Monday, July 24, 2017

Don't Pull the Weeds

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            When I was a kid, I remember wondering why my father would walk around the yard pulling weeds before coming inside from work.  And now, as a father and a homeowner, I now understand why he did this.  It’s part therapy, part alone time, part yard maintenance, and part feeling of accomplishment especially on days when I feel like a failure.
            There is something cathartic about pulling weeds.  But I’ve noticed that for every one weed I pull three more spring up in its place.  And about mid-way through the summer I throw my hands up and say, “Forget it. It’s not worth it.”  So, if you see me pulling weeds this summer, I must be in need of some alone time!
            I love today’s parable about the weeds and the wheat.  Even though I am not a farmer, I know what it is like for weeds to grow up among the good stuff.  I know what it is like to get overwhelmed by the number of weeds.  I know what it is like to feel defeated because I just can’t keep up.
            Even if you can’t relate to the agricultural assumptions made in this parable, I imagine you can relate to the feeling of defeat, the feeling of getting overwhelmed by the constant barrage of bad stuff springing up in a life that you’ve worked so hard to make good.  I imagine there are days when you just want to throw your hands up and say, “Forget about it.  It’s not worth it!” 
            At the end of the day, pulling weeds might make us feel accomplished.  Pulling weeds might solve the problem temporarily.  But our own efforts to combat the bad stuff in life is always incomplete.  The weeds will always grow back and sometimes they grow back bigger and badder than before. 
            For this reason, the farmer in today’s lesson tells his servants not pull the weeds before the harvest.  The farmer tells the servants to wait; the weeds will be separated from the wheat at harvest time where they will be burned with an unquenchable fire. 
The parable reminds us that God’s way of dealing with the weeds is total and final while our ways are incomplete.  God will deal with the weeds in a way where they can never come back.  The parable hangs on the promise that God will clean up the mess, a mess that we tend to make worse when we try to take matters into our own hands.
            Today’s parable is a teaching on how the people of God are called to be in a world where weeds threaten to destroy the good harvest.  How do we, as followers of Jesus, contend with evil in a world that God declares as good?  How can we be faithful to God in a world that is grown over with weeds? 
And just because we shouldn’t pull the weeds doesn’t mean we are supposed to go and find another yard that is perfectly manicured with lilies and roses.  Nobody’s yard is perfect, anyway!  So, if we can’t pull the weeds and if we can’t find another yard, what is our response?    
Like the servants in today’s parable, our first instinct is to figure out how the weeds got there in the first place.  Where does evil come from in a world that God declares “very good”?  Because if we know how evil got there, if we get to the root of the problem, then surely, we will know how to stop the problem from happening again?
We as mortal beings have come up with a lot of temporary answers to the problem of evil.  We’ve tried really hard to get to the root of the problem.  We have democratic governments, medicines, weapons, and technologies that are designed to keep violence and disease and war and death at bay.  We have come up with some very sophisticated weed killers but none of them last – none of them can totally solve our problems.
Laws that we thought were good for us turn out to be bad for someone else.  Medicines that treat one symptom cause unforeseen side-effects and may even mask another problem.  Weapons that were made to offer protection are often used to destroy.  Technologies that promise better communication also promote isolation in the worst way. 
While many of these solutions are born out of a desire to do good, like the servants’ desire to do good for the famer by offering to pull the weeds, our solutions are incomplete and are prone to create more problems.
Biblical scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright proposes that the new problem of evil isn’t wondering how evil can exist in a world where God is good.  Rather, the new problem asks, “how can evil exist in a world where we have come up with all sorts of solutions to keep evil at bay?”  How can weeds keep popping up when we have constructed a lot of sophisticated weed killers?
Wright argues that we must admit three things before we can deal with evil in a Christian way.  First, we must concede that the best governments even the ones rooted in democracy are imperfect.  Second, we can’t pretend that the devil or forces of evil don’t exist in this world.  Lastly, the line between good and evil isn’t us v. them but a line that is drawn down the middle of us all.  Sure, you can’t compare Bin Laden to the guy who robbed the 7 – 11. 
But when we separate good people from bad people, we underestimate the pervasiveness of evil and tempt ourselves into believing we can do something to rid the world of evil.  If the answer to evil was that easy, God would have executed his justice long ago.  And Lord knows, if God were to eradicate evil today, then I’m not sure any of us would make it.
At this point you might be wondering, what can I do about evil?  Yes, I know we can pray about it.  But what can we do it about?  What is our faithful Christian response?  The short answer – our response is one of hope. 
Our response is one that trusts that God will separate the weeds from the wheat at harvest time.  Our response is one that believes evil will not have the final word.  Our response proclaims the truth that St. Paul proclaims in today's epistle - the sufferings of the present time aren't worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us.   Our response believes that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a hell fire of destruction but the children of God shining like the sun.
Instead of trying to put out the fires, instead of trying to pull up the weeds, we are called to live trusting that evil, in all its ugly forms, is only temporary and live