Monday, July 31, 2017

In Search of Modern-Day Parables

'Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”'
--Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

You know how fireworks shows build and build until there’s a huge crescendo at the end? Well if you've been following this blog, hearing me preach on Sundays, or keep up with the Revised Common Lectionary, then this is your cresendo!  Five parables in one reading!!  If you’re keeping score that’s eight in the last five weeks.  I don’t know about you, but reading all of these parables back-to-back today felt like the end of a fireworks show.  BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!   And like the end of a fireworks show it’s a bit disorienting.  What exactly just happened and where do we go from here?

A fireworks finale, courtesty of YouTube user Stephanie Yeow

What just happened is that Jesus gave us the cu de gras on a series of stories and allegories about the nature of the kingdom of God and the nature of our faith in God.  He began weeks ago by comparing people and their faiths to bickering children.  He used the story of a sower throwing seeds on different kinds of soil to make us ask the question:  “what kind of soil are we and what are we doing to care for it?”  Last week he took the tale of some over-zealous servants, eager to weed out their master’s field, and used it to remind us that we are meant not to be so over-zealous ourselves and must not be so quick to judge and “weed out” others. 

Today the crescendo:  the kingdom of heaven—nay, faith itself—is like: BOOM! a mustard seed, starting small and growing large, BOOM! yeast, which is worked and worked until it is transformed by the leaven, BOOM! a treasure that is worth selling all we have to obtain, BOOM! a pearl, so lovely and perfect that we’ll do anything to possess it, and BOOM! a fishing net, that is so big that it can embrace and hold people of every shape, size, and kind.  Now THAT is a finale!

So that just happened. All those parables. And now we're done, at least for a few weeks. The fireworks are done.  So what’s next?  Maybe what's next is that we look for some other parables, perhaps ones not explicitly given by Jesus. That might seem odd, what with me being a priest and all, and it may come as a shock to some Christians, but Jesus didn’t invent this method.  The prophets used parables long before Jesus, not to mention that every known culture has used parables and metaphors to describe how and why the world works as it does—we call these myths, which we have mistakenly associated with fiction.  While myths are not concerned with fact or fiction, they speak to deep and meaningful truths by using imagery and language that humans can understand, in the hopes that we’ll learn something about God, or the world, or ourselves. The myths of old and the parables of Jesus help us answer with human language the question that is so hard to grasp with our rational mind:  who is God and what does it mean to be human? As long as they’re have been humans we have been using such metaphors to articulate those deeper truths. And we're still doing that.  So I wonder:  what are the parables in our own time?  Which ones have you experienced lately?

This is why I use so many pop culture references in my sermons and blog posts.  Our culture is filled with modern-day parables which, like those from Jesus, teach us something about God without ever using words like 'God', 'Jesus', or 'heaven.' Whether the stories are real or not is irrelevant--none of the characters in Jesus’ parables were real, after all--yet they serve the same function as those parables.  Whether in film, books, or music, our culture is filled with such modern-day parables!

Clevon Little and Gene Wilder in the modern-day parable Blazing Saddles

One movie I was raised on and believe to be an excellent modern parable is Blazing Saddles, a comedy that makes fun of EVERYONE.  It’s hilarious and brilliant, but what makes it so brilliant is is how it illustrates the absurdity of racism, and takes the whole concept and flips it on its head when a podunk town of white folks in 1874 gets a black sheriff (played beautifully by Clevon Little).  That story does the same thing as some of Jesus' parables. That's right!  Did you know Jesus took absurd concepts and flipped them on their heads, too?  He even does so in one of the parables above!  In his day great kingdoms and empires, especially Rome, were compared to mighty oak trees.  Jesus mocks the very concept of empire by comparing God’s kingdom to a mustard seed that grows into a plant that all the birds nest in.  The problem is that the mustard plant is a shrub, a weed; in fact,it doesn’t actually get that big at all.  The fact that God's kingdom would be compared to such a shrub and that folks would come and nest in it is hilarious and shows the absurdity of empires, not unlike how Blazing Saddles and other comedies mock the absurdities of some of our own modern institutions like racism, sexism, or homophobia.  I bet you won't watch another comedy the same way again, huh?

The Killing Joke, a modern Batman parable

Y’all know that I’m a comic book reader, and one book that I love is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, a Batman story that leaves the reader guessing whether Batman actually kills the Joker and whether or not that killing is justified.  Each time I read it I am reminded of the concept of redemptive violence, something that humanity has struggled with since the beginning.  Can violence ever be justified?  Scripture tackles this issue, as well.  The Hebrew Testament seems to support the notion that violence is sometimes ok, but Jesus rebukes such a notion with sayings like: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” and by the example of his own death.  Stories like The Killing Joke--or Watchmen, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games--are excellent examples of modern-day parables in printed form.

