Monday, July 31, 2017

Soul Food

Matthew 14:13-21
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis           

I was in San Salvador, listening to the story of a member of the Legislative Assembly who had previously been part of the devastating Civil War. It was a very dispiriting conversation. He was talking about his own commitment to see that the poor in El Salvador could attain justice, particularly with regard to land ownership. At the end of the war, there was a large-scale land redistribution plan, by which each soldier, from both sides of the war, were allocated enough land to live and have a subsistence farm. It was a grand idea for a “do-over,” that was meant to be reflective of the year of Jubilee in the Scriptures. But, the reality was very different. Some soldiers from the FMLN – the side against the government forces – were allocated land that was very distant from where they and their families lived and worked. Others were still scattered in the mountainsides, waiting to ensure that they could emerge safely and walk home by the time the deadline passed for them to claim their land. Others had no papers to prove their identity because their villages had been bombed or ransacked. Others had no transportation or were injured or not yet convinced that they could safely enter government offices. Even the media, by which the redistribution process was announced, were all owned by persons who would benefit from buying unclaimed land. For a variety of reasons, some of which seemed purposefully difficult and others of which seemed circumstantial, many of the poorer folks were unable to claim their land. Then, when someone would seek some kind of redress, the legislator told us of how the lands were being privatized, how the courts required everyone to use attorneys that they could not afford, and how the police were enforcing laws selectively, and so forth. It was a tale of those thousands of little ways that those with power and privilege can construe the rules of the game to make it seem as if everybody has an equal shot, when they don’t.

While the legislator was talking, I began mapping the journey that one might take in order to attain the simple justice of getting what was promised. I drew a line for the ‘land redistribution process’ and each path led to closed doors. So, I drew a line for the public services – the police, the city hall, and other local agencies – and each line led to closed doors. I drew a line to the court, the legislature, the market, and each path led to closed doors. I know that a conversation like that can easily turn into a gripe-fest, with everyone acting as if the universe is out to get them. But, this man was speaking in such a methodical and comprehensive way, being very circumspect but making sure that we saw this process from the perspective of the poor, and it was the single most frustrating monologue I had ever heard. I finally wrote on the side of my doodle, “What else is there to do?” A man named Doug had been watching me map out the conversation and had occasionally reached over and added a closed door. When I wrote that question, he scribbled, “War?” After staring at it, I drew a closed door and wrote, “They tried that. 75,000 dead later, they get this” with an arrow at the map. 

When we read the story of the “Feeding of the 5,000,” we often imagine that Jesus went out into the wilderness for some “quiet time,” to pray and get regenerated for his work. We imagine that the crowd heard that Jesus was in the wilderness and they all went out there because they wanted to hear him teach. So, we imagine that feeding story itself is a logistical miracle or maybe a physical representation of how Jesus was ‘feeding’ them spiritually. But, we think that because we’re not paying attention to how Matthew is telling the story. What precedes this story is one of the most tragic events in Jesus’ life. Herod, the ruler of the occupying army in Judea, had just put John the Baptist to death. It was one of the most egregious executions imaginable. John had been arrested because he called Herod to task for committing adultery, when Herod took his brother’s wife into his palace for political gain. But, Herod would not touch John’s life because John was very popular with the people and Herod feared how they might react. Then, one night, Herod made a vow in public that resulted in him having to follow through by beheading John. It was a senseless death that is representative of how ruthless people with power can and will do anything to maintain their power. The greatest prophet that the people of Israel had known in years was put to death by a foolish king who made a foolish vow out of a moment of drunken, incestuous lust.

Matthew says that John’s disciples buried his body and went to tell Jesus what had happened. And that is when Jesus went out into the wilderness. And when the people heard, that is when they went out into the wilderness. The wilderness was the place where John lived, from which he would go to the Jordan River and thousands who were living under the reign of Rome would empty out the towns and listen to him proclaim that the Reign of God was had hand. Jesus, and the people who were gathered in the wilderness with him that day, were not on a mountainside retreat. These folks were gathered in that wilderness because every path they could possibly take for justice led to a door that had been slammed shut. They were not on a spiritual retreat; they were a dispirited people. And when Jesus saw them, he had “pity” on them. That word, “pity,” is more than meets the eye. The root of that word is a biological term that refers to the internal organs. It is not a sentiment but more of a visceral reaction – “gut wrenching” may be as literal as we can get. That is how Jesus reacted when this dispirited, desperate crowd joined him in the wilderness.

