The Desire of “The Hound of Heaven”

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 1.51.31 PM
“Parable of the Mustard Seed,” a painted window at the YMCA training center for German leadership in Kassel. Photo by tin.G.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

There’s a version of this story that’s been around for quite awhile, and you’ve probably heard some version of it somewhere. I think it started with a guru and enlightenment, but eventually, somebody Christianized it, and this is how I first heard it. 

Somewhere in rural America, an old pastor takes a younger pastor for a walk. 

“How badly do you want to know and follow Jesus?” the older pastor says. 

The younger pastor responds enthusiastically, “As badly as I want to eat my next meal!” 

They come upon a body of water, and the older pastor suddenly kicks the younger pastor’s legs out from under him. (Both of these pastors are men, otherwise it gets either weird or … just super unlikely.) 

The older pastor holds the younger pastor’s head under water RIGHT until the younger pastor is about to lose consciousness. Then he relents. 

The younger pastor comes up, sputtering and gasping for air. 

“Why on earth did you do that?!” the younger pastor demands. 

“Until you want to know and follow Jesus as badly as you wanted to breathe just now,” the old man said, “You’ll never succeed.” 

I’m sorry if you like that story, because I hate that story. 

This is mostly because I have become a mentor to younger pastors and I cannot imagine doing anything like it. I also find it fairly abhorrent for one adult to hold another one against their will for any reason not pertaining to safety. Finally, I don’t like it because I think it puts the emphasis in all the wrong places, and gives credit where it’s not due. 

Basically, I’m as Lutheran as they come, and I think the whole story essentially amounts to works righteousness. But I told you that story for a reason.

Let me explain by way of the Gospel lesson.

There’s a decent enough chance that Matthew here is recording some sayings of Jesus that the community remembered, back to back to back as one dialogue. This seems somehow more likely to some scholars than imagining that he went on and on back to back to back like that in what sort of seems like an unnatural dialogue. 

It doesn’t matter, really. 

The point is that this is the sort of thing that Jesus wanted to emphasize: that the kingdom of heaven is like — once again, it is like a thing that grows. A mustard seed. A tiny seed, and usually not one that someone would sow on purpose. But in this parable in Matthew, someone does, apparently, sow it on purpose, and it grows strong — much like we talked about last week — and becomes a home for the birds. 

Then, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman kneads into bread. Once again, a little goes a long way. The little seed became a big tree, and now, a bit of yeast levens all the bread and causes it to rise. 

Then two more parables, these about someone who gave all they had to get something they saw as valuable. 

Then another parable about fishing, where there is an abundance. 

The kingdom of heaven, apparently, is like all of these things. This is why the disciples, I think, lied to the Lord when he asked them if they understood. 

I want to go back to the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. In his version, Luke also includes a woman who turns the house upside down looking for a lost coin. 

You see, the way we normally read these passages is simple: the kingdom of heaven is worth everything, and we should give up everything to get it. We should want the kingdom of heaven as badly as that young pastor wanted to breathe. 

But you see, I think this reading has it all backwards. Because as I always say, when the Gospel becomes a story about us and our goodness and our efforts, chances are very good that we’ve gotten something backwards. 

What if. 

What if you are the treasure hidden in the field? What if you are the pearl of great price? What if you are Luke’s lost coin, and God is the woman who tears her house apart until she finds you?

If I’m off, I’m not very far off, because it’s pretty clear in the next parable that we are the fish. 

As every kid eventually learns, being the hero of every story is exhausting, so this morning, let God be the hero of your story for once. I promise you that God is better at it. Chalk it up to more experience. 

You are the treasure that someone found and hid, and God is the one who would sell all he had to buy that field. You are the pearl of great value, and God is the merchant who would sell the clothes off his back to have you. 

I know that you might not feel worthy, and that is the point. Treasure and pearls do not know their worth. They just are. 

And the urgency that we all feel in our lungs when we imagine the young preacher struggling to breathe? What if that is the urgency with which God pursues you and wants life abundant for you?

I don’t mean riches and all of the desires of your heart. Lord, I’d be a terrible prosperity Gospel preacher. 

No, I mean life abundant as in freedom. God is always in the business of freedom. In what ways is God freeing you, even as you sit there? 

I know, that’s a lot of questions, but what I’ve got to work with is a lot of parables and some lyin’ disciples. 

As with everything in life, once you see your own worth, your own value, your own belovedness, life begins to open up for you. God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it. 

