the truest heavenly harvest

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43 and the Wisdom of Solomon 12.13, 16-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Imagine. You walk into a room and catch the tail-end of a conversation. You hear what’s being said, but without the preceding context you’re not sure what is meant. You can continue to listen, hoping you’ll finally get it or, being assertive, inquire: “What are you talking about?” Whenever I’ve had the temerity to ask, sometimes, on hearing the answer, it seemed to me that the conversation and its supposed context weren’t at all connected!

This is what occurs to me when I reflect on this morning’s parable.

The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus’ explanation is so severely dualistic – Son of Man or the devil, good or bad seed, wheat or weeds, the righteous or evildoers – that it doesn’t follow the parable. It’s almost a non sequitur!

Now, in one historical contextual sense, it makes sense. When Matthew wrote his gospel about a generation and a half after Jesus, there were intense conflicts within the Christian community between insiders and outsiders over matters of governance. (This always happens when a dynamic movement begins to undergo the process toward permanence, transforming into an institution.) So, no surprise, the explanation of the parable, which, I believe, is Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, is strikingly either-or.

Now, in a world fuzzy with ambiguity, a little certainty is refreshing, restoring our sense of clarity and security. And in the life of the church, many, perhaps most people are attracted to a proclamation of clear conviction and firm belief. I’d be willing to bet that if I stood outside of our door on Sunday mornings, stopping traffic on Main Street, declaring to all who would listen, “Follow me inside! I’ll show you the bright light of salvation and the solution to all your problems!”, I’d have some, maybe lots of takers! Far more than if I said what I believe: “Come with me and let us together stumble our way toward the light of God’s truth through the fog of life’s ambiguities.”

Yes, a bit of certainty can be attractive, even magnetic! The problem? Life, the world, you and I aren’t like that. We don’t live or, I believe, thrive in hermetically-sealed existences of the purity of clarity. Things, we are complex, thus stubbornly resistant to an either-or reductionism.

This brings us back to the parable about wheat and weeds left to grow together until the harvest.

A parable, from the Greek, para, alongside, and ballo, to throw, is a story tossed next to us; a metaphor that stands parallel to our lives that we, not having been hit in the head directly, might turn aside to see more clearly something that is hard to articulate and perhaps harder to accept. This is why I think that Matthew’s interpretation of the parable, altogether too head-on, doesn’t reflect Jesus’ intent, which, I think, is this…

The field represents anyone and any community. In everyone and in every community, there exists wheat and weeds; that which is healthy and unhealthy, beneficial and harmful, productive and destructive. The harvest, that moment of judgment as to what is which and which is what, will come. At the end of our lives, when we no longer will have the opportunity, the ability to think and feel, to speak and act, to review and revise, to change and correct, no longer leaving undone those things we ought to have done, some estimation or reckoning of our lives will be made; perhaps by us if we are conscious of our coming end and surely by others. Yet while we are in this world, we are bidden to learn, to discern and decide, how to live together with ourselves and with others; all, both wheat and weed, that is in us and in them. We are bidden to learn how to be like God of whom Solomon speaks whose power of judgment is the forbearance of mercy, whose righteousness is kindness.

If we and the whole world would learn live together like that, then the truest harvest will have come, and we will behold a glimpse of the fulfillment of that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Illustration: The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

honesty

For the past few months or so, whilst approaching, then turning, now being 65 (and all the American societal associations that attend this historic age-marker), I’ve spent a goodly part of my daily morning meditations focusing, increasingly more than I have before, on my mortality. My reflections have been deepened by the July 17th first anniversary of the death of Tim Veney, my dearest male friend, truly my proverbial “brother from another mother”, who departed this life at the far-far-too-soon age of 66. Taken together, I, an inveterate existentialist, have been led to ask myself, more than I have before, that conventional question of identity: Who am I?

