Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Buy the Pearl, Buy the Field


 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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."
33He 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."
44"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.
45"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." 52And 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."

     I usually try to start my sermons off with a little humor. You know, a silly Sarah Palin impression or some self-deprecating statement about the state of my house occupying the same parallel universe as the state of my brain, or some ridiculous thing my dog or my kids have done lately, usually involving poop or licking something inappropriate in public, but today, I’m just not feeling it.

    Frankly, I’d like to go back to bed and pretend that the past few weeks never happened. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the shelling in Gaza, the Ebola crisis in Africa, certain Supreme Court rulings, the continual war on the hungry, the oppressed, the alien -  all of it - press the delete key, rewind the tape, do that thing Superman does by flying so fast around the earth that he alters its rotation.

    I’d like to just stick my head back in the sand and pretend that none of this has happened, but I know I wouldn’t be able to escape it for long, because I’m sure, if the world’s trajectory keeps going in the same direction, I’ll probably soon discover that the sand has been inundated by some rare flesh eating flea species that has remained dormant until folks decided it was a brilliant idea to stick their heads in the sand.
    The death tolls keep rising. The earth is melting. And God’s commands to provide for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the alien, to fight for justice are clearly being ignored.

And our words of hope for today?
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
It’s like yeast in dough.
It’s like a farmer who finds treasure in a field and buys the whole field.
It’s like a merchant who finds a rare pearl and sells everything he had to buy the pearl.
Well gee. Thanks. Jesus.

Our words of hope for today?
A mustard seed that will turn into a mustard bush, take over an entire field, and chaotically jump the neatly plowed rows and literally grow like a weed. For the farmers of Jesus’ time, the mustard tree was an invasive, crop-choking, trash tree.
Or. Our word of hope is a piece of fermenting dough, rotting dough, really, leaven, which was considered unclean by the Jews of the time — not like those neat packets of Fleischmann’s we get from the grocery — enough for three measures of flour, enough for 100 loaves of bread.

Or a morally questionable tenant farmer, who, for some reason, decides to trespass on someone else’s land, dig around for a bit, find some treasure, and without telling anyone, without an accurate tax assessment or proper inspection, goes and buys the land.
And our word of hope for today is a merchant who will spend everything he has for one precious pearl. A merchant, who, without any more goods to sell, without any more capital to invest, will surely go bankrupt because of his one rash financial decision.

The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, this place where peace reigns and justice is done and sickness is no more, this place where God is king, is set up against Rome and principalities and corrupt dictators and terrorists and self-righteous diplomats who must make sacrifices of “collateral damage” for some greater good. This kingdom of God is where morally questionable tenant farmers and bankrupt merchants are its model citizens.
This place where God rules is a place where trash trees take over the farmland, where rotting dough is mixed in with perfectly good flour.

The Kingdom of God, where, if we’re looking with human kingdom eyes, we would think is a pretty chaotic, unsustainable, illogical place.

And these are the words of hope for us today, amidst airplanes falling out of the sky and viruses killing babies and thirty second mortar shell warnings?

Seeds and yeast and dirt and bankrupting pearls.
And the folks I encounter at The Table - our biweekly meal ministry at Hot Metal.
They’re folks I think of when I think of weeds and leaven and farmland and financially questionable decisions.
I think of Danny and John. Danny, whom we’d have to ask to eat outside because he had fleas or lice or both. John, whom I met under the bridge so drunk he didn’t know what happened to his friend the night before, who had been so drunk for so long that when they had to call the ambulance for help, they couldn’t take him in the truck until he’d been stripped and sprayed down right there under the Tenth Street Bridge.
I think of a woman we call “Grandma,” who consistently comes forty-five minutes late and drives us crazy by insisting that she sit and eat even though we’ve already cleaned up.
Or Pearl, who hoards food and always, always asks for more.
Or Donna, who has fought cancer with everything she has and is about ready to give up, but still brings three to-go meals to the shut-in neighbors in her building.

