Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is It A Good Thing When Mustard Takes Over?

Matthew 13:31-33

Today we come to the end of the parables Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God in this lectionary cycle.

I hope by now that when you look out your window you see even a glimpse of God’s kingdom instead of the approaching fires of hell that the enemy wants you to see. 
I hope you see the wheat among the weeds, the people of God’s kingdom who are practicing their discipleship by promoting peace, feeding children. I hope when you watch the news about the conflict in Gaza/Israel, you also listen to the stories of the doctors and nurses who are caring for the wounded and dying. I hope you pray for them. I hope you pray for peace. Trusting that God’s word will take root. Eventually. Because, I hope you see the tiny plants of God’s kingdom struggling to grow in the cracks of this conflicted world of ours. Changing forever the landscape of this earth. God’s word among us slowly-but-surely creating good soil. Good soil in which the kingdom of God can come on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus has been teaching us to pay attention. I love these stories of Jesus because they are so earthy, true to life, yet so radical that we must open our hearts to a new way of seeing life.

We have had two wonderful and powerful parables about the kingdom. Now we have these short ones all in a row.
The kingdom of heaven is like: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price, a fishing net full of all the fishes which we will sort out later.

It is as if Jesus is trying to get as many people as possible on board with this new idea of the kingdom of God. So you are not a gardener then let me see if the story of yeast will make it clear, or how about a pearl no? then how about fish? or a treasure hidden in the field.

Each one of these stories is important and leads us to similar conclusions. The kingdom of God isn’t what you expect. We will stick with just one of the stores again this morning. And because it is summer and we are all trying to grow something, anything. I want to look at the mustard seed story. Because it reveals something we may not have noticed before.  
We have all heard about the miracle of the mustard seed, that tiny little seed that is so very small. Jesus says in this parable that it grows as big as a shrub. And we think that that is the miracle of the parable. But there is no miracle here. Not really. Like the other garden parables, there is simply the obvious ambiguity of what makes the kingdom of God so unique.
Mustard plants in Israel Palestine are useful shrubs, growing 2-6 feet tall. But they were not cultivated as they are now. They grew wild along the shores of Galilee. And if they got into your garden, watch out. Like mint. Like mint a little mustard plant is a good thing, but like mint if it isn’t contained or managed it will take over the whole garden.

Here in the parable it has grown completely out of control. It has become a shrub. And so big that birds can nest in its branches. The people of Galilee hearing this wouldn’t think this was a miracle. They would think, oh my goodness it is going to take over.

Is this a good thing?
That the kingdom of heaven would get this out of control that it will take over the garden?

I love growing lemon balm in my garden. I love to use it in lemonade and ice tea. I love using it to garnish platters of fruit and vegetables. I even love weeding and pulling it out because it smells so good and the fragrance stays on my hands and gloves. But I have lemon balm growing in places I really don’t want it to grow. Once it gets established it is hard to control.

Is this a good thing?
That the kingdom of heaven would get this out of control that it will take over the garden?

Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is painting a picture of the possibilities of the kingdom of God and he is making the authorities very, very nervous. They want to grow their own view of the world. A world that looks more like a cultivated garden with everything in rows, the riff raff weeded out, the people who don’t fit into their idea of a good harvest gone, wiped off the face of the earth. They want a kingdom that is centered on their understanding of what is holy and right. Where women are hanged or stoned or denied safety for not conforming to their ideals of what is holy and right. Where children are sold into slavery to keep their economy working. Where men and women with college degrees can’t get fulfilling jobs that honor their talents and abilities. They want a kingdom that keeps people subservient and needy on the system. Where those in power hold the majority of the assets and the rest must line up in straight neat rows in order to have any kind of worth in their society.
They want a society that is based on fear and despair.

So I ask again: Is this a good thing?
That the kingdom of heaven would get this out of control that it will take over the garden?
That the rows are no longer neat and tidy. That weeds and wheat can grow together? That plants can grow in the rocky soil and among the thistles? That all that is strange and beautiful and useful and unique and ordinary and everyday can grow into lives that shelter birds and small things and those who have no home and those who need a safe place to call home.

Do you see why they had to crucify Jesus? Not just for our sin but because of our sin. The world Jesus was preaching was going to mess up the power authorities’ carefully cultivated society that put them in power and left others out. It scared them to death and so they had to kill the messenger. Jesus died because we want to live in a system of power rather than grace.

It is one thing to want your vegetable garden and cropland weed free and in neat rows. It is quite another to want your world to be so ordered and homogeneous that only your own kind flourish and are successful.
We all want to live in a world that is orderly and we try so hard to make our world so. We set up rules to let some in and keep others out. We open our doors only so far. We interpret scripture so that our viewpoint is supported. We get fearful when others grow more, prosper more, have more.

But God’s kingdom is not orderly, it is messy and full of strange and beautiful and ordinary and everyday people who are all God’s children. Who all have the potential to become exactly who God created them to be. When They believe and we believe that we are living in the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wheat and Weeds: Just an Ordinary Day in the Garden of God's Reign

Matthew 13:24-30
Chatfield United Methodist Church
July 20, 2014
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

It is that time of year around here where farmers are itching to find something to do. One farmer I know is tearing his deck off his house. He is like the farmer in our parable today. The crops are planted, the spraying is done, and now it just all has to grow. Lord willing, if the creek don’t rise. As we say.