On the beneficial side, sensing an internal movement, I’m aware that I’m progressing farther along my personal pilgrimage of continuing to become my authentic, honest-to-goodness, honest-with-others, honest-to-God self. In this, I’ve also encountered disappointment with myself that I’m not better than I would like to be; indeed, that, by now, I’m not better than I already would have liked to have been. At times, when good health and God’s help seem, are beyond my grasp, I confess that my despair overwhelms my prayers.

Yesterday, Pat, an old (or rather I should, I’d better say long-lived) friend, called. She asked me to pray with her about a pressing concern. Being dear friends, I felt free to respond honestly. “I’m in a dark place,” adding, only somewhat in jest, channeling Voltaire, “God and I may not be on speaking terms today.” Pat, one of the most compassionate, discerning, and prayerful people I know, laughed and said, “I understand.” Then, without a hint of self-righteousness, she told me that when she’s in a similar place she prays with greater earnest. “I dare to face of my own disappointment, even disbelief, because it’s about me being honest, yes, with God, and with me.”

I thank my dear friend for her helpful, healing word. She, perhaps without intending it, reminded me that the risk of honesty is not in risking honesty or, at least, the risk of honesty doesn’t end once honesty is risked. Rather, it begins and remains. Even more, Pat reaffirmed for me that being honest, which, at times, rather paradoxically, feels like, is like dying, is one essential element of the truest living of continuing to become who I am meant to be, might be, can be.

discerning & deciding

I awoke early this morning; the bright numbers of my Fitbit glaring at me: 4.30. In a reflective mood, unable to return to sleep, I arose. Sauntering into the kitchen, thirsting for the first cup of coffee (next to water, truly nature’s nectar), this sobering thought followed, chased me: The worst choices I’ve made in my life – those that yielded less than auspicious results, near or long term, and led me onto a path of life’s struggles – were the direct result of my having confused, indeed, conflated discerning and deciding. One of the most sterling, sagacious moments of my life involved my learning the difference.

Discerning and deciding, in common parlance, are treated as synonyms. However I now know, with a readily, daily conscious conviction, that they are related, but hardly, indeed, never the same.

Discern, from the Latin discernere, meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish”, produces the word discernment. Familiar in church circles, discernment oft is used (sometimes overused, I think, as if everyone is operating in the same realm of understanding, and, in my experience, we aren’t!) regarding processes through which folk are called to ordained ministry and to the various positions of service (read: employment).

For me, discernment, an operative term in my everyday vocabulary, is that ever-recurring, never-ending practice (as long as I live and breathe) – all at once, involving a synthesis of my thoughts and feelings, my observations and opinions, my reflections via memory upon my history, and my intuition through the lenses of soul and spirit – by which I arrive at my truth. By “my truth”, I mean my beliefs about God, who God is, what God does, about life, the way things are in the world and are not (in relation to who God is and what God does), and about myself, who I am and who I am becoming, what I desire and need (in relation to who God is and what God does).

Whenever I first discern, then I can (am able) to decide. Decide, from the Latin decidere, meaning literally “to cut off.” So it is, when I choose one thing or choose to venture in one direction, I cannot also choose the other. And so it is, whenever I’ve not discerned my truth and, nevertheless, decided, my choices have been characterized, corrupted by my ever-human-always-subject-to-selfishness-self-interest. I want it all. Everything at the same time, at all times, on my terms. Simply because this (for me and for anyone!) is impossible doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to do it. And, in trying, I’ve always succeeded in harming myself and others.

Lord, have mercy upon me that, praying alway that grand song of thanksgiving, I will discern, and then do aright:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

who walk in the law of the Lord.

Happy are those who keep his decrees,

who seek him with their whole heart,

who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.

O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!

Then I shall not be put to shame,

having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.

I will praise you with an upright heart,

when I learn your righteous ordinances.[1]

 

Footnote:

[1] Psalm 119.1-7

going to do better v. doing better

This morning I telephoned one of our dearest friends. We speak often, yet this was an especial conversation on an especial day of commemoration after a year of great, grave loss. Our friend, one of the most honest, resilient, and courageous people we know, shared a variety of her thoughts and feelings about her grief and her growth.

