Sunday, July 26, 2020

Praying the Sunday Gospel: Joy in the Kingdom

 Opening Prayer
Holy One, your kingdom and your glory take us by surprise- like a tiny mustard seed growing into a great tree where birds make their home; like a treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price. Thank you for the greatest joy and abundance of your kingdom. Give us grace to surrender to you that which weighs too heavily on us today. We offer you these moments as we worship you in thanksgiving for all you have done for us in Jesus our Christ. Amen.

Psalm 105:1-11
give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.  Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth. He is mindful of his covenant forever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham,  his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,  to Israel as an everlasting covenant,  saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.’

Prayer of Confession
Father eternal, giver of light and grace, we have sinned against you and against our neighbor; in what we have thought, in what we have said and done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate neglect. We have wounded your love and marred your image in us. We are sorry and repent of all our sins. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us, forgive us all that is past; and lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light. Amen.

Words of Pardon (based on Psalm 130)
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!

 A Reading from Anthony De Mello, S.J., Discovering Life
The sannyasi is the wandering mendicant. This is the person who, having attained enlightenment, understands that the whole world is his home and the sky is his roof, and God is his father and will look after him, so he moves from place to place the way you and I would move from one room of our home to another.

"Here was this wandering sannyasi, and the villager, when he meets him, says, 'I cannot believe this.' "And the sannyasi says, 'What is it you cannot believe?'" And the villager says, 'I had a dream about you last night. I dreamt that the Lord Vishnu said to me, "Tomorrow morning, you will leave the village around 11 o'clock, and you'll run into this wandering sannyasi." And here, I've met you.'" 'What else did the Lord Vishnu say to you?' asks the sannyasi. "And the man replies, 'He said to me, "If the man gives you a precious stone he has, you will be the richest man in the whole world." Would you give me the stone?' "So the sannyasi says, 'Wait a minute.' He rummages in his little knapsack that he had. He asks, 'Would this be the stone you're talking about?' And the man couldn't believe his eyes because it was a diamond — the largest diamond in the world. "He holds the diamond in his hands and he asks, 'Could I have this?' "And the sannyasi says, 'Of course, you could take it. I found it in a forest. You're welcome to it.' And he goes on, and sits under a tree on the outskirts of the village. The man grasps this diamond, and how great is his joy.

"So, the guy has the diamond. And then instead of going home, he sits under a tree, and all day he sits, immersed in thought. And toward evening, he goes to the tree where the sannyasi is sitting, gives him back the diamond, and says, 'Could you do me a favor?' 'What?' says the sannyasi. " 'Could you give me the riches that make it possible for you to give this thing away so easily?' "

Gospel    Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’‘ The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

Appearances deceive. The tiniest of seeds becomes a tree so large that it provides nests for birds. A small amount of yeast, snaps and fizzes its way into “three measures” of flour, transforming the whole mixture into enough bread for 100 people! This is how God reigns and rules, according to Jesus. It’s through the miniscule, insignificant, and unseen.

Such is the way with life lived in God’s kingdom. The one and only gift of my life- given to me by God- is this the hidden treasure and pearl of great price? I regularly look for something or someone outside of myself to come in and fix things, to make me happy, give me peace, or to solve problems. But the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price is right in front of me every day I live and breathe. It’s the one and only gift of my life, created in God’s own image and likeness. This is life created in love, so that we can love and bless the whole world.    
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.  We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.  Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. This we pray in the name of Christ, who taught us, saying [The Lord’s Prayer]: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine in the kingdom, and power, and glory forever. Amen.   

Blessing: The peace of all peace be yours this day and night in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Gospel Reflection: Unfinished

Gospel    Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 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 into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Limbo: an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition. Synonyms: unfinished, incomplete, unresolved, on hold, pending, abandoned, forgotten, betwixt and between, up in air, on the back burner, suspended, put-off, etc.

I once attended the Young Men’s Leadership Conference (“Camp Miniwanca”) under the auspices of the American Youth Foundation. It took place on the shores of Lake Michigan in the summer before senior year, high school. So it was that in one of my classes, we were challenged to recall a “first impression” of someone at camp, someone who may have annoyed us in some way. Or with whom we had started on the wrong foot. We were to remember what happened and how we reacted. Later in the week, the leader asked us to examine the encounter to see how we could make a fresh start in our thinking and our manner with the person who, at first, rubbed us the wrong way. The teacher called it “reconciliation.”  

The exercise showed me that my first impressions are as much about my own prejudgments as they are about the other person. Jesus’ parable cautions me to stop wasting my time and energy determining the good and the bad. I can surely judge myself harshly too. When I do this, I am not equipped to offer friendship or kindness to others. In my own spiritual life, I am learning to identify and to resist the voices of guilt and shame in and around me. Contrary to what we may have heard, there is not a medal ceremony for the guiltiest person alive! 

