Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Down On The Farm: Bringing In The Sheaves

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 10:1-18.  This series was based on a series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton.

There was a little boy and all he wanted in the world was a horse.  Every day he asked his parents if he could get a horse and when they would get him a horse, and every day his parents told him no, and his father in particular told him how much work horses were and that he was not old enough to handle the responsibility.  But every day, without fail, the boy asked for a horse.  Finally, the father got tired of it and decided that he could end it once and for all if he showed him how much work a horse required, and so while the boy was at school, he filled up his room with horse manure.  When the boy come home from school, he walked through the front door, smelled the distinct odor in the house and he whooped and ran to his room, and when he saw what awaited he started screaming and then ran to the garage, and came running back with a shovel and ran into his room, opened the window and started shoveling everything outside, all the while singing and dancing, and whooping and hollering.  Finally his father couldn’t take any more and went into the boy’s room, and said, ‘what are you doing? Why and you so happy to have all this manure in here, don’t you realize how much work this is going to take to clean up?”  and the boy said, “Yea, but with all this manure there’s gotta be a horse in here somewhere.”

I wasn’t actually planning on telling on more bad jokes this week, but I heard that joke this week and just had to pass it on.  For the past four weeks we have been looking at the keys to living life as a disciple of Christ that we can learn by looking at life on the farm.  We began by talking about being stuck in the mud, and to get out we must accept, surrender and follow, and that is the first step of discipleship.  The second step is to make sure that our spiritual fields are not being filled with weeds or bugs or disease, that we are only growing what God is planting in our lives, and that is through the practice of the spiritual.  The third step to discipleship is to gather together for worship, in order to turn over the pains and difficulties, hardships and sorrows, the manure in our lives, to turn it over to God, to expose it to oxygen and sunlight, and allowing God to turn that manure into compost, in order to give us something that can give new life and new energy to us and our spiritual growth.  The fourth step was being in community, about recognizing that we cannot walk this path alone, that we need a small group of other committed disciples who will not only celebrate with us and help us when we are down, but who are willing to ask “how is it with your soul” and to hold us accountable when we are no longer walking the right path.  Which then leads us to the final step, and that is the harvest.

Harvest might be one of the best times of the year.  It is the time in which rejoice in the bounty that God has produced in our lives, even if that bounty is not as great as we might like, and to do so in and as a community.  There is a reason why fairs typically take place in the fall, as well as Thanksgiving.  It is the time in which we can see the results of all of the hard work that we have put in to bringing this crop to fruition.  The same is true in our spiritual lives as well.  The word harvest is mentioned 84 times in the Bible, and you might have noticed that many of the passages that we covered over the past five weeks were not only about agriculture, but also specifically addressed a harvest.  In last week’s passage, Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

When you plant something you expect something will happen, that it will grow and it will produce what you expect it to, and the same is true with us.  God has planted us, and God expects us to bring forth fruit in our lives, to produce a harvest.  Strangely, almost like I had planned it, the passages we have been reading from James have also matched this same idea, culminating in perhaps James most famous phrase that “faith without works is dead.”  When we become disciples of Christ there is something expected of us, we have to do something with it.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said that the only appropriate response to accepting God’s saving grace on our behalf, is to act on the grace in the world.  While we are saved by faith alone, once we have accepted that grace and salvation, we are not done with the path of discipleship, instead we are just beginning.  We are, again in Wesleyan language, seeking sanctification, seeking to live every single day more and more like Christ, to move ourselves more and more into alignment with God’s will for our lives.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”  So how do we do that?  What is the harvest, or the fruit that God has called for us to produce?

In the story immediately after today’s passage from Luke, a lawyer goes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life, and in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus says, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?” and the lawyer says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  And Jesus tells him he has answered correctly, and that if he does these things he will live.  Love the Lord your God with all that we are and all that we have, with our entire being, and love our neighbor as ourself, with, as Jesus says here in the parable of the Good Samaritan, neighbor defined in the broadest possible terms so that it even includes those who are our worst enemies and those whom we want to destroy, as much as they might also want to destroy us.  Or maybe we might also remember the famous passage from the Prophet Micah, Micah 6:8 which says, “what does the lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

The Rev. Zan Holmes has said that these injunctions, to love God and to love neighbor really are at the center of living a cross centered life. The vertical is our relationship with God, and the horizontal is our relationship with others.  There are some who would like to emphasize simply the relationship with God, and say that everything else doesn’t matter.  Others will argue that it is relationships with others that is most important and that the relationship with God thing is secondary.  But both parts of the cross are necessary, and then Jesus tells us to pick up our cross, how often? Daily.  Pick up your cross daily and follow me Jesus says.  To produce the fruits of the harvest that God has called for us, we must live cross-centered lives and we do so by loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength, all of minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But, notice that the harvest we are called to produce is both inwardly and outwardly focused.  Even the fruits of the spirit that Paul highlights in his letter to the Galatians, which include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, are both inward and outward focused.  They help us in relationship with God, and they help us in our relationship with each other.  If you’ve ever looked at what we vow to do when we become members of the Methodist church you will find they are both inward and outward focused as well, and they can be our guide whether we are members of this congregation or not.  The membership vows for the United Methodist Church say that we are to support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, inward focused and outward focused.  And if all of us were to live into those vows, again whether we are members or not, the church would have little to worry about.

If all of us were to pray, the first step in connecting us to God, of being in relationship with God, if all of us were to pray for the church, to pray for its leaders, for guidance, for forgiveness, and then to take the time to listen to God, then we would never have to worry about what we should be doing or where we should be going because God would tell us, and we would be empowered by the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit gives us what?

If all of us were to be present for worship, were here every single Sunday that we are in town and are available, and I know I’m sort of preaching to the wrong group about this, but if every member, and all those who are associated with the church were to be here every Sunday, this sanctuary would be filled each week.  If all of us were to give with the tithe being the goal, then we would have many fewer financial problems, but giving is not just give of our money, but we are also to give of our time in service, to be in sevrice, not only to the church but to the community as well.  To be a dedicated Christian, you cannot sit on the sidelines.  God isn’t looking just for cheerleaders, or worse just fans, but players, those who are willing to go out onto the field and participate, those who are willing to work towards the harvest and to help bring it in.  Like I said it means participating in the life of the church, and there are hundreds of ways to do that, but also working out in the world to bring about the kingdom of God.

But we no longer live in a world in which people understand why Christians are in service to the world, and so we have to give our witness of saying why Jesus has made a difference in our lives, or how Jesus has made a difference and why we are acting on that in the world.  But it’s not just witnessing when we are in service, but it’s also about witnessing to our friends, our families, our coworkers, and I’m not talking about being obnoxious about this, but simply being honest about whom we are and that all begins where? With prayer.  Inward and outward, vertical and horizontal. This week Jodie and Wendell and Becky gathered together to look at the puzzle pieces that were submitted last week in answer to the question where we will be in three to five years, and what they came up with was a phrase that I love which says, we are going to grow big by focusing within, so that we can go big by focusing and going out.  We are to know Christ so we can make Christ known.