Though acknowledging life’s difficulties and she’s known far more than her fair share, she’s never dwelled on her disappointments. (As one who long has wrestled with the overweening power of his inner grudge-bearing spirit, I could, perhaps should take or at least borrow this good page from her book!) Still, referring to occasions when she had received less than the support she desired and needed, she mentioned a conversation with a relative who, conceding that lack, confessed, “I’m going to do better.”

This particular encounter, for me, is a lens peering into the matrix of our universal human experience.

Who among us has not felt discontent with family members, however short-or-long-lived, however once-and-done or damnably repeated (thereby painfully validating the observation attributed to American author Edna Buchanan, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves”)? I have.

And who among us, at one point or another, has not been that relative or friend who, in a time of another’s desire or need, could have done more, but didn’t or wouldn’t? I have.

And who among us, in her or his life’s pilgrimage, has not journeyed along the path of penitence whilst needing to take that road always less traveled of repentance? I have.

Penitence and repentance, as two heavily theologically freighted and weighted words, oft are confined to conversations about the relationship between humanity and divinity, between us and God, and used interchangeably. However, on both counts, I discern a need for the deepening of our understanding, thus, purposefully applying penitence and repentance to all of our human interactions and distinctly. On this latter point, penitence and repentance are related, but not the same.

Penitence connotes my regretting something I’ve said or done or not said or not done that has caused harm to another. Repentance (as the younger word, entering language-use roughly around the 13th century, a hundred years or so after penitence, thus, I think, remarkably, revealingly indicating a secondary, necessary enhancement of meaning) signifies my attempt to alter my behavior; no longer leaving undone things that I ought to have done and no longer doing things that I ought not to have done.[1]

By way of simplistic, yet concrete clarifying example…

I step on your foot (whether my act is careless or deliberate, your pain is the same).

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

Later, I step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

I, at still another subsequent moment, step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

You: Paul, I appreciate your penitence, but what I really desire and need is your repentance.

Penitence and repentance. The difference between “I’m going to do better” and doing better.

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41-42

the Sower sends sowers to sow

me preaching 1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23 and Psalm 119.105-112, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017

Jesus tells a parable, an allegorical story, about the nature of his ministry, even more, the character of the kingdom of God.

Our gospel passage skips over several verses.[1] In the missing text the disciples ask Jesus, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” Doubtless, their inquiry is spurred by their own confusion and lack of understanding about the meaning of Jesus’ story. And his answer would seem to confirm their concern. For he says, in so many words, that parables are meant to fulfill a prophecy to blind the eyes and bewilder the minds of those who, perhaps haughtily, believe they already see and know all about God.[2]

Blessedly, for Jesus’ disciples and perhaps for us who, from time to time, may find his teachings mind-numbingly mystifying, he later explains or, as my daddy would say, “makes it plain.”

Jesus is the sower. The seeds are the proclamation, his proclamation in his words, his presentation in his deeds, that God’s kingdom – God’s realm, nature and character, being and life; all this and more! – is no longer away and apart, up there, out there, but has come near.[3] And, as in all things, the results vary. Sometimes the sowing, o’er two millennia and unto this day, is fruitful. Folk hear and receive the word of God, which, after the psalmist, “is a lantern to (their) feet and a light upon (their) path”, which takes root in their minds and hearts, souls and spirits and bears the fruit of faithful, gospel-living; their lives patterned after the one they follow, Jesus Lord and Savior. And sometimes or, perhaps more often, as three of the four types of soil Jesus mentions are unfertile, the sowing is unfruitful.

Given Jesus’ intense emphasis on the soils – despite ending in a good place, speaking of a harvest of thirty-to-a-hundredfold – this parable might be categorized as a rant. A fussy Jesus, adding to his other sayings about not casting pearls before swine[4] and shaking from the feet the dust of homes and towns where the word of God is not welcomed,[5] complains about the stubbornness, the obtuseness of the people.