If ever there was a moment in the gospels when the time was ripe for a Hollywood-type attack on the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem, this was it. 5,000 desperate men, plus women and children – we could be looking at an angry horde of 12,000 people here, ready for someone to arm them and lead them to a better way. Instead, Matthew says, Jesus healed those who were sick – a word that could be translated “dispirited,” because it can mean more than physical maladies. It is after this activity of Jesus giving (literally, giving “therapy”) to the dispirited, that the disciples and Jesus have an intriguing conversation. The disciples want Jesus to send the crowd away, because it is late and they are hungry and all of them are out in the middle of nowhere. But, Jesus says, “They have no need to go away. All they need is here.“

Can you imagine what the church of Jesus Christ would look like if they learned to say, “They have no need to go away. All they need is here.” What would it be like if the church of Jesus Christ learned to meet desperate, dispirited people and say, “You have no need to go away. All you need is here.” I wonder how many of the folks who showed up in Murietta and shouted “Go away. We don’t have money, or jobs, or space for you here” turned around the next Sunday and praised Jesus in church. Every time we break the bread and share it, we are witnessing that the hungry, the dispirited, those who seek justice, those who have run into shut door after shut door, those who have nowhere else to turn, need not go away because where Christ is present, everything they need is here.

They have no need to go away, when Christ is present. Sometimes we’re the disciples, getting over our doubts and believing enough to participate in something mind-blowing. And sometimes we’re the dispirited, desperate crowd, finding abundance in places where we only see emptiness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Grace of Doing Nothing

The Grace of Doing Nothing
July 17, 2011
Matthew 13:24-43
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Two years ago, when we were moving Mickey into his first college dorm room, the R.A.s had put a cartoon on each door, one of which I simply couldn’t resist going home and finding online and copying to my own files. It was a stick figure cartoon, which depicted one person sitting at a desk working furiously on a computer and another person talking from outside of the picture. The first voice asks, “Are you coming to bed?” The person at the desk answers, “I can’t this is important.” First voice asks, “What?” And the person at the desk says, “Someone is wrong on the internet!”

I fell in love with that cartoon because it names my worst tendencies so vividly. I can be a real sucker for getting lured into online arguments, or real life arguments for that matter. I try not to, I try to let it go, I try to roll my eyes, I try to get perspective. But, too often I find myself feeling as if I cannot rest – indeed, the world cannot rest – until I straighten someone else out. Nothing seems more offensive to human nature and God’s very purpose of existence than for someone to throw an obviously wrong idea out there and call it truth.

As you can imagine, someone with the task of setting aright every wrong idea can stay pretty busy, because there is just no end to wrong ideas out there. And, it almost seems as though it is even one’s Christian duty to preserve the truth by standing firm against any idea that might be tainted with untruth. Isn’t it?

Last week, when we ordained Mark Crouch as a new ‘ruling elder,’ I asked him a number of questions, which every elder in this church has been asked upon our ordination. One of those questions is, “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” And, I can say, that to this date every elder whom we have ordained has willingly answered that question, “I do.” It is a good answer, but a deceptively simple one. The task of furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church often seems like a three-fold task that is at odds with itself, rather than a singular one that can be answered with a single answer. Sometimes it only seems possible to further the peace and unity of the church by letting the ‘purity’ clause go. Likewise, sometimes it seems that the only way we can further the purity of the church is to risk the peace and unity of the church by rooting out that which seems to be ill-fitted and unworthy of our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. So, there often seems to be an internal conflict within that admirable intention of furthering peace, unity, and purity of the church.