But parables don’t even need to necessarily use spoken or written words. Paul talks about the Spirit interceding with “sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8: 26). That's exactly what music does!  And I’m not just talking about so-called sacred music, but ALL music, even “secular” music.  For truly, there is no such thing as secular music; it’s all sacred, because all music comes from deep down in the soul.  This includes religious songs like the chanting of Hildegard of Bingen or spirituals like Go Down Moses, which can tap into the deepest corners of our souls, but this also includes music that contains no words.  (No, I'm not just talking about Bach or Mozart, but modern music too.)  Listen to the blues, which James Cone calls the blues secular spirituals.  Listen to the sound of Robert Johnson--pay no attention to the words--but hear his cries and wails.

Robert Johnson wails away with his classic Crossroads

Listen to the guitar rifts of Blind Willie McTell, and feel the passion, the sadness, and the holy complexity of emotion that is riled in you without a word ever being uttered.  

Blind Willie McTell plays Searching the Desert for the Blues

That’s what music does!  It stirs our heart and pounds at our soul and helps us feel God and the human condition in ways that even books and films cannot.  Considering it predates any spoken or written word, that might make music the best kind of parable.

Parables are still being written, spoken, and sung.  We tend to think that Jesus had a trademark on them, or that lessons about who God is and what it means to be human are only found within the confines of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.  Yes, they're there, but they are found in so many other places, as well!  We Episcopalians often act as if our Book of Common Prayer and various hymnals are the only places we can find meet and right prayers and music acceptable to God.  That simply is not true!  The stories and music that teach us about God and our own nature are all around us.  What parables have you experienced lately?  What movies have you seen?  What books have you read?  What music have you listened to?  (My answer to those three are Wonder Woman, Everything Must Change by Brian McClaren, and a whole bunch of Japanese pop music!)  This may seem like small talk, but it's really holy talk.  There's wisdom in those things, so don't just keep them to yourself!  Parables are meant to be shared and to be discussed, as Jesus shared his, and as his disciples discussed them.  If we are open to experiencing God in our regular, "secular" lives, in our movies, books, films, music, and so many other places, then we will find the parables, and like the crowds in Jesus' day we will get a new teaching and find new meaning and understanding about God, the Kingdom, and ourselves.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

It's Not Our Place To Do Jesus' Weeding

Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”
--Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

I’ve never been very good at weeding.  I can't tell a weed from a good plant!  I tend to either chop up the good ones when I go through a garden with a hoe, or I use a weed-eater and just trim the surface area.  Basically, I try to get it done as fast as possible and am not very careful or intentional.  You know who’s good though?  My fiancee Kristen!  Her secret is that she does it by hand, and she takes her time, getting deep down, pulling up the weed by its root.  It’s much harder work than the ways I’ve approached it, but it gets rid of the weeds, and it saves the good plants. 

Kristen and Casey after a tough day of weeding the yard.

The folks in Jesus’ time did a whole lot of planting, picking, and weeding, which is why, immediately after telling a large crowd that the kingdom of heaven could be compared to a sower who sowed some seeds in various kinds of soil, he gives them the parable of the weeds.  Here he says that the kingdom is like a sower who plants some wheat, and in the middle of the night an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat.  The sower’s servants notice the weeds, and they want to pluck them; get rid of those nasty weeds and save that good wheat.  But the sower tells them no.  Instead let the weeds grow and wait until harvest time, and then the reapers will pick everything and sort it all out.  The wheat will then be gathered into the barn, and the weeds will be burned.

An artist's rendering of The Enemy, who sows the weeds in the field of wheat.

Like with the parable of the sower, which we talked about last week, Jesus actually offers an explanation to his disciples about what the parable of the weeds means—these, by the way are the only two parables in Matthew to which Jesus gives an explanation!  The explanation is pretty straightforward:  the sower is Jesus, the Son of Man, the field is the world, and the wheat and weeds represent folks in the world, both good and not-so-good.  Harvest time, therefore, represents the end of the age--a common theme in Matthew's gospel-- and when the sower comes for harvest--that is, when Jesus comes at the end of the age--he will send the reapers--that is, the angels--to gather all the folks, and then he'll sort out all the causes of sin and throw those away like weeds in a fire, while everything and everyone that’s left will be gathered into the Kingdom.

