Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Looking Back and Dreaming Forward

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
October 29, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  John 8: 31-36

Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We live in an age of milestones and a time when we like to celebrate and reflect on milestones.  

I say this about milestones in a year when I turned fifty.  Which means ten of my lifetimes takes us back to the reformation.  If you can picture 10 of us up here, a little over or a little younger than fifty, creating a chain of generations back.  Another way of looking at it, my ancestor Timothy McCarty was born in 1750.  He is 7 generations back and about halfway to Luther, so it would take 13 or 14 generations connected to him to get me to Luther’s time period.

My first recognition of that connection in my life to these life changing events of our faith was my confirmation in 1983.  I was confirmed on Reformation Sunday, about two weeks before the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther on November 10, 1483.  One of the gifts I received was a plate bock from a commemorative stamp put out by the US Postal Service.  Or, this summer I went to a yard sale up in Pennsylvania, and I found a blue plate for $1 sold by Fortress Publishing house.  The plate celebrated the 450th anniversary of the Reformation with the dates 1517 to 1967, the year of my birth.  Ten of my lifetimes get us back to Luther or 14 generations.   

Anyone who is close to my age would remember celebrating two big moments.  Our country celebrated two national parties in my lifetime.  One goes back forty-eight years; the other goes back forty years or 240 years.

The first national celebration occurred when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  I was two years old at the time.  I don’t remember it, but I know I was alive on July 20, 1969.  You know how we have events that everyone remembers where they were at the time.  Where were you when you heard JFK was shot or where were you when you heard about the Challenger explosion.  The moon walk is one of the most positive events that engendered that response, “I remember where I was when….”  A whole nation gathered around their televisions sets.  Actually they say that 600 million people around the world watched the moonwalk.  Even people in the U.S. who did not have TV sets, they watched with neighbors, or they rented rooms at a nearby hotel so they could see it for themselves.  Six hundred million people around the world—1 in 5, 20 percent of people alive at the time—they watched a grainy black and white images of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  In a way, Neil Armstrong on the moon completed John F. Kennedy’s legacy to our nation.  

The moon landing was an incredible scientific and technological accomplishment for our nation.  It was inspirational affirmation of the power to dream.  Those were good moments that we like to remember.  And celebrate.  I imagine we will in some way, shape, or form commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Moon landing in two years.  Maybe they will rebroadcast it on television so that another generation can watch.

The second national celebration happened when our nation had its bicentennial in 1976.  I had just completed third grade, and we had units in 3rd grade where Friday afternoon we would go to a different classroom and work on a project that would teach us about colonial life or our nation’s heritage.  I remember Mrs. Keller’s project.  Mrs. Keller was my teacher.  Rather than focussing on men, she focused on colonial women and keeping a homestead.  She had pictures of butter churns and other household items from the colonial period.  But before she showed us her pictures and samples, she poured a cup of whipping cream into a glass jar, and screwed on a lid.  Then we passed the jar around the circle and took turns shaking the cream until it turned into butter.  Then we ate the butter we made on crackers.  Third grade and food, I remember that.  

Remember.  These events help form us as a community, actually as a nation made up of numerous separate communities.  I remember July 4th 1976, sitting on the street in Fleetwood Pennsylvania and watching antique cars.  I am sure the parade had marching bands and fire trucks, but what I remember is the antique cars.  But of course we were not celebrating antique cars or firetrucks.  We were celebrating the declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, and the American Flag designed by Betsy Ross, and the War of Independence led by George Washington.  And since I lived in Pennsylvania, we also celebrated Benjamin Franklin who is to Philadelphia what Jefferson is to Virginia.  The bicentennial marked a nation remembering how freedom formed us, why these leaders formed a new country and what a great thing that was/is.  But if we believe we have always been free, we become like those who listen to Jesus and believe that they have never been slaves to anyone.  

Our gospel lesson reminds us, that Jesus teaching about being made free, has a lot to do with things forgotten.  The gospel writer John quietly makes a point in this exchange between Jesus and some Jewish faithful that had believed in him.  That while these people living had never been slaves, their ancestors were once slaves in the land of Egypt and that God had called on them to remember.  The story of Exodus in scripture, the practice of the passover celebration, even the keeping of the sabbath, all of these moments of faith connect to a remembrance that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt.  I guess there are some things we want to forget, and in forgetting we think that we heal the pain. But what gets lost in the forgetting is the importance of remembering.  You too need to realize that you have not always been free.  Two hundred forty-one years of independence is truly just a small blip of time in the great chronicles of history.  And freedom once won by others can be lost.  We have forgotten the names of many people who have helped make our nation free.  

