Saturday, July 19, 2008


“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow until the harvest;…”

I speak with you in the Name of God who has won the victory, Amen!

That’s an interesting Gospel passage don’t you think? I mean the first part is odd enough with some enemy planting weeds amongst this farmer’s wheat. Sounds like a lot of work in order to do someone harm? Furthermore, the farmer does not weed the field. What farmer doesn’t weed their garden? Then we get to Jesus’ explanation of the parable and we appear to be in the land of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. Jesus says, “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 in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Where’s the good news in that? I thought God was merciful and compassionate. This sounds vindictive and punitive. What’s up with that?

I need not remind y’all that I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. This text was, and often still is, the fodder for many a fire and brimstone sermon. It has been used to cause fear in both individuals and communities using graphic descriptions of a fiery hell that awaits anyone who strays from the cultural norms of the time. I still believe some of those old school preachers can literally get fire and brimstone to come out of their ears when they really get going. They can rile up a crowd and have everyone shaking with fear at the possibility of being a weed come harvest time.
Indeed, this interpretation of the whole gospel is so much a part of American Religious history—from the famous puritan sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to modern day TV evangelists—that it is hard to read this scripture and not immediately hear those preachers with that “behave-yourself-or-the-wrath-of-God-will-descend-upon-you” interpretation and be afraid. I mean, which one of us has not failed to hear the word God and follow it completely. I know I have sinned come short of the glory God, and I don’t doubt that whether I want to or not I’m very much likely to sin again in the future. So what are we to do with this Gospel passage? Are we all doomed to wailing and gnashing of teeth at the end of time?

Well, no, we are not. There is more to this gospel then meets the eye. When we read it we must keep in mind both the historical context and the context of the entire gospel of Matthew. I believe Jesus was trying to tell his audience and us too, not to be afraid of the evil in our own hearts and community. I believe Jesus was trying to teach us to be non-violent in our responses to both the internal evil in our hearts and external evils as well.

First let us look at the historical context. Jesus is speaking in first century Palestine using an agricultural metaphor to an audience of agriculturalists; they grew food in order to survive. Now, it was common in his culture at that time for blood feuds to exist between families that could be started by the smallest of perceived insults. This would typically be the reason why someone would plant weeds in a neighbor’s wheat field. The general reaction to having your crop vandalized would be to take violent retribution—usually trying to slaughter your neighbor and his entire family. Taking this into account, our farmer’s reaction to let the weeds grow is shocking to his servants. He takes a non-anxious, non-violent approach believing, as one commentator put it, “that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation.” Plus, come harvest time he will not only have wheat to eat, but fuel for his fire as well. So instead of being anxious and vengeful, he is shrewd and savvy.

As we move into Jesus’ explanation this theme of non-violence is continued. It is the angels of God that are to do the sorting not us. We are not God’s agents of retribution. It is not our purpose to punish ourselves or anyone else. God does the sorting through the angels. To know our purpose we have look at the whole of Matthew’s gospel.

There are two themes from Matthew’s gospel I would like to point out here. First, Matthew’s gospel is also where we hear Jesus say, "…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;…” This seems a pretty clear teaching of non-violence by Jesus. As I have seen on a bumper sticker, “When Jesus said love your enemies, he meant don’t kill them.” Indeed there is scriptural evidence for non-violence not just in Matthew but in all the gospels.
Now that being said, I am stepping out on thin ice here because the Gospel of Matthew is also where we Jesus says “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye?”

