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.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

A beautiful Saturday and I'm inside thinking....

This is the cross and statues that are atop the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa.

Yep, it is Saturday afternoon, the kids are outside playing and I'm inside on the computer. So what gives? Why am I in here? Well I was to lead church services at a campground in Clermont, Iowa tomorrow morning. But the manager called and said that they weren't going to have services because they weren't done cleaning up the mess that was made when the Turkey river overflowed and created havoc in part of the campgrounds, they haven't reopened the section that the services are held in and they may not reopen it this summer. But since I had already written a rough draft of the sermon I was going to give, I thought I should finish it and see if the worship leader at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour would like me to give it tomorrow at Church since the priest is on vacation this month.

The Gospel text is the parable of the sower from Matthew. It is one of my favorite parables. But as always, how do I write something that makes sense to someone else. What I've written makes perfect sense to me but making sense to others is always my problem. So I'm doing another draft to try to refine it some more.

Peace & Grace to all!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Going to the Grotto

This past weekend most of the family (minus the daughter who was wandering around in Yellowstone) packed up and headed to West Bend, Iowa for a class reunion. We stayed at an excellent bed and breakfast north of town called Prairie Oasis. I would recommend Prairie Oasis to anyone who is staying in the area.

My wife's class reunion was good with over half of the class being there. I personally knew a few folks there but since I wasn't from the area I didn't know many people, so I basically followed her around kinda like a big puppy dog.

In West Bend there is a religious shrine next to SS Peter and Paul's Roman Catholic Church. It is called the Grotto of the Redemption which was started almost a century ago by the priest at the church as a thank you to God for helping the priest through a very serious illness. That priest worked on the Grotto for a number of decades and the Grotto is still a work in progress. It has a number of grottos which depict scenes out of the Bible. Any Christian will appreciate and learn more about their faith at this shrine.

I hope that all Americans had a wonderful Independence Day!