Peter Lebo is one of the forgotten names that I hold onto from the founding of our country.  Maybe I’ve told you this story before.  The activities bus for school would drop me off at the church and I would walk through the cemetery to get to our house.  And I would find the path through the line of trees by looking for the grave marker of Peter Lebo.  Peter Lebo had a flag holder next to his grave that marked him as a revolutionary war soldier, and every memorial day they would place a crisp new American flag in his holder.  I have imprinted in me the name of a random 1776 soldier who was connected to the church in which I grew up.  He is connected to my freedom as an American and as a faithful believer in Jesus.  

You have people that helped raise you in the faith and who helped raised your grandparents in the faith, who are as much a part of your celebration of the freedom as our celebration of the reformation.  And frankly at some point in our lives of faith we are connected to martyrs who died for the faith.  Freedom and Reformation goes back to Luther, but it also goes back to countless faithful who dreamed of a future and now rest from their labors.  We make an all inclusive celebration of All Saints day which is November 1.  Actually, originally, All Saints Day stood as a festival day for unknown unnamed martyrs  who died for Christ Jesus but did not get a festival day for themselves.  Like a religious tomb of the unknown soldier.  

Perhaps as we remember Apollo 11 that landed on the moon, it is worth dreaming and reaching for the heavens.  Already, people are dreaming of placing colonies on Mars.  And some have already volunteered to go just to see if it might be possible.     

Reformation, likewise, is not just about the past.  It is also about the future.  The reformation is about freeing people yet to be born from a life of sin.  The reformation is about sharing with people—ordinary people yet to be born and forgotten—the gifts of the church, that even Martin Luther inherited as tools of freedom.  Just like you today, those people have baptism to drown out their sinful life and rise up to new life.  Reformation is people and baptism. Just like you today, people not yet baptized, have holy scripture to place in their hearts, on their tongues and lips and in their ears.  (We have scripture to) teach our minds a common language of faith and freedom.  Reformation is people and scripture.  Just like you today, people not yet born, have the Apostles Creed which connects people today and of the future and of the past, with a common confession of what is true and God who can be counted on as true.  Reformation connects people, a whole lot of people, by a simple creed of faith.  The gift of faith includes the fellowship of faith that teaches people the dream of freedom.  And the tools of freedom include Holy Communion, the sacrament of the table that both conveys forgiveness and a life of true freedom in the kingdom.  

Because of the Reformation we believe that the most important milestones are the ones ahead of us marking where we are heading.  And we believe that we are to use these tools of freedom, these gifts of freedom and faith, liberally to bring about and restore life and to grant forgiveness to people who have not yet perished.  To say “yes God loves you,” that “you have a place in his household forever,” and that “God deeply desires that you be free that  you to be free indeed.”

Monday, August 21, 2017

"Crisis with faith" rather than a "Crisis of faith"

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA 
August 20, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Matthew 15: 21-28

How is your faith doing?  That might be the key question of this gospel text and this week.  How is your faith doing?  [I ask] Because, sometimes it is not that we feel like God is ignoring us, it is more like he is pushing against us, pushing us to go where we do not want to go.  

Before we tackle this gospel passage, perhaps we best listen to a parable similar in nature.  
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge from Luke Chapter 18
Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[b] And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

A Pharisee would not like the surface of this passage where Jesus compares God to an unjust Judge.  It pushes against everything he has been taught about God and justice.  Important to note that Jesus does not call God an unjust judge, but even the comparison between the two would be problematic to a Pharisee.  Of course, Jesus gives himself some wiggle room.  If even an unjust judge will grant the petition of the persistent widow, will not God who is justice likewise respond to one who is persistent in their call for justice.  Also note, in the parable, Jesus does not promise that God will respond faster than the unjust judge, but has the assurance that God will indeed respond.  The whole parable is about the need to pray always, not to lose heart, to keep the faith. 

Those same themes apply to our gospel lesson today of the Canaanite woman.  Her persistence, her not losing heart in the midst of a crisis, her great faith.  The widow has a crisis, and Jesus doesn’t present her with a quick and easy answer.  Jesus actually pushes against her.  First he ignores her.  Then he openly and publicly dismisses her and consequently her petition.  He will not heal her daughter.  

Just a hunch here, but I am guessing that God does not always give you quick and simple answers to the crises of your lives.  I would imagine it seems like God rarely gives you quick and easy answers.  It may be the challenge of healing or the challenge of dying or the challenge of our nation.  Our lives face crises and God wants you to face whatever crisis is on top of your stack today with dogged persistence in prayer in faith. 

We often make this Canaanite woman stand alone.  [She stands alone] As if she was the only person Jesus offends, the only person that he pushes against.  He also refers to the loss sheep of Israel.  I do not know what you know about sheep, but calling people sheep is not complimentary and calling the lost sheep is even less complimentary.  And the Pharisees are so lost they might not realize that he is talking to them.  But then he has spoken to them bluntly other times.  True also about the Jewish scribes and other leaders of the synagogue.  

