Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It grows, we know not how

Proper 6-B; June 14, 2009
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Simon’s 5th grade class had a science fair this week. Two of the children
experimented with plants: did a plant grow faster if one played classical music, rock music or rap music next to it?

The children were convinced rap music did the trick. In one boy’s experiment, one plant was kind of shrunk down compared to the others. The other boy said that the rap music one was taller – the classical music one looked vigorous and healthy to me – but the rap music one had broken its stem on the way to school. But I was skeptical. Maybe I had today’s parable in mind: we sow the seed, but it sprouts on its own – it grows tall – we know not how. It grows to tall, ripe grain, or to become a shrub so mighty that the birds nest in its branches. Even controlling for variables in a scientific experiment, it is still God’s seed, God’s mystery, God’s power, God’s time.

That is kind of what is meant by “the kingdom of God.” That kingdom is not necessarily a place, with border guards and boundaries, but a sense of God’s power. God’s dominion. God rules here. God’s rules rule here. The seeds sprout and grow into plants. The sun rises and sets. We work, we sleep, we rise. We see God’s kingdom at work in the world around us.

Following the rules of God’s kingdom is a balancing act between the work God calls us to do, and an utter detachment from the results of that work. In every way, God wants us, I think, to participate in the work of that kingdom: to plant seeds. What are the seeds God has given you in your life? How do you think God wants you to participate in the kingdom of God?

What was God looking for when he chose David out of all the warriors offered to him, David, the youngest, to be the one chosen and beloved of God? What could David have possibly done to deserve such a blessing?

In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul encourages the believers. “The love of Christ urges us on,” Paul says. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away.”

There are moments in our lives when we just can’t make things fit. Try as hard as we can, something just doesn’t work. A relationship, a task, a problem to be solved. Aren’t we just prone to worry ourselves sick? Don’t we just want to get this right, that perfect, to please ourselves, to please God? Is this what God would want? How do we know what is the right thing to do? What if we just worked a little harder, fixed this thing a little better, dug a little deeper, stayed up a little later? Wouldn’t there be more justice in the world? Wouldn’t there be more mercy? Wouldn’t things be RIGHT?

One of my favorite summer stories is set in New York City, in an indeterminate decade sometime in the middle of the 20th century. It’s a story of boys playing marbles on the street, in the deepening dusk. The narrator is Buddy, shooting marbles with his friend, Ira. Buddy’s brother, Seymour, comes up to them.

One late afternoon, at that faintly soupy quarter of an hour in New York when the street lights have just been turned on and the parking lights of cars are just getting turned on - some on, some still off- I was playing curb marbles with a boy named Ira Yankauer, on the farther side of the side street just opposite the canvas canopy of our apartment house. I was eight. I was using Seymour's technique, or trying to - his side flick, his way of widely curving his marble at the other guy's - and I was losing steadily. Steadily but painlessly. For it was the time of day when New York City boys are much like Tiffin, Ohio, boys who hear a distant train whistle just as the last cow is being driven into the barn. At that magic quarter hour, if you lose marbles, you lose just marbles. Ira, too, I think, was properly time-suspended, and if so, all he could have been winning was marbles. Out of this quietness, and entirely in key with it, Seymour called to me. It came as a pleasant shock that there was a third person in the universe, and to this feeling was added the justness of its being Seymour. I turned around, totally, and I suspect Ira must have, too. The bulby bright lights had just gone on under the canopy of our house. Seymour was standing on the curb edge before it, facing us, balanced on his arches, his hands in the slash pockets of his sheep-lined coat. With the canopy lights behind him, his face was shadowed, dimmed out. He was ten. From the way he was balanced on the curb edge, from the position of his hands, from - well, the quantity x itself, I knew as well then as I know now that he was immensely conscious himself of the magic hour of the day. 'Could you try not aiming so much?' he asked me, still standing there. 'If you hit him when you aim, it'll just be luck.' He was speaking, communicating, and yet not breaking the spell. I then broke it. Quite deliberately. 'How can it be luck if I aim?' I said back to him, not loud (despite the italics) but with rather more irritation in my voice than I was actually feeling. He didn't say anything for a moment but simply stood balanced on the curb, looking at me, I knew imperfectly, with love. 'Because it will be,' he said. 'You'll be glad if you hit his marble - Ira's marble - won't you? Won't you be glad? And if you're glad when you hit somebody's marble, then you sort of secretly didn't expect too much to do it. So there'd have to be some luck in it, there'd have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.' *