Jesus is articulating the stark reality that we can never change another person and the only person we can possibly control is ourselves. I swear to you, as much as I believe that Jesus teaches non-violence I fail to live up to that teaching. Therefore, know that this and hopefully every sermon that I preach is the sermon I most need to hear on a given weekend. I do not stand in judgment of us or even myself. However, I do lay a challenge before myself and all of us. Jesus is teaching in our gospel passage that we need to trust God. As one commentator put it, we would do well to ponder the “confidence of the landowner that his grain will survive the effect of the weeds…A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence.” There is historical precedence for this trust in goodness. It worked for Gandhi in achieving India’s independence from Britain, it worked for Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, and it worked for Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Most importantly it worked for Jesus in the ultimate struggle against sin and death as well. In Jesus’ refusal to retaliate, in his willingness to die rather then harm his enemies, in his forgiveness of his disciples for abandoning him, he gives us confidence that we need not fear resisting evil and we need not do harm to evil doers in order to resist. The resurrection of Christ is proof that no sacrifice is too great, that even our lives can be given in the pursuit of justice because this life in this world is but rubbish compared to the life to come.

This all begins with individuals, like us, however. If we are not able to leave our anxiety and fear at the altar, then we can never expect the world to be at peace. So the challenge before me and us, I believe, is to begin to practice non-violence in the small spheres of our individual lives. We cannot begin to succeed in peace on a global scale—much less on the scales of nation, state, and city—if we cannot be non-violent in our own thoughts and actions. As I told a couple going through pre-marital counseling this week marriage is a chance to focus on one relationship and practice who we want to be. As we get better at that relationship it makes us better at all our relationships. To use a sports metaphor, practicing one aspect of your golf game improves your entire golf game. So it is with life as well. The more we practice non-violence in our most intimate relationships the more we will be non-violent in all our relationships. Furthermore, the more people practicing on the small level the more peaceful the entire world will be.

As I said, I lay this challenge before all of us and myself today. We will make mistakes along the way, but I simply challenge us to practice, and when we do slip and stumble God will be there to pick us up. God will not let us go, no matter what. If ever you doubt that then come to this altar. God is present here and wants so intensely to be present in our lives that God will become broken and poured, bread and wine to literally be consumed by us, to be in us so that we can be what we consume, to be the body of Christ just as it is given to us.

My brothers and sisters, grace happens here. Forgiveness happens here. True redemption—that can never happen through violent means—happens here at this table. I invite all of you come to this table, surrender all that you are to God and receive the body of Christ so that we may then go and be the body of Christ in the world. Amen!

Sunday, July 13, 2008


“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.”

I speak with you in the name of God in whom there is no fear. Amen!

Well, it is good to be home from vacation. My wife and I had a stupendous and rewarding vacation and I thank you wholeheartedly for opportunity for some time away. During our trip we had the opportunity to see the movie from a few years back Hotel Rwanda. It is a gripping true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Rwanda that was able to protect over a thousand refugees in his hotel and eventually see them out of the country during the Huntu genocide of the Totsies in the early 1990’s. It is as hard to describe the atrocities that occurred during this uprising as it to explain why the world set by and did nothing. This man somehow was able to hold himself, his family, and this group of refugees together.

In one scene he has left the hotel with an army officer to procure items with which to bribe the officer to lead them to safety. The general does not want to return to the hotel and Paul could not get there on his own. Paul convinces the general to return to the hotel because Paul is the only one who could testify on the general’s behalf some day in war crimes trials. The general responds by threatening to shoot Paul. Now, I doubt that many of us have had a gun pointed in our face in sure certainty that the holder is quite capable of pulling the trigger. Furthermore, I doubt that our response would be the same as Paul’s as well, he laughs at the General. He says to him, “It would be a blessing for you to kill me and my entire family. I would pay you to do it. You can not hurt me.”

Now by this point you are probably thinking that Paul is insane and has cracked under the pressure, however the phrase that catches my breath is, “You can not hurt me.” See Paul is a man of faith and his confidence in God allows him to be truly free from the atrocities of our world. Neither the General, nor any other earthly power has dominion over him. His willingness to physically die exists because he is spiritually alive. He is free to do the right thing no matter the cost.