Here I offer you two verses from Matthew Chapter 23 where Jesus speaks clearly.
 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,[f] so that the outside also may become clean.
Woe.  Maybe I should say wow as well as woe.  To be frank, I dislike Jesus’ initial response to the mother this morning.  Actually, I am offended by his rebuke to her.  Now, if I continue to be frank, Jesus [really] does not need me to defend him. Ever.  I am less offended by him calling others lost sheep, probably that should bother me as well. 

The contrast becomes important.  The contrast between the desperate mother and the lost Pharisees and religious leaders.  Jesus presents both with a crisis,  he pushes against their expectations for God.  Both the Pharisees and the woman say “God do this,” and “God be this.”  Jesus wants both to know that God is even bigger.  Both the mother and the Pharisees expect more from God than they initially get.  

For the Pharisees and other Leaders of Israel, this becomes a crisis of faith.  Jesus pushes against their knowledge of scripture, God and faith.  They do not even realize he is calling them lost.  They respond by plotting to kill Jesus.  Not just plotting, they actually kill him on the cross.  Their crisis of faith becomes Jesus’ cross.

Jesus also places the crisis in front of the mother.  He does not respond as she would intend.  He ignores her and dismisses her.  Rather than having a crisis of health become a crisis of faith, the mother responds to her crisis with faith.  She tells Jesus.  “I only need a smidgen of what you got.”  That is obviously a paraphrase.  More literally, “I only need a crumb of what falls for your table for my daughter to be well.”  She is persistent; she does not lose heart.  She keeps the faith.

How is your faith doing?  Faith in your nation, faith in God, faith in one another?  There are forces at work that are pushing us away from one another.  Dividing us into smaller and smaller subgroups and telling us you have no reason to get along.  These forces of division also push us away from Sunday worship and the community of faith.  To that I respond with persistence, with prayer, and with faith.  So we can remind one another that God pushes us for a reason, so that we can grow and become better than what we are now.  And as he pushes us, he also gathers us around the cross, because the cross is what pushed Jesus’ faith beyond his limits.

We need one another right now.  We need the fellowship of faith right now.  To come together rather than to push apart.  This evening there will be a pot luck. Come to it.  We will grill some sausages, some brauts.  Elizabeth, I think is making a fruit salad.  Kendrick has talked about Jello-Blocks.  The meal will start around 5:30 pm.  Around 6 PM we are going to start a movie, so if you don’t get here until 6:30 PM, there will still be food here.  If you want to come for the meal, but not stay for the movie, come for the meal.  You can bring a bag of chips to share or a box of cookies.  This is low key.  Not exactly impromptu but it has the feel to it.  Because right now in this space are some of the most important people (besides family) some of the most important people in your lives.  These are people who gather around the cross of faith with you.  These people are an important part of your faith, who help sustain your faith when God pushes you.  God does not push you away; God pushes you forward and beyond into his grace and mercy.  


Monday, August 14, 2017

"Aid in the Restoration of Peace and Harmony"

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
August 13, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Matthew 14: 22-33

Introduction to the Gospel

I have spent the week in conversation and prayer around the issues of race and intolerance and love and freedom.  I have had an education about Virginia’s history from people who have lived here longer than I have.  I have read about the Hampton Institute now Hampton University over towards Virginia Beach and Newport News.  I learned about the lost generation including white and black children and youth whose schools were closed for five years in Prince Edward County in the early 1960s.  (Five years, no public education, one whole county.). I have followed the activities this week in Charlottesville and most especially what happened yesterday in Charlottesville.  

And in the midst of this time of prayer and learning, we have this gospel passage about winds and storms and faith.  A passage selected decades ago assigned to be read on this Sunday every third year.  We hear winds and storms battering the disciples around and they are reminded that people died on the sea of Galilee, These disciples on the boat in the storm know that only too well.  

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, the fourteenth chapter.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Sermon Text

May the words of my lips and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.  (Psalm 19:14)

“I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”

I believe these words to be a rather important quote, and especially a rather appropriate quote for today.  [They are] Important enough to say again.  

“I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”  Robert E. Lee, August 24, 1865 in a letter to the Board of Trustees of Washington College in Lexington.

And I risk beginning my sermon with a quote from Robert E. Lee to make one thing perfectly clear.  What happened Saturday in Charlottesville is not about the Civil War and General Lee.  What happened in Charlottesville happened because of hate and intolerance that exists in our nation today.  This is sin--this hate, this intolerance.  Robert E. Lee died in 1870.  People have forgotten a lot of what he said.  This is not about him.  It is about hate groups who are using his statue to justify their intolerance towards blacks and hispanics and others, today.  They do it today in the nation we live in.  And yesterday they created a violent storm of humanity.  We may disagree on how to stand against hate and intolerance, but I know we agree we need to stand against it.  