Only in  today’s passage from Luke do we hear this story of the 70 who are sent out.  We’re of course familiar with the disciples, but these are a different group, and notice that they are sent out in pairs, because community is important, and then Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”  Sometimes this passage has been used to justify few people doing lots of work, but notice what it really says.  It says that right now there are few laborers, that’s why we are asking God to send out more laborers.  That is in order to bring in the harvest, in order to do the things that God is calling us to do, we must all be willing to accept, surrender and to follow.  To follow, leads to the spiritual disciplines, which leads to being in worship and turning our stuff over to God, which leads us into community, which leads us to bringing in the harvest, which leads us into the fields because God has called us as laborers, which leads us to being willing to follow….  and then we are told that when the 70 return they come back with joy, because they have understood the true power of being a servant of God at play in the fields of the Lord.  May it be true with us as well my brothers and sisters. Amen.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Table Manners Version

My youngest daughter wanted to be dismissed from the table and she said, "May I be confused?"

Friday, September 21, 2012

Good Polls Versus Bad Polls

As we get closer and closer to the election we are being inundated by polls and interpretation of what they mean.  But the big problem with these polls is that some of them are simply unreliable.  I was a political science major as an undergrad and one of the things I remember from a class on polling is that any major poll,as a general rule, with a margin of error greater than 3% is not a reliable poll.

Now there are some exceptions to this as a general rule.  If you were polling a small local election it might be hard to get a large enough sample to get a really good margin of error, and there are other times when it's not really hugely important.  If you were polling on whether people liked a new soft drink, for example, and 20% said they didn't but 65% said they did and the margin of error was 5%, that would probably be acceptable.

But in larger political polling it's not acceptable.  In a poll released yesterday on Obama/Romney in Florida, the margin of error was 5%.  5%?  That is a completely useless poll, and to be honest there is absolutely no reason why the press should have ever even reported on it, because they might as well as have just guessed.

Polling is a science and those who do it well are really good and should be trusted, but always pay attention to the margin of error.  If, as a general rule, is greater than 3% then the poll is not worth anything and you should keep looking.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Obama and the National Day of Prayer

Sadly, this is a sort of follow-up to my blog from Monday.  This morning I received an email from a neighbor decrying the fact that President Obama has said that America is no longer a Christian nation, that he has cancelled the National Day of Prayer but spent "all day" praying at the National Muslim Day of Prayer, and that if he wins "it's all over but the crying."

Of course just a simple Google search (and Snopes.com) proved all of his points wrong, and here was my response:
  1. President Obama did not cancel the national day of prayer.  He has not recognized it the way George W. Bush did, but there is nothing in the original bill authorizing that it had anything to do with the president or a White House celebration.   
  2. Outside of the last President, there is no tradition for a White House event.  Clinton held no events in his 8 years. George H.W. Bush held 1 event in 4 years (it was a breakfast, which is not really "prayerful").  Reagan held 1 event in 8 years.   "Not holding an event does not mean it is cancelled anymore than a president not attending fireworks on the 4th would mean he had cancelled the 4th of July."
  3. President Obama has recognized the National Day of Prayer every year.  Here is his proclamation for this year
  4. In 2010 a federal judge ruled that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional, and it was President Obama's administration that worked to appeal that decision and it was overturned by the appeals court. 
  5. There is not and never has been a "National Day of Muslim Prayer."  There was a prayer event for Muslims held in Washington, DC, in September 2009, but it was a private event. President Obama did not spend time praying at that event because, in fact, he wasn't even in Washington, DC.  He was attending the G-20 summit, and thus did not even attend let alone pray there. 
  6. The quote about Obama saying we are not a Christian nation was taking out of context, what he said was we are not "solely" a Christian nation. (And it should be noted that the National Day of Prayer is not specifically Christian, but also "allows" for prayers by Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, and others who choose to participate.) 
  7. I have prayed in a mosque.  I have prayed in a Jewish temple.  I have prayed in a Unitarian Universalist church.  I have prayed in Catholic church.  And I have prayed in many different protestant churches, and I am also blessed to say that many of them have come and prayed in my church as well.  
  8. Finally, I do not need congress or the president to tell me to pray.  Indeed I would argue that the fact we even think that is necessary might indicate our problem.  You will either pray or not and the government saying you should, shouldn't, and won't, make a difference. 
I am always curious about conservatives who argue that government should be controlled and contained, that they shouldn't provide healthcare, they shouldn't provide food or housing (you know for those 47% of us who are lazy), they shouldn't be advocating things like healthy eating, but on the flip side argue that the government should be forcing things like prayer.  How does that make any sense?  (And yes I know the democrats are just as hypocritical)

But here is how I concluded my response:
I pray every day for God's blessings.  I ask for forgiveness.  I try and give forgiveness.  I pray for my enemies.  I thank God for my blessings. I ask for God's guidance, grace, mercy and love.  And then I am quiet so I have time to listen to God.  And I do that regardless of one day being set aside for national prayer or not, and I encourage everyone else to do the same.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Down On The Farm: Bucking Hay

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 15:1-17.  This series was based on a series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton.

I once had two good friends who ran a 57,000 acre ranch in southern Colorado.  Every year they allow a company to come in and cut the alfalfa in some of their fields, and in return they baled hay for their horses.  One of the times I was up visiting, one of the fields had recently been cut but all the bales were still sitting out in the field, when a storm moved in. So we stopped what we were doing, hopped in a truck and rushed out to the field and started bucking the squared bales.  During a normal day it would have only been Lesli and her partner Anna there to get the bales in, but not only was I was visiting, but Anna’s mother was there as well and so there were two extra hands to help them get the hay out of the field.

I don’t know how many bales there actually where, it seemed like a lot, but with one person driving and three of us throwing them into the truck, and two loads worth, we were able to get them all back to the barn before the heavy rain started.  And not only did we get the bales out of the fields, but we also got to tangle with a badger who happened to be hiding between two of the bales.  It was the only time I’ve tangled with a badger, and I hope it is my last time, because badgers are really as mean and nasty as everyone says they are.  I even spent some time riding on the top of the load, spread eagled out to try and keep the bales from falling off on the way to the barn.

Now could Lesli and Anna have gotten the bales in by themselves?  Yes, eventually, but it would have taken them awhile, and one of them would have gotten pretty tired doing all of the bucking while the other drove, and they never would have been able to get them out of the field before it started pouring, and so having two extra people certainly helped them out immensely.  Not long ago it would have been inconceivable for two people to even consider bringing in a harvest of hay, or really most any type of harvest, by themselves.  Harvest was a time in which the community came together to assist each other, but not just the community, it was also the time in which others would come in from outside the community to assist, because everyone understood that you couldn’t do these things by yourself.

Before Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper, and I use the term invent very loosely here, and then later marketed the first mechanical bailer, everything had to be done by hand, and therefore had to be done with a large group.  After all the hay was cut, it would be raked into hedgerows and then using pitchforks people with throw the hay up into a wagon, where another person, also with a pitchfork would position the hay in the wagon.  Harvest time was the time in which the community would come together and help each other out, not just because it was the neighborly thing to do, but because they had to.

