Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Round Up Just Doesn’t Work

Mark 4: 26-34

If you go to California in the summer, don’t expect it to rain. The weather pattern of that part of North America is solidly stated, almost as if it was written in a book somewhere. There’s no rain in the summers, that’s why the hills turn such a golden brown—lots of folks think its pretty, Golden California, and all that, but natives and firefighters know just how close they are to devastating grassfires for 4 months out of the year.

But in the winter, the rains do come. The hills turn green again, and where I was born, the true beauty of the land comes forward. Constantly changing clouds and light, days and days of rain, with peek-a-boo bits of sun poking through the quick moving grayness, and the constant presence of the colors of green and yellow. Gray, green and yellow. Gray from the clouds, green from the grass and the trees, and yellow from the mustard that sprouts up in between the dormant vines. It happens every year, and to those who are wishing to control every aspect of their fields, it is a nuisance. There is no reason for a weed to grow in a modern agricultural field, To many it shows a certain laziness of character.

But the wise ones know that mustard in a field, when plowed under in early spring as the vines come out of their winter dormancy, are a very good source of nutrients and minerals that don’t have to be added to the fields chemically.

Some folks in Napa have even figured out that mustard is a great moneymaker on its own, and there is now a mustard festival, where I am sure someone has figured out a way to charge $20 for a jar. There is also a restaurant called “Mustards”, which, when I lived there, was about the only place you can get a decent plate of ribs in the whole valley.

Those wise ones, the ones who leave the mustard alone in the winters, also know the value of simply having beauty present in bright colors in an otherwise drab season. They know the value of a weed.

That’s what mustard really is, you know. It’s something that, when left to grow, spreads quickly and grows quickly. It’s not a great big thing, but when left to grow is still just a bush, maybe 4 feet high for the most ambitious ones. It certainly is not a great big powerful tree, unmovable and powerful. Well, not powerful in the way that empires and governments love to be seen—impenetrable, glorious, ever present.

There is power in mustard, however, and it is the power that every weed has—spreads quickly, grows quickly. You just can’t kill it. Round Up, that powerful herbicide, just doesn’t work on it. Yes, you might have killed the individual plant, but the seeds have been spread far and wide, and the plant will show up again, somewhere.

Diana Butler Bass, a recent favorite author of mine, has written a book called A People’s History of Christianity, and in it she writes that there is an alternative story of how the Christian church we know came to be. Let me read to you what she writes as the thumbnail history we were all taught about our faith, and you tell me how familiar it feels:

Jesus came to earth to save us, but he founded the church instead. That church suffered under Roman persecution until the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. With it’s new status, the Christian religion spread throughout Europe, where popes and kings formed a society called Christendom, which was run by the Catholic church and was constantly threatened by Muslims, witches and heretics. There were wars and inquisitions. When people had had enough, they rebelled and became Protestants . . . eventually the puritans left Europe to set up a Christian society in the new world. The United States of America then became the most important Christian nation on the world, a beacon of faith and democracy.

This is a story of the faith as seen as the growth of one of those mighty trees. In her book, she proceeds to write stories of examples of how this didn’t work, and how there are always these little exceptions to that story that nonetheless lift up the Christian faith, often even while allowing other religions and beliefs to co-exist.

So it is also when we look at Jesus’ words in Mark. What we see as his example for the model of faith isn’t a great and mighty tree, but a shrub. A weed. Mustard.

There’s value in the traditional view of this parable as needing only a little faith, but it being enough to do great things, the scriptural version of the ant and the rubber tree plant in that old song High Hopes. But I invite you to think of it a slightly different way today, a way that is less big tree, and more quickly spreading weed.

The mustard seed is indeed the smallest of the seeds. But that allows it to be blown in the winds, eaten and deposited by birds, and caught into the mud that cakes on hooves and boots and carried all over the land. One way or another, the mustard seed, like other weeds, spreads. It lands, it gets into the ground, it germinates, it sprouts, it grows, and the first thing it does is produce flowers and heads that are nothing but more seeds. When it grows to fullness, as I mentioned above, it isn’t the tallest ever, but it is a full shrub, and is enough to provide cover for birds and other critters.

There’s two things here that Jesus, I think are highlighting to the large crowd that gathered by the sea that day. The first is that the kingdom of God is valuable only in what it can do for the people who live in it. When the mustard seed grows into a plant, he says, it doesn’t matter how large it is, how strong it is. Its appearance isn’t its value. As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s value is how the birds of the air can make a home in its branches.