I will come back to the Lee quote, but first some background about the storm in our scripture.  

The sea of Galilee had a violent reputation.  The Sea of Galilee is about 64 miles square in size, so only about double the size of Smith Mountain Lake.  The sea is shallow, for a sea, 141 feet deep at it’s deepest point.  The shallow depth of the sea means that wind can create quite a bit of chop in the waves.  Waves can get several feet high on this small body of water.  Those of you who have been to Smith Mountain Lake, or Lake Anna or Claytor Lake, probably have never seen waves that tall on those nearby lakes.  Powerful storms, with lots of moisture and energy would roll off the Mediterranean Sea, and pound Galilee, and the waves would get high.  Maybe not all the time, but often enough.  Many tall hills surround the Sea of Galilee, some hills as high as 2,000 feet.  And the tall hills, mountains in some cases, often hid changes in weather until the storm was right on top of the boats of Jesus day.  The sea of Galilee had a notorious reputation, a violent reputation.  People died on the sea.  

Here comes the fury of the sea to these poor disciples who have been sent out by Jesus.  Some of them fish for a living, cast nets, they know the sea.  They know the predicament that they are in.  Trouble and they think “I might die.”  And they see a figure of light walking on the water towards them.  And now they are really scared and they think a ghost is coming to claim me as another victim of the sea.  They have a reason to be afraid.  Thinking Jesus is a ghost is part of that fear.  They also have Jesus Christ, which is a pretty good reason, actually a great reason, not to be afraid.  

Sometimes he has to remind them of that.  I am here with you.  You can even walk out on the water if you want to.  I will keep you from sinking even when you start to flail and sink.  I will catch you.  Jesus does all in his power to aid the disciples and restore their peace.  He has that power.  He has to remind them of that.  Sometimes Jesus has to remind us of that as well.  

That is their storm then.  We have our own storm (we have our own storms) now.

I have held in prayer Pastors Lauren Miller, Sandy Wisco and Victoria Parvin who serve the Lutheran Church in Charlottesville.  As well as Bishop Mauney, Bishop-Elect Bob Humphrey, Pastors Brett Davis, Dave Delaney and Paul Pingel who I knew planned to be in attendance.  I have also held in prayer law enforcement officials in Charlottesville.  I did not go to the event yesterday.  I had a previous commitment, so I let others march for me, but I wanted to be there in Charlottesville, with my colleagues and those who march for peace.

I spoke with Pastor Pingel yesterday afternoon.  He described to me their peaceful march yesterday morning at about 8:30 AM from Jefferson School to McGuffey Park.  I heard later from Bishop Mauney that about 900 to 1,000 people participated in that march.  They stopped in McGuffey Park and listened to a half a dozen religious speakers and then went to a Methodist church about a block and a half from Emancipation Park.  They could hear the chants and the energy building at the park, but they made it to their sanctuary without incident.  They gave witness yesterday to what a peaceful gathering looks like.  Many of them had also gathered Friday night for a worship service as well.  I thank God for their safety.

After that peaceful march in morning from 8:30 to 9:30 am.  Somewhere close to noon, between 10:30 and noon, the storm clouds started gathering.  Groups started gathering each with a different agenda.  A whole variety of groups showed up at Emancipation Park.  I don’t need to repeat that story here.  

I will repeat, however, the quote from Robert E. Lee.  He wrote this in a letter 4 months after the end of the Civil War.  In this letter to the Board of Trustees, he conditionally accepted the presidency of Washington College.  He placed two conditions on his acceptance.  First, he asked be excused from teaching responsibilities so that he could focus on administration.  Second, he didn’t want to bring hostility against the college by his presence there.  My interpretation is that he was worried about the reputation of the college and gave the board an out to remove their offer to him.  So he accepts the presidency.  In accepting the presidency, he talks about the importance of educating young people and setting for them a proper example, and he offers these words about our nation and her citizens.  Lee has many admirable qualities and, regardless of what you might think of him, his words speak to us today.  (Actually his words may be prophetic as well.)  Here is a larger portion of that quote.  

“There is another subject which has caused me serious reflection, and is, I think, worthy of the consideration of the Board. Being excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the U. S., of the 29th May last, and an object of censure to a portion of the Country, I have thought it probable that my occupation of the position of President might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility; and I should, therefore, cause injury to an Institution which it would be my highest desire to advance. I think it the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority, and I could not consent to be the cause of [censure] upon the College.”  Robert E. Lee, Former General, College President, West Point Graduate.  