That problem gets amplified whenever we think about the church’s role within society at large. The Scriptures often speak of this as the relationship between ‘the church’ and ‘the world.’ If we take, for example, the parable that the reign of God is like leaven that is mixed into the flour of the world until the whole lump of dough is leavened, then we have an image of the church as being called to transform the world around us, rather than simply living side-by-side with it. For many people of faith, that means that it is not just wrong-headed, false, and even harmful ideas within the church that need correcting, but also that we are called to speak up and to try to correct wrong-headed, false, or harmful ideas in the society of which we are a part.

The Presbyterian Church has always understood its role within the world in this kind of transformational way. We don’t have monasteries, where certain religious folk are called to go and to live in self-sustaining communities apart from the community at large. We have never advocated setting up ascetic communes in the wilderness or distinct communities living off of the grid, like many Amish communities. We do not necessarily criticize those expressions of the church. In fact, we often admire them and fully recognize that there are seasons in our lives when we all could benefit from periods of retreat, in order to be less distracted by the cares of the world and more attentive to meditation, prayer, or study. However, the normative mode of being the church in our tradition is not the church as a community that is physically and economically set apart from the rest of the world, but a church that is fully engaged in the world, however messy and ambiguous that might be. And therein lies the temptation for us to sit at our computers furiously setting every wrong-headed, false, or harmful idea straight. Or, to put it more positively, therein lies our calling to engage boldly in the world, to believe and live as though being a disciple of Jesus Christ really matters in how we engage one another. In that respect, we have every reason to have political involvements that are shaped by our faith, to practice economics in a way that is instructed by our faith, and to engage in civic participation in ways that we can live out our faith.

But, it’s messy. None of us wants to be part of that self-righteous community that only seems to engage the world in order to berate it and to trumpet one’s own understanding as the only right way. I know I don’t want to be aligned with those expressions of faith that act as if the church is opposed to scientific thinking, or that act as if their own interpretation of selective scriptures gives them the right to dictate how everyone else should live. It’s messy, and it is particularly messy when we remember that there have been times in history when ‘the world’ has been way out in front of ‘the church’ in being right about some things. In our own country’s history, many parts of the church had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the fact that slavery is immoral. Many parts of the church still have yet to recognize that women have valid gifts and callings of leadership. It is possible to look at many parts of the church and to conclude that it is not transformation, but a hard-headed adhesion to the vanity of its own opinions that dictates how it engages in ‘the world.’

This morning we have the chance to look at one way that the early church approached this messy issue of how the church engages in the world. It comes to us in the form of a parable, which – typically – is a manner of speech that is fluid and opens up numerous possibilities. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is a stark example of a church trying to understand its role within the world. And, as you heard, it goes like this: A landowner sowed good wheat seed in his field, but while he was sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds among them. When his field workers saw that there were weeds growing there, they asked the landowner, “Did we not sow good wheat? Where did these weeds come from?” The landowner perceives that an enemy sowed the weeds. Then, the field workers ask the crucial question: “Then do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” That question and the landowner’s response to that question are not given in the ‘explanation’ that Matthew offers later in this chapter. In fact, that’s the only part of the parable that is not addressed in the explanation. That seems significant, because the focus of the parable is on the end of the age and how God will ultimately judge evil. But, the question of now – the question of the church’s relationship to the weeds – is only found in this question and answer of the parable. And the landowner’s answer is this: “No. Do not go and try to gather the weeds, because in doing so you may uproot the wheat as well.”

In the end, this is a parable that assures the battered Christian community in Matthew’s day that evil will be judged. But, in the mean time, this is a parable that recognizes the church’s inability to uproot every weed without also unintentionally harming the wheat. In that respect, it is a very humbling parable about the church’s role that in our zeal to set the world straight, we might be those very persons who harm the innocent.

