The Silly Sower

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23, Isaiah 55.10-13

By any modern measure, the sower in this parable is an idiot, taking perfectly good seed and chucking it into rockpiles, under the blackberry hedge, and onto the street. Seed, particularly healthy, viable seed, is a precious thing and any moderately competent farmer knows that “it puts the seed in the good soil or it gets the hose again.” Any farmer worthy of stewarding life into fruitful harvest is going to put the good seed on the good soil and not waste it in places where it will do no good. So by this sort of measure, the sower of seed is an idiot who should have their seed bag taken away.

Of course, this only makes sense if we assume that the seed has no power within itself. If the seed is this flickering candle flame of life, frail and fragile in the face of the vicisitudes of the world then yes, the sower is being dumb. In truth the parable Jesus tells is however, not really about the seed, it’s an opportunity to reflect on our own response to the word of God . But given the power inherent in the Old Testament reading, I want to reflect on the reality of power inherent in the seed and why chucking it into stupid places is not as stupid as one might first think it to be.

This is because of what the seed is and what it contains. Jesus explains that the seed is the Word of God. Does anyone remember where else in the Gospels the notion of “Word” comes up? Hint: “in the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” So according to John’s Gospel, the Word is Jesus himself and while we can call Jesus a whole lot of things, “helpless, passive wimp” does not exactly spring to mind.

Furthermore, the Gospels also include the parable of the seed growing secretly, a story that shows the power in the seed which grows “of itself” without outside pressure or understanding. On the whole, seeds come off in Scripture as rather strong little things with a power in themselves to grow regardless of conditions.

And then there’s the Isaiah reading. Andrew Peterson has put this text to music in a very tender way, showing that just as the rain and snow come down from the sky and do not return without accomplishing their task, the Word of God also will accomplish its work. Remind me again, what did Jesus call the seed? Oh yeah “the Word of God.”

So Jesus is the Word of God, the Word of God accomplishes the task set before it, “giving seed to the sower and bread for the hunger.” And instead of seeing this power, preachers encourage us to focus on “how to be Good Soil” (because, in spite of Scripture’s firm reminder, “it all depends on me being good” [eyeroll]).

We have encouraged one another to see in this parable a reminder to “be good” and that our life and hope depend on cultivating the soil of our being so we’re somehow “good enough” to bring forth the abundant harvest by ourselves. It is true that our spiritual life does include the work of un-hardening our hearts and that this work requires a certain awareness of what binds us deep inside but the idea that we have to do this alone? That’s strictly for the birds.

Martin Luther subtly made that point in his Small Catechism when, in explaining the third part of the Creed, he pointed out that “it is not by my own reason, power or strength that I come to believe in Jesus Christ, but it is the Holy Spirit which daily calls, enlightens, and sanctifies me.” Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that it is God’s power “that can make a way out of no-way” that brings our life together. And Isaiah tops it off by reminding us of the power of the Word of God that is loose in our life through the seed of life that has been planted in us.

The hills before us will raise their voices,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands while the land rejoices.

And instead of the thorn now the cypress towers.
And instead of the briar the myrtle blooms with a thousand flowers.

And it will make a name, make a name for our God,a sign everlasting that will never be cut off.
As the earth brings for sprouts from the seed,what is sown in the garden grows into a mighty tree.
So the Lord plants justice, justice and praiseto rise before the nations till the end of days.

This is the power set loose in our lives through the seed that has been sown in us. So instead of cringeing in fear about “is my soil good enough?” Or spending our time working hard to “be good,” marvel at the power set loose in you. The seed of the life of God is in you and through the power that is already there, your life is already being transformed into life, hope and joy.

Amen.

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A Habit I Can’t Break

Romans 7:15-25

Part of life is doing stuff we don’t want to do: clean your room, eat your broccoli, buy groceries, get the TPS report in on time. I have a feeling that this is not what Paul was talking about when he said “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What he was talking about was something our 12-step friends know very well, the habits that cut into our lives and rob us of our joy. Or as that tune by Dash Berlin put it “I have a habit I can’t break so it does all the breaking.”

The habit itself isn’t evil, it’s the reality that the habit cannot be told when to stop, that it can’t be bent from its intention.  So we find ourselves dragged away like a toddler behind a Great Dane. That sense of being carried along against our will is the point behind what sounds like Paul’s serious case of logic chopping. Hidden behind what sounds like mindless repetition however, he’s trying to make clear the sense of helplessness we feel when we go down the road to do something that would, in saner moments, cause us to ask “what are you doing!

Our 12-step friends get this in a way the rest of us may not really notice. Their habit (whatever it is: food, needing to be needed, alcohol, drugs, or many other things) picks them up and carries them along down paths that hurt themselves and others. At some point they will say (at least once) something that sounds a lot like “who will save me from this body of death?” The habit feels unbreakable and because we cannot break it, it breaks us. That’s the percieved reality and it is sadly something many of us experience at one time or another.