As I was meditating on our Gospel passage this week, I thought a lot about Paul Rusesabagina. See Paul is like the seed that falls on the good earth. In order for a seed to grow and bear fruit, it must die to being a seed. At the cost of staying comfortably as it is, the seed must give up its current state to become what God intended. To often we are choked by cares of the world and the lure of wealth, which prevents us bearing the fruits of justice and righteousness.

Also, in today’s readings the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans of dying to flesh to live in the spirit. Paul is talking about a process of faith development that can best described as emptying. By emptying ourselves, by letting go our attachments to the material we are free to enjoy the spirit. Generally, we are attached to things, people, and even our emotions. Anthony De Mello, describes this as listing to a beautiful symphony and when the orchestra plays a particularly beautiful chord, we stand up and say play that chord again. We want the orchestra just to play that one chord over and over and again. Consequently we are not able to enjoy the entire symphony because we are stuck on that one chord.

That may sound absurd, but think on it a second. Too often our happiness is precluded upon other people staying exactly the same as they were in the moment we enjoyed them this most. We do not want people, things, or even our emotions to change. This ironically produces anxiety and fear more than happiness. When we are detached, however, we recognize that our happiness is dependant on no else but ourselves. We are free to love those in our lives because we no longer place conditions on how they should be in order for us to love them. We are even free to love God because we allow God to be free to be God and not how we want God to be. It is not through control that we are safe, rather in recognizing our lack control, in releasing our desire to bend the world to our will, that we are free and safe. We are free because we because the world doesn’t have to meet our standards in order for us to be happy. We are safe because we have nothing to lose.

Recently, the vestry has been studying the book of Philippians. In it the apostle Paul talks about his own process of emptying. See, he had within his society every marker of success and power. As he put it he was, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul lays out quite a pedigree of his. This is analogous to being a Kennedy, a Vanderbilt, or a Rockefeller. To place it in Nebraska terms, he was a black that won the Heisman trophy and two or three national championships. But yet, Paul drops, discards, and detaches himself from all these titles and positions. He ultimately regards them as rubbish as compared to gaining Christ.

Now this might sound like a daunting task laid before us. Indeed it is one I struggle with daily. However, it is no more then what Jesus did. Also, in the book of Philippians, Paul quotes an ancient hymn saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, tacking the form of a slave, being born in human form.” Jesus was willing to empty himself of divinity. He was willing to give up being God in order to love us, in order to show us how to love. If Christ is willing to give up ultimate power for us, what should we be willing to give up for Christ?

Like I said, this is a challenge. We are conditioned to be dependant upon products, goods, and other material things for our happiness. We are conditioned to fear the loss of these so we accept the injustices of the world. For the Paul the manager of Hotel Rwanda, as is often the case, it took a major catastrophe for him to empty himself. His worldview, his perceptions and foundations for understanding his world, had to be eradicated. However, it is possible to enter into this process of faith development without being victim of genocide. We can practice detachment and there are things we can do to empty.

First, be generous. I don’t just mean by tithing to the church, though that is certainly welcome. From buying an officemate a cup of coffee to donations to Goodwill to large scale philanthropy, the intentional practice of generosity, helps free us from possessions owning us. Anything we have has less power over us if we are willing to give it away.

Second, enjoy nature, music, and poetry. Now, with this practice how you do it is as important as simply doing. The trick is to not try to hold on to it as you enjoy it. Simply let the beauty of it flow through you without trying to get the orchestra to play the same note over and over again. Enjoy the vision of nature without possessing it. Enjoy it with the realization that it is alive and it will never be the same as it is in that moment. Accept that moment as precious gift and then let it go.

Finally, worship God through the reception of Holy Communion. In the simple things of broken bread and poured wine we are re-created in the image of God once again. At this table, where all are invited, we are challenged to accept that we are accepted and leave our insecurities, brokenness, and shame behind. Here we are re-membered as the body of Christ freed to live without fear, to be motivated by love rather than competition and challenged to bear the fruits of justice and righteousness. Amen!