Back in 1933, when Japan invaded Manchuria, many people of faith were arguing that the United States should intervene in the Pacific and take action against Japan. In response, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote an article in the Christian Century entitled, “On the Grace of Doing Nothing.” I’ve always read Niebuhr’s article as a modern interpretation of our parable. He argued that too often, in our zeal to “do something!” the church has found itself actually causing more harm than good. So, he argued, there are times when it is an expression of grace to do ‘nothing.’ “Doing nothing,” for Niebuhr was different than “not doing anything.” He was not advocating that one ignore the problem, that one say nothing about the problem, that one act as though the problem did not exist. He was not advocating passivity or apathy as the Christian response to what he clearly saw as an unjust action. Rather, he was saying that just because we can clearly identify something as ‘weed’ among ‘wheat,’ does not mean that we also have the capacity to fix it. In the end, we may do more harm than good by banging furiously on our computers to set every wrong-headed idea on the internet straight. In the end, we may do more harm than good to the name of the Christian church by pretending that we alone understand the true nature of covenant relationships. In the end, our zeal to be right may be precisely what makes us wrong. There are times – and this is a matter of discernment in a messy world – when the best Christian alternative is not decisive action, but the prayerful and grace-filled act of doing “nothing.”

It must have been unsatisfying for those workers to hear that they were not to set about pulling weeds from the field. It is often unsatisfying for us to imagine that it is not our calling to set aright everything wrong. But, there are times that ‘doing nothing’ is the most faithful thing we can do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

God's Word in Human Voice

God’s Word in Human Voice
July 10, 2011
Matthew 13:1-23
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Tony Campolo once told a story that I will never forget. One day Tony was going to a convention where he was going to speak to a Pentecostal gathering of some sort. And, just before the event started, Tony gathered with the leaders in a room backstage because they wanted to have prayer for him. If you’ve ever been in a Pentecostal prayer group, you’ll know that, while one person is technically ‘leading’ the prayer, everyone prays aloud all at the same time (a nightmarish form of prayer for polite Presbyterians.) One guy in particular was praying quite loudly and he wasn’t even praying for Tony. Tony heard him saying, “Oh, God, please reach out today and touch Bernie Stolzfus.” Then the guy went on to help God figure out who Bernie Stolzfus was and what the problem was. He said, “Oh, God, you know Bernie Stolzfus, who lives in the blue trailer in that first road in the park next exit 40 off the highway. Bernie is struggling and he’s about to leave his wife Elise and he’s just very confused and Elise loves him so much and he just doesn’t realize how much she loves him and wants to work things out with him. Oh, Lord, just reach out to Bernie today and lead him home to that blue trailer in the first road next to exit 40 off the highway.” Tony, of course, has simply left off praying entirely, and is now wondering, “Okay, why are you telling God where Bernie lives? Shouldn’t we assume that God already knows that? And other such questions.” So, eventually, the prayer ends and Tony does his thing and ‘a good time was had by all’ and later he gets in his car to drive back to his home in St. David, Pennsylvania.

As he’s getting near the highway, Tony sees a hitch-hiker. And, while this is often an ill-advised thing to do, Tony decided that the guy looked harmless enough and he offers him a ride. The guy is clearly troubled about something and as they’re making small talk he says that his name is Bernie Stolzfus and he’s heading to the next town. Tony pulled off at the next exit and turned around to head back where they came from. Bernie looked at him puzzled and asked, “What are you doing?” Tony answered, “I am taking you home! Your wife Elise is sitting at home right now crying, wanting to you to come home more than anything else in the world, and you just don’t realize how much she loves you.” And Tony drove to exit 40 and got off the highway and turned onto the first road and drove to a blue trailer. As they pulled up, a weeping Elise came to the door and said, “Bernie, what’s going on?” Bernie looked at her and said, “Honey, we need to talk.” Then, he turned and looked at Tony and said, “How did you know all of this?” To which Tony says, “God told me!” And whenever Tony tells this story and the audience is laughing at his response “God told me!” Tony will look at the audience and add, “And he did.”

So, what, exactly, is “the Word of God” here? Is it a curiously inappropriate prayer, which happens to contain just the right amount of detail which will later serve to help reconcile a couple in crisis? What is this thing we call “The Word of God”?

