The parable of the sower

And [Jesus] 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!” Matthew 13:3-9 See also Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Is it about the sower? the seed? the soil? How do you hear it? Consider these questions about the parable and Jesus’ interpretation of his parable.

  • Tell me more about the sower. Who is the sower? Is it only Jesus? Is it we who follow Jesus? Is it only the baptized? Can anyone sow “the word of the kingdom”? (v. 19)
  • Do you recognize these areas (path, rocky ground, thorn infested ground, good soil) in the world around you? In the people around you?
  • Do you recognize these areas in yourself? Is it possible that in ourselves, in our “field,” we will find these areas? Will we find a path, rocky ground, thorn infested patches, good soil? All 4, just 1, a combination?
  • Are we to understand that we are to sow the seed (word of the kingdom) as wildly and extravagantly as “the sower”?
  • Is it possible for soil to change? How? With what help? Over how long a time? How would you apply this knowledge to you? To the people around you?
  • Do you know anything about composting? Can the thorns be composted? Will this compost enrich the already “good soil”? Will clearing the thorns help that soil recover in order to receive seed (as good soil) the next time around? Will there be a “next time around”?

These are a few of the questions that occur to me as I hear the parable. I encourage to leave a comment. Let’s continue the conversation begun in the Forum on Sunday.

Surrendering to Rest

When I was growing up, I hated going to sleep. To me, there was just too much fun to be had and too many books to read. Why would I want to go to sleep and miss out on all of it? But, like most kids, I would eventually tire out, and when I did, I would be very clear with my mother. “I’m not sleeping,” I would insist. “I just need to rest my eyes for a minute.” The “minute” would, of course, generally turn into an afternoon or, I’m sure my parents hoped, an entire night. I wouldn’t mind it much, though, because I was resting, not sleeping. Resting came as a result of a full day, and it required surrender on my part. I had to admit that, loath as I was to go to sleep, I genuinely needed to rest if I wanted to have the energy to continue doing whatever I was doing.

There was, and still is, something about sleep that seems so permanent to me. Even now, I don’t like going to sleep, because I worry about whatever opportunities I’ll miss while sleeping. Rest, however, seems totally different. To me, rest implies, “I’ve been working hard. There’s still work to do. I’m gonna shut my eyes for about twenty minutes (or seven hours!), then I’m going to jump up and get back in the game.”

So when I read Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30, I feel like He’s speaking my language. Or, hopefully, I’m speaking His. He says,

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. (NRSV, emphasis mine.)

In this context, “rest” isn’t just physical, and it isn’t just spiritual. There are several different levels to the meaning. Pastor Elisabeth Johnson writes,

To all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems, Jesus says, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” Rest (anapausis) in the Septuagint can refer to Sabbath rest, the rest of death, or rest from war when Israel’s enemies have been subdued. Rest also functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and enjoys its full and complete Sabbath. In promising “rest,” Jesus promises life under God’s reign in the new world that he is bringing into being. (Elisabeth Johnson, http://www.workingpreacher.org.)

Jesus understands what we often miss–that we need rest. And not just any rest; His rest. As “good Christians,” we often find ourselves whizzing about from volunteering to teaching Sunday School to baking cookies for the coffee hour to picking up the kids from school to making spaghetti for the youth group on Wednesday to barely remembering to read the text for Saturday’s Bible study and so on and so on and so on. We precariously balance church, work, family, and friendships, giving and giving until we feel there’s nothing left to give. We silently carry feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and the need to control every aspect of our lives so that there will be no surprises. We are “Marthas,” knowing all the while that we would probably be happier if we were “Marys.” We behave as I did when I was a child, unable to sit, unable to be at peace, unable to truly be at rest.

In the 1996 movie One Fine Day, Michelle Pfeiffer exemplifies this behavior as she portrays a single mom who is beyond stressed as she attempts to balance her commitments to her job and to her son. When asked why she won’t accept help from anyone, she replies,

“I’ve got all of these little balls up in the air. And if someone else caught one for me, I’d drop them all.”

We all have tons of “little balls” up in the air–obligations with which we’ve filled our lives, often in an attempt to do good. The beautiful news is this: not only is Jesus willing to catch the balls we’ve been juggling; He’s also willing to catch us. To take from us the heavy, overwhelming yoke of the world (and sometimes even of the church), and to give us His yoke–one of joy, laughter, hope, peace…and rest. Much like physical rest, spiritual rest requires our surrender. It requires an understanding that, “I’ve been working hard. There’s still work to do. But I know that, when I need to, I can retreat and take a break for a minute–without shame, guilt, or reservations–because Jesus said that He will give me rest.”