How do you think the person who wrote that feels about the hostility that took place around his statue yesterday?  I can see the tears in his eyes.  I can see the tears in Jesus’ eyes as well.  To be succinct racism and intolerance is sinful.  Our interpretation of scripture on this point is clear.  Not just violence is sinful, racism and intolerance even without violence is sinful.  If you question that point, Bishop Gohl of the ELCA’s Delaware Maryland synod has a sermon this morning addresses that point.  Find it and read it.

There are some people who petitioned for the right to gather around Lee’s statue yesterday that have no idea that their supposed general wrote what he did to Lexington.  And if they did know it, I guess (sadly) they did not care.  “Aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”  What does that look like?  What does peace and harmony look like?  That is what it looks like after Jesus calms the storm—the big storm or this minor storm.  Peace, be still.  The seas become calm like the silence that Elijah experiences.  What does “aid in the restoration of peace and calm look like?  You see that in Peter stepping out of the boat.  Jesus calms the storm for the disciples but he also does something else.  He teaches them, prepares them, for other storms that will come in their lives.  He shows them the power of faith to calm storms.  The disciples will face other storms and worse storms: violence caused not be elements of the sea, but by people opposed to the hope and peace they will teach the world about.  Jesus prepares them.  He gives them power to remain peaceful.  He also prepares you.  In our gospel passage, Jesus calms the storm and the wind and the chaos, but he also gives you the power of peace to calm the storms around you.  You can bring peace and harmony into your community.  But I will tell you right now, it takes prayer and patience and the willingness to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.  It involves stepping out of the boat.  We can call that community building.  I know of people who gathered in Charlottesville yesterday for the right reasons.  Community building is what happens next.  The Christian church stands against racism and intolerance, and we also aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.  We participate in the building back up of community.

This is what I did yesterday.  I spent 10 hours in a room with a dozen teenagers and an instructor 18 years my senior so I could help a fledgling soccer start-up organization.  They want to make quality soccer instruction affordable.  That’s what I did.  Maybe I should have been in Charlottesville.  If you think so, I will have that conversation with you.  I will probably agree with many of your points, because I think my presence in Charlottesville would have been important.  But I believe my presence where I was yesterday also gave witness.  I hope this year and in 10 years what I did yesterday meant something.  Because children and youth of all ethnic backgrounds play soccer.  Just like children and youth of all ethnic backgrounds worship Christ our savior.  I have been a spectator in the game for three years, it is time again for me as a pastor to be back on the field to say this is important for our youth, our children, and our future, one future for all of us.  
Community building happens here in this worship as well, but it happens best and serves Christ best when you take what you are given here--peace, grace, harmony--and go out and share it in the community.

And you will fall down, a lot.  Just like Peter.  You will make mistakes.  But somewhere out there when the winds of change are pushing you, and you fear the winds are winning, then know this: Jesus is the one coming to claim you.  Jesus is the one lifting you up.  Jesus does not expect you to calm the storm alone.  What does Jesus say, "Peace, be still."  "Don’t be afraid."  "Do not lose faith."  "I say to you love your enemies, be kind to those who hurt you, pray for those who persecute you."  "Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.   Jesus gives us power in these instructions, and that power brings peace in our own hearts."  We have that peace and harmony and more to spread around our communities.  

Peace be with you.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bond Between Sower and Good Soil

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
July 16, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

A bond connects the sower with the good soil, a bond formed by seed scattered on and all around the good soil.  Our gospel passage today embraces the generosity of God.  Some see the generosity of God in scattering of the seed.  Some see the generosity of God in the return 30, 60, a hundredfold.  And of course you can see the generosity of God in both the scattering of seed and the return of the harvest.  Actually, the scripture has one more place to see the generosity of God, and it is there right in front of us.

Frankly though, it does not matter where you see God in this story, so long as you recognize that God is generous, actually both generous and good.  God has an infinite or close to infinite supply of goodness and mercy which he scatters indiscriminately upon his creation, and indiscriminately upon you.  As you recognize the generosity of God, his generosity takes on greater grandeur when you recognize the land is messed up.

We can be frank.  The land is messed up.  Rocks and thorns and hard packed paths and birds and that eat the seed.  The land is messed up.  Rocks and thorns and hard packed paths and birds surround the good soil and the sower casts seed on all of it to make sure the good soil gets the seed.

Our land has problems.  The cost of health care continues to rise in ways that cannot be sustained.  There are jobs out there, but people struggle to raise a family on minimum wage type jobs.  I say our land has problems we can talk about environment, or trust, or terror, deficits.  Our argument is not about the problems of the land.  The arguments are about whose problems do we solve first and how do we go about solving those problems.  

