Monday, July 28, 2014

The Disreputable Kingdom

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez

Is it just me, or are you getting tired of parables too? Matthew’s Gospel contains the most parables of all the Gospels, but the fact is that most of them are the “B-side parables.” They’re not the ones you bought the record for. Those parables are all in Luke. Prodigal Son—Only in Luke. Lost Coin—Only in Luke. Rich Man and Lazarus—Only in Luke. Pharisee and the Tax Collector—Only in Luke. The Rich Fool—Only in Luke. What Matthew gives us is quantity, rather than quality. Like this morning, where we heard five short parables in rapid succession. It’s a little unnerving. Unlike the longer parables that we hear in Luke’s Gospel, these five parables, the last four of which are unique to Matthew, don’t tell a story. They don’t have an explanation attached. We’re just told, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And it’s like so many things that it can be hard to see what they have in common, isn’t it?

There is a common thread between these five parables though, but it’s not one that you or I would easily identify, separated as we are from Jesus’ words by two thousand years. There’s some nuances that we’re missing.

To begin with, did you know that mustard was not valued as a spice in ancient Palestine? These mustard plants, which grow so quickly from such a small seed, were viewed as weeds by the people Jesus told that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. I know that some of you are avid gardeners, and you’d appreciate how Jesus’ first audience felt if I were to stand up before you this morning and begin my sermon, “The kingdom of heaven is like kudzu.” No one wants kudzu. No one wanted mustard. And the birds? Forget the birds. Just a few verses ago, when Jesus told the parable of the sower, the birds were stand-ins for the devil and his angels, snatching the word of God from people. Birds are not generally a reputable sign in the Bible.

Yeast is similarly disreputable. In fact, this is the only positive references to yeast in the Bible. Everywhere else it’s viewed as a contaminant—since you couldn’t just pick up a jar of Red Star Yeast from the corner store, you had to let old bread dough ferment to get yeast. Jesus has recently told his disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees, using yeast as a metaphor for false teaching. Now yeast is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven!

The next two parables are just as bad. The parable of the treasure hidden in a field sounds good at first. The kingdom of heaven is a costly treasure, and we should sell everything we have to get it. That sounds nice. Respectable. The sort of thing you go to church to hear, right? But let’s read it again, carefully: The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells everything that he has and buys that field. What Jesus is actually describing is someone digging for buried treasure in his neighbor’s backyard. And when he finds treasure, he goes and buys the house, neglecting to tell his neighbor the property’s real value. This is a parable about someone practicing shady business, if not outright thievery.

The parable of the pearl of great price is similar. The piece we’re missing there is how Jesus audience would have viewed merchants. The merchant in this parable isn’t anything like the fine, upstanding businessman or woman of today. No, if Jesus were to tell us this parable using modern day language, he’d say something like, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a used car salesman…” People used to assume that a rich merchant had gotten rich by cheating other people. And the kingdom of heaven is like that?

The final parable of the set is the least objectionable, and even it’s a bit fishy. There’s nothing dishonest about it, but no one really aspired to be a fisherman in those days. It was hard work, and you were at the mercy of fish. I can’t be sure about this, but there might have been a popular song back in those days, “Mommas, don’t let your boys grow up to be fishermen…”

So what are we to do with disreputable parables? What is Jesus trying to tell us? None of them describe the way that we typically imagine heaven: fluffy clouds, angels flying around strumming harps. Maybe that’s the point. Jesus isn’t talking about heaven, about some future state of bliss. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign on earth. You know, the one we pray for: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe we need that reminder that the kingdom of heaven is amongst us, here and now. It’s often in unexpected places. We should assume that it is. After all, its king was born in a manger, not a palace. Should we be surprised that we can find the kingdom among gardens and kitchens, in backyards and in used car lots, even at the end of a fishing pole? The kingdom of heaven is revealed among us, in the last places we’d choose to look. Anyone who’s served breakfast at Our Daily Bread or lunch at Paul’s Place knows that. We see Jesus in the least of these: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The kingdom of heaven is a thoroughly disreputable place, at least by the world’s standards. But in this kingdom, all are free and all are loved, simply because all are made in God’s own image. Thank God for the disreputable kingdom of heaven, because, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d make it into a thoroughly reputable one. May God give us eyes to see the kingdom of heaven already around us, and hands to help it come more fully on earth, as it already is in heaven. Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Heaven is a Lot Like Summer Camp