My hope is that we will come to trust that our Savior, who loves us all so completely and profoundly, is big enough to care for us at every point in our lives–whether at work or at rest.

Thinkin’ Questions

What are some other ways of interpreting Jesus’ meaning of “rest”?

Do you feel that you have a tendency to overcommit yourself, or do you strike a pretty good balance?

What are some ways that we could all practice “resting” in Jesus?

Are a restful spirit and a hectic schedule mutually exclusive?

Isaac and Rebekah: Just a love story?

Genesis 24 fits into the book of Genesis as a whole considering central questions such as whether God’s promise of progeny, land and protection will be realized. In the matriarchal and patriarchal narratives that make up the narrative cycles in the book of Genesis, it is evident that throughout each generation, God’s faithfulness has to be discovered anew. In Genesis 24, it is Isaac who discovers that God was not only faithful to Abraham, but that God’s faithfulness extends to a new generation as well.

The topic of Genesis 24 is the question many young men and women ask when they come of age, and that is where do I get a wife or husband? In the case of Genesis 24 this question is all the more pressing as Isaac needs a wife so that God’s promise of progeny may be fulfilled. In Genesis 25:20 it is said that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah, in any age, and particularly in that time, quite a late stage to be a bachelor.

This drawn-out account of finding Isaac a wife in the end turns into a love story, when the narrative has a happy ending.  In verse 67 it is said that Isaac married Rebekah, taking her to his mother’s old tent, and thereby instating her as the new matriarch of the clan. Moreover, the events of Sarah’s death and Isaac’s marriage are nicely joined together when his marriage to Rebekah is said to comfort Isaac after the death of his mother. And most significantly, Isaac is said to love Rebekah — one of the few instances in the Hebrew Bible in which love language is used to describe the relationship between a man and a woman.

So on one level, the account of Isaac finding a wife has a quite secular topic and outcome, suggesting something of the ordinary cycles of life and death that form the backdrop of many of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. However, this ordinary story of finding a wife for a sworn bachelor, which takes human experience seriously, is given a religious flavour as the theme of God’s blessing and guidance is introduced as a central part of the narrative.

Julianna Claassens, Associate Professor of Old Testament
University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa
http://tinyurl.com/3n38h29 (click “Alt. 1st Reading” tab)

I believe you will enjoy reading Professor Claassens essay on our Sunday reading from Genesis. Among the questions that come to mind for our consideration:

  • What do you believe about God becoming involved in such human endeavors as “the challenges of finding a suitable life partner or the joy of finding one’s soul mate?”

Clearly we live in a very different time, place, and culture than Abraham, Isaac, and Rebekah; in this ancient story, what do you learn:

  • • About being human? About God?
  • • About prayer? About what to expect when you pray?

How is this your story (not just the story of Isaac and Rebekah, long ago and far away)?

Please continue the conversation begun on Sunday morning by leaving a comment.

Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me

Jesus said “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Matthew 10:40

This verse is important because it explains the nature of the apostolic office on the legal principle governing a Jewish emissary: “A man’s agent is like himself.” It deepens the religious basis of the apostolate by deriving it ultimately from God himself in a cascading succession mediated by Jesus, who is himself the apostle of the Father.  New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC)

In the Outline of the Faith in our Book of Common Prayer we tell the world and each other what we believe about ministry and ministers (and you will find the basis of these expressions in the scriptures we use, like the verses in the Gospel this Sunday):

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members

Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church

The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 855

In the light of our Gospel reading today and what we say about ourselves:

  • • The mission of the church is presented in terms of relationship, not dogma; as a church we are to restore “all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
  • • This mission is pursued as a community, not as independent contractors;
  • • However, since the Church is composed of various individuals, “all its members” are responsible for ministry so that the Church can carry out its mission (of building and restoring relationships);
  • • Lay persons (by far the majority of members in the Church) are ministers (in fact, lay persons are the first-named ministers);
  • • “The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ….” Here, a further commentary on Matthew 10:40 may be quite instructive

Expanding on the notion that we are “to represent Christ,” (whether a lay person or ordained) each of us is not just an ambassador, but “like [Jesus] himself.”

“Whoever welcomes you,” Jesus said, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Mt. 10:40). The disciple, wherever she or he might be, actually “embodies” Jesus as a Kingdom-bearer.

Jesus was big on the concept of “agentry.” That is, he believed strongly that the disciple who went out in his name was not just a “representative,” but, in fact, an extension of his own being and authority. In other words, when the world encountered a disciple of Jesus, they were encountering Jesus himself.

