- Wild Seed
Isaiah 5:1-7 (The Song of the Vineyard)
See also Matthew 21:33-46
Old Testament Prophet Isaiah tells the people of Judah that God has a love song for them. They would have expected nothing less and sit back in anticipation of the beautiful compliments they are about to receive! After all, they are the “chosen” people and they keep the more than 700 rules in the Torah, offer fervent prayers, and celebrate in lavish festivals the high holy days of their ancestors.
So the prophet begins to sing. In this song, God is the master of the vineyard; the people of Judah and Jerusalem, are the vines. The song begins: “You are the ones I love, my choicest vines, I delighted in you. I planted you on a fertile hillside that I had dug up and cleared of stones. I set a hedge around you to keep out the predators who would devour you and to break the winds that would blow wild seed into my garden. I cultivated the soil and pruned the dead branches. I set a watchtower over you and built a wine press for the harvest that I eagerly awaited.” Ah, the Israelites say, God is reminding us how special we are and of his special favors to us.
The song continues: “I expected a crop of good grapes,” says the Lord, “but it yielded only stinking fruit – bitter wild grapes.” Their faces fall.
“ Now you tell me where the fault lies? What more could I have done for my vineyard? I planted good grapes. Why did it yield only bad?” Continue reading →
- The Proof is in the Pudding
The Proof is in the Pudding
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, the chief priests and the elders confronted him, saying, “By what authority are YOU here again? Whom do you represent?”
Among themselves, they were most likely asking, “Who let him in? What audacity does this man have? How dare he enter this temple –especially after yesterday!”
Yesterday? What happened yesterday?
Well, yesterday is the important prequel to today’s story. The yesterday they were speaking of was the day we have come to call Palm Sunday: Yesterday, Christ had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and his followers had waved him in with branches cut from trees and shouts of Hosanna! Now, we may imagine that the little parade was the focus of all Jerusalem on that day long ago, but the truth is that the procession likely went unnoticed. In a huge city teeming with pilgrims and merchants, Christ’s “regal” entry was hardly a bleep on the radar.
But if the parade didn’t capture anyone’s attention, what happened next did. Continue reading →
- Walking Through Water
Walking Through Water
Exodus 14:10 through 15:3 and John 6: 1-21
Welcome to our second annual Back to Church Sunday! Our first annual Back to Church Sunday was last year on September 18th . If you remember, we celebrated the start of a new program year with a special service featuring a group called the Bare Bones Trio out of Charleston, WV. And, a year ago, like today, we had a congregational meal during which Bare Bones continued to entertain us with traditional, gospel, and Golden Oldies hits.
My sermon that Sunday –I don’t expect you to remember – was “Manna, Manna Everywhere” – a celebration of all the blessings –the manna– that God had showered us with since we became “pastorless.” Enormous blessings that were certainly cause for celebration!
In a way, that sermon was a “state of the union” address – and at that point, the union (the church) was – and God be praised! – on solid ground. Continue reading →
- What if?
Exodus 1: 8 –Exodus 2: 10
What if I were to tell you that what you do this week could change the world? Would you believe me?
What if I were to tell you . . . that what you do today will change the world? Would you think I was nuts?
Who has the kind of influence that really changes the world? A few people, a tiny percentage of humankind? In the words of playwright Thornton Wilder, only some people ever really understand the nature of life – the poets and the saints, maybe, but the rest of us, Wilder says, muddle through, living little existences, oblivious to our potential. I don’t know about you, but I’ll go home, throw on some old clothes, mow the grass, fix dinner, read and go to bed. Hardly world-changing stuff.
But, on the other hand, whatever we do & wherever we go, we leave our mark. I’m fascinated by the ability of forensic scientists to find a single strand of hair in a brush, dead skin cells on the car seat, the impression of a shoe in deep pile carpet, a tiny drop of saliva on the rim of a glass. On the micro level, our bodies never leave a chair, a room, or a building without changing it, without altering the ecosystem of a space in some tiny but perceptible way. We alter the air quality, increase the heat, leave our fingerprints on the steering wheel, and DNA on the toothbrush.
The same is even more true on the macro level. We bring into an office or hospital room an energy, a facial expression, a mannerism, or a word that alters that space. And these are usually the unintentional byproducts of our being here. The intentional words and actions can speak even more profoundly.