Today we continue in our theme of looking to what we can take from life on the farm that we can apply to our life as Christians, and there are five lessons that we learn.  The first was the first step of becoming a disciple, and that was to accept, surrender and follow.  We must recognize that we cannot save ourselves that we cannot change the reality of the human condition, that only when we turn our lives over to Christ can we be saved and pulled out of the mud of our lives.  Then, once we’ve begun following then we need to be diligent every single day in order to make sure that our lives are not being infested by weeds or pests or disease which can grow up and choke our faith, and we do that by practicing some of the spiritual disciplines, including daily scripture reading and prayers.

Last week we looked at how manure impacts our lives, and this was more than just about the manure you might hear from me each week.  This manure, represents the pain, suffering, sorrow, hardships and difficulties in our lives, and how we deal with these difficulties makes all the difference.  You can’t ignore or bury that pain, nor can you try and remove it with chemicals.  Instead, you have to turn that manure into something which can bring new life, as they say the grass is always greener over the septic tank, and if you are on a septic system then you know this is true.  To create new life, we have to compost the manure in our lives, which requires exposing it to sunlight and oxygen, and just to see if you were paying attention, how often do you have to turn over your manure pile?  Every seven days and we do that through gathering together in worship in order to turn our pains over to God and also to expose them to each other, and that leads us directly into step four, which is community.

You cannot be a committed disciple of Christ and not be in relation with other Christians.  There are some things that have to be done in community, and Christianity is one of those things.  When we try and do it alone, just like trying to buck hay all by yourself, we struggle and strain, we stress, and eventually we will either give up or we collapse from the effort required when all that work is unnecessary.  Instead, when we realize that if we gather together as a group not only do we get the job done quicker and more efficiently, thus requiring less effort, but it’s also more enjoyable.  As a culture we have become much more individualistic.  But, when we stopped helping each other put up hay, than we lost ways to meet our needs for family, relationship and community, and being in relationship with other people is part of who we are.  We have also lost the understanding of the power that comes from working in community.  Did you know that a single horse can pull up to 700 lbs?  But, if you put two horses together, they don’t pull 1400 lbs, instead they can pull 3000 lbs, and if they are trained to pull together, they can pull even more with the world record being right around 5000 lbs.  Being in community, helping each other, is written into our DNA and it’s written into us as Christians.

In the Book of Acts immediately after Pentecost, which represents the birth of the church, we are told that the earliest disciples and followers of Christ not only gathered together during the day, but that they lived together and held everything in common, which I not arguing for here, but we have to understand that the earliest church gathered together, to undertake the journey together.  Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am amongst them, wherever two or more or gathered.  The fourth step to discipleship is understanding that we need community to do this thing called discipleship, it takes community.  It takes fellowship, it takes us bearing one another’s burdens but also holding one another accountable.  It’s asking each other the age old question which is at the heart of Methodism, “how is it with your soul?”  This community that I am talking about is about more than just gathering in worship, although that is critically important.  But that’s not enough.  Gathering for Sunday school, although also critical is also not enough, we need to be engaging each other at a much deeper level, we need to be gathering in small groups where we can support each other, carrying one another’s burdens, but also calling out each other when we have gone wrong, when we are allowing weeds to grow up in our garden.

In New England I was a part of a group like that.  It consisted of people that had gone through seminary with me so we all knew each other, but I have to say we didn’t necessarily like each other, but in the end that didn’t matter because it was all about the group.  I’ve missed that group since moving here, and the past few weeks have been tough for me, because I’ve found the need to share my concerns, hurts and needs with another group of people, but people who would also be able to say to me, “you know John, you kind of screwed up on that,” or “why did you do that.”  That is just as much a part of our discipleship journey as gathering together for worship.

This past week we remembered the 11th anniversary of September 11.  The memorial at ground zero was designed by Michael Arad, and is called, reflecting absence.  The memorial consists of a pair of pools set 30 feet into the ground in the footprints of the towers, with waterfalls that drop into the holes.  At ground level there is a “living park” meant to symbolize life and rebirth after the destruction, but it was how Arad decided to deal with the names of those lost that struck me.  In an interview this week, he said “I wanted to… create a place that allowed people to come together, to reflect on what happened here, not alone but as a community.  In a public space where people gather and congregate.”  As a way to emphasize this, Arad did not just list all the names alphabetically, instead he contacted the families asking for names that might be put together.

“The names,” he said, “are arranged according to what I call a system of meaningful adjacency.  When you walk up to these panels, you don’t see order, but in fact they are very carefully organized.”  Meaningful adjacency.  I love that term.  Forever more these names won’t just exist in isolation, but instead they are surrounded by the names of others they knew, worked with, or were friends with, and they will be linked for all time.  I also went back and reread David Halberstam’s remarkable book Firehouse, about the hardest hit fire station in New York, which sent 13 men to the twin towers and only one of them came back.  And what strikes me every time I read it is about the sense of community that exists in a fire station, not just at work, but after work as well.  That they become family for one another, and do everything together and for each other, including helping each other remodel their homes.

Societies and communities used to do that for each other as well, but that is becoming rarer and rarer.  There’s a famous book by sociologist Robert Putnam entitled Bowling Alone.  What Putnam was highlighting was the decline in social interaction so that we are, in his words, “increasingly disconnected from family, friends, [and neighbors].”  Participation and membership in social organizations is declining, as can be seen in Elks, Moose, Masons, and other social organizations, but it can also be seen in the church, and his example, from where his title comes, was that more people than ever are bowling, but they are no longer joining leagues, instead they are bowling alone.  When we lose these connections, something happens in society that is detrimental, and the same thing happens in our faith when we try and go it alone.  We have to do this together.

But of course, being in community is tough, in fact it can be really hard, but it’s also crucial not only for our faith, but also for the effective operation of the body of Christ.  About a month ago we talked about how God has given us all unique gifts and graces and how all of those are necessary for the body, the church, to operate as God has called us to.  Jesus says I am the vine, you are the branches.  When we forget that, and we begin to think that we are the vine, then we run into trouble, just as if we are willing to think that we can be a part of the vine but do it by ourselves.  A vine with only one branch is not a very attractive or effective plant, in fact there will be little growth.  Instead vines need lots of branches to produce fruit.

We do this together, we do it in community, we bring in the harvest most effectively and efficiently when we do it together.  It’s amazing sometimes how God works in our lives.  This week I got one of the church’s publications, one I don’t normally read, but I decided to glance through it and see if there was anything interesting, and I found this quote from Tim McLendon who said the only difference between united and untied is where we place the I.  The only difference between united and untied is where we place the I.  Where do we place the I?

This summer, Linda and the girls went away to spend a week camping with Linda’s family while I stayed at home to work, and one of the things on my honey do list was to go through the girls toys and to get rid of those things that were broken or were no longer being played with, as well as to go through all of their puzzles and to get rid of those puzzles that were missing pieces.  Of course a puzzle that has pieces missing is no longer complete, no longer whole, and the same is true with us.  We are all parts of a bigger puzzle, and we are all necessary in order to put that puzzle together, when we are untied the puzzle is broken, but when we move the I and become united then the puzzle is complete.