There is a poem that every seminary student and every student of religion must read. And it is with an excerpt from that poem that we end. It bears noting that the poem, written in 1909 by Francis Thompson, refers to God as “him” — lest you think I’m talking about some guy. 

“I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days; 

I fled Him, down the arches of the years; 

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways 

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears 

I hid from Him, and under running laughter. 

Up vistaed hopes I sped; 

And shot, precipitated, 

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears, 

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. 

But with unhurrying chase, 

And unperturbèd pace, 

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, 

They beat—and a Voice beat 

More instant than the Feet— 

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’ 

I pleaded, outlaw-wise, 

By many a hearted casement, curtained red, 

  Trellised with intertwining charities; 

(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,

Yet was I sore adread 

Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside). 

But, if one little casement parted wide,

The gust of His approach would clash it to. 

Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.” 

The poem, of course, is “The Hound of Heaven,” and it speaks of a God who will turn the house upside down looking for you. A God who loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A God who does not need you to be the hero of your story, because that God already is. Amen.

The Wheat, the Weeds, and the KKK

Screen Shot 2020-07-19 at 5.20.29 PMThe current cover image for Slow Burn.

When I take long runs these days, I need to be distracted. So I turn to podcasts. 

Lately, I’ve been listening to the latest season of a podcastAr called Slow Burn. The first season is about Watergate, and it’s fascinating. The most current season, the fourth season, takes a slightly different topic: David Duke. 

David Duke, if you didn’t know already, is a former grand wizard from the KKK who appears every now and again in the news. He’s run several successful and unsuccessful campaigns for office, both in his home state of Louisiana and outside of it.

If you do end up listening to the podcast, I must warn you: if you think you’re in for hearing only about Southern racism in this season, you’re in for a surprise: they also cover his raucous rallies all over the country back in the 1970s and even later, including some right here in New England.

Anyhow, episode four covers David Duke’s 1990 campaign to be the US Senator from Louisiana.

When the results came back after a fraught campaign, Duke lost that Senate race to rival Bennet Johnston 54-43.5%, in what one Johnston supporter called “the most depressing win I think I’ve ever seen.” Duke should have been resoundingly defeated, but he wasn’t.

The most depressing statistic: in that election, David Duke captured 60% of the white vote, as he railed on and on about “restoring” the rights of white people. His KKK exploits, as well as other facts — such as his celebrations of Hitler’s birthday — were all also well known to the voters by the time they cast ballots. 

A common theme of the series, as with other similar candidates, is that more people, in Louisiana and elsewhere, would vote for the neo-Nazi and former Klansman than would admit to it to pollsters or others, meaning that he consistently out-performed poll numbers. One of Duke’s fellow Klansmen referred to these as Duke’s “silent army of white believers.” Other white people were appalled that their neighbors would support someone, in 1990, who had once donned a KKK hood, and who used coded and not-so-coded language to talk about race.

Black Louisanans, naturally, were alarmed. This was personal. One such Louisianan was Michelle Belle Boisierre, who identifies as black and Louisiana creole. Her family has been in southeast Louisiana since the 1740s. In 1990, she was 25 and a biology graduate student at Tulane. 

“It felt like weights were being placed on me,” she said of those days. “It seemed like those weights were getting heavier and heavier and it was harder to function, harder to make forward progress in my own life, because of this idea that there are going to be thousands … of people who would actually vote for [Duke].” 

Boisierre sent a letter to the local paper saying “I have been haunted by the fact that sixty percent of the white people in Louisiana supported David Duke. I have spent the last few weeks in a state of paranoia unlike any I have ever experienced.” 

It bears noting that she was the only black PhD student at Tulane at the time. 

She said, “I had to wonder — of the fifty white people I’ll talk to tomorrow, which thirty of them voted for David Duke?” 

Boisierre had to wonder which members in her community supported David Duke, who openly claimed that white people were superior to all other races. Many, of course, volunteered the information to her that they did not vote for him — but others were silent, and she always had to wonder about that “silent army.” 

How do you know who is good and who is bad? How do you know who is a racist and who is not, who is homophobic and who is not, who is sexist and who is not? For some of us, these are moral judgements, “political issues.” For others, they can be life and death questions, or at least questions that affect livelihoods, mental health, and senses of wellbeing.

The question of being able to tell who is good and who is bad is not a new one, obviously. It’s a tale, as they say, as old as time. 