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez
Romans 8:12-25

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…

I have to wonder if Paul had summer camp in mind when he wrote those words. I’m only partly joking when I say that. I’ve just come back from a week at the Bishop Claggett Center, our diocesan camp and conference center, where I was the chaplain for the final session of camp. I’ve got the sunburn and the friendship bracelets to prove it. The Bishop Clagget Center, for those of you who haven’t been there, is a special, beautiful place any time of the year, but it really shines during the summer, when it is overrun by campers. Loud, rambunctious campers who are probably more interested,  at least at the beginning of the week, in tie dying and canoeing and the swimming pool than they are in chapel. But in spite of that, or maybe because of that, God shows up at camp in profound ways. I know that Paul wasn’t talking about summer camp when he wrote the words we heard this morning, words about how salvation is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus, something that, in other words, concerns only individual human  beings. But Paul’s vision of nature groaning for salvation does describe summer camp, and I can’t read it any other way this morning.

The theme for Camp Claggett this year was “Re-Creation: Making Things Happen with God.” All week, we focused on stories about how our God has helped God’s people begin anew, time and time again. We heard stories about how Jesus healed paralytics and the blind. We heard stories about God’s love for the children of Israel. We heard stories that invited us to become partners with God as God makes all things new, releasing creation from its bondage to decay.

That, of course, is the grand story of Scripture, a story that begins and ends in a garden. When Paul speaks of creation being subjected to futility, he is talking about Adam. When Adam sinned in Eden, God cursed the ground, subjecting it to futility, so that humanity would toil to bring forth food from the earth. Since then, Paul tells us, the very earth beneath our feet has been groaning for salvation, for a promise that the curse would be lifted. Creation has been waiting for the children of God to be revealed. Creation has been waiting for God to adopt humanity as daughters and sons. Creation has been waiting for Jesus Christ. That is why, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees that if he silences the crowd cheering on his entrance to Jerusalem, the rocks will cry out. And still, creation waits, groaning in labor pains, for the consummation of our hope. In Christ, God has promised us that all will be made new, and yet, we wait. We wait for the end of God’s great story, which, again, will take place in a garden. In his Revelation, St. John records that the final vision he received was of a new heaven and a new earth. He saw the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, coming down from heaven. He saw God making a home with humanity in this city, in the midst of which was a garden. Through this garden runs the river of the water of life, and on the banks of this river grow twelve trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of nations. In this garden, John saw humanity once again dwelling in perfect relationship with God, just as our first parents did in Eden. And we wait, with inward groans, for the promised redemption of all creation, which will take place in this garden.

Until then, we have summer camp. At a staff meeting this past week, the camp director remarked that she was convinced that heaven is going to be like summer camp. I have to agree with her. There is something about summer camp that is special. In the midst of sunburns and homesickness, something profoundly spiritual happens. Campers begin to talk about God in beautiful and surprising ways. They request songs to be sung in chapel. They pray—oh! they pray. During a chapel service this past week, I invited the campers to write or draw their prayers on index cards, and we pasted the prayers all over the chapel walls. They were amazing prayers, the kind that only children can pray, prayers that God keep their families safe, prayers for pets, prayers for watermelon, prayers that they might be a support for parents with terminal illnesses, prayers that they might tell people about the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, prayers that God might, through them, make all things new.

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Beloved, we do not know when that garden that John saw shall come down from heaven. We do know that we are called to work with God to make all things new. We do know that, from time to time, at places like summer camp, we catch glimpses of what heaven will be like. We do know that we are saved in hope, through Jesus Christ. The hard thing can be to remember this, to live in hope. And yet, after summer camp, everything seems a little bit more possible. During camp, one of the campers came up to me and said, “When I grow up, I am going to be a priest.” Now, I don’t know if she is going to be a priest when she grows up, but I do know that God was at work within her that moment, making all things new, beginning with her. And I know that the God who makes all things new is with us now, helping us to wait in hope, helping us to see things anew through the eyes of a child, just back from summer camp.