There are no accidents in the kingdom of God. We sow the seed, we shoot the marble, we reach out to the friend in need. The seeds sprout, we know not how, and when we turn around, a great tree has grown up in our midst, and the kingdom of God is here.

* J.D. Salinger, from "Seymour, an Introduction" in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction (New York: Little, Brown, 1963)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Jan Juan Jean Joao Yohana 3:16

Trinity-B; June 7, 2009
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

How many of you have been to the southern United States? Not just Florida, but the deep south? The real south where the culture really is different?

Across the deep south – the “bible belt” of America – you can see billboards that read “John 3:16.” Nothing more. If you were a native speaker of the “deep south” you would know what that meant. But like with any culture that is not originally our own, such signs can be mystifying. The “in crowd” knows the cues; the rest of us are standing on the sidelines, scratching our heads.

That’s one of the problems with short-hand religion: since we don’t get the cultural cues, we think it must not apply to us. If Southerners put John 3:16 up on billboard, well, that might mean it’s not so good. Hold on, here: let’s not throw the baby out with the fundamentalist bath water. John 3:16 actually says some pretty good things. Let’s hear it in some other languages, languages that some of us here speak, languages that some of us here originally heard God speak to us:

Jan 3:16 (Haitian Creole Version)
Paske, Bondye sitèlman renmen lèzòm li bay sèl Pitit li a pou yo. Tout moun ki va mete konfyans yo nan li p'ap pedi lavi yo. Okontrè y'a gen lavi ki p'ap janm fini an.

Juan 3:16 (Nueva Versión Internacional)
Porque tanto amó Dios al mundo, que dio a su Hijo unigénito, para que todo el que cree en él no se pierda, sino que tenga vida eterna.

Jean 3:16 (Louis Segond)
Car Dieu a tant aimé le monde qu'il a donné son Fils unique, afin que quiconque croit en lui ne périsse point, mais qu'il ait la vie éternelle.

João 3:16 (O Livro)
Deus amou tanto o mundo que deu o seu único Filho para que todo aquele que nele crê não se perca espiritualmente, mas tenha a vida eterna.

Yohana 3:16 (Swahili New Testament)
Kwa maana Mungu aliupenda ulimwengu kiasi cha kumtoa Mwanae pekee, ili kila mtu amwaminiye asipotee, bali awe na uzima wa milele.

All these languages say the same thing: “For God so loved the world …” – not just the Spanish-speakers, or the Cape Verdeans, or the English, or the Trinidadians, or those white Southern Protestants who put up those billboards. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”

There is an author from this world of the deep Southern Bible belt, Flannery O’Connor. She was actually an Irish Catholic, but she grew up privileged, and white, and in the deep south of Georgia, and her novels and short stories took a long, hard look at this really quite distinctive culture. For sure it is a very religious culture, and a culture that can be seen as odd by some other Americans, and certainly by some others. Out of a lifetime of living in this deeply religious, deeply southern culture, this is how Flannery O’Connor reinterprets John 3:16:

… life “has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for."

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son …” It’s the essence of the Good News in just a few words. The world, in all of its complications and troubles, is what God loves, and cares for. God wants to be here, in the middle of it all, begging, cajoling, pleading, instructing, working with us to make this world a better place – to make this world the place God intended it to be. We aren’t there yet, but that is the intention of God with us.