When Jesus told this problem, his land had problems as well.  People were dying; about 50% percent of children died before adulthood.  Roman occupied the land and their soldiers marched about enforcing the peace.  People liked the peace, but something about the way the peace was administered made the local people feel like they were the enemy.  And Roman engineers took the tax money to build aqueducts to supply clean water to all of the people.  People liked clean water, but they may not have liked paying for it.  And different religions were competing for people’s spiritual attention.  And people sinned.  Okay somethings haven’t changed.  

Jesus tells this parable where the land is messed up.  Rocks and thorns and hard packed paths and birds and seed.  The land is messed up, and if we make a simple guess, only 1/4 of the land is ready to receive the seed.  And if we think about it too hard, we might say that one quarter is being optimistic.  The seed the fell on the path did not bear fruit, the seed that fell on the thorns did not bear fruit, the seed that fell on the rocks did not bear fruit.  But the seed that fell on the good soil, the good soil bears fruit.  We like that the good soil bears fruit

We get confused, however, by our own image of good soil.  Fields a hundred acres in size, full of tall tassels of corn.  Or wheat as far as the eye can see, waving in the wind.  That image is not Jesus parable.  And the rich large field of good soil is not really who we are.  

We like parables and we like to find ourselves in the parable.  And so we sing out, “Lord make me the good soil.”  That is a good song and if we would stop there, we would be okay.  We want to be the good soil, because we want to bear fruit for the Lord.  Our song and confessed desire to be good soil acknowledges that we need the Lord’s help to be good soil.  

But truly, Our real relationship with the story begins with a challenge, a confession, an acknowledgement of our own shortcoming.  Because at some point in our lives, we have probably wondered why the sower bothers casting seed upon soil that is not ready to receive the seed.  Why does the sower bother casting seed upon the path and upon the rocks and in the midst of the thorns and thistles.  Which is to say we judge people somehow unworthy of God’s generosity and goodness.  We stop being the good soil and place ourselves in the role of the sower.  Actually, we see ourselves as a sower who knows better than God. 

I would guess Jesus actually sets us up to think this way.  The mixture of the types of soil so close together and the scattering rather than the place of seed.  And I have heard it said that Americans are too use to well groomed fields with acre upon acre of stalks of corn, or fields of asparagus, fields of wheat swaying in the wind.  Two thousand years ago in the eastern Mediterranean terrain that surrounded Galilee, patches of good soil lay in the midst of thorns and rocks and trampled paths.  To Jesus original hearers, they could recognize the imagery.  

We also must confess that we do not always see the little inch of good soil that is surrounded by rocks and thorns.  But that soil is there ready to bear fruit and God sees that patch of good soil.  The good heart lying in the midst of a den of thieves.  Sometimes the only way to get seed to fall on the sliver of good soil is to rain it upon the messed up people around them.  Scripture tells us in Matthew 5...
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”  Matthew 5: 44-45. 
In the same way God casts his word, his seed upon the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous.  

But even after Jesus explains the meaning of the parable, some still get stuck thinking about pinpointing the seed where it can yield the most fruit.  We start thinking about the seed as a finite resource and want to send it where it can bear the most fruit.  We start thinking in terms of return on investment.  We do mental calculations about how much seed needs to be gathered back in to offset how much seed the sower casts out.  That sort of return on investment, receiving more than we cast out is a human concern, an economic concern, and at the heart of it a sinful wandering of our mind.  God simply wants for his word to bear fruit.  While he can delight in how much fruit his word, his seed brings forth, the harvest itself and not the volume of the harvest is the concern.  For us to remember that, it helps to think of God with an infinite supply seed, with which to generate a harvest.  

I remember one time when I missed out on being good soil or a the good sower.  Nelson was known as our stealth member at our first call.  His Lutheran Church had been closed, and he travelled 15 miles, 20 minutes to come worship with us Sunday morning.  He would silently slip into the church, sit in the back, leave his offering and slip out.  He would hardly talk to anyone.  I received a phone call from the funeral director when Nelson died.  And I travelled 15 miles away to conduct his funeral service with people I had never met.  I preached about Nelson’s faith and described it as like a cross in your pocket, always there for you when you needed it.  When I said “cross in your pocket” a young teenager laughed and his mother went “shhh.”  The funeral was open coffin and typically I would stay with the coffin until the funeral director closed it.  But the funeral director asked me to step outside for a minute.  I didn’t ask why.  I had seen the six pack of beer that men were trying to sneak by me because they wanted to leave it in the coffin for Nelson.  That was a missed opportunity.  I should have walked with them and said something like “why waste good beer.”  Or I could have cracked one open and lifted up a toast to Nelson and passed that beer along to his friends to drink to Nelson one more time.  Sure some of them would have probably laughed at me.  Others in the community would have been offended by the idea of a minister sharing a beer with the mourners.  But maybe one soul would have understood why Nelson drove 20 minutes away to go to a Lutheran church when plenty of other churches were closer by.  That Lutherans aren’t afraid of a six pack of beer.  Maybe a few of them would have appreciated by participating in (or affirming) the blessing by which they wanted to send of Nelson.  Instead I went and read the scripture and proclaimed grace and played the role of a minister discreetly looking the other way.