The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is found in the most common, the most mundane, the most overlooked everyday things in our world.
In weeds and homeless drunks, in hoarders and in the fiscally irresponsible.
In the ragweed and cottonwood, in the folks who practically tackle each other to get to our free bread table.
In the tenant farmer poking his nose where he has no right to be and in yet another homeless girl who comes to us for help because she has discovered she’s pregnant.
In the merchant who will surely go bankrupt, and in Carolina who comes to me begging for a pile of quarters and some laundry soap so that she can spend one more night inside a 24 hour laundromat instead of on the streets.

The Kingdom of God is like these.

Like all of these. Together.  A messy pile of folks and uncleanliness and irresponsibility and chaos. And the Kingdom of God has enough bread to feed them all.

So often we think of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven as someplace where we go. And even Jesus’ parable of the fish - those kept and those thrown away - has often been interpreted in this way. But when it is, when this parable is used as a “who’s in and who’s out” of this place we call “Heaven,” it’s used out of its context - out of the context of invasive weeds and unclean leaven and nebby farmers and ridiculous financial decisions.

Faith isn’t about worry about where you’re going; faith is about seeing where you are, right now.

The Gospel is a weed.
The Gospel is dirty.
The Gospel looks morally questionable.
The Gospel is not financially responsible.
The Gospel is right here. Right now. In the midst of the violence and the death and the bombs and the morally questionable leadership decisions.  It’s there, in the fields of corrupt dictators and terrorist organizations and somewhere hidden in the guy who cuts you off in traffic and then flips you the bird.

And the participants in the Kingdom of God buy the field. They buy the pearl.
They go all in.
They feed people who haven’t earned their bread.
They give coffee to the drunks and quarters to the homeless.
They give Pearl one more tube of toothpaste.
They plant weeds and ferment their flour.
They spend all their money on an acre of dirt.
They go bankrupt, investing all that they have, on the one beautiful thing they encounter in their life.

They step fully in to this whole, miserable, broken world.
They buy the whole lot just to find the one treasure hidden within it.
Jesus says, do it, and you’ll find the hope there.

In the Kingdom of God, You’ll find doctors bowing in front of an 11 year old boy whose dying wish was to donate his organs.
You’ll find the Palestinian and the Jew sharing a cup of coffee and a prayer.
You’ll find the legacy of the unknown AIDS advocates whose plane was shot out of the sky.
You’ll hear about the joy, encouragement and peace of a doctor who contracted the Ebola virus himself after treating over 100 patients whom no one else would.

You find out that the drunks you thought would die alone and cold and inebriated into oblivion on the streets of Pittsburgh have taken a shower, have been sober for the last 3 months, have found an apartment.

Buy it, Jesus says. Buy it all. Buy the lice and the mold and the bread and the forgiveness.
Go all in.
The Kingdom of God is invasive and unpredictable like weeds and yeast and hidden treasure and bankruptcy.
It’s a different kind of economy. It’s a different kind of “buying.”

The Kingdom of God is a Table, where everybody is fed, sure, but where you realize that you’re just as hungry, just as broken, just as broke, just as corrupted, just as lost and distracted as everybody else. And hey, look, there’s bread for you, too. Enough leaven to make enough bread to feed an army. But instead, it’s there to feed the lost and broken and messy and crucified and convicted. Take a piece. Plant some weeds. Give your whole life to God’s beauty, to God’s economy, to God’s treasure.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Toddlers Wandering Ohio


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, 31

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
 31The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.


Exodus 17:1-7

17From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

So the Sinai Peninsula, where these folks are wandering around, is not very big. It’s probably around 200 miles to get from where they were - Egypt, to where they were going - the so-called “Promised Land.” By car, it’d take, oh, maybe 3-4 hours, depending on your gas mileage, your bladder and need for diet cokes and red vines - about as long as it takes to drive through a state like Ohio. I just drove through Ohio; it’s the state you gotta go through to get to Indiana, where my folks live, so Ohio is on my mind. And we make this trek a couple times a year, and we take our kids with us to do the whole family thing.