The habit eats our time and undercuts our work for the future. It saps our strength and diverts our mind from hope. In this reality, we truly can feel bound up in a body bound for death. How then are we to escape this? Do we use sheer determination (called “white-knuckling” among our friends)? Sometimes that works, particularly if the habit is new or shallowly rooted but when it doesn’t (as often happens) we can fall even deeper into despair.

When we get to a point where we realize that we cannot “by our own reason, power, or strength” come to sanity, we make our first step (of the 12-Step program). The first step is to accept that our white knuckles and foolproof plans to Be a Better Person are not going to work. It requires us to deal with the reality that our own strength is not enough (because we are fighting against something within ourselves and thus equally matched with our opponent).

Like Paul, we cry out “who will save me from this body of death,” this moribund body which cannot defeat its enemy? We accept that our power is not enough and reach out to another power, a Higher Power (Step 2). In the church we understand this Higher Power to be God present in us through baptism into Jesus. We understand that the One into whose care we give our life actually cares for us and seeks our good. Trusting then in the power of a loving God, we entrust our life into the care of that God (Step 3) and begin the work of building life anew.

Because the 12 step programs are non-sectarian, they cast the Higher Power as whatever you look to that is your power. Their defenition sounds a good bit like Luther’s explanation of what a God actually is “that to which we look for all good in life and from whom we expect help in time of trouble.”

In spite of the way we teach a loving God to our children, the notion that God actually loves and cares is not something with which we are very familiar. This reality makes doing the third step, trusting the care of our life into the hands of God, so very hard. We understand intellectually that God loves and cares, we believe generally this caring, loving God is actually perfectly loving and trustworthy, but in our guts, in the part of us that churns and fears? No such luck. So who will save us from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, the perfectly loving, perfectly real God we do not always trust, the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ will save us. Even when we don’t trust fully, even when we are not perfectly loving ourselves, at all these times and in all these places, God will still love us into life.

This then is the power in the 12 Steps, the power that Paul touched and trusted with his life. The Higher Power of God is doing the work of restoring us to sanity. We co-operate, we even syn (together) ergon (work) i.e. synergize with the work of God in our life, but it is God at work to bring life out of death who is doing the work. It is God who cherishes our doubt and our faith, who takes all we give and turns it into beauty.

As Paul said it “Thanks be to God.”

 

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The Melody of Our Life

Romans 6.12-23

We’ve been given the idea that this passage is solely about bodies, that the part translated as “your members” refers only to arms and legs. The thing is that the word melos also means part, as in musical parts (like SATB) or even melody. So Paul is talking as much about the melody of our life and what we do with it as he is about our lips and arms.

While melodies are generally treated as puffball bits of cuteness, they have (as any earworm sufferer can attest) strength within themselves. We use music to evoke emotions even without words and as anyone whose been to a movie or seen a political rally can tell you, music can move us by appealing straight to our gut without even stopping off to visit our brain.

Further, Paul encourages us not to make our melody available as an ‘oplon (tool/weapon) of sin. A class of Greek warriors were called hoplites because they bore the ‘oplon as their tool (s). (the plural is needed here because there is some discussion about whether ‘oplon refers just to the shield or to the whole panoply of armor, weapons and shield). Anyone who has seen the current Wonder Woman movie has seen her use a hoplite shield so you know what a serious tool it is. The appeal Paul is making here is that we not let our living, moving, be-ingness to be used as a tool (insert obligatory “don’t be a tool” joke here) for evil to others.

The opening verse of this passage adds another layer of meaning because while we translate it “do not let sin exercise dominion” the verb is “to rule” as in “to rule a kingdom.” While misrule very often results in domination, using domination implies more in English than is actually there. It’s enough to say “not rule sin in your mortal body” (in a painfully literal, words in the same order as in the Greek, translation). The point of the sentence is that sin is not to rule in your body/your being. And how does sin rule? By taking the melody of your life and using it as a tool, a weapon, against others.

it gets used, hijacked if you will, when there are place in our life where evil can get a finger (or claw) hold. We’re already aware of the spectacular and obvious hooks evil can use to grab us away from ourselves so I’ll just highlight a powerful one in my life which is not so obvious: rumination.

When I start dwelling on some old hurt or imagined injury, I can build up a head of steam just waiting for some unsuspecting passerby to go “Boom!” all over. In part this is an exaggeration, but at the same time the more energy I spend chewing over old soup, the more likely I am to be blinded by old movies and thus vulnerable to being surprised by situations and react out of older, more unhealthy selves instead of the new person I am becoming through Christ. Part of spiritual health then, is being aware of what my guts are churning over, what my mind is spinning on about and checking to see if this is truth or old lies. Part of growth then is built on avoiding bad habits.