To borrow from the well-known passage—and to amend it slightly—we, the agents of Christ, are “the way, the truth, and the life” to the world. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health … until death do us part. Jesus is judged through us, by how the faith flowers or fades in us.
“Postscript” in Synthesis, June 29, 2008

This raises some intriguing questions for us. Assuming that the statement about embodying Jesus wherever we might be is a true statement (and biblically sound), and accepting that we are ministers restoring all people to unity with God and each other:

  • What gifts of Christ do you “embody” as you minister? (Remember: lay persons “bear witness to [Christ] wherever they may be and, according to the gifts given them,”)
  • Do you “feel” like “an extension of [Christ’s] own being and authority”?
  • How are you working to be a better “extension” of Christ’s being and authority?
  • When “the world” encounters you what do they learn about Jesus (since you “embody” and have been given the authority of Jesus as you go into the world)?

It is humbling to understand that we have been invited by God “maker of all that is, seen and unseen” to know Jesus Christ. It is exciting to understand that we have accepted this invitation. It is humbling to understand that Jesus, the Son of God, has chosen us and sent us out. It is a challenge to our creativity and discipline to live up to and into this ministry. It is necessary to come together often to confess that we have not lived up to our end of the covenant, ask forgiveness, receive forgiveness and be fed to go back into the world to be the disciple that Christ knows us to be.

Believe that God has indeed “gifted” you for this ministry.

Believe that God has “graced” you in ways known and yet to be discovered so that you may “embody” him (God’s love, the Good News) in the 21st century places you live and work and play in.

Believe that you make a difference as God’s beloved child.

I am surrounded

I am surrounded was the suggested title of a homily for Trinity Sunday. In our Sunday worship we seldom hear a homily or sermon opening the text of the Psalm. Once again, the folks at WorkingPreacher.org are present to help, exploring this text for preacher and hearer alike.

Another sermon derives simply from the poetic structure of the psalm. A modern, Western reading of the psalm tends to focus on the question “What are humans that you are mindful of them?” as an outburst of existential anxiety from an “I” alone in the midst of overwhelming vastness. There might be something in that, but the structure of the psalm puts the singer in a different place. Psalm 8 (NRSV) has a rather clear concentric structure:

A   O Lord, our Sovereign… (verse 1a)

B   You have set your glory… (verses 1b-2)

C   When I look… (verses 3-4)

B’  Yet, you have made… (verses 5-8)

A’  O Lord, our Sovereign (verse 9)

The A/B/C/B’/A’ structure is, in part at least, grammatical or rhetorical, comprised of sections introduced by Lord/you/I/you/Lord.

The psalm begins and ends with the outburst of congregational praise of God’s majestic name (A/A’). Within those verses comes the praise of God’s particular works (overturning foes in B; blessing humans in B’), and, at the center, the wondering awe of the poet (C). Now, instead of an isolated “me,” viewing a distant universe in existential anxiety, “I” (C) stand surrounded by the gracious and protecting works of God (B/B’) and the congregation gathered to sing God’s praise (A/A’).

Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

Read the entire post: WorkingPreacher.org. (select Psalm tab)

In future posts “NJPS” will be used to refer to the Jewish Publication Society 1999 Tanakh Translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both the translation and the study notes for Psalm 8 can be found here: Psalm 8 NJPS. Professor Gaiser refers to NJPS in his essay. As you will encounter again, the NJPS verse designations vary slightly from the NRSV verse designations.

Pentecost: The coming of the Wild Goose

Wild Goose LogoOn Pentecost Sunday the Forum was introduced to the Wild Goose as an image of the Holy Spirit used in the Celtic Church. This bit of information was part of an essay on Pentecost by Jim Wallis.

While much of my work revolves around challenging unjust systems and structures, I do not doubt that the world we see around us of broken people and institutions is only a small portion of what is real. The Spirit of God extends wider and deeper and is at work in my life, the lives of others, and in the communities and institutions of this world. While I work for societal transformation, I try to stay rooted in the transforming work that the Spirit is constantly doing in me.

How are you working (with the Spirit of God) beyond yourself? How are you being transformed by the Spirit of God?

Too often, it feels like we need to make a choice between the work of this world, and the work of the Spirit, or between a personal focus, or a social focus of the gospel. “Either/or” marks how some churches present the Christian faith. Often, however, this is a false dichotomy. Early in the days of the Sojourners community I remember that one of our favorite words was “and.” We would talk about personal salvation and social justice, prayer and peacemaking, faith and action, belief and obedience, salvation and discipleship, worship and politics, spiritual transformation and social transformation. These were things that complemented one another and deepened each other instead of being in opposition.

How comfortable are you in living in a both/and situation?