Monday, July 7, 2014

When the Burden is too Heavy

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

Every year at the beginning of Lent, our preschoolers and I read Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton in chapel. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to read a bit of this story about a dog to you this morning.

Harry is going out. “Will you be good, George?” asks Harry. “Yes,” says George. “I’ll be very good.” I hope I’ll be good, George thinks. George sees something in the kitchen. It’s cake!  I said I’d be good, George thinks, but I LOVE cake. What will George do? (George eats the cake.) Oh no, George![1]

I think you can guess how the rest of the story goes. George sees Cat, who he loves to chase. George sees dirt, which he loves to dig in. George said he’d be good, but these temptations are just so tempting. And when Harry returns, George has ruined the house. George is sorry. George resolves to do better. George does do better, for a while, but the story ends with George, tempted to dig in a trash can. We don’t know what George does in the end. The book ends on a question: George?
We’ve all had moments in our lives that end with a similar question, haven’t we. We can will what is right, but we cannot do it. We are just like George the dog. This little children’s book is such a great illustration of exactly what St. Paul is talking about! And I get that. I understand exactly how St. Paul feels. Don’t you? Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Who will save George the dog from digging in the trash can?

I like to imagine that the first time Paul’s letter to the Romans was read in Rome, Pheobe, the deacon of the church in Cenchrae whom Paul identifies as the end of the letter as is bearer, whom Paul would have trained in how to read the letter, Pheobe paused at this point. Maybe she sat the scroll down. And I like to think that the depth of this question penetrated into the hearts of all of those who had gathered to hear this new letter from Paul.

Who will save me from this body of death? I ask myself this question on a regular basis. Don’t you? Now, I don’t use quite these words, but I’m still asking the same question. Sometimes I ask it without using words. One of those times occurred when I was doing my hospital chaplain internship. I was paged to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to sit with a mother as she took her newborn daughter off life support. It was awful. When you’re in a situation like that, there are no answers. The mother didn’t even ask me why God would let something like that happen. She just cried. I held her hand and cried with her. As we sat there, watching the heartbeats fade from the heart monitor, we were both crying out, with sighs too deep for words, Paul’s cry: Who will save me from this body of death?

That is the essential question of human life. Sometimes, it’s tempting to jump right over to the answer: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! But that’s not the way life works. And when we are confronted with our human frailty in a powerful way, the answer isn’t as simple as skipping right ahead to the next verse. When we are grieving as we are now over the death of John Burk, an answer is simple as “Jesus needed another angel in heaven” doesn’t satisfy. There is a real existential angst in that question, in our finite inability to do all the good we want, a finitude revealed to us in death. We don’t need pat answers. We need Jesus.

We need to hear our Gospel reading. We need to be reminded that we relate to God as children, not as adults. If we were adults, maybe we’d have this life thing figured out. Maybe we’d know how to do the good we will. Maybe we’d know the answers to give grieving people. But we aren’t, so we don’t. God has revealed these things—the Good News of God in Jesus Christ—to children. And we receive grace, the free gift of God, as children. We can’t run faster or beat our arms harder and somehow arrive at salvation. We need to be given it. And thank God, Jesus does give it to us.

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.

We find rest for our weary souls when we stop trying to do it ourselves. That’s why Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light: he has shouldered it for us. Somehow, in the midst of that awful hospital room where I sat with that mother and her dying child, Jesus showed up. He showed up when I stopped trying to make things right, stopped trying to find something to say to the mother to make her feel better. I had nothing to do with Jesus showing up. He didn’t show up because someone called for a chaplain. He showed up because everyone in that room needed him, and we had stopped pretending otherwise. When that happened, it was like all the air in the room changed. It grew lighter. The mother sang “Jesus loves me” as she rocked her daughter for the last time. Somehow, in a way that I do not understand, Jesus gave us rest and comfort. Jesus let us set heavy burdens down. All there was left was a palpable sense of God’s love.

Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

[1] Chris Haughton, Oh No, George! Somerville: Candlewick, 2012.