Living in community is hard, being a part of a community is hard, but we are called to be in relationship with God, and we are called to be in relationship with each other.  Only through these relationships are we able to become the disciples that God has called us to be.  Only through these relationships are we able to carry one another’s burdens.  And only through these relationships are we able to deepen our relationship with each other and with God.  Every single piece of the puzzle is needed if the puzzle that God has created is to be complete.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

"Obama Will Destroy Christianity As We Know It"

This Sunday we will be holding the charge conference for the two churches I serve.  For those unfamiliar with Methodist polity, this is the "official" meeting of the church held each year.  It is the time in which we vote of clergy salary, elect new leaders and look back over the course of the year and celebrate the ministries of the church.  The District Superintendent comes out and runs the meeting.  It used to be a much more important and significant event in the life of the church, but has greatly diminished in importance, but that's for another time.

Anyways, this year at the meeting the DS wants us to present something on where the church will be in 3-5 years.  In order to help prepare for that, yesterday during worship I had everyone write down where they thought the congregation would, should, might be in 3-5 years.  In my smallest church (10 in worship including me and the pianist), one the people said they couldn't say because it would depend on who won the election.  I said that who was president would make no difference to where we were as a congregation, but what they wrote on their card was "it will be dependent upon who is President."

Now I did not seek to engage them in any conversation about this because I know exactly where they stand politically, and I didn't really want to get into it.  But from their comment I am assuming that they have bought into the rhetoric that not only is President Obama a Muslim, but that he is heart-set on destroying America as we know it, and of course destroying the church as well.  I need not elaborate on where they might get such an idea, cough Fox cough.  And they are not alone in that sentiment, as this post from the New York Times about people in the middle-east, who oppose America, also buying into the conservative rhetoric that Obama is a closeted Muslim and trying to support some Muslim groups and oppose others.

Romney himself has sort of built on this idea of the other, not just through his birther jokes, but through this recent comment: "As President, I'll support the expression of religion in the public square."  The impression he hoped to convey, most especially based on the group he was speaking to, was that Obama would not do this because he wasn't like them and somehow was opposed to religion.  In believing this they must also totally disregard the ruckus from the last election over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who is a minister in the United Church of Christ, and thus is a Christian, but whatever.

But what struck me yesterday was not only their thinking this about Obama, but them saying it in light of the reading from James that was read this Sunday.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
We had just heard about the damage that can be done with the tongue, especially in slandering and cursing "those who are made in the likeness of God," and yet at the same time also wanting to make such a proclamation.

Now I think that one of the reasons that no information was given about why the future of the church was dependent upon the election was because they believed everyone "knew" why, including me, with the implicit assumption that everyone there agreed with this concern.  I, of course, did not and would guess that I am the minority in that, if not the only one.

But, one of the great ironies for those who are claiming that President Obama is not a Christian is that their option is to vote for someone in Romney who is not a Christian.  Yes I know that some will object to that claim, but by almost every traditional test Mormons are not Christians (and every "evangelical"/fundamentalist I know does not believe they are Christian either, which is why the campaign has ignored this issue to the degree they have).  Mormons are the only church that I am aware of for which the United Methodist church will not recognize their baptisms (and we are very liberal on this), and we do not do so because they do not baptize in a trinitarian formulation, nor do they believe in the trinity.  (There are some non-trinitarian pentocostal churches but they likelihood of them joining a Methodist church is next to zero.)

Now I am not agruing that you should vote against Romney because he is a Mormon.  Having grown up in the southwest I have many friends who are Mormon (isn't that the oldest cliche in the world?), and have also voted for candidates who also happened to be Mormon in the past.  I am much more concerned with whether they would be able to govern in a way I think appropriate for the country, most especially for "the least of these" and by that standard Romney fails, and that has nothing to do with his faith.

I have little worry, in fact no worries, that my congregations, my faith or my church will be changed or impacted by the new President.  I do worry about people in my congregations who will be impacted either because of their negative views, or because of negative economic impacts especially if the drastic cuts to the social safety nets are cut the way that Romney/Ryan propose.

If those cuts were enacted, then we would have to respond to the even greater need we see in our communities and I don't know where we would come up with estimated $50,000 or so a year each church would have to come up with to match that need.  Now that is a true threat.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hey Apple: Imitation Is The Surest Form Of Flatery

Recently Apple won a lawsuit against Samsung claiming that they had stolen Apple's technology.  There are lots of problems with this, which I am not going to tackle, but there is something I head about this that is kind of funny.  According to a report on Marketplace on NPR yesterday, news of this suit has actually helped Samsung's sales rather than hurt them.  How?

Well people have heard that Apple claims that Samsung's phones and tablets are just like Apple's and so rather than spending a lot more money they are instead deciding to buy Samsung instead.  There are people who have to own "Apple" but they are by far the minority.  Most people want good technology at a reasonable price, and therefore don't care that it doesn't have a certain logo on it.

Therefore if Apple wants to claim in court that Samsung is just like the Apple, and the jury says they are right, then for consumers who want that technology but don't want to pay for the name, they now have an alternative and they are taking it.  According to the report for many retailers Samsung's Galaxy 3 is now outselling the Iphone. What's even worse is that the phones that Apple didn't like are older models that will be phased out soon anyways.

This case is far from over, as the appeals process has yet to begin, and Apple must also deal with the fact, or maybe Samsung should, that Apple is Samsung's biggest customer for modile-device components.  Oh what strange tangled webs we weave.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

We Need To Stop Being Southern Baptists

I currently serve in an area of the country in which Southern Baptists, and Southern Baptist theology, tend to dominate. Even people who have been raised Methodist are sort of infused by it, including pushing for full immersion over pouring, and not practicing infant baptism, along with other theological issues.

That's okay to a point as it's our job to educate our congregations on the differences between Methodism and baptists, and what we stand for and what they stand for, and I do think there are significant differences that are important. But a large part of the problem is that a number of Methodist clergy are closeted baptists, and some aren't even closeted, and that doesn't make any sense to me.

We are Methodists, we follow the teachings of John Wesley, and that should mean something.  There is something significant that we have to offer that is different from what people will hear if they attend the baptist church or the Church of Christ.  We have a different proclamation of the gospel, we have something to offer people that is different from those churches, so why don't we proclaim that?

Here is the biggest problem with us trying to be baptists (or in New England it was trying to be UCC), we're not any good at it, and they will kick out butts, and are kicking our butts. If people have to choose between the original and a watered down knock-off they are normally going to choose the original, and the same is happening in our churches. People aren't choosing the other churches because they offer more "programming" or whatever it might be, they are choosing them because we are not offering them another option.

There is something very unique and I believe very important in what we as Methodists can offer than is very different than other churches. I'm really tired of hearing people, including ministers, saying there is little difference between baptists or lutherans or methodists.  There is a difference, and when we begin to proclaim that difference I think we will in turn see a difference. If we all want to be Calvinists then we might as well merge and get it over with. We're not all the same, nor are we Calvinists and we need to say how Arminians are different than Calvinists.