Now, we could focus on the whole imagery about the harvest and the end of the age, which is what a lot of folks have done through the years, of but I’d like to propose a different focus for us:  the servants who want to uproot the sower’s weeds.  Did you notice how Jesus does not explain who the servants are in the parable??I have a theory, but I'll save it for a bit. Think about who these servants are.  They are deeply devoted to the sower; after all, they call him 'Master.'  They want to help, but they’re hasty.  And we can imagine that in their haste, in their desire to help, they would likely end up accidentally uprooting the wheat, along with the weeds.  They might not be thinking clearly, and therefore pluck up good plants, thinking that they were weeds just by their appearance.  And because they’re in a hurry to satisfy the sower, they probably won’t take their time, won’t dig deep into the dirt and put forth the effort to pull out the weeds by their roots.  In other words, I suspect they would be more like me when it comes to weeding than like Kristen, just wanting to get the job done as fast as possible, but their eagerness would destroy some of the good plants and likely leave a number of the weeds.

So who are the servants in the parable?  I propose that the servants are meant to be folks like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, those who were so devoted to God that they wanted to do God's work on behalf of God; thus, they took it upon themselves to decide who belonged and who didn't, who was a sinner and who was a saint.  Or, to put it into the context of the parable, they decided who was a weed and who was not.  

Fast forward all these years later, and Christianity is still full of people who are like the servants in the parable, who are more than eager to weed out Jesus’ field for him.  In the same way that the servants simply want to do the will of their master and save his field, these kinds of folks just want to help, and so they attack the "weeds" with extreme prejudice.  Sadly, I suspect we have all, to some extent, acted in such a way.  In an attempt to help someone that is a sinner--or whom we perceive to be a sinner--we kindly ask them to remove themselves from our section of Jesus' field.  If they can go and get right with God then they can come back and flourish, just like the wheat.  We say things to them like, "We love you, but we hate your sin!"  Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters know what this is like.  They are labeled as weeds amongst wheat, plucked out and shunned by folks who think they are doing what the master wants them to do.  At other times we have located other "weeds" in our field--weeds that don't fit in because they are not dressed properly, or they smell bad, or they aren't acting properly.  These weeds distract the wheat, we say, and so we have to uproot them.  Our brothers and sisters who cannot afford to dress like everyone else, or who are homeless and can't shower, or who are visiting and aren't sure what to do, they all know what it is like to be given the label of "weed" and to be asked to leave.  All of this is done on behalf of Jesus, of course;  after all, if we can get rid of the weeds, we can purify Jesus’ fields, and all that will be left is the wheat, the good Christian folk.  But this is so dangerous on so many levels. 

When we personally take on the position of righteous weeder within Jesus’ great big garden of humanity, we end up hurting really good folks, and we push away folks who otherwise might be interested in joining our section of Jesus' field.  What's more, we overstep our bounds and forget our role; for the task of judging who is or is not “good” Christian folk—who is wheat and who is a weed—is not for us.  That is why the sower in the parable does not allow the servants to do the weeding.  Oh they want to do it, but he says no.  He even tells them that they will end up plucking up the good wheat if they take it upon themselves to get rid of the weeds. He knows they’ll make mistakes.  Instead, they are to wait, just do the tasks that are set before them, and any decision that is to be made is for the sower and the sower alone.  The same is true of us.  We must focus on the tasks set before us—to love God, to love our neighbor—and any judgement that is to be made is for Jesus and Jesus alone.  Not us. It is not our place to decide who is a weed in Jesus' field! This is Good News that Christians today of all denominations need to hear.  What may look like a weed to you might be a beautiful plant that Jesus loves, so don’t pluck her.  What you may think is ugly and unwanted in the garden, Jesus may see as capable of yielding great fruit, so leave him be.  Focus on loving,  and leave the rest to Jesus. Like the sower, this is all that our master asks of us.

Perhaps I have invited you to see this parable in a new light.  Perhaps it is a tough light.  That's ok.  The truth is that it is a lot harder to just perform the two-fold task of loving God and neighbor than it is to point fingers and judge others and label certain folks as weeds and others as good and decent wheat.  Yet I hope that we might learn a valuable lesson from the servants in the parable.  Rather than being eager to pick out all those nasty weeds, which Jesus the sower makes clear is not our task, may we focus on what is in front of us and leave the judging and the sorting to him.  If we can do this, then maybe in the end, what that harvest time comes, Jesus may find a more bountiful and rich harvest that we can imagine.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Lessons from the Butterfly Bush

'Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”'
--Matthew 14: 1-9, 18-23

As you pull up to our house you’ll notice some large rocks in some less-than-rich soil on the right-hand side of the driveway.  We’ve been talking for a while about planting something in that area, just to make it look a little nicer, but we couldn’t think of anything.  The last time my dad visited, though, he recommended butterfly bushes.  “They’ll grow in anything," he told us.  When we went to Virginia two weeks ago and walked around the coal mining site behind my childhood home, we saw a ton of butterfly bushes, all growing in some really rocky, dry dirt.  Almost immediately, my fiancee Kristen and I said, “We gotta put this in the driveway!”