Jesus knew this. We find ourselves once again in the Gospels, listening to Jesus talk about spiritual things in, quite literally, earthy terms. He describes the kingdom in terms of things that grow, and passages like this one can make us all anxious. 

Delmer Chiton, a Lutheran pastor and co-host of “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” a weekly podcast about the lectionary passage for the week, posits that in every congregation, there are two types of people: there are the ones who need to be told that God loves them in spite of what they’ve done, and those who are quite sure that they’re the “good” people and need to be told to get out of their pews and help their neighbors, if not be taken down a notch. Now personally, I think there’s some of both in all of us. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian philosopher, wrote, “If only there were bad people somewhere that we could gather up and get away from us and then just destroy them and that would take care of the problem with the world. But the line of good and evil runs through the middle of the human heart.”

Indeed, the church has done a lot of harm to itself over the years by attempting to tear the weeds from among us. We have labeled all kinds of people sinners, barred all types of people from being part of our community. We always truly think that we know how to tell what’s good and what’s bad, who’s wheat and who’s a weed. 

This story is for us. 

A wise preaching professor once taught a group of self-righteous feeling seminary students one very important lesson — remember, when you’re pointing a finger at the congregation, you’d better go ahead and name that you’ve got three more fingers pointing right back at yourself. 

So what does that mean, then? 

That we ignore evil and injustice? That we refuse to call out wrong, in the church and in  the world, when we see it? That we let people do terrible things to others and say nothing? 

No. 

Elsewhere in the Bible, it’s quite clear that speaking up for the marginalized is part of the Christian’s calling, as is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving a cold cup of water to those in need. A church without boundaries is a place of abuse just as much as a church with too many. 

But we should be very careful before we condemn individuals, before we attempt to rip out the weeds. The point of this text is, of course, that ultimate judgement of individuals is entirely up to God. 

Besides, it’s a little silly to imagine the wheat attempting to rip out the weeds. 

Wheat doesn’t even have thumbs.

It bears noting here that I am not condemning David Duke voters to hell. I do not believe that anyone is beyond redemption, or that anyone is defined forever by a vote they have cast. Besides, condemning anyone would be quite against Jesus’ point in this text: that judgement is up to God. My point is only this: that we do not know what is in anyone’s heart, and that people can indeed surprise us by the beliefs they hold.

That brings us to the final question: what does the wheat do in this story? 

It grows, strong, tall, and proud. It is planted in good soil, it produces food to feed the hungry, and it is gathered into the barn in due time. 

Michelle Belle Boisierre is now, thirty years later, a professor of biology at Xavier, New Orleans’s historically black university. The experience she had as a graduate student in 1990 made her stronger in her identity and her drive to succeed. 

At the end of the episode, the podcast host asked her, “How did you continue to live in [Louisiana] and go about your business?”

Dr. Boisierre replied, “I … know that the work that I do and the way that I conduct myself is a source of pain for people like David Duke. I know that in my career, I help young people, primarily African American, complete career journeys that people like David Duke think they’re not well suited for, think they’re not capable of doing. So I know that I live my life doing things and being a person who’s disturbing to him.”

At this point, her smile can almost be heard in the audio of the interview as she finishes, “…and that’s quite comforting.” 

Friends, this side of heaven, there will always be evil. Some of it will be open, and some of it will be hidden. It is not up to us to rip the evil out of the world. We would do harm if we tried. Throughout history, the most harm that has been done has been when someone decided that they could eradicate “those bad people” from the face of the earth. 

What we can do is to continue growing strong, working for justice, being wheat, feeding the world, knowing that ultimately, the one who compares the kingdom of God to things that grow will give us all that we need, and that in due time, the harvest will come, the world will be fed, and that someday death and evil shall be no more. Someday, we will no longer have to wonder.

Until then, stay rooted, my friends. Grow strong.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Let God Sort ‘Em Out

sower-at-sunset
Van Gogh, Parable of the Sower (1888)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

My high school softball coach, when she would hear a flurry of anxieties from me and my teammates, had a thing that she would say. We would be worrying about what the weather would be, whether the infield would be too hard, whether the outfield would be uneven. We would use ALL the words, talking a mile a minute. 

And Coach would just shrug and say, “Things you can’t control.” And that would be the end of it. 

I often say that many of the greatest lessons that I learned in school were taught outside the classroom, on the field or the court. This is one of them. 