We as Methodists have something unique to proclaim, something unique to offer, and a different way of not only proclaiming the kingdom but of working towards that kingdom and we need to start claiming that and proclaiming it.  We need to stop being Southern Baptists because we're not any good at it and their kicking our butts, and instead we need to start being Methodists.

But, and here is a significant problem, could many of our pastors actually proclaim what makes us different from the others?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Isolation That Is The Ministry

If you are a fellow member of the clergy then you will not be surprised when I say that the ministry is incredibly isolating.  When a member of the congregation asks you how your week was, and to be quite honest it was shitty, you can't say that.  Nor when they ask how you are doing, can you say, "not very good, how about you?"  And you can't say that because most don't want to hear you talk about how you were beaten up during the week by people they consider dear friends.  How you had to do both a funeral and a wedding in the same day and you are physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

They want you to be their pastor and being their pastor means not dragging the dirty laundry of the congregation in front of them. nor most of your issues.  Sure there are some you consider "friends" that you want to blow off steam with, but sometimes that puts you in uncomfortably situations as well.  A bigger problem is that in the ministry, especially in small churches, you don't have any other coworkers with whom you can sympathize.

In a regular business, if some customer yells at me I can talk about it with the other people who work with me, the church does not afford that opportunity.  Even in clergy gatherings, unless they are covenant groups, it doesn't really work because it often quickly becomes a complaining session or a "you think that's bad, listen to this" session.

I am currently serving two small churches.  I can spend time in my office during the week and never have a single interaction with anyone coming into the church, and even for an introvert that gets to be hard. Yes I know I can go out and interact with others, and I do, but sometimes it would just be nice to be able to do that while I am still working.  It would also be nice to talk with someone who understands what it's like to work in the church, which is not really like anything else.  In a small town it's also impossible to go out and just be around people without having to interact simply because that reality does not exist.  There are no places in which to do that.

At the recent gathering to discuss the issues of young clergy in the UMC, one of the participants said she was told that because she was young and single and just out of seminary that she would be sent to a small, rural church, which is typically true.  While I cannot talk with my wife about everything that goes on in the church, I at least have that support system, if I was single this would be even harder and even more isolating.

A number of years ago, the Anna Howard Shaw Center at Boston University conducted a study about why female clergy leave the ministry at much higher rates then men.  They found many causes, but I have to think that isolation has to be one of them, although they did not name it as such.  This really struck me as I was reading The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, in which she talks about how much more the female brain is hard wired for being in relation with others than is the male brain (and before you attack me please read the book).  So if I am feeling lonely and isolated, how much worse might it be for some female colleagues?

I remember once another colleague talking about how doctors of multiple disciplines were coming together to form practices in order to try and eliminate some of their isolation, and they thought it sounded horrible.  They couldn't imagine working alongside pastors of other denominations in the same office, and to me it sounded absolutely wonderful.  I would love to be able to go down the hall, or next door, and close the door and simply bitch to someone else who knows what I am talking about and has no connection to the people I am talking about.

I know that accountability groups can help, but they won't solve all of the problems, because they are not as immediate and because they don't recognize the isolation of everyday life of the ministry, most especially for those of us serving small, rural locations.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Down on the Farm: Manure Happens

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 13:1-9.  This series was based on a series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton.  Perhaps this is also an appropriate thought for  September 11:

For the past few weeks, we have been looking at lessons we can learn from life on the farm that can teach us about the Christian life.  The first week we talked about being stuck in the mud, and the fact that when you get stuck, that our natural inclination is to step harder on the gas, and spin our wheels, which of course just gets us deeper and deeper into the much.  Instead, to get out of the mud of our lives, we first need to accept that we are stuck in the mud, surrender to the idea that only something bigger and stronger than us can get us out, and of course that person for Christians is Jesus Christ, and then we must follow him.  So the first step of discipleship is accepting, surrendering and following.

Then last week we looked at how we keep weeds and other pests out of our crops in order to allow them to grow.  In most farms we would use herbicides and pesticides to protect them, but we need to be more organic in our spiritual lives, and so the way to keep our spiritual crops free of weeds and pests is to be ever vigilant in our relationship with God by practicing spiritual disciplines.  There are lots of things we can do, but we talked about some recommended by John Wesley the founder of Methodism, and included reading and searching scripture, participating in communion, praying and fasting or abstinence. So the second step of discipleship is preventing weeds in our lives by practicing some of the spiritual disciplines.

The third key to understanding the Christian life is manure, and I am indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton for this idea, which began this whole series and which I stole, but manure is the third key to living a Christian life because, as they say, manure happens.  I’m sure you’ve seen that on a bumpersticker before, although it says another word instead of manure, but you get the meaning.  Maybe you’ve even said something like that in your life.  Now this sermon is going to be a little, shall we say, earthier, than most sermons and if that bothers you you’re going to have to just bear with me.  Because I’m not talking about manure in order to be funny or controversial, but instead because how we deal with the manure in our lives will have a tremendous impact on our lives and also the lives of those around us.  Understanding the manure in our lives and how we deal with it is essential for becoming the disciples that God has called us to be.

If you have livestock of any sort you have to have a manure management plan, or an MMP, this is one of the things I learned in my research for this sermon series, you have to have an MMP if you are going to run an effective and successful operation that deals with livestock of any sort.  Now some of you will know this, but according to the University of Rhode Island extension program, the average horse produces 50 pounds of manure a day, that’s 9 tons a year.  I asked Al Anderson how much one of his dairy cows produces in a day, and he said he didn’t know the exact amount, but it’s a lot.  As it turns out, according to the University of Washington extension program, a typical dairy cow produces 148 lbs of manure in a day, which works out to 27 tons a year, when you multiple that by, how many cows do you have Al, well I need my calculator for that, but you end up with a lot of manure.  And when I asked him if he had a manure management plan, he said that he did, that you had to, otherwise you would be overwhelmed.

My favorite story from visiting with Al was that he said he was out where the cows were milked one day, and a fly flew into one of the cows ears, and the cow sort of jumped a little bit, but he didn’t think anything of it, but then noticed that the cow started acting a little weird, and suddenly the fly came out into the milking machine, but you know what they say, in one ear out the udder.  Now you might say that you don’t really have to deal with as much as a horse or a cow produce, but just to give a little different perspective on this to show how quickly even a little amount can add up, a four pound hen produces ¼ pound a day, which may not seem like a lot, but even that little bit works out to 91 lbs a year.  All that manure has to be accounted for; something has to be done with it, and so we we’re going to talk about how to create our own effective personal MMP.