A butterfly and her bush.

Butterfly bushes are something of a miracle, given that they will grow anywhere.  In that regard they remind me a lot of Jesus.  Our Gospel from this past Sunday was the Parable of the Sower.  There've been many conversations around who exactly is meant to be whom in this parable.  Who is the sower?  The seeds?  The soil?   One approach says that Jesus is the sower in the story, and the seeds being thrown down are the word (with a lower case ‘w’); that is, the Good News of God’s love and mercy and salvation for this world.  But another approach, the one I wish to use, says that God is the sower and that Jesus is the Word (with a capital ‘W’) being sown.  So what of the soil?

The soil, meanwhile, is us, the ones who have been given the Word. We would all like to think that we are always the good soil, that Jesus has taken root in our hearts, causing us to bear rich and bountiful fruit.  At times, I suspect we all have been good soil, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there are plenty of times when we find ourselves bearing the qualities of the other kids of soil  We’ve been the dirt path, barren and bleak with no depth or water, and the birds—that is, the temptations of sin—come quickly and consume the Word.  We’ve been rocky soil, where there’s enough there for the Word to be planted, creating such jubilation in our hearts, but there’s no root, and at the first sign of trouble, we feel our faith challenged, as if Jesus has abandoned us, so we abandon Jesus.  And we’ve been the thorny soil, eager to accept the Word being sown in us, but all the cares, worries, and occupations of life come and choke the Word away, leaving us with nothing.

The great thing about Jesus, though, is that he can—and does—grow anywhere.  He can be sown in all kinds of soil, in all kinds of places, and among all kinds of people.  He can grow in prison, in a mansion, in a nightclub, in a country club, among elephants, and among donkeys. He’s like the cosmic butterfly bush!  He will grow and bloom and his kingdom will have no end!  That is the promise of our faith.  The only thing that can even slightly halt his growth at all is us, the very soil in which he hopes to grow and flourish.  After explaining the parable’s meaning—something he only does one more time in Matthew—Jesus leaves his audience with something to ponder, albeit not something that is explicitly laid out in the text, but it  is there underneath it all:  what kind of soil are you?  What kind do you want to be?

If you’ve ever sowed any kind of seed you know that it’s not easy.  We started a garden last year and almost immediately had corn, okra, green beans, carrots, green peppers, and tomatoes.  We were elated.  

Yay corn!!!!!!

And then, about as fast as it all sprang up, nearly everything died, save for the okra and tomatoes.  We had not taken care of the soil.  We tried, but ultimately we didn't give it enough water, didn't protect it from the sun enough, and didn't till out the weeds regularly.  (Point of clarification:  Kristen did a pretty good job, but I dropped the ball on my end!)  That was just for a small garden outside our house.  Those of you who live on farms or have huge gardens of your own, you know how much effort it takes to get that soil in good shape.  You have to nurture it, so that the seeds can flourish. 

It is no different with Jesus.  If we do not take care of ourselves, of our soil, then it will be hard for Jesus to flourish in and through us.  Don’t get me wrong, Jesus has already won and will win in the end, and thanks be to God for that!  But for right here and right now, he leaves so much in our hands.  If we don’t nurture ourselves and one another, Jesus will not thrive. 

It takes time and care to cultivate a faith that is deep-rooted and strong.  But we do not do so alone.  This is what community gardens are all about, everyone pitching in to nurture the soil and seeds and bring forth life-giving food.  No one person does it all on his or her own, but rather it is a collective, communal effort.  And when one person’s soil is too rocky, or another person’s plants encounter thorns, the rest of the community is there to help.  

A community garden set up by First United Methodist Church here in Asheboro.

The community garden is a wonderful model of what the Kingdom looks like:  everyone pitching in, tilling and watering and caring for their soil.  The result of such work is life-giving for the local community, and the same is true when we come together as a community of faith to water and till each other's soil.  When we are able to do that, Jesus--the life-giver--flourishes in us and through us.  Blessedly, we do not have to do such work alone!  That's what community is all about.

Faith, like growing a garden, is not a simple matter, it takes a lot of effort, and often times a lot of trial-and-error and discouragement.  Yet, C.S. Lewis once said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity!”  The soil is sometimes rocky and dry and thorny, but if we work together we can clear those rocks and thorns, water that dryness, and the seeds of love, mercy, justice, and hope that Jesus personifies, will blossom in us and through us, and the world will look, and smell, a whole lot prettier.