Now, if that was Jesus’ intention, he could have told that story with an acorn or a pinecone, which, while bigger, is still proportionally small compared to the fully grown tree. But he didn’t; he used the example of a weed. So, he’s also saying that the kingdom of God should be easily spread, and easily grown.

So, what about the faith is easily spread? What about what you believe is simply stated, but true even to the deepest and most critical, most skeptical examination?
For me, it is the love of God. Simply stated, true all he way to the bottom, unable to be picked apart by the literalists of both the Biblical and secular sort. That is where we should live as Christians. You may wrestle with the concept of the Trinity, you may want to understand just how the Holy Spirit came and made Mary with child, you may want to know exactly where heaven is. All interesting theological and intellectual exercises, but by Jesus’ words, the true value is how easily you spread the word, and how well you provide large branches and shade for the birds of the air.

What about your life is sheltering to others? What about what you believe about your faith is wise and practical, and easily spread? Wherever that is, there is where you should live in your faith, and that is what others will see your faith as. How do you think the people around you see your faith? Do they see it at all?

I pray that for you, it can be said that if your faith is like a mustard seed, the Round Up just doesn’t work.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Notes On The Morning After

Romans 8: 12-17

Notes On The Morning After a Very Intense Three Days, Disguised As A Sermon, With A Conveniently Simpatico Scripture.

I got home from Annual conference last night (Saturday) about 10:30, after dropping our lay representative off at her home. We had been at the University of Scranton since Thursday morning, meeting with over 400 other Methodist clergy and laypeople in our annual meeting.

While Annual Conference is partly a business meeting, with decisions to be made about money and politics and all that, it is also my church, my congregation, and to be able to see friends and to honor retirees, memorialized those who have passed, and bring new members in with ordination is very important.

There were a lot of firsts and lasts. This was the last Wyoming Annual conference meeting. The five that were ordained on Saturday evening at Elm Park UMC in Scranton were the last ordination class of the conference. Next year, those who will be ordained will receive it in the name of the Susquehanna Conference, or whatever New York comes up with as a name.

This was also the first year after a General Conference meeting, so there were decisions that had to be made about changes to the general church’s constitution.

I do, however, what to tell you about a new set of focuses (foci?) that our denominational wide body, the General Conference, has laid before the whole church. There are four, and you’ll be hearing about them again, with video and everything!

We are charged by the church to focus our energy in four areas: developing new leaders, creating new places for new people, eliminating poverty, and improving world health. The mission of the United Methodist church is to make Disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and these are the ways that we have been challenged to respond.

When we develop leaders, we are of course meaning identifying new and fresh people who can be trained to lead the church as ministers, missionaries and empowered laypeople. The average age of United Methodist church is 58 years old, and constantly skewing older, and it makes sense that it would also be true of those who are leading them. We need to be better at identifying those who may be hearing a call to serve the people, to lead them in service to Christ.

In identifying those people, we need to put them in places where they can announce the presence of the Lord, share the love of Christ with new people.

The United Methodist church is the heir of a stream of traditions that have all emphasized strongly the importance of working for the benefit of the whole world. The call for our age, the 21st century, is to eliminate poverty and to improve health globally. It is often noticed that the world already has enough food to feed itself, if the food is distributed equitably. One of the things we are called to address is to make sure that everyone, to the best of our ability, is “food secure” and has safe and solid housing.

The same is true for global health; just as polio is no longer a threat in the United States because of a vaccine, so, too, many other diseases can be eliminated worldwide by simply paying attention, identifying a need, and applying the right talent and resources. Malaria can be controlled in many areas of the world simply by having people sleep under $10 mosquito nets. Things can actually change, it is within our reach!

The flavor of the church is changing. The United Methodist church is seeking to respond to 21st Century problems, just as our forebears sought to respond to poverty in their time, to eradicating disease, to changing society so that it may more closely resemble the kingdom of God. To as Paul says, not live according to the flesh, where “we take care of our own” and the rest of the world is not a concern, but to live by the Spirit, where we know that for each Christian, the kingdom of God knows no boundaries. To understand, in Wesley’s words, that “The world is my parish”. We are the inheritors of an eternal message, the love and saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are called to applying to our very real and different time. We are still called to live by the spirit, and the world is no longer what it was. It is constantly changing. Living by the spirit of Christ can’t be done the way it used to be, our ways of living as heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ have to constantly adapt as well.