Today’s story about baby Moses in the bulrushes provides a fantastic illustration of the potential for changing the world. It is a story about heroines – 5 pivotal women who forever alter the course of history by their action or inaction, by their choices of obedience or disobedience. It isn’t something they set out to do – just as we don’t set out each morning to be heroes or heroines, but the history of a nation and of a faith will forever attest to these 6 people. Continue reading →
- On Making a Scene
Isaiah 56: 1-8
Matthew 15: 21-28
On Making a Scene
“My daughter is sick. She has violent seizures and then sleeps for hours on end. She stopped eating days ago and now hardly speaks. Curled up in a corner she bears no resemblance to the little girl I knew – so happy and full of herself. Nothing makes her smile. At a time when she should be growing into a young woman, she has turned into a ghost. I have taken her to the physicians, but nothing has worked. I am afraid she is dying.
That’s why I am here. This man, Jesus bar Joseph, from Nazareth is here — in Sidon. They say he can heal. They say he has miraculous powers. They say he is kind. BUT he is a Jew, and I am Canaanite. He is a man, and I am a woman. He is surrounded by followers, but I am alone.
If my husband were still alive, he could do this. He could call out above the others and perhaps get this man’s attention. But I must do it. I will cry out and keep crying out until he hears me. I will not give up. My daughter is dying . . . and she is all I have.” Continue reading →
- The Way We Never Were
The Way We Never Were
Families are the most elemental and beautiful of all social units. And yet, families are the most complicated and difficult of all social units! We are biologically designed to live in family, and for most of the course of history, an individual’s identity was of little importance. The most salient piece of information about you was who your father was and from what family or clan you came. Your very name – Jesus bar Joseph or Ben bar Randy – announced who your father was and, thus, revealed which clan you came from. The practice continues in many places in the world today. In India, the family you are born into still determines your caste – which, in turn, dictates every detail of your life to come. Closer to home, vestiges of this thinking continue. What is the first question you ask your teenage daughter when she announces a new boyfriend? Who are his parents? What kind of family does he come from?
Families are wonderful yet imperfect. The truth is “We can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them.” We want them around when there’s trouble, when we need to be known and accepted, when we need a soft place to land, but we’d just as well be left alone most of the time. George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family – that lives in another city.”
- Press On!
I am not a runner. If you ask me to cover a couple miles, I would be happy to walk it, swim it, or bike it, but I can’t run it. My knees, my ankles, and every other part of me says “no.” But that is not to say that I don’t envy those lean, sinewy runners who seem to glide an inch or two above the ground. I’m talking about people like Sarah and Kayleigh, Chris Munique and, I am told, Eddie Boyd in his younger years. Hats off to them! When I watch marathoners on TV, I can see the determination, even pain, on their faces; they battle through heat, sweat, cramps, shin splints, tendonitis, and exhaustion. YET, true long-distance runners cross the finish line with this facial expression that . . . almost. . . looks like . . . pleasure! Go figure!
I wonder if the Apostle Paul was a runner? If he got up each morning – or the few mornings when he wasn’t in jail– and lashed up his Nikes and headed out for a run? His letters were certainly filled with allusions to running: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” “press[ing] on toward the goal, the prize.” ‘Sounds like a page right out of Runner’s World: “Stay focused, don’t look back, don’t let up, keep your eyes on the goal.”
I bet you didn’t know that the word “marathon” comes from the legend of a Greek runner-messenger whom we will call Philip (because I can’t pronounce his name in Greek). Around the year 490 B.C., the gigantic and powerful Persian army landed on the plain of Marathon intent on capturing the city of Athens, just 25 miles away. The Athenians — outnumbered and outpowered—mustered all the soldiers they could and sent them out on the plain. Meanwhile, the people in the city hunkered down, knowing that if the Persians made it to Athens, their beautiful city would be destroyed and they would all die or be taken prisoner.
- The Way We Were
Isaiah 58: 3-8
1 Corinthians 14
The Way We Were
The picture on the cover of your bulletin is the congregation of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Funkstown, Md. The year is 1970. If you have very sharp eyes, you might spot 17-year-old me, standing in the second row on the right with my dad. My little brother, Ed, is also in the picture, but not on the front-row with all the other little kids. Evidently, mom had ducked out early to go home and check the pot roast. My sister, Sally, is also suspiciously absent.