I learned that I could not control the weather, the field conditions, or even the other team. I could not control what was in the past, either, or in the future, for that matter. Worrying about those things, in fact, would take my attention away from the things I could control, and would subsequently have a negative impact on my performance.

CrossFit coach Ben Bergeron has this exercise with his athletes where they name everything that could possibly go wrong within a competition. Things within their control get a plan. Things outside of their control get let go of.

If you listened to the Gospel lesson, you may be wondering what all of this could possibly have to do with gardening. Well, maybe you are if you’re not a gardener.

Today we have the well known “parable of the sower.” 

Today’s the day when preachers everywhere demonstrate that they are not great gardeners. 

Why, you ask? 

Because they think that soil can change its own quality. 

And by “they,” I mostly mean “me” ten years ago. 

If soil could have a change of heart, I would’ve been preaching to the soil in the front garden of the parsonage this whole time, and it would’ve gone from a sandy mess to compost out of a sense of guilt. 

We often read this text and we think that we are meant to be the soil, and that our mission is to become good soil. 

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was going for at all. He’s God, after all, and he knows how gardening works. 

No, Jesus is talking to the disciples as the sowers. He’s attempting to prepare them for an inevitability: that some people will immediately and readily become lifelong disciples. Others, not so much. Some people will not get it at all. Still others will get it, but then lose interest. And finally, some will become disciples, but will find that they just have other priorities, and being a disciple will get pushed aside.

You’d think that Jesus would then direct the disciples to look for people who will be good soil — to try to find those who will most readily receive the Gospel and become lifelong, productive disciples. 

You’d think he’d tell them to be good gardeners, and careful with where they “throw seeds.” 

But Jesus doesn’t play that way. 

Instead, he calls for us to be somewhat careless sowers, preaching the Gospel everywhere and using words when necessary. And that is what we already do here. We make tasty food for people who need it. We take care of our own, and we take care of the community around us, in many different ways. In non-Covid times, we even sing hymns in bars. We serve folks on the street. And each of you spreads love in your respective jobs and families, as cool and varied as they are. 

I’m not joking when I say that this is exactly the kind of church community that I would want to be a part of if I were not a pastor. 

When I was first starting out as a pastor almost ten years ago, I would feel a rush of glee when someone would say to me, usually after meeting me, getting to know me, and then hearing what I do for a living: “Well, even I would go to church if you were the pastor!” I was sure that I was on track to become the next Nadia Bolz-Weber. 

I figured out really quick that it wasn’t about me, and that most people who said that were listening to me through beer headphones (they’re like beer goggles, but for your ears), and that the people who did and do find their way to the churches I’ve served and stay there are exactly the right ones.

In short, I learned to let go of things I can’t control and focus on what I can. 

Not everyone is into church. Even some folks who want to be church people just can’t find it in them to make it a priority right now. Even if they do, not everyone who is into church is into churches like this church.

This story that Jesus tells today is for us. Not us, the soil, but us, the sowers. 

I’ve definitely told this story before, but I’ll tell it again because it always bears repeating: the Episcopal priest in town when I was in college was my very first clergy mentor. His name was, and is, Father Jeff. Before he was Father Jeff, he was just Jeff, and he served in the Marine corps back in the mid-1980s. The snipers, he told us once in a sermon, had a saying when it came to the enemy: “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” 

When he became Father Jeff, he said that his call changed when it came to his enemies. It became, “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” 

Friends, this is true of us — and not just our enemies, but our friends and family. We do not get to control what type of soil anyone is. We are simply called to sow widely, almost irresponsibly — to spread God’s love wherever we go, not stopping to question whether or not someone is deserving or whether or not they might be inspired to come to church here. If they are, great! But that’s a thing we can’t control. 

But luckily, we can’t control the Holy Spirit, either. And I believe that God is the best gardener. He decided to create humanity out of the soil of a garden, after all. 

I believe that the people who have decided to come to church here and stay are exactly the right ones. That’s you. And the folks who will choose to come here and stay in the years to come? They’re exactly the right ones, too. 

The Isaiah passage is where the Good News is this morning: God says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty. 

Do not spend time fretting about things you can’t control. The God who promises will deliver, whether we witness the growth or not. 

Your job? Let go of what you can’t control and trust what God says.
You just love ‘em all. And let God sort ‘em out. 