The generosity of God can be seen not in just how God scatters the seed on the good soil.  We see the generosity in how God scatters the seed among the rocks and everything else.  Perhaps, it doesn’t really make sense in the parable version, but as Jesus explains things I understand.  I like it when people get excited about God’s word, and I always hope that it will take root.  Same with the thorns, I like it when the word of God starts something even though I have to lament that it does not bear fruit.  Even the birds are fed, and we are probably surprised to hear that the birds represent the evil ones.  If Jesus told the parable today, he would probably talk about squirrels that way, at least here in the Valley where the squirrels find new and creative ways to steal the seed we intend for the birds.  Let the birds or the squirrels be fed, if that means seed falls on good soil.  And God is generous to the birds, all the land, and to you.  He casts the seed, and his grace-filled word on all of creation.  

The challenge of stewardship for a church or any charity, its not about what we want for ourselves, but instead what we want for others, including others who may not deserve it.  That is what it means to cast out seed indiscriminately.  And sometimes we are the soil receiving the seed, and sometimes we are the sower casting out the seed.  And finding ourselves in both parts of the story is part of the bond between the good soil and the sower.  

There God is in the person of story once again being generous.  There Jesus is telling our story, about our ministry in the best possible light.  Jesus tells about our sowing of seeds and how we bear good fruit.  Maybe he even tells the story a little bit better than we would tell it ourselves.  (For Jesus and for us in this messed up land) For Jesus our story begins when the good seed we cast hits good soil.  And he tells how we it produced fruit, thirty, sixty, even a hundred fold.  


Monday, July 10, 2017

Paul and the Challenge of Hypocrisy

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
July 9, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Romans 7: 15-25a     Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Few people want to admit it, but being a Christian is hard.  Being a Christian truly affects how you live every day.  As we know a person’s behavior does not always match a person’s values.  Sin creates that problem.  Any person or any community with a strong set of values will have to confront moments when their behavior along with the behavior of the world around them challenges those values.  And when we fail, it opens us up to the charge of hypocrisy.  

Here is a story.  Richard grew up Mennonite.  He became a Lutheran, but he grew up Mennonite, and he responded to the call to serve the (call to fight) in World War II.  Mennonites, along with Quakers and Brethren, are among the peace churches that teach and preach non-aggression.  Richard’s decision to enlist went against the values of his family, his church, and the community of that slice of Bucks County Pennsylvania that had a strong Mennonite presence.  His Mennonite Church faced a conundrum on how to respond to Richard’s actions.  And not just his church.  Other Mennonite churches faced the same dilemma as their sons enlisted.   Not just Richard faced the conundrum, but the sin that fireballed into world war II forced the Mennonite churches to make an awkward decision.  His church would remove Richard from membership.  Now, Richard married a young Lutheran woman.  I saw those black and white wedding photos when they celebrated their 50th anniversary, and I found grace in knowing that Richard’s mother attended the wedding service in her plain clothes and mennonite head covering.

When I lived outside of Philadelphia.  I spoke with a retired Mennonite pastor at a social event that we were both invited to.  Again, just a reminder, mennonite are not amish.  Some mennonites dress in plain clothes, but most mennonites and mennonite pastors dress in the contemporary clothing style of the time, as this retired mennonite pastor did.  He told me that World War II was a theological struggle for the Mennonite Church.  In part because of the reality of evil that existed in Europe, but also they had to deal with the patriotic fervor that existed in the United States.  How do you respond to evil, and how do you respond to these sons who have grown up with you who choose to fight the evil?  

Not just Mennonites, but the Christian Church, and not just the Christian church, but a good portion of humanity that takes faith and spiritual practices seriously,  We teach mercy, grace and forgiveness, but we also teach a set of standards about how we get along with our selves and one another, our neighbors, how we get along with the rest of humanity.  Those standards, that moral code is important.  For us, that means the 10 Commandments and teachings about the 10 Commandments.  

That we have values, a moral code, and that we practice forgiveness creates a moral conundrum that we as Christians cannot escape.  Some of the skeptics outside of Christianity call it hypocrisy.  Technically, hypocrisy occurs when behavior does not conform to one’s moral standards or beliefs.  Our challenge, Christianity adheres to a moral code that is actually at odds with itself.  The code has us stand both against sin and for mercy.  We stand against sin but with forgiveness.  We will call it hypocrisy, because that is the charge leveled against us, but it is not really hypocrisy.

Mennonites faced this challenge with World War II and the draft of Vietnam, probably Korea in between and World War One earlier that century.  How to handle grace and mercy and clearly stand against aggression and violence by your members.  They also wanted to stand against the patriotic fervor that had a military outward expression.  They have a concern worth considering: how do we create patriotic unity without rallying around a common enemy to fight?  How do we create patriotism, national pride, that does not require an army or a navy or soldiers.  That is what North Korea does.  That little, tiny slice of a peninsula once had the 4th largest army in the world.  Their leadership beams that they now have a missile that can attack Alaska or Hawaii, as well as Japan.  We don’t want to be like that.  

Another example, many, even some Lutherans, pick on Roman Catholics and their practice of annulling marriages.  Roman Catholics along with many other Christians want to uphold the sanctity of marriage.  So Roman Catholic practice makes it more difficult to end a marriage than just getting a legal divorce.  Sometimes they administer their annulments poorly, but they truly wish to emphasize the gift and blessing of marriage.

Jesus in the gospel lesson, along with Paul in his letter to the Roman church, confront this challenge of Christian behaviors and teachings that sometimes conflict.  And they confront the criticisms that fall upon the church.  Of course they confront it in different ways.  Paul speaks candidly about his own challenge.  Jesus looks at those around him. (I do no know that he laughs at the situation, but he certainly points out the humor in it.) 

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon;” the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The crowd creates a situation where you just cannot win.  Jesus cannot win, at least with the crowds.  But we know that Jesus is the winning side.  

Let us go back to Paul.  All that Paul says in this passage is what we do is hard.  Christians struggle to act like Christians. If you are not a Christian, that statement sounds funny.  If you are a Christian, you know exactly what I mean when I say Christians struggle to act like Christians.  Take a simple commandment, “Thou Shall Not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Which we summarize as “Thou shall not lie.”  Try to go through a day without lying.  It can be done, but here are the challenges.  

  1. White lies to protect peoples feelings.  For example, I love the color of those socks; I think the floral pattern on that tie is bold; I think purple and red is a good color choice.  Do you remember when women would get together wearing purple dresses and red hats.  You don’t see women groups gather wearing purple dresses and red hats anymore.  The first challenge has you protecting peoples feelings.  
  2. Throw away statements to protecting our privacy.  For example,  Someone asks, “How are you feeling?” and you say “Fine” when you are not feeling fine.  We do that all the time.  “Are you okay?”  We say, “Yes” even when that answer is a blunt “NO” or a mild “Not really.”  Frankly, I don’t need to tell everyone that my back hurts, and I think it really crummy being fifty years old.  But to tell that to everyone is to dwell on it.  I don’t want to dwell on it.  

Being a Christian is hard and this point about polite lying is incredibly minor compared to what Paul is talking about.  People are trying to kill Paul.  They are throwing stones at him.  They are planning mobs to overwhelm him.  They have placed him under house arrest.  I suspect that Paul is actually wanting to knock some heads together.  I suspect what Paul would really like to say goes along the lines of “you throw stones at me, I will throw bigger stones back.”  Paul has never been someone to run away.  If the response was “fight or flight” Paul was one to fight, but now he behaves differently. 

Instead, Paul has to respond with “I trust God.  I trust in Jesus Christ my Lord and savior.”  “My life is his.”  Those words are words we all need to respond with.  “I trust God.  I trust in Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior.  My life is his.”  Living out the Moral code is hard and we fail.  Sometimes though, trusting in God is even harder, and we fail at that too.  

When we trust God however, we learn from these two scripture passages, all is well.  Paul describes trusting God as delivery from a body of death to a body of life.  Sin still weighs on us, but the body has been freed from death to life.  

I like Jesus description better.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Jesus lifts us up.  Richard made a tough decision and an unpopular decision.  He found the Lutheran Church.  Trust in Jesus.  Jesus finds you and lifts you up and cares for you and what you need.

On the Bucks County side of Telford, PA you will find a non-denomination congregation that teaches mostly mennonite values.  The congregation was formed by young men and their families.  The men were drafted during Vietnam, went and served their tour.  When they returned the Mennonite Churches would no longer allow them to worship in their former churches.  So they got together and formed a new church that did not ban them for military service.  And fifty years later that church continues to thrive and minister to those in need and helps people with the struggle and hard work of living a Christian life.  Jesus found them.

You will mess up, even without trying, but Christ will always be here waiting for you with grace and mercy even when people laugh at him or criticize him for doing just that.  Cynics call it hypocrisy.  We call it grace and mercy.