and dies out. There is no moisture.

Many people are glad to hear a good sermon and they hear it and don’t turn their backs on it. Yet they don’t profit from it. Their lives are not changed by it. They are pleased but not changed. I believe too many people today just want a little 'taste' of Christianity. They want something to say they are Christian and they belong to a Church, but they don't want any of the responsibility that comes along with it.

The third type of soil is infested with thorny weeds. This represents the ground that has not been thoroughly weeded of the thistles. The soil is good enough and deep enough but other things draw the moisture and nutrients away from the plant, and it crowds and starves the plant out. This speaks of the cares of the world coming in and choking out the plants that are trying to grow making the plants unfruitful. Today in our society there are so many choices and these things use up so much of our time that only the leftover time remains for spiritual things. If this is our patch of dirt, we need to think hard about what is happening in our life that is infesting our spirit—whether it is a nettle, or a ragweed, or a nettlesome friend. Our spiritual lives are being choked out so subtly that sometimes we are not aware of what is even happening. Although there is some growth taking place with a promise of a harvest, it never materializes.

What cares of this world are using up all your time. It could be lots of things and not necessarily bad things. The deceitfulness of having many things means trusting in those things or putting our confidence in them so that we are no longer trusting God very much. When we allow thorns or weeds to take over our life, we don't allow the message of the gospel to be a priority.

The last type of ground is the good ground. It hears and accepts and produces. It doesn’t say that the good ground doesn’t have stones or thorns or weeds in it but it is ground that has been cultivated and is continuously being tended to. The ground is guarded from allowing anything to come in and take over, choking out the intended harvest. The truth is simply this: it is hard to have a patch of earth that is like this. Gardeners are constantly working to get that special, sweet loam that takes on the seed and produces a great harvest. It is toil, but a joyful toil for the person who is spiritually mature, and sees the end, the harvest, in his or her dreams.

Our spiritual life is an ongoing process. You can’t stay away from church weeks or months at a time and expect to see the harvest spoken of here; 30, 60, 100 times as much as was sown. The soil of your heart can’t just be neglected and expected to automatically produce a good crop.

And as we heard in both Isaiah and the Psalm today, God provides the necessary water and sunshine for a good harvest. It is our job to cultivate the soil to see what we get from God.

What is interesting is that the soil that produces only a small crop, Jesus still called good. The 30 fold small crop is OK as well as the 60 fold or 100 fold bumper crop.

Let us remember that the kingdom of God advances slowly with varied responses depending on the individual. What kind of soil are you today? Remember that soil can be cultivated, a bit of Miracle Gro added, proper watering and with patience and change a crop can be produced. We must get rid of the things that choke off the fullness of life.