Our reading from Isaiah comes from a very different kind of literature: it’s spooky and mysterious and mythic. It’s an image of the Ancient of Days, and at first glance you might think, what has this to do with us? This image of the remote and all-powerful glory of God?

But look at the last lines: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” God is asking: who will tell God’s story? Who will bring God’s message to a world that very much needs it? How we will answer that? In our neighborhood, our community, our city, among our family and friends? That indeed is the central question of evangelism, the one that the short-hand version, of putting “John 3:16” up on billboards and hand-painted sign posts, addresses. Who will go for God into this world? Who will tell God’s story, of how much God loves this world and all of us in it?

All of us are in church today because SOMEONE bothered to tell us that story, and so I think you will know the answer to that question when God asks you: Who will go for us? Here am I; send me.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Spirit of truth speaks

Pentecost/B; May 31, 2009
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104
Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through me to others. Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through others to me.

That old prayer is a form of Evangelism -- perfectly appropriate for Pentecost, the feast when we celebrate the Spirit of God speaking in many languages to the very new church gathered Jerusalem.

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through me to others. Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, speak through others to me.

This day is also known as the birthday of the church. The ecstatic spirit of the church is described in Acts. In John's gospel, Jesus breathes the spirit on the disciples and gives them their marching orders -- their authority: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

So Jesus can speak to us and through us in a variety of ways, and the Holy Spirit speaks the truth to us and through us in a variety of ways, through what may appear to an outsider as drunken, crazy behavior. Paul, of course, says it better than anyone: "The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."

Jesus can speak through us and to us in ways that make us happy, and that's what Pentecost is usually about. It's the day when people who speak in tongues can really shine. But Jesus' words are sometimes more ambiguous than we would like. We're left hanging, with questions in our mind, conflicts not quite resolved, solutions not yet formed.

The Pentecost experience happens, as you will recall, after the Ascension – after Jesus has left his disciples for the last time. Remember the words Jesus spoke to them, during one of his appearances to them after the resurrection: “Peace be with you.”

The disciples were probably not in a very peaceful place just then. John reveals none of the disciples' emotions other than they were glad to see him. Surely they were in turmoil: their friend and leader had just been killed, they were in hiding, grieving and mourning, and then he appears. Surely they were astonished, stunned, shocked. Neither the "before" or "after" of this scene can be described as peaceful, but that is what Jesus says to them, twice: "Peace be with you."

Our passage today comes from when Jesus teaches his disciples what to in these days – these post-resurrection, post-Ascension days: Be strong. The Spirit will come, and will direct you in all truth.

With these with these words of encouragement, Jesus is sending the disciples, and, by extension, us, out into the world. We are not allowed to indulge in a spirit-filled peace for very long. We cannot linger with the mountaintop experience, for Jesus is calling us into the world, the world that longs for and desperately needs peace. Jesus breathes his spirit upon us -- speaks his peace -- and then sends us out into the world where people hurt and get sick and go hungry, and expects us to speak peace to them, to speak truth to them, to bring hope to this broken world that does not know what to expect next. The Pentecost story reminds us that the Spirit makes up for our deficiencies – in sighs deeper than the words we cannot find, and in the words of all the languages we cannot speak.

St. Paul’s Church is at an exciting moment in its life. We are making a name in this community, a name that speaks the truth that the Spirit has told us: that God wants a community of faith on this corner. That God wants us to make this corner a beautiful part of God’s blessed creation. We are engaging in a great deal of listening, of trying out new things, of being willing to make mistakes, of risking that something wonderful and new might indeed emerge from what seems an unsettled present.

This is a moment of great hope, and in the words of our patron saint, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

On this day of Pentecost, the Spirit speaks the truth to us: God is calling us to be here, now. On this day of Pentecost, we hope for what we do not yet see. On this day of Pentecost, we persevere, with patience.