However this story, again, is about the ministry of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Therefore the focus is on Jesus, the sower, who, far from prudent selectivity, profligately, extravagantly tosses the seed everywhere!

The Parable of the Sower, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

What, from a human point of view, is inefficiency at its wasteful worst is divine faithfulness at its best. For this, the word showered on everyone, everywhere, and whatever the state of receptivity, is a sign God’s unconditional love for all.

Therefore today’s parable is a summons to us, who, as good soil, have received the word, to follow Jesus into the world as sowers who go out to sow, proclaiming in our words and presenting in our deeds that the kingdom of God is near.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Sower, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 13.10-17

[2] The disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”…The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will listen, but never understand, and you will look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes’” (Matthew 13.10, 13-15a; see Isaiah 6.9-10).

[3] According to Matthew’s gospel account, this was Jesus’ testimony at the inauguration of his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4.17b).

[4] Matthew 7.6

[5] Matthew 10.14

presents of mind

Whenever I drive into town via Main Street, there he is sitting always on the same public bench. His wizened body swaddled in baggy trousers and a shirt as large as a tent, and long-sleeved, no matter the heat. By turns, he is calm, perfectly still, his arms folded across his chest, then agitated, flinching, fidgeting, running his hands through his silver mane. Oft I’ve wondered. Who are you? Why are you there? What are you doing?

He always catches my attention and, now, my imagination…

During last night’s waning moments (or was it in the small hours of this morning?), I dreamed about him, which really means, I think, that my unconscious had welcomed him, embraced him as a symbol of something both reflective and restless living (looming? lurking?) within me.

Having spent this day deep in reverie, I believe I know what that something is…

As of late, in the course of my nearly daily contemplation of aging and mortality, across my mind’s screen, I’ve beheld kaleidoscopic images of the faces of people I’ve known or, having lost touch (for a variety of reasons, uncontrollable circumstance and acts of commission and omission, some mutual, some not) people I used to know. Depending on the memory, when our last meeting and parting was pleasant, I am calmed by a spirit of serenity and when not, my soul is o’ershadowed by twin specters of discontent and lament that painfully afresh reveal, expose my flaws, my failings to have been the person I long wish I already was.

Either way, even, perhaps especially the latter, I accept these images as presents, gifts of my mind, which, when opened, compel me to remember, to reflect, and to repent. In this last, perhaps I, one day, before I die, will draw closer, will be closer to the image of God I’d like to see in me.

a little BIG thing

Another hot and humid South Carolina day…

I stood, more or less (more, I confess, less) patiently, in a line at the store; my cart half-filled. The air-conditioning system on the blink (really?) offered no respite from the sweltering weather.

Before me, a young black man, a can of soda in his hand; his pants slung low, exposing more (too much more!) than the waistband of his brightly-colored boxer shorts, his tank top at least two sizes too large, hanging loosely from his narrow shoulders.

Before him, an older, portly white man, his suspendered trousers high on his waist, with two carts, each a psalmic “cup running over” with groceries.

“What a contrast in age, race, and style,” I thought to myself, that is, when I wasn’t grumbling about the heat and the length of the line moving at the pace of a geriatric arthritic tortoise.

Finally, we neared check-out.

The older gentleman turned to the young man behind him, looking up-and-down, his countenance quizzical (I imagined: curious? disdainful?). “My dear young sir,” he said, his Southern drawl molasses-thick, “you only have one item. You go ahead of me.” I couldn’t see the young man’s face, but I heard his voice, his tone registering surprise. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

America’s tenaciously long-lived racial divide wasn’t healed. Nor the ill of ageism overcome. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself. Spontaneously, I smiled. This little act, both in the giving and in the receiving, in a big way, fortified my hope, my trust that, in a world and time of increasing anxiety and anger, particularly in the public square and directed at “the other”, civility lives.