In two weeks, my family and I will be headed down to Shakori Hills, North Carolina for the Wild Goose Festival. In the Celtic Church, the symbol for the Holy Spirit is a wild goose — wild, free, and untamed. The festival will be a weekend of justice, spirituality, music, and the arts. It is an “and” kind of space, more than an “either/or.” It will, no doubt, be a busy weekend. But I am looking forward to it, not just for the activities, but for the reminder that it is by chasing after the wild goose, the Holy Spirit’s movement, that we see ourselves, and our world, transformed.
Read the entire essay: Pentecost: The Coming of the Wild Goose

Find out more about the Wild Goose Festival

Pentecost Year A

In the Sunday worship our Rector quoted from a “creed” sent to him. The creed begins:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate,
Promised by Jesus,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The creed continues to celebrate and affirm the Spirit’s presence and power in creation, in the matriarchs and patriarchs and prophets of our ancestry, how the Spirit changed Mary and alighted on Jesus in the Jordan; the creed delights in the Pentecost experience and the power of preaching and healing let loose in the world. The creed finishes:

She dwells in and with God’s people,
Midwife to our rebirth as heavenly children.
One day she will welcome us home to the City of God,
And wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Written by Anastasia McAteer it can be read at Clayfire Curator: We believe in the Holy Spirit: A creed

Here is another indication of the “live word of the Living God.”

Come Holy Spirit….

____________
“Because the Bible is, as we confess, “the live word of the living God,” it will not submit in any compliant way to the accounts we prefer to give of it. There is something intrinsically unfamiliar about the book; and when we seek to override that unfamiliarity, we are on the hazardous ground of idolatry” –Walter Brueggemann in “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection” (2000)

The homepage of Clayfire Curator

Easter 5A: A follower of the Way

Jesus said, “you know the way to the place where I am going”

Thomas replied, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus said “I am the way….”

We know where we are going: into the reign of God. We know the way. With a lot of patience and steadfast diligence, with a little humor and an unwavering focus, we are followers of the Way (one of the earliest descriptions of “Christians” see Acts 9:2). So what does that mean?

As the week ends try finishing this sentence 5 times “As a follower of the Way I . . . .”

What’s in a name?

Though we use names and titles differently in 2011 CE than in 111 CE they affect us: our emotional state, our responsiveness to the person being introduced or spoken to, and our general “feeling” about the person being addressed, spoken about, or spoken to. This was the thinking behind the Sunday Forum on 15 May 2011.

For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.  1 Peter 2:25

Taking that single verse at the end of the Lesson from 1 Peter we spoke out our “names and titles” of Jesus to one another. It was a lively discussion. Please leave a comment here to any or all of the questions we considered on Sunday. At minimum, answer the questions for yourself.

Sunday’s Questions

  • How many names/titles do you use when speaking of Jesus?
  • How many names/titles do you use for addressing Jesus in prayer?
  • Which name do you use most frequently?
  • Have you ever thought about this?
  • Does it make any difference?

These are just a few of the questions that can be asked based upon a single line, verse 25, in today’s lesson from the First Letter of Peter. To highlight once again the dilemma faced by contemporary translators I offer several translations of  the Greek word episkopos used long ago. Try out each translation as a prayer word; each word evokes a different emotion for me. How about you?

King James Version KJV
For ye were as sheep going astray ; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

New Revised Standard Version NRSV
For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

New International Version NIV
For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

New American Bible Revised Edition NABRE
For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Contemporary English Version CEV
You had wandered away like sheep. Now you have returned to the one who is your shepherd and protector.

Faithful Doubt: Easter 2A

While WorkingPreacher.org presents material addressed to preachers the rest of us can benefit from these reflections, too. After all, in an exhortation attributed to St. Francis, we are encouraged to “Preach the Gospel with your whole life, use words if necessary.” As you consider faith and doubt (or skepticism) in the story of Thomas expand your thinking and read the post Faithful Doubt on WorkingPreacher.org. Here is a sample from the article and the link:

So I wonder, Working Preacher, how many of our hearers imagine this to be true: that doubt is not the opposite of faith but an essential ingredient? That hardboiled realism is an asset to vibrant faith? That they can bring their questions and skepticism, as well as their insights and trust, to their Christian lives? That they are among those blessed by Jesus for believing without seeing? And what difference would it make if they knew this? If they saw themselves, that is, like Thomas, as model disciples prepared and blessed for faithful mission in the world? Read the post: WorkingPreacher.org.

Hear what the Spirit is saying is a Sunday Morning Forum at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, CA. All are welcome to attend. The forum begins at 9:00 am in the Meyers Classroom on the lower level of the church. The only prerequisite for participation is a heart open to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.