But what is present in the photo are dozens of reminders of the way we were 50 years ago – the way life was, the way church was half a century ago. Funkstown, MD was a little town; its elementary school had a single class of each grade level. Yet, the congregation of St. Paul’s was surprisingly large. And we were not the only church in town! Fifty-eight young children stand on the front row! Girls in patent leather shoes; boys in tiny sports coats. Their mothers are all wearing dresses. Many wear hats. Every man wears a tie. Choir practiced on Wednesday evenings. Youth group met on Sunday night. It was the same with my friends who attended other churches — Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. Following World War II, church was an American institution, a rite of passage into the Middle Class, a respectable sort of country club that offered men’s and women’s groups, social clubs, dinner parties, youth fellowship, and more. I don’t recall much emphasis on mission.
Handsome young preachers whose wives taught Sunday School and baked cookies were eager to move into the church parsonage. Their duty would be the spiritual tending of the immediate flock. In those days, most stores were closed on Sunday, there were no ball games, and even mowing the grass was frowned upon. The turbulent 60’s – a decade of racial unrest and free love had yet to leave much of a mark on small-town religion. In Funkstown, church was still about the only game in town.
- Depth of Soil
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Depth of Soil
Listen to this little story: A certain WV gardener we all know went out to sow seed in her garden this spring. And as she sowed, some of that pricey seed she ordered from Gurney’s seed catalog fell in the tall grass beside the garden, and some of it blew out of the rows before she could cover it. Overhead, blue jays and cow birds watched silently from their perches, and rabbits– hungry for tender cabbage leaves– popped out of their burrows. Moles crouched quietly in their tunnels. Soon the thistles and crab grass would appear and the pernicious blood root. Japanese beetles would invade the raspberry patch, followed by a brigade of squash bugs. There would be weeks of drought followed by days of flooding rains. It would seem that all of nature conspires to keep that seed from germinating, those plants from growing. Much of the seed never took root and Kellan reseeded – sometimes twice. Yet, the gardener goes out to sow seed in her garden.
Jesus tells a parable much like this: a farmer goes out to sow seed, and as he scatters, some of it falls upon the path, some among rocks, some among the thorns, and even some of that which falls upon the good soil will find its way into the beaks of wily birds. The crowd to which Jesus was speaking knew all about sowing seed –they were farmers! This story was as old as time itself. “Yep,” they would say, elbowing each other, “that’s what happens! A lot of precious seed is lost! Sometimes the harvest is so poor that we lose our shirts!”
Now this parable –usually called the Parable of the Seed and the Sower– is misnamed. A more appropriate name would be the Parable of the Four Soils, because as important and precious as good seed is, it is only part of the equation. Farming is also about the soil. Ancient farmers knew that the best farms were those with good rich soil – loamy soil, not clay or sand. That’s why river deltas, not wind-swept prairies, make for great farming. The area in which all of the Bible is set is called the Fertile Crescent –so named because of the fertile land that lies between Egypt and Syria, bordered to the north by the Mediterranean and to the south by the Red Sea.
- What To Pack?
16The plans of the mind belong to mortals,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.
2All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the spirit.
3Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established. . .
9The human mind plans the way,
but the Lord directs the steps.
Matthew 10: 5-14
What To Pack?
What to Pack? Hmmm . . . You’re headed out to door for a weekend get-away. Are you carrying a duffle bag containing a bath suit and flip flops? Or dragging a steamer trunk stuffed with clothes, shoes, cosmetics, and electronic devices? People pack in such different ways. My dad was fond of stuffing a few things in a paper grocery sack, cinching it with a piece of rope, and ta-da! Son Ben is a strategic packer. He first determines the length of any trip, computing it underwear – Is it a 3 underwear trip or a five? Then he lays everything out on his bed and packs it neatly in his bag — in reverse order: putting the clothes he plans to wear last on the bottom, and ending with the first night’s pajamas on top! In contrast, I am a terrible packer! Invariably, I pull from the closet some outfit I never wear at home but am suddenly convinced it will be the perfect thing for Paris! My friend Ginger, a veteran world traveler, can pack for two weeks in a suitcase small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of the plane.