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field — [all the new life that God has made to grow in God’s own time] — shall clap their hands.” 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

“Can’t Take a Yoke”

This sermon was preached at Our Savior’s first outdoor service in 2020. If you are a Pioneer Valley resident, consider joining us for our outdoor services, currently being held every Sunday at 10:15am. Masks and social distancing are required. Screen Shot 2020-07-05 at 2.11.57 PM
OSLC’s generous and beautiful outdoor worship space. 

Welcome home, everyone. Whether you’re sitting here on our lawn together or whether you have to join us online for now, I’m glad you’re here. 

I’m so happy to see you. 

Now, in the interest of keeping you alive and not overheated, I’m going to get used to preaching short sermons because it may get hot this summer. So here we go. 

Disclaimer: this sermon was largely the result of a conversation that I had with my good friend and pastor, Joseph Graumann of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough. If you have any friends there, you’ll likely hear that their pastor is telling many of the same bad jokes as I am, to similar groans. We came up with them together. We are as ashamed as we are proud.

So here we go.

This Gospel text is a classic text, right out of the Greatest Hits of the Gospels, and “Sayings of Jesus Most Likely to be Embroidered on a Pillow”: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

You know, [beat] some people just can’t take a yoke. 

Yesterday was July 4, you know, and that plus coronavirus got me thinking about how our greatest accomplishments as a nation have come when Americans have worked together. And here, in the midst of this pandemic, we’re still honoring that American tradition. We’re all in masks, and distant, protecting one another from disease. It’s not a case that was very hard to make here at Our Savior’s, where your love for one another continues to amaze and inspire me. 

Did I mention I missed you?

But in other places, and in other communities, it’s not that easy. Americans also have a sense of rugged individualism which isn’t always bad, but sometimes has unintended consequences, such as the now many videos of people embarrassingly freaking out in public because they refuse to wear masks indoors in public in places where it’s required. 

And that’s what I mean when I say that some people just can’t take a yoke. Because the yoke Jesus speaks of is typically for oxen, or other livestock, usually pulling something together.

But we all fall victim to the individualist mentality sometimes. And like I said — sometimes, it can even be good. I’ve certainly had times when I’ve had to boss up and create my own lane, and get things done myself. We all have. 

But for every time I’ve had to do that, there are ten times when I’ve done it when I should’ve asked for help. 

I’m learning, though. On that note, shout out to Cathy for mowing the lawn this week, even though it was my turn. 

Jesus doesn’t promise no burden, or no yoke — the promise is that we will never bear our burdens alone.

And Jesus said, “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.”

A rabbi’s “yoke,” you may know already, was the rabbi’s teaching. And the image still applies to religious communities, and communities and teachers of all kinds, today. What kind of yoke do we offer? 

We humans have a tendency to give heavy burdens to one another. Namely, the cultural obligation to be seen as “good,” or worthwhile. We want to be seen as good parents, and good at our jobs, and good citizens. None of those things is bad, of course — it’s good, even, to want to be good, and for a community to encourage that — but the problem comes when we derive our worth from how close to perfect we can get. 

Because, as your blooper reminded you at the end of online worship last week, as I forgot the name of an entire book of the Bible right at the end of my first attempt at recording my sermon — mistakes are normal. 

Sports teach us this, and that’s one reason why I love athletics so much. The best hitters in baseball only succeed in getting a hit about 30% of the time. If they succeed 35% of the time, they’re all stars. To be clear, that means that they fail to get a hit 65% of the time. Sports are here to remind all of us that failure is normal, and that perfection is an illusion. The game, of course, is in the striving to get better.

Even that metaphor is imperfect: our true worth as human beings doesn’t come from anything we do.

Jesus knew that fulfilling all of the rules, all of the time, was putting a heavy burden on God’s people. And so he called them to take on his yoke and pull together. 

And that is what we do here. 

The Gospel today is the same that it was before, and during our first quarantine period: ultimately, our worth doesn’t come from anything that we do, or any great burden that we lift alone. 

Your worth is your birthright. You are beloved by God just because you breathe. And because we already know that we are beloved, and that the burdens are lifted, we are freed in Christ to do so much more, and to truly pull together in the best of ways, for the good of one another and the world.

In the end, Christ has taken our entire burden of being perfect and told us over and over again that we are beloved children of God, period, full stop, no strings attached. 

As I love to say, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

And that, my friends, is no yoke. Amen.