In many Christian churches, the phrase “the Word of God” is used to signify the Bible itself, this collection of 66 books written across centuries and put together as a collection across other centuries. But, within the Bible itself, the phrase “the Word of God” has a much more dynamic meaning than simply a collection of books. In the Hebrew Scriptures, when the prophets speak of “The Word of the Lord,” they are very clearly speaking of something that is given to them prior to the spoken message, and therefore much more original than any written account of their spoken message. Likewise, in the New Testament, “the Word of God” is not used simply to refer to what we now know as the Bible. In fact, in the Gospel of John, the writer begins by describing “the Word” as something that existed from the beginning with God, and which was the means by which God called all things into being in the first place. And, it was the Apostle Paul who made the excellent distinction between letters written in ink or chiseled on stone and the Spirit that gives life in the message of the gospel. We will, on occasion, use the shorthand of referring to the Bible itself as “the Word of God,” but I have often found it helpful to follow the theologian Karl Barth’s lead and refer to the Bible as that which ‘contains’ the Word of God, but not to equate the Bible with the Word of God. The Word of God is a dynamic, life-giving entity, which might even come in the form of a curiously inappropriate prayer that just so happens to say the right thing.

For the early church, particularly the community to whom the parable that we have read this morning is written, the question of what “the Word of God” is was a pressing question. It is not that they were trying to root out heretics by deciding who was the real “Bible-believing” church and who was not. It is not that they were trying to justify their own point of view on a hot-button topic of the day by equating their perspective with “the Word of God” and everyone else’s perspective with some depraved form of “human wisdom.” Matthew’s community saw itself as a ‘missional community.’ We saw that a few weeks ago when we read the end of Matthew’s gospel and heard them being commissioned to disciple others in the way of Christ, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. They saw their reason for existence, not to build a more impressive church than all of the other churches in town, but to continue the work that Jesus began, preaching, healing, and making God’s reign a reality for others in the world.

But, this was also a community that struggled. Many of them were part of the Diaspora, that dispersion of people out of Jerusalem after Rome attacked the city and destroyed its center, including the great temple. Many of them had not gone out deliberately, but had fled the violence and destruction, leaving as refugees, looking for some kind of sustenance and shelter. This original mission was not a program being smartly led by directors from abroad, but a way of life that was both a scraping to get by and a mission of hope. Their lives were the message, the “Word of God” that they sowed was not a written Bible or even dumbed-down cartoon pamphlets, but a message that was embodied in real living. The “Word of God,” for them, was the dynamic power of living with purpose, even as the world around them was inflamed with violence and despair. When we read of “the Word” in this parable, it is “the Word of God” that was originally embodied in the life of Christ, and then alive in those who saw themselves as “the body of Christ” in the world. And this parable of the Sower is a way of framing what this missional community would experience.
Matthew’s community saw that when “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would lay, unattended and never rooted, because some places were beaten down and compacted. When “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would take root very quickly, but some ground has never been tilled and the stones along the surface will not allow roots to grow, so the plants would wither in the sun. When “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would grow among other more vicious forms of life that overwhelmed it. The same seed, thrown with the same abandon, the same message lived through the same faithful lives, would often come to very different results. And this missional community would experience times of rejection and times of dashed hopes and times of conflict with other concerns. That is just how it is for the missional community. It is not a signal that their message was bad or that they embodied it insufficiently or anything of that sort. That is just how it goes for “the Word of God” in human life.

But, in a twist of hope, there was the seed that fell on good soil. In this parable, the seed that fell on the good soil produced a ridiculous amount of harvest – some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, and some a-crazy-hundred-fold! This is where some people criticize Jesus, saying that it is obvious that he was a son of a carpenter, and not the son of a farmer. The point, of course, it not whether or not Jesus knows reasonable yields for seeds. The point is that the missional community – with all of their struggles and failures – can take heart, because under the right conditions “the Word of God” produces abundant life, so abundant that it provides enough, despite those dry and barren patches.

That is the hope that sustains us when we find ways to spread the dynamic “Word of God” with abandon. The results may lie far outside of our influence, but the hope is that, by God’s grace, the harvest is plentiful. Thanks be to God. Amen.