While I love the idea of traveling light, it takes nerve! I am reminded of Erma Bombeck’s story about buying a 6-piece madras mix and match outfit for a bus trip. Every day, she wore some exotic combination of those six pieces. Sometimes, she would tie the scarf around her waist, sometimes drape it dramatically over her shoulders, and sometimes wrap it around her head, bohemian-style. She was so proud of having a new and exotic look each day, but her fellow travelers were less enthusiastic. “On day 5,” she wrote in her hilarioius memoire, “they voted the scarf off the bus!”
Well . . . what does this have to do with today’s text. Jesus sends his twelve disciples out to evangelize the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They are going to be traveling on foot for an indefinite period of time — curing the sick, cleansing lepers, casting out demons, and raising the dead. A huge assignment . . .
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
1 Corinthians 12:3-13
Trouble in River City
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that there is trouble! Trouble right here in River City. Trouble that starts with a T — which rhymes with P– and that stands for . . . POOL. I knew someone would know! Who can name the musical? In the 1957 musical, con man and traveling salesman Harold Hill, convinces the Iowa town folk to buy musical instruments, A boy’s band would keep their sons out of the pool hall with its cigarettes, ragtime music, and scarlet women. There is “trouble in River City” he says, and a boys’ band is the solution.
Were it only so simple for the city of Corinth, Greece. First century Corinth, a thriving, wealthy commercial city, that sat on a Corinth sat on a narrow little strip of land between the Saronic Gulf and the Corinthian Gulf. So positioned, it was a thriving, wealthy commercial city that had trouble with a capital T.
The trouble was more serious than a pool hall. There was drunkenness and “debauchery.” Filthy traders and sailors with filthy habits. Above the Acropolis stood the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with her 1000 priestesses who were sacred prostitutes. They plied their trade on the streets of Corinth at night.
In the middle of this culture was the new church that Paul had planted. They were having trouble with what was going on around them; but they were also having troubles within. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written to address these internal troubles.
Kellan, are you saying that the Christians in this church were not getting along?
Yes, as hard as that is to believe, sometimes church folk don’t exactly get along! And that is what was going on in Corinth! And Paul –who had planted the church—wrote this letter to encourage them to “make up their differences” – to “mend themselves together.”
Actually, the word Paul chose to use for “mend” was a Greek word normally used as a medical term for the joining together of fractured bones. Do, Paul says, “Heal your fractured relationships. Make up your differences.”
So what was the fight about? Well, the dissension was a couple of layers deep.
On its surface, it was a matter of allegiance. Some of the converts claimed Paul as their leader and spokesman, and others gave their allegiance to other preachers. In other words, there were factions!
Some followed Apollos, for example. Apollos was a well-spoken evangelist. He, himself, was a Jew, and an intellectual. He could draw out elaborate arguments and extended illustrations. His sermons were academic and philosophical and beautiful!
But there were others who followed Cephus (or Peter). Cephus was also a Jew and a legalist, but he preached that Christian converts must practice the Jewish Law regardless of their baptized status. You must be a keeper of the Old Law, said Cephus, as well as the New Law. He attracted a good many followers because of his stern legal approach.
And, finally, another segment of the church –mostly the gentiles– claimed Paul as their leader. In his preaching, they hear acceptance –Paul reached out to Gentiles. But while Paul is away at Ephesus, planting other churches, they are exposed to other teachers and other doctrines. They become confused and disenchanted.
It seems that these early converts had developed a first allegiance on a particular preacher or teacher –while their allegiance to Christ and the gospel message came second. In their absorption with this preacher or that style of message or this detail of theology, they had lost sight of the gospel! Can you imagine being so attached to a particular preacher? Of course we can!
So, when this news reaches Paul in Ephesus, he is ticked!! “You are behaving like children,” he wants to scream. “Didn’t I teach you the simple gospel message? It was about Christ’s forgiving act and resurrection? It isn’t about fancy speech or following every single rule, it is about serving God and others. You were baptized into Christ –you were not baptized into Paul, or Cephus, or Apollos!