There are several things that can be done with manure.  The first is that you can do nothing with it, and just let it accumulate wherever it’s deposited.  That’s what we tend to do with our dog, but what happens when you do that?  Well it sort of spreads everywhere and then you have to watch wherever you step to be careful you’re not stepping in it, as does everyone else who comes around.  That’s not really effective.  So the next thing is to shovel it up and collect it together, and create a pile.  Maybe with small animals might work for awhile, but with larger animals, pretty soon that pile gets huge and because you can’t just keep piling it up on top, it’s spreads out.  And it stinks, and it attracts flies and other pests.  We might think that we can just ignore it and if we ignore it that it will go away, but sooner or later that pile is going to get too big and the smell and the flies will start bothering your neighbors and it can seep into the water supply and contaminate it, and it will begin to overwhelm and overshadow everything else.  So we can’t just keep piling it up and ignoring it.

The next option is that we can decide to bury it, but there are several problems with that. The first is the simple logistics of digging enough holes for it all, but the biggest problem is that manure needs air and sunlight in order to decompose.  So if you bury it and you come back in thirty years, do you know what you’re going to find?  You’re going to find a lot of manure that’s just as you left it.  Burying it won’t make it go away; it will still be there, festering just under the surface.

So we can’t just ignore it, we can’t pile it up, and we can’t bury it, so perhaps we can burn it.  Did you know you can burn manure?  Well you can, but unless it’s nice and dry, which it won’t be unless it’s been there for a long time, it won’t burn by itself, and so you need to pour a lot of chemicals on it, something that will help it to burn.  But you know what happens when you try to use chemicals to dispose of manure?  It stinks to high heaven, it creates a lot of smoke, sometimes it catches other things on fire, sometimes it just smolders and doesn’t really go away and so we keep pouring more and more chemicals on it to make it disappear.  But burning it doesn’t solve the problem, in fact it usually makes the problem much worse, and it tends to make not just the person who is using the chemicals, but everyone around them who get caught in the smoke and the stink.  Do you understand?

The final thing we can do is to recognize that we have to deal with it appropriately.  We know that manure is valuable for crops and plants, but did you know you can’t just spread fresh manure into your fields?  Well, technically you can, but it’s not always helpful because, according to the Virginia Tech extension program, it takes nitrogen to help break manure down and if it hasn’t already started decomposing, instead of adding nitrogen to the soil, the microbes that break it down it will actually pull the nitrogen out of the soil.  So rather than helping the plants, putting fresh manure straight onto fields can actually limit their growth.  So you can’t just shovel the manure up, put it in your manure spreader and take it out to the fields, and did you know that John Deere stands behind all of their products, but they refuse to stand behind their manure spreader?

We can’t just ignore it, or keep piling it up, or bury it, or use chemicals to remove it, so that leaves us with one final option and that is to decide that we are going to compost it.   But composting has to be done properly, and when properly done, it can virtually eliminate many of the major problems with manure accumulation, including odor, flies, weed seeds and the internal parasites, and rather than having something you don’t know what to do with or want to avoid altogether, now you have something in the compost that can actually bring new life, it can actually bring nutrients and all sorts of good stuff to the soil that allow it to restore what has been taken out of the soil by other plants, it can refresh everything and cause new life to grow, but not just grow, but to grow abundantly.  Isn’t that what Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly”?

Manure happens; it is a by-product of living.  At some point in our lives something bad is going to happen, it’s just inevitable.  Now some people will sort of fixate on all the bad things that might happen, even sometimes to absurd lengths.  Have you ever met someone like this?  Even though 99% of the bad things they worry about never happen, that’s all they can think about.  They live by Murphy’s Law that anything that can go wrong will, and it dominates their life.  But the healthier thing to do is to simply accept these things as part of life and deal with them.  But knowing how to deal with it, or wanting to deal with it, doesn’t always answer the question of why, which is one we have all asked at least once in our lives.  “God, why is this happening?”  And usually not just why is it happening, but “why is it happening to me?”

That has been a question that has been asked from time immemorial.  In fact, a large portion of the Hebrew Bible sets out to try and answer that question, and there are lots of very different answers given.  There is not one monolithic answer given in scripture about what bad things happen in life, why there is manure, instead there are lots.  Unfortunately we don’t have time to go into or consider all those answers, but we will seek to answer some of those questions in a series after Christmas.  But here is one thing I feel absolutely comfortable in saying: God does not cause us to suffer.  God does not give us cancer to punish us, or cause natural disasters which kill hundreds or thousands.  Most of the manure, most of the suffering, pain, hardships we experience in our lives is simply the byproducts of life.

CS Lewis said that he thought that 2/3 of human suffering was the result of things that we did to ourselves or others did to us because we are free moral agents.  That is we have the right to make the right decisions and also the wrong decisions and God doesn’t stop us from doing those things, and because of that we sometimes have to pay the price, not because God wants us to, but because that’s what happens.   Hurricanes are not caused by God, they are caused by the waters of the oceans warming, which causes the heat to rise, which warms the air even more, which causes the air to spin and storms are formed.

But here is one thing that is clear from scripture, regardless of what answer is given in scripture as to why we suffer, it is that God is with us and that God can work through even the worst circumstances to bring about some good.  Paul famously said that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5) Now one of the problems with this quote is that it has been used to justify suffering because it might produce hope.  Suffering is slavery? Don’t worry you’ll be rewarded.  Being beaten by your husband?  Don’t worry, it will build character and you’ll receive hope.

A better quote from Paul, who certainly knew something about suffering, comes from 2nd Corinthians where he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down by not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:8-11)  What we find in the New Testament, and what we proclaim as Christians, is that Jesus Christ is the solution to our suffering, that he is the sign of hope and transformation, for us and for the world.  It is through Christ and his presence in our lives that we are redeemed, that the manure of our lives is redeemed, that it is changed and transformed into something else.  But how does that happen?  Well I’m glad you asked, because that leads us back to composting.

There are two essential aspects to composting.  The first is time.  As I said you can’t just spread manure out onto your fields, it takes time to break down, and that certainly is true with us as well.  On the Monday after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, there were news stories talking about how the victims of that event were claiming that it was “a nightmare they just can’t shake.”  That they were still having difficulty sleeping, they were still having anxiety attacks.  It had only been four days, why would we ever assume, let alone question, whether they were over it already.  The manure is just too fresh to be able to be spread.

It takes time to heal many wounds, it takes allowing others to help carry us during those times.  It's those times in which we go to our knees as Abraham Lincoln said because it's the only place we can go, and we cry out to God.  Those are pains and hardships that simply don't disappear or get better because we want them to, they take time to heal, but for them to heal we also have to deal with them properly, we can't ignore them, bury them or try and remove them with chemicals.  They have to be dealt with, and the first thing that helps is time, but the second is what we do with those hurts.

Manure will not break down unless it is exposed to oxygen and sunlight, it has to be turned.  If you don’t turn it, then it’s just like burying it, it will never break down, and do you know how often compost has to be turned?  According to the extension program at Virginia Tech, and others, manure must be turned at least every seven days.  Let me say that again, manure must be turned every seven days so that it can get proper oxygen, so that it can be transformed into fertilizer.  Turning it every seven days creates a product that can bring new life and transformation of other things.  Does anyone see a connection here?  How often do we gather for worship?  Every seven days, and when we gather for worship we do the same thing, or at least we should, we expose our hurts to God, we turn them over to God, we turn them giving them fresh air so that God can break them down and redeem them.  And do you know what else happens when you compost? Composting reduces the volume of waste by more than 50%, but you have to turn it every seven days.