However, while much of our preaching has focused on the negative here, the “do not let this happen” Paul is emphasizing, there is also a powerful positive. You see, if our melody can be used as a tool for evil, it means both that we have a melody in our life and that our melody has power. Furthermore, this melody can be a weapon for good, we are not bound forever simply avoiding doing evil. We can choose to give ourselves to the work of The Good.

Since we have been united into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are now people who have been brought from death to life. We have power, strength, and choice and we can give the power of our musical lives to many things.

In the face of being told that our lives have no power, we have a song of life. In the face of a society that assures us that our song is unwelcome, we know that it is a powerful tool. In the face of history which attempts to hijack our power in service of hurting others or simply staying silent within ourselves, we know that we can give our song as a tool to do and become good.

May the melody of your life be as a blessing to others.

 

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A Song of Hesed

Psalm 89.1-4

It shows up more often (241 times) in the book of Psalms than there are actual psalms (150). It is part of the full Name of God. And although it is one word in Hebrew, we translate it all kinds of ways. We use “steadfast love” and “mercy” most often to try and get the point across but the meaning is more complex.

What is meant by hesed is the never-failing, covenantal, faithful, love of God that will not come to an end. This is more than simple faithfulness or even the stubborn tenacity of refusing to yield, but that steadfastness is indeed part of it. It’s not love in that warm, gooey, twue wove thing that we love to sing about, but love is part of it too.

What’s going on here is a blending of fierceness and love, tenacity and mercy into a single thing. That is Hesed, the Hebrew word for God’s faithful, merciful, loving, never-ending self. It is also the word the psalmist celebrates.

Your Hesed, Lord, forever I will sing it. From generation to generation I will cause us to know your faithfulness with my mouth” (Personal translation). Hesed is the subject if this psalm and is the very first word in the Hebrew text. Your Hesed Lord, not someone else’s but yours. L’olam (unto eternity, forever) I will sing it. From generation to generation, from year to year, person to person, as long as I live, my mouth will cause us all to know your faithfulness intimately, viscerally, deeply.

This is a glimpse of what the word means. So the next time you see ‘your steadfast love’ praised in Scripture or are reminded that “his mercy endures forever,” the word behind them is hesed.

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United With Him

Matthew 10.24-25, Romans 6.1-11

One of the goals of spiritual growth is union with God. The Orthodox call this theosis and our Finish sisters and brothers have shown us that this is part of Luther’s theology as well. He called it Union with Christ and these readings in the Gospel according to Matthew and the Letter to the Romans, show that the idea is not as whacky at it might at first seem.

In Matthew, Jesus points out that “no disciple is greater than (‘uper/above, more than) their teacher… it is enough that they become (ginomai/ to be, become) like their teacher” (personal translation). The point then is that while no one is greater than their teacher (Jesus in this case) it is enough, it is sufficient (sufficient is my grace unto you…) that the disciples (us) become like Jesus. So the goal of spiritual life is to become like Jesus.

Paul explores more of what that union means in Romans 6. We have been united with Jesus already through our baptism in him and that baptism, that union, leads to union in his resurrection. So somehow in the movement if grace that we know as baptism, we are gathered into a mystic union with Christ. This is a union which includes all of his life: all of his living, dying, and rising. In a larger sense, the creeds and councils remind us that Jesus is truly God as well as truly human so being united with him means being united with the fullness of God. And that is what the Orthodox call theosis.

The process involved is not so much a blurring of beings, a dissolution where one person melts into the other and ceases to exist in its own right. What is meant is more like what happened in the early days of my marriage. In quiet moments, my wife would put her hand on mine and say “I don’t even know where I end and you begin.”

Technically of course, she was quite aware of the boundary between us, there was no confusion of our beings. What she pointed to was the intimacy between us, the way we two limited and frail humans were reaching toward and experiencing the edges of the intimacy God desires to have with humanity. (Any question on God’s desire for intimacy can be referred to the Song of Songs and the continuous use of marital imagery to describe the relationship of faith throughout the Old Testament).

What we were experiencing was the way our human union echoes the divine union we have in Christ. And just like our human union required daily work and vulnerability, so too our union with Christ requires work and vulnerability. The fact that the union exists and we can point to a specific time in which it began does not mean that we already have the full and living union. Marriages require daily work, so does our spiritual life.

As a philosophical point, that sounds great; spiritual growth requires work and vulnerability. How do we make this a practical “look ma, no hands!” riding the bicycle moment? One tool I’m working with is the reality that if our lives are, through spiritual growth, united with Jesus then what is this life of union I’m living today.