So imagine wandering through Ohio for 40 years. Now, imagine wandering through Ohio for 40 years with a toddler. Ok. NOW imagine wandering through Ohio for 40 years with a toddler, with no Ipads, no Toy Story 3, no Happy Meals, and no internal plumbing...

Toddlers are wildly happy when things are going their way. They, dare I say it, are actually pretty fun. But. But there comes a time, usually several times a day, when things don’t go their way. And when things don’t go their way, they reach a level of insanity that can go beyond Black-Friday-Walmart shopping, beyond Donald Trump politics, beyond our Supreme Court’s definitions of “personhood.” Now, this insanity usually happens when said toddler is hungry, tired or has to poop.
The toddler usually does not recognize his or her own true needs, and thus, you get crazy rants about how the t-shirt is suddenly too itchy, the sun is suddenly too sunny, or the water in the bath tub is too wet.

This is especially frustrating when my son, Jonah, claims that he is hungry. “I’m hungry, momma,” he says. And I think, “Great. Sure. I’m the momma. It is my duty and pleasure to give this child something to eat, to provide for him, to help him grow.” So, I say to Jonah, “Sure kiddo, what can I get you to eat?” “Something good,” he says. “Ok,” I say, “how about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” “No.” “Banana?” “No, something good,” he says. “Hmm. What about some carrots?” “No.” “Some cheese and crackers?” “No, Momma! Something good.” “How about some milk?” “No. I’m hungry, not, thirsty!” “Alright, well, how about a granola bar?” “No.” “Some grapes?” “Ew! No!” “But you love grapes. You begged me to get them when we were at the grocery store!” “Momma...I’m hungry!” “Well, you tell me what you want to eat.” “Something good.” And...scene.

Turns out, he has something very specific in mind that he wants. It usually involves yogurt. But not just any ol’ yogurt. The kind that comes in a tube. If he was truly hungry, he would have taken one of the options I had given him, but he’s not really hungry. He has something in mind that he wants, but he wants me to be the one to offer it.
He wants me to support his choice - even though he knows that he has already had his yogurt tube for the day and it’s time to eat something else. I think it’s somewhere in the Bible - “children shall not live on yogurt tubes alone.”

But when I don’t give him his yogurt tube, I might as well be the worst momma EVER. The tears. The shouting. The crying and the flailing. It’s so. Not. Fair.

These Israelites are just a bunch of toddlers - preschoolers maybe - wandering around the desert, trying to find their way. And when they don’t get their way, when they get a little hungry, a little thirsty, suddenly the disease-ridden, back-breaking, slave-driving land of Egypt becomes paradise. They used to sit by vats and vats of meat! They had all they could eat! There was bread everywhere! Yogurt tubes by the dozens! Why have Moses and God driven them from this land of plenty and prosperity to die in the desert?! So. God gives in. To “prove” God’s faithfulness, God makes it rain frosted flakes and fried chicken. Every day.

Ok. Great. Now we’re all wandering through Ohio with Tony the Tiger and buckets of KFC original recipe. Great! Everything is great now! Yogurt tubes aplenty!

Until. Until 5 minutes later your kids ask, “are we there yet?”
Until your toddler is bored and the iPad won’t work.
Until the preschooler needs to pee and has spilled yogurt tube all over his pants.
Until your toddler is thirsty and needs something to drink RIGHT NOW.

See, I think we’re all spiritual toddlers - at best. We are all spiritual toddlers wandering the spiritual desert of Ohio, grumbling and whining and demanding that God do something for us. And things are great for us when we get what we want. Not so great when we have to wait, or when things don’t come, or when we’re offered what we need, but not necessarily what we want.

“Gimme! Gimme!” We shout.
I need a bigger house!
I need a better job!
I need relief from this pain!