Manure happens.  God does not make it happen, but what God does is allow that manure to be transformed, but just as James said in his letter today, we must participate in that transformation, and that happens through the person of Jesus Christ.  To allow Jesus to transform the manure of our life we must allow it to be exposed to oxygen and sunlight, we must turn it up every seven days, we must gather together to expose our hurts and pains, and to carry one another burdens, and when we do that it provides the raw material that allows new life to grow.

The first step to being a disciple of Christ is to accept, surrender and follow, the second step is to practice the spiritual disciplines to protect ourselves from the wrong type of seeds, and the third step, in order to allow those seeds to grow, is to provide them with the right type and amount of fertilizer by creating our compost by turning it over to God and gathering in worship.  Manure happens, that’s just a fact of life, but when we turn it over every week, when we turn it over to the redeeming power of Christ, then the manure in our lives can be redeemed and give us and others new life, but not just any life, but abundant life.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Unions and Labor Inequality

I had intended to post this last Monday for Labor Day, but between hospital visits and spending time with my family, you know those pesky things, I didn't get it done.

I have said before, that one of the great ironies of the day is the number of people who say they are opposed to labor unions but gladly take the day off anyways.  Of course one of the great ironies this year was not only the fact that the GOP was trying to make labor day be about "job creators", which it's patently not, but they had just been chanting the week before "we built it" (even though that was not what Obama said) but doing so in a publically financed building that was built with union labor.

I have been a proud union member and was even a union rep, and my wife has also been a member of a union.  She is currently not covered by a union and the difference in work environment and what is tolerated has been stark.  Even a family member who didn't think unions did that much has noticed the difference.

What is also true is that with the decline in union membership, not only has income for the top 1% increased but middle class incomes have also declined.  It might be argued that these are not causal, although I certainly think they are, but they are certainly correlated.  Or as Edward Tufte has said,"Correlation is not causation but it sure is a hint."  So here are three graphs showing this discrepancy:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stomach Turning Decisions

Adam Hamilton has talked about stomach turning decisions, and the fact that when you make a decision that makes your stomach turn that that indicates you've made the right decision and the one God wants.  Your stomach turns because God has pushed you beyond your comfort zones and into God's realm.  He has even said that if your church has made a big decision and you go home and your stomach is not upset, that means you have made the wrong decision.  The right decision will make you sick.

Right now my wife and I are facing a serious decision that is certainly making my stomach turn, and hers as well.  It will mean major changes in the short term, along with some very burned bridges from which we can't go back.  We can sense God's movement in the process, but I also worry that we're simply trying to find it to justify what's going on.

But I'm really left with the question, how do you tell the difference between a decision that is stomach turning because it's following God and therefore the right decision, and one that turns your stomach simply because it might be the wrong decision?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Down on the Farm: You Are What You Eat

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 13:24-34.  This series was based on a series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton.

Last week as I was driving to House, I noticed in one of the fields that there was a man out there just standing in it, and I thought it was a little unusual, but kept going, and on the way back to Melrose he was still standing out there, and again I thought that was a little strange, but what do I know.  But again today he was out there, and so now my curiosity got the better of me and I had to stop, and so I got out of the car and yelled over to him and he smiled and waved, and I said, “I just have to know what you’re doing?”  And he said “I’m trying to win the Nobel Prize” and I said, “The Nobel prize,” and he said, “Yeah, it’s pretty prestigious, and I heard that if you win one they give you more than a million dollars.”  I said that was true but didn’t really understand how he was going to win the Nobel prize, and he said, “we’ll what they say is that to win the Nobel prize, you have to be outstanding in your field, and since I’m the only one standing in my field, I think I’ve got a pretty good chance.”

Last week we began a new sermon series in which we are looking at what we can learn about the Christian faith from life on the farm, and today we continue with another agricultural parable from Jesus.  There are only two times that we are told that Jesus talks about weeds and they are in today’s passage, commonly called the parable of the wheat and the tares, and in last week’s passage of the parable of the sower.  In that passage, Jesus says that a sower went out to sow seeds and some fell on hard ground, and the birds ate it up.  Some fell on rocky ground, but the soil wasn’t deep enough for the roots to take hold, my theory being that there was a layer of caliche just below the top soil, and so when the son came up the plants withered and died, other seeds were planted among the thorns, or weeds, but the weeds grew up along with the other plants and choked them out, and finally some of the seeds fell on the good soil and in that soil, the seeds grew and the harvest was bountiful.  Now the analogy that Jesus is making in that parable, is that the soil is supposed to be our hearts, and the seed is the word of God.  How prepared are we to receive God’s word, to have it take root in our lives.  This is a story that we will continue coming back to again and again throughout this series.  

It is my contention and belief that in fact we are all four of these soil types throughout our lives, that sometimes we are hard as clay and can’t receive the word of God, other times our faith is shallow and it withers, and sometimes we are fully prepared to receive the word of God into our lives.  Hopefully we are more often like the good soil, than the hard soil, but I can tell you that that is not always the case in my own life.  And regardless of where we are, the way we prepare ourselves to be receptive to the word and to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to accept who and where we are and realize that only someone more powerful and stronger than we are can pull us out of the mud of life, then surrender our lives and begin to follow Christ.  Accept, surrender and follow are the first steps to discipleship

In today’s story, we again have the sowing of seeds but this time, rather than being different types of soil, there are different types of seed.  There is the seed that is planted by God, and there is seed that is planted by the enemy.  But, no one knows that this other seed is there until the plants start growing up and they are able to make a differentiation, until that point they all look the same.   If you’ve grown a garden you know that when it first starts, sometimes it’s impossible to know which are the weeds and which are the real plants and so you can’t really pull them out until you know for sure which is which.  With my lack of knowledge I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference even if I had planted them in the first place.

But it’s more than just being able to tell the difference, it’s also what we look to grow.  I ran into Tyler Belcher one day at Allsups and we were talking about the weather, and it was one of the days we were expecting rain, and I said that I hoped it would hold off for a while because I needed to pour some cement for our mailbox pole, and he said he hoped to get the moisture so that he might be able to get the wheat to grow.  Of course that was really the problem is that we got enough water for the weeds to grow, but maybe not much else, and that too is like our life.  Last week in talking about the weeds, or thorns that grow up and try and choke out our faith, we heard Paul’s famous quote that he does not do the things that he wants to do, but instead it is the things he does not want to do that he does.  And the same is true with the gardens and crops of our lives, “we do not grow the things we want to grow, but the things we do not want to grow is what grows.”  Can you identify?