In our parable this morning, as the farmer sleeps weeds are sown among the wheat. So one morning the servants awaken to find corn growing in the soybeans, tares among the wheat. The servants gather up their hoes and start out the door to walk the fields.
Ready to attack those weeds and get rid of them.

Before some of the more sophisticated gmo crops I was one of those servants with a hoe in a field of soybeans. Walking the acres cutting out the volunteer corn. It was sorry work. Worse than detasseling. Unfortunately, I never had a farmer say to me, ‘Oh never mind, leave the weeds alone.”

Another way to look at the parable is this way: Picture your garden after a nice two-week vacation. Long stems of quack grass growing in the carrot bed, night shade blooming among the roses, thistles two feet high competing with the tomatoes, clover choking out the petunias.

While you put away the canoe and dry out the tents you fingers itch to get around those weeks to yank them from the ground. You know they are dangerous to your plants, your crop.

But here we have a farmer who does not see to be as concerned about crop yield. Wheat and weeds grow together in his vast fields. Is he just an unskilled farmer? Or worse, a lazy farmer?

Is this field of wheat that is being threatened by weeds your idea of what the kingdom of heaven looks like?

If I were to use wheat as an illustration of the kingdom of heaven I would see perfectly straight rows of perfectly formed wheat. Golden, swaying in the breeze. No weeds in my heavenly fields.

But Jesus paints a different picture for us. And in painting this picture he makes something very clear for us. Something that we tend to forget. Something that if we remember each day could change our lives.
Jesus tells us: The kingdom of heaven is right here, right now. Wheat and weeds growing together. Good and evil in the same field.  The kingdom of heave is right here, right now.

When you wake in the morning do you see the kingdom of heaven outside your window? Do you live as if you are living in the kingdom of God?

Do you remember what the angel told Jesus disciples at the ascension? “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” Jesus had just told them to go and be witnessed, go and establish the kingdom through the world. And here they were gazing up into heaven.

We are not to be people who sit around waiting for some return of Christ to make the world all right and good. Our job is to live as if the kingdom of heaven were right here, right now.
Our job is to live as wheat among the weeds.

Now we have a choice. This picture of the kingdom can terrify us or we can be comforted.

Those whoa re terrified will come running out of house as the servants did asking permission to rip the weeds right out of the ground. When the farmer says, “No, leave them in the field,” their eyes will register the shock and they will walk away asking the question: “Why doesn’t God just rip out the weeds?” “Why must we live with this evil?” “Is God not caring enough?”
In asking these questions they reveal not only their own fear but also their ignorance of God’s power. For what would happen if God weeded the field?

Listen to a portion of Ps 29:
The Lord’s voice is strong; the Lord’s voice is majestic.
5 The Lord’s voice breaks cedar trees—yes, the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
7 The Lord’s voice unleashes fiery flames; the Lord’s voice shakes the wilderness—
9 The Lord’s voice convulses the oaks, strips the forests bare…

What would happen if God weeded the field If God can rip out and shatter a cedar tree, imagine what God could do to a weed? ? I’m not sure I would want to be around to experience God’s weeding.

“But,” you cry out, “I am not a weed, I am a wheat and I do not like living next to all these weeds. I am not like them. And they destroy my village, my field. Why can’t God get rid of them?”

Well, yes you are, through the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Christ, wheat; but you are also a weed. We may be saints, but we are also sinners, right?

Even when we think we are being wheat sometimes we find ourselves actually acting out of our weed-ness.
Here is an interesting thing about these weeds in this parable. The name for the weeds seeds is ‘darnel.” The interesting thing about a darnel plant is that it looks very much like wheat. Especially when it is newly grown. It would have been hard for the field hands to tell if they were pulling out darnel or wheat. It is hard for us to tell sometimes if our motives are entirely pure and righteous, too, isn’t it?

Wheat and weeds. We are both, until our day of final redemption when the weed-ness in us will be completely destroyed. Gathered up and thrown into the fire so that all that is left is beautiful, worthwhile wheat.

So the farmer says to his servants: Leave the field alone, for if you try to pull out the weeds you will destroy some of the wheat. The wheat will survive.

As Jesus has said: “In the world you shall have tribulation, but take courage my children, I have overcome the world.” (John16: 33)

This is our hope and our comfort. We can live in the field with courage, because we know this farmer.

As God’s children we know that God has firmly rooted us in the kingdom of God right here, right now. And with our roots firmly planted we can use our lives to praise and serve God. We can live in this field as amber waves of grin, brushing up against evil but not being destroyed by it.
For we know, that the enemy who sows weeds by night cannot sow enough weeds to destroy the wheat.

This field this place that we live is the kingdom of God.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Soils of Our Lives

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Chatfield United Methodist Church
July 13, 2014
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

There has been some talk this year about the problem with deer and our gardens. It is so frustrating. Jeff Hare even posted photos of Candi’s hostas on Facebook to prove he didn’t mow them down while she was away on vacation. Every morning I wake up wondering if my lilies are going to still be there or if the deer had a late night yummy juicy snack of lily buds.
Did I say how frustrating it is?