And you know what? Maybe all of this is true. Maybe you really do need a bigger house.  Maybe you really do need a better job. And for those of you who are suffering from pain or illness or anxiety or grief - you do need relief.

But, the question is, do you demand all these things all the while forgetting that it has been raining blessings all around you?

Or. Can you hold them both? Both the need and the gratitude? Can you be thirsty and be grateful for the frosted flakes?

I don’t mean the kind of gratitude that we use against each other to make us feel bad about ourselves. Sometimes I think we tell each other to “just be grateful” at the expense of real pain. A loved one dies, and people say, “well, at least he’s not suffering anymore.” Or you get in a car accident and people say, “be grateful; it could have been so much worse.” Or you lose your job and people say, “you were just complaining about not having enough time for yourself!” All of these things can be true, but that kind of “gratitude” just masks the real pain and suffering that comes from a real need. That kind of suffering makes it easier to ignore a miscarriage of justice.

I don’t doubt that the wandering Israelites really were thirsty.

Yes. Be thirsty. But also be grateful.

How can we hold both of these things together?
I think it is by remembering your story. Remembering where you’ve been, how God has helped you before. And how you’re thirsty, or hungry, or grieving, or scared now.

Otherwise you’ll miss it.

You’ll get the water, sure. God wants to give us water. God can and does give us water. But you’ll miss that there is God, right in your midst, standing right in front of you.

That’s the thing that catches me every time I read this passage: there is Moses, and the staff, and the elders and the rock and the water spewing up. Great. Good. I’m glad. But there is also God, right in front of them. And what do they comment on? What do they focus on? The water. God is right there. So close. God. And they miss it.

Is God with us, or not?
Upon what does our belief in God’s presence depend? What do we need in order to believe in God? In order to believe that God is with us?
Does your belief in God depend upon signs and wonders? Upon fried chicken falling from the sky and water pouring from a rock? Upon landing a good job with benefits and from magical healings and lightning bolts from the clouds?

Is God with us, or not?

The Israelites are asking a very human question. It’s the wrong question. But it’s very human.

We’re all spiritual toddlers - infants, even. We don’t know where God is -- We don’t even know where we are as we wander around Ohio. All we know is that we’re thirsty, and we demand something to drink, NOW.

It’s like we have spiritual amnesia. The Israelites have forgotten their bondage and their backbreaking, dehumanizing status in Egypt, have forgotten that it was God who has freed them from it, have forgotten the plagues and the passover and their dramatic rescue through the Reed Sea with the wall of water and the drowning chariots and the celebrating and all that. We so easily, so quickly, forget about all the ways that God has been present. We live in a culture of complaint and demands. We ache for dramatic mountaintop experiences, and we get so used to that thin mountaintop air, the high altitudes, the dramatic views for miles and miles, that we forget how to take deep breaths.

We don’t notice the wildflowers on the path on the way up, the soreness of our knees as we make our decent, the way the wind turns the leaves on the trees when it’s about to rain.

We forget that we’ve seen this bend before, that that tree looks really familiar, that we have already turned right in that fork in the road, that we’ve passed that bunch of rocks before, that we’re wandering the wilderness in circles.

“Is God with us, or not?” we ask as we circle back around, stop at another gas station for yet another map and more directions and another bag of red vines.

Of course God is with us.
But are we thirsty for God? Are we grateful? Maybe thirst and gratitude have a lot in common, if we’re grateful and thirsty for the same thing?

We have encountered God. We’ve been fed and we’ve been healed and we’ve been guided and loved and forgiven. Even as we’ve wandered the wilderness. Even as we take another exit onto the Ohio Turnpike.
Can you remember that? Can you keep telling that story?

If so, then of course you know that God is with you, is with all of us.

We will still get thirsty. We are spiritual toddlers, after all. But we can remember all the times we’ve had something to drink. And gratitude is simply that - the remembering that thirst - or fear, or loneliness, or depression, or pain - doesn’t have the final say in our lives. That there is something after thirst. There is water, and there is God.

THANKS be to God.