Truly, if my life is united with him in a life like his, how is that reflected in my life? Am I living the same old way? Screaming at car drivers (who aren’t getting out of my majestic way). Snarking first and asking questions later (or not even questioning myself at all). Or any of the other and the infinite number of other ways I live as if Jesus hasn’t actually touched me at all? If I am then maybe it’s time to change (actually, it is definitely time to change).

If we’re going to accept the claim of God on our lives, that they are new in Christ, then we have to accept the freedom to break the chains of old habits. Because of our new life in Christ, we can choose to live in a way that is different from the one our family told us was right, we can choose to live into new traditions. We can take the lenten discipline of reviewing our life and habits and make it something we do all the time as we continue to let go of what no longer lives in us and reach toward what it is coming to be.

This is the work of spiritual growth, this dancing, turning, beautiful movement is the process by which our union with Christ grows deeper and more beautiful. It is what we were called to be and how we have been called to become.

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Change in the Church

1 Corinthians 8.1-13

While society has taught us to find crushing our enemies, seeing them driven before us, and hearing the lamentation of their women an emotionally satisfying goal, it has some problems. The first one is simply that this only works in a zero-sum, winner take all, war of all against all, but not where life is a cooperative task. It’s a great goal in a situation where other=enemy but when other=your neighbor, it breaks down.

In contrast to what we were taught, and the bloody minded society in which we live, Jesus reminds us that we don’t get to vote each other off the island. In a larger sense, the bible suggests that life itself may well be a situation where we don’t actually win the game unless everyone wins. So what do we do when we need to change? How do we change the church when we find ourselves in a fight?

Society tells us that we organize, create social action plans and talking points which deny the Enemy any room to stand, and then use legal parliamentary procedure to force a vote and keep voting until we win. We are to publish and pass around memes and snarky slogans that validate our worldview and spit on the others. If we lose this vote, we’ll just regroup and push harder until we can kick the losers to the curb.

One problem (of the myriad problems this naked use of force and coercion causes) is how we deal with our defeated enemy. Society says we shove them off into an airless, lightless place where they can be ignored. The reality of this situation is that the losers go off and nurse their bitterness and possibly even turn to violence. But that’s the only model we have and thus the only one we can use, right? Well, no.

You see, Paul dealt with a congregation trying to figure out what to do in the conflict between meat eaters and vegetarians and Luther had a problem in Wittenberg with people who were impatient for change. In Paul’s case, he changed the question from one of right and wrong into one of extending grace to the other.

Meat eaters (whose only source of meat was the stuff left over after pagan sacrifice) were told that since they understood that idols were pointless and thus a sacrifice to them had as much meaning as cutting meat in a kitchen with a picture on the wall, their faith was strong. Meanwhile those who abstained from meat (because even though idols represented false gods, they were still being used for worship) were called weak in faith. Thus two groups, the strong pro-change party and the weak not-ready-yet party have been delineated.

According to our standard model, as soon as there are enough strong ones in power, they should vote, write rules and by-laws, and force us all to be strong. Paul however, noting that exercising his strength could end up wounding one of the weak, decided not to exercise that strength. Instead if dominating in victory, he would forgo his power in order to make sure that everyone makes it to the finish line. His desire to bring even the weak (and doubtless annoying) along too, meant that he surrendered his strength for the sake of his neighbor.

Luther faced a similar problem. Some people in Wittenberg were ready to abolish the old church practices and get on with the reformation, others were not ready. In his famous Eight Wittenberg Sermons, he outlined how change should occur. The key for him was that no one should be coerced to bow to the new ideas. Instead, the word of God should be truly preached and hearts converted to the new way of being. For the conversion to be real however, it could not be forced. In his third sermon he said “I will drag no one to the commandments of God by the hair, I will beat no one into heaven with a club.

He was willing to wait on cautious hearts, willing to (at times barely) restrain his impatience in order to work toward a place where the people in the pews agreed with the change and chose it of themselves rather than being required to bow down to the victors.

Interestingly, Paul’s position won, as did Luther’s because heart level change endures while compelled obedience last only as long as you are willing to compel it. Good behavior gained under threat only lasts as long as we are willing to continue threatening. This is part of why our legal shortcuts to “win” the civil rights movement failed to touch the hearts that needed to change. We didn’t deal with racism and white supremacy then and so they remain a problem today and our schools are re-segregating.

Paul and Luther were cantankerous people, willing and able to fight, but the chose to fight for hearts instead of systems. The chose to keep everyone in the boat, voting no-one off the island, and this was incredibly hard. But by doing it this way, the church was able to change more deeply and more truly. It’s nowhere near as fun as seeing your enemies driven before you and hearing the lamentation of their women, but I kinda think it’s a powerful way to get deep and durable change.

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