This is my fourth garden. I have had animal problems in all of them. Deer, woodchucks, rabbits, the neighbors cats…if gardening is so frustrating, why do we do it?

For the food, for the beauty, for the satisfaction, for the joy, for the exercise. Each one of us has different reasons. But gardeners are, by and large, passionate about their gardens. And no matter what, we will buy chemicals that smell like wolf urine, put up electric fences, ribbon and fake owls, hang CD’s from our trees and generally spend a lot of time and money to keep our gardens less attractive to harmful wildlife.

You all know that I am very passionate about my gardens.

If you look on the Google maps street view for the address of the church and parsonage, you can see what the parsonage looked like before I put in the gardens. Lots of green lawn. It is kind of amazing to look at the before pictures and see the results of the labor of love Steve and I have put into the parsonage gardens.

But these gardens didn’t just happen. We had to work at the soil to get plants to grow in soil that was depleted and rock strewn. Many of you know of our pilgrimages to the Waadevig's and Kamnetz farms for organic matter. Unlike the gardener in the parable, I choose where I put my plants based on the soil conditions, the light conditions and the needs of each plant.

Unlike, very much unlike, the gardener in today’s parable.

Our biblical gardener just scatters seed willy nilly allowing them to fall here and there and everywhere.
This planting method is, of course, called broadcasting. That was the current practice of farming in Jesus day. Soil conservation, crop rotation, careful sowing simply wasn’t a reality. I have wondered if Jesus would change this parable to reflect current agricultural and gardening methods. If he would talk about the need to make sure the seed was planted in the right place for optimum growth, to not waste seeds.
I tend to think not. Because in this parable is so much Grace. And Grace is what parables of the Kingdom of God are about.

You see, if we could all cultivate the soil of our lives carefully, making sure that in each part of our life we would be rich fertile, always receptive to the word of God, so that each seed sowed in our life would grown into a magnificent plant, then this parable could be changed to reflect our more careful gardening and farming practices.

But we don’t always have that luxury. No matter how hard we try, there are going to be rocky places, shallow and thorny places in our lives.
I do not know why I was born in a peaceful town in Iowa rather than a hot dry poversty stricken barrio of Mexico.
I do not know why some of us are given loving parents and some of us must deal witih great adversity and strife.

I do not know why people who have been wise in their choices, trying to do what is good, bautfiul and right find themselves facing hardship and trouble.
And I don’t know why some of us must struggle with great bouders of hurt and distrust. Boulders that are going to take years to remove because it is going to take years to know how best to forgive heal and trust again.

And all of us have places in our lives where thorns of adversity and temptation threaten to choke out all of the good.
We worry too much; we have habits that tempt us from holy living.

All of us have all sorts of soils in our lives, not matter how hard we try to be a beautiful garden.
And we s should try, there I no doubt about that. Those habits need to change; we need to learn to give all of our worries to God, to learn to trust God for all that we do.
A beautiful garden with rich soil is the goal of holy living.
And our gardener God is ready to help us become such a garden.

For notice, in all the soils except the hard garden path, the word of God takes root, and grows even if for a moment.
In the great boulder fields of your life, the thorn choked corners which you want to hide from view and shallow sandy places, God’s word comes and begins to grow.

Yes, evil does all it can to snatch that word out of your life. The evil one loves gardens that are overgrown with worry, bad habits and frightful circumstances. But the seed, the word of God has sprouted even for a moment and in that moment---your soil has been changed forever.

You have seen the rock slides along our country roads. Great flat rocks that are now laying in the ditch, little bits of sandstone, shale and dolomite. Of course, erosion, wind and rain play a part in these rockslides, but so do the job’s tears, coneflowers, clover, and other weeds growing in the crevices and cracks.
Even on great mountains, plants grow in the shallowest of soils. Did you ever stop to think about what those small plants, with their shallow root system, are doing to that rock?

Slowly through the centuries those small plants change the entire makeup of even something as solid as granite. Seeds take root, even if for a season and change hearts of stone.

That is how the word of God works in our lives. A kind word from a friend. A sermon, a song on the radio, a bible verse on a picture somewhere. The faint memory of your grandmother prayers or a simple question of a child.
Even when God’s word is there for only a little moment, you life is changed. The boulders shift a little, the thorns and thistles move back some, in that place in your life where the word of God has taken root, the soil is made richer, deeper.

You see the greatest danger for us is in becoming the hard garden path, that place which cannot be receptive to the word of God. That is what we must and can guard against.

For while we cannot control much of our lives, we can make sure our hearts and souls, our gardens are willing to accept the word of God wherever it is scattered.

For we can be sure that this Gardner, our great and living God will continue to throw out seeds willy-nilly.

And that promise is this: the grace is this: That eventually, through the patience and grace of our loving God a harvest will be made, a rich and abundant harvest. Some thirty fold, some sixty fold and some a hundred fold.

This is the Word God as it works in your life, you who have ears to hear. Listen!