To borrow the old Army slogan and flip it a bit, faith is Christ is not just a life, it’s an adventure. I’m inspired by what I’ve learned and seen, I hope I can inspire you too! Let’s get to it!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Difficulty and the Declaration of Faith of Confirmation

Acts 2: 1-21
1 Corinthians 12: 12-14

Kathleen Norris is a poet and an author of books that are a wonderful mix of belief and practicality, an English major who writes with plain language about the loftiest and most uplifting Christian subjects.

In a book called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, she writes about the organized church. She’s at a college doing a poetry reading and there is a reception afterwards. At that party, she gets the usual statements from academic oriented people about how they are good people without going to church, how one can believe in God but can’t stand the organized church (anyone who knows the inner workings of the church can just laugh and laugh at that!), and how religion is the cause of so much strife and pain in the church, and perhaps the world would be better off without religion and specifically, churches.

It’s her opinion that for “people (who) complain about organized religion, what they are really saying is that they can’t stand other people.” For her, “joining a church is not like joining a hobby club; you will find all sorts of people there, not all of whom will share your interests, let alone your opinions.”

For just as the body is one and has many members, and al the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

If you were to poll the congregation this morning, you’d find many different favorite types of music—Barlow Girl, Gaither, Third Day, Toby Keith, U2, Bach and Handel. This is just one example of what Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians. This is what is meant when Luke goes through the list of nations represented by the Jews in the temple when the tongues of fire come upon them in a rushing wind.

Can you folks who love Bill Gaither and the music he and his group makes really ever appreciate Kirk Franklin, an African American Gospel artist who constructs his songs on strongly rhythmic beats and raps a lot of his lyrics?

And yet they are both Christian.

There’s too much doubting of the faith of other people. Catholics distrust Protestants, Protestants distrust Catholics. Methodists distrust Baptists, Baptists doubt Methodist’ salvations.
But then, there is this wonderful occasion where people actually have to put down their Bibles, and go buy groceries. And there, they see people. People who go to different churches, people who go to synagogue, people who go to mosque, people who sometimes don‘t even go to any of the above choices, and they all need food, too.

What Kathleen Norris’ point about organized religion is, is this, and she’s quoting another author here; “what looks like a Christmas party in an insurance office is, in fact, pure holiness.” The people of the church are not beautiful, angelic, creatures, “strewn with flowers and sequins,”, but someone with a nose piercing, standing next to the guy in jeans with a red bandanna tied around his head, next to the older man with pants that are belted somewhere above his bellybutton and below his arms, next to the woman with the pearls, scarf, and perfume. That they stand all in one place, moved by the spirit to do ministry, is where the Spirit is.

They stand there together, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia.

The folks who are going to stand up here this morning are not as diverse as all that. They are all Caucasian. Their families all fall within a certain bracket in terms of annual income. But some are musicians, some are hunters, some loathe organization and some thrive on it. And every single one of them has taken a class for a year, and based on what they’ve learned, (or despite what they’ve learned), they will stand before this church and declare to you that they believe that when Jesus chose to die on the cross, that he died for them, and they are saved by grace, and that the people of this church will be their companions as they walk through their life. Of course, they may move away. Of course, some may go away to school, and others will stay here, and others won’t go at all. Some will vote Republican, some will vote Democrat.

However different their walk may be in Christ, it will be genuine, and while they are here, we have no business doubting their faith. Our only job is to support it, to offer ways to increase and deepen it, and to allow them to learn from our walks. The pledges that they will take for membership in the denomination and in the local church are much less deep than the first one, they are pledged within the context of always being a member of Christ’s universal church.

It’s hard to allow people their own way, especially when they are people whom you have loved since before they were born. It’s difficult. But it is a declaration of faith in itself, after all- you are declaring that you have faith that God that will allow God to work in them in their own special way. You declare that you have faith that God will work in them as God has worked in you.

They have chosen to join this church to begin their journey. Some may be here the rest of their lives. Others may be gone in 5 years, some may be gone sooner. But they will have said, in public and in front of a congregation, that God is working in their life, they have taken their baptisms for themselves, and now take responsibility for themselves and their own salvations.

We can do no less than support them and honor their public commitments. That is a declaration of faith in itself.