But –fortunately– Paul is more diplomatic than that! He writes them a letter, and begins by addressing them as “brothers.” Calling them brothers is a not-so-subtle reminder that they belong to a family – Christ’s family. Like a parent, Paul urges them to make up their differences, to be unified in spirit and purpose.
When I was growing up, I had quite a few fights with my sister. Who had to do more work? who was prettier? who was thinner? who borrowed what? who got to go where? etc. etc. “Girls, girls,” I can still hear my dad saying, “cut this out right now. There are more important things to worry about than who last did the dishes.” For the small arguments, that was usually all it took, but for bigger battles it took something more.
Paul’s letter doesn’t stop by urging the Corinthians to “kiss and make up.” He carefully explains what it takes to live peacefully in community, and his approach is brilliant!
“Listen, all of you! Stop forming cliques, demanding to be right, insisting on this rule or that style of worship. You are all equally important and needed – whether Greek or Jew, eloquent or tongue-tied. God loves you and has a purpose for you. Each of you has gifts and all those gifts are equally needed to accomplish God’s work.” Paul goes on to list the gifts – sharing of wisdom, prophecy or preaching, the gift of faith, the ability to heal and perform miracles. “All of these gifts –whether they are flashy or humble—are of the Spirit when they accomplish the common good.”
While Paul’s list of gifts is pretty extensive, now that I have been your interim pastor for almost two years, I can think of many, many more gifts. Gifts that I so appreciate:
They would include natural talents, acquired abilities, interests and capacity, and just plain willingness to show up! Showing up is a huge gift! And so is diplomacy, gracious speech, careful listening, creative imagination. I appreciate this person’s artistic eye, that child’s teachable spirit, that parishioner’s gift of self-control. I would also add gifts of carpentry, plumbing, wiring, grant-writing and computer skills. Add in cooking ability, love of baking, affinity for cleaning and dishwashing, a talent for nurturing children and ministering to the elderly.
“All these –and more, says Paul– are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. “And lest any of you still think that your gift is better than your sister’s gift, or your gift is all the church really needs to go on functioning, then be reminded of the human body. What if it were missing a leg, or an eye, says Paul. Would it still be complete? Could the body function without a heart or a liver? Belonging to the body is to feel all its pains, share its hungers, know its limits, suffer in its illnesses, tingle with its passions, feed its growth, breathe its spirit, expect its healing, die its death, and hope for its resurrection. All these things the body’s members do together and with each other.
Likewise, what would the church body be without musicians, or without Sunday School teachers, or without elders or committee chairmen? How could the church move forward without the creative thinkers, the organized planners, the money managers, and the artisans who build and wire and decorate? Really?
Do you think God’s kingdom could succeed with just these gifts or those? Really?
I like the picture on the front of your bulletin, but there is something wrong with it. All the sunflowers look alike, but we do not look alike. We are not all the same height, the same color, the same size. We do not all face in the same direction, nod our heads in synchrony. No — churches are composed of sunflowers and asters, zinnias and roses, exotic orchids and hard-working dandelions. God wants it that way. We want it that way. Is it easy to grow up in an unkempt English garden? NO. We sometimes shoulder each other out for the good soil, the sunshine, the rain. But when we realize that we don’t compete– that we complement one another– then we stop squabbling and start respecting. Our gifts are all of God.
Our goal is not to tolerate each other. Tolerance is to ask for too little. Our goal is much more: acceptance, appreciation, respect, even celebration of our differences, our peculiar and motley gifts. That is what Paul asks of his Corinthian family.
Is it easy? Heck, no! It is the hardest thing in the world to live compatibly, and lovingly with others. It takes patience and self-control. It takes willingness to apologize, to forgive, to give folks a second chance, to stand in the wings and let someone else shine. You have to be ever-mindful that it’s not about you. You may be the protagonist in your own life, but for the person sitting beside you, you are only a supporting actor even a walk-on. No, it’s not about you, it’s about all of us. The whole body. We –together, not individually– are the body of Christ. Ultimately, it’s about God.
Abraham LIncoln is mistakenly credited with coining, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” No. Lincoln did know his Bible, particularly Mark 3:35. The whispering, squabbling church in Corinth was a house divided. They stand as a model of what not to do.
We should strive to model what to do! The Gospel isn’t difficult: Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Loving God and neighbor is our purpose — together. We’re family. AMEN