Now the three biggest threats to crops, as most of you know, besides for lack of rain, are bugs, disease and weeds.  This is true whether you are planting just your small garden in the backyard of thousands of acres, and so it is with our lives as well.  Bug and insects eat the plants or do lots of damages which threaten their health, and disease obviously can do the same thing, and weeds compete for water, sun light and nutrients, and if they can win that battle then the crops are threatened.  As one farmer said, “if you didn’t use chemicals and herbicides it would be bad.”  When my brother lived in North Carolina, his girlfriend’s uncle grew tobacco, or as he said, in a thick southern drawl, “baccer,” he bemoaned that DDT had been banned, because he said “that stuff killed everything,” of course that was the problem, DDT killed everything, as Rachel Carson so memorably recounted in Silent Spring. 

What are the weeds that are destroying our spiritual lives?  What are the weeds that are growing up and choking our faith?  What are the weeds that are taking away our nutrients and water and sun?  What are the weeds that are distracting and distancing us from God?  What are the weeds that are destroying our crops and stopping us from bringing in the spiritual harvest that God is calling for us?  Sometimes we might not even know what it is because we might, in fact, think we are doing just fine and we don’t know that our fields are full of weeds until it’s too late, because we are distracted and not paying attention and so we let things into our lives that we shouldn’t, and sometimes we can’t tell the difference.

While from Jesus’ telling of this story there are no botanical descriptions given, some have said that these weeds, or tares, are the bearded darnel, which grows throughout the world, but is found particularly in the middle east, which is why some speculate Jesus was talking about this, and it looks a lot like wheat until it is time to harvest, at which time it’s easier to identify.  Because wheat is planted close together, pulling it out will indeed harm the real wheat if you were to pull it out, and what the bearded darnel also does is to wrap its roots around those of the real wheat insuring that if you were to pull it out, you would pull out the good plants.  But the biggest problem with these weeds is not simply the fact that they threaten the wheat around them because they fight the other plants for nutrients, water and sunlight, but that, because of a fungus that grows on the bearded darnel, it is actually poisonous, and delivers a toxin to whoever eats it that can cause drunk like symptoms, hallucinations and can even cause death, although this is more common in livestock than in humans, but there are recorded deaths from people accidentally eating bearded darnel.

And what brings in these bad weeds, what allows the seeds to be scattered into our lives?  In today’s parable, it happens while everyone is sleeping.  In Matthew and the other gospels, when Jesus talks about sleeping, it usually has the connotation of spiritual sloth or neglect, after all Jesus chastises the disciples continuously to what? Stay awake.  When we are sleeping, when we are neglectful of our spiritual lives, then we are liable to be sowing seeds into our lives that we would rather not have present.  Now some will argue that it is the devil that does these things, and certainly some can make that argument from today’s passage, but I’m of the belief that I am quite capable of sinning all by myself, I don’t need the devils assistance in doing it for me.  And here’s the absolute truth, Satan, no matter how you understand that term, cannot make you do anything, and when you try and place the blame elsewhere, say it’s someone else’s fault, do you know what will happen?  We will never learn from our mistakes because we have never taken personal responsibility for those mistakes. 

Now as I already said, last week we talked about the first steps of how we became disciples of Christ, and they were to accept, surrender, and follow.  The first three steps of 12-step programs modeled this are “to recognize that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable,” and then to recognize that only something greater and more powerful than ourselves can pull us out of the mud, and then to decide to turn our lives over to the care of God.  And then the fourth step is to make a “fearless moral inventory” of our lives.  That is where are the weeds growing, and looking at how they got there.  Of course, what 12-step programs also know is that while trying to eliminate weeds and bugs and disease with chemicals and herbicides might work out on the farm, they won’t work in our lives, which we’ll get into more next week.  When it comes to our own wheat and tears we need to be organic in what we do.

Now Jesus clearly recognizes the presence of evil in the world, recognizes some of the undesirable things in the world, in the church, in our lives, those things are there.  (Disciples making way to Jerusalem, all have wheat and tares, not just Judas, but Peter and the others) Sometimes we want to be the ones to remove them, we want to make judgments about people and situations, but what Jesus says, is that we can’t do that, that that is up to God.  Now this does not mean that we are to be quietists, that is people who simply accept and then sit back and wait for God to do everything, that is not what we are called to do, or how we are to deal with and challenge evil.  But we must also recognize the old statement that the road to hell is paved with what?  With good intentions, and sometimes that which we might like to remove are actually vital.  I like to harass Linda that the state flower of Texas, which is the blue bonnet, is actually a weed, which she doesn’t find very entertaining.  Instead I should instead see it as Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” 

So, we are left with the question of how we are to make sure that we are only growing spiritual wheat in our fields, rather than tares, how do we make sure that we are not sleeping and allowing the wrong things to grow, and for the answer to that I think we have to go back again to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and his general rules.  Does anyone remember what those three simple rules are?  The first is to do no harm.  To do that we have to take a step back and evaluate everything that we do, everything we think and everything we say.  It is to recognize that everyone else is a child of God just as we are, to treat them as such, and to let God be the one who does the judging and the sorting.  The second step is to do good.  This is when we take a step forward and engage with the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving hope to the hopeless, walking with each and everyone one of God’s children through the journey of life.  This is a key one because if you are spending all your time doing the right thing, then you won’t have any time doing the wrong thing. And the third and final rule is in Wesley’s language, attend upon all the ordinances of God, or as Bishop Reuben Job said, stay in love with God.  

Wesley has six things to do to help us do that, and here is the good news for all of us today, we are doing at least four of them today.  They are attending the public worship of God, check, the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded, which we are doing both today through the reading of scripture, and then me trying to expound upon that word, participating in communion, although we only do that once a month, it was something that Wesley encouraged us to do as often as possible and to follow his example which was to take it usually 3-5 times a week, next is family and private prayer, which we will do today.  The other two are to search the scriptures, which you might do today if you are looking for what I am talking about or thinking, he didn’t say that did he, and finally is fasting or abstinence, which as the NFL begins next week you could also begin practicing by being in worship.  But we need to also make sure these are things we do more than just on Sunday, because if we only do it once a week, then we are sleeping on our spiritual lives and we can be sure that we will begin growing weeds in our spiritual lives.

There is the old saying that you are what you eat, and you are what you watch, and you are what you read, and you are what you say, and you are what you do.  We are called to be ever diligent and attentive to the soil of our hearts, to prepare it for receiving the word of God, to not sleeping on our faith so that we don’t allow the wrong types of seed to take hold.  And that begins here.  It begins by gathering to worship God every week, it begins by reading the Bible, it begins by engaging in individual and collective prayer, it begins by searching the scriptures, it begins by fasting and abstinence, and it begins by partaking in communion.  Jesus says you shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and he says that whoever eats of this bread shall never be hungry, and whoever drinks from the cup shall never be thirsty.  

The Christian life begins with accepting, surrendering and then following, and we continue on the path by being ever diligent in our faith life, in seeking to avoid situations in which we allow weeds to grow in our life which can grow up and choke out our faith, and we do that by first doing no harm, second doing good, and third by staying in love with God, and when we do those things then we keep our soil fresh, we keep it watered, we keep it filled with the right nutrients, and we keep from allowing the weeds to even begin to grow and we then produce the harvest that God has called for us.  May it be so in our lives my brothers and sisters. Amen.