The “limbo” we are living through would not be strange for any generation of humanity-or the church. There is God-given wisdom in waiting: “For if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:24 Like the disciples hearing the story of the wheat and weeds, we are cautioned to step back and be mindful that we do not have the last word: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Matthew 13:30

The good grain will be lost forever if we try to extract the weeds. God will take care of God’s harvest in God’s time. And God will take care of us. According to Psalm 139, God knows every aspect of our life, before it happens. God knows all about us and continues to offer the joy of the holy presence, Holy Spirit. God shows up for us, wrapping us in divine mercy, even if we make our bed in Sheol. Psalm 139:8 There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, the Lord of the harvest.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Praying the Sower's Story

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have 
much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 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. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Prayer of Confession (based on Matthew 13:18-23)
Gracious and loving God, we are a mixed bag to say the least: when we are tempted to give up;  when we fail in practicing a living faith; when we seek our peace in neglect and privilege: heal our broken spirits, confirm us in all goodness, save us from trusting in our own strength. As we turn to you in these quiet moments: forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God. Amen.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, is a beautiful story of his experience as a first-time pastor of a Lutheran Church in the corn belt town of New Cana, Illinois. His church celebrated what was known as the ritual of the field on Rogate Sunday. It was the Fifth Sunday of Easter. This is how Lischer describes it:

When April’s sweet showers had bathed the dry veins of March, callused palms the size of gourds would cradle a few hybrid seeds as if they were crystal, and our church would ask God to make the crops grow. At the end of the service, representative farmers would lead the congregation through the back doors of the church and across the road into Norbert Semann’s muddy field, which at this time of the year was as rank and sweet as black bread soaked in port. There, we symbolically planted the seeds.

Lischer continues with brief liturgy he used on his second Rogate Sunday:

Pastor (in the sanctuary): Let us now proceed to Norberts field.
(The congregation files out the center aisle in orderly fashion. The people cross the road and walk unceremoniously into the dirt. There is no talking or laughter.)

Leonard Semanns (crouching on one knee as he places the seeds in their furrow): Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

June Semanns (flanked by her husband, several farmers, a nurse, etc.) The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose. We are God’s servants, working together. You are God’s field.

Pastor (from the midst of the congregation): Lord, when you came among us, you proclaimed the kingdom in villages and lonely places. Have mercy on those who work hard at lonely jobs, where they can’t talk to others or can’t be heard when they do. Remind all country people that you are never far from those who plant and harvest. Help everyone in our nation to say grace over their food and to respect those who produce it. O God, hear us as we bless earth, sun, wind, and water, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Parable of the Sower is an invitation to nourish and respect the life of God within. What if I nurtured the word of the kingdom like the farmers “cradled” their seeds? What would it mean for me to guard the word “like fine crystal,” so that the seed of God’s kingdom could grow by leaps and bounds! I tend to minimize what is possible because of God’s abundance. How can I overlook the fruit of this relationship? It comes in unheard multiples of 100, 60, and 30 fold!

The Letter of James asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind…But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” James 3: 13, 16-18

Prayer and Blessing
Loving God, in your mercy, hear our prayers for others:

+Your healing grace and comfort for the sick and those who care for them; the grieving and those who reach out to them; the brokenhearted and their families,

Your help for those who grow, deliver, and prepare food for our tables, 

+Your strength for those on the front lines in this time of crisis:  firefighters and police, every day maintenance teams and housekeepers, doctors and nurses, researchers and scientists, 

+Your wisdom for the leaders of all nations of the world, our leaders in our nation, cities, and states,

+Your safekeeping for all serving far from home in our military and their families,

+Your shalom for all injured by unfairness, neglect, abuse, and injustice,

+Your compassion for all diminished by fear and worry, hate and bitterness,

Send us from this space to be seeds of Christ’s love, to scatter seeds of God’s hope, and to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Through Christ and in Christ we pray. Amen.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Gospel Reflection: At the Core is Gentleness (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

What leads to soul-rest?

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,“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!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

When I was just a year into serving my first church after divinity school,  I was full of ideals. With all I had learned and with passion, I expected to see a real impact on the congregants and church I served. I dedicated myself to just causes and worthy endeavors for that reason. An older and wiser pastor who had served in West Texas towns for years, told me that I was a very idealistic person. He said it with compassion and wistfulness, as if “I used to be like that.”

We celebrate the inspiring ideals of the nation in a hymn like America the Beautiful: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” We pledge ourselves, from young to old, to “liberty and justice for all.” In our national life, we often do not see the fruition of these ideals. There are, of course, glimpses from time to time. All of us, as Americans, inherit a wonderful freedom and responsibility as stewards to do the right as God gives us the ability. 

Psalm 72 presents a hope and prayer of what the king of Israel should be and do: “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice… May he defend the cause of the poor…  give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor….For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper…From oppression and violence he redeems their life;  and precious is their blood in his sight…May there be abundance of grain in the land;  and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field…May all nations be blessed in him…”  Most of the kings of Israel did not measure up to the hope of Psalm 72. 

The dark side of idealism sometimes leads to making harsh judgments of myself and others. Life is hard enough, why make it more difficult? The wisdom of Jesus on the matter is to look at the deeds of his power and mercy. They reveal someone who has compassion on the crowds, the “lost sheep.” Matthew 9:36  Jesus’  invitation is for the “infants” or the “little ones” of Matthew 10:42. He wants all who live with loneliness and isolation, cut off from the blessings of faith, family, community,  and God- then and now- to come to him, and find rest for the soul. What does this rest look like?

The invitation of Jesus, “Come, all of you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens” is from the One who is gentle. God is not the petulant child in Matthew 11 that we never quite please, no matter how hard we try. At the heart of the universe is gentleness. The spiritual life is not about trying to please God the best I can.  Guilt doesn't have to define my relationship with God. I am invited to be gentle – both with myself- and with others who share my journey. Gentleness implies sister moral virtues like peace, patience, kindness, self-control. For me to find refreshment for my soul, another to-do list does not bring renewal. The simple movement to gentleness- giving myself and others a break- can bring rest and regeneration for my soul. It’s there for taking, for all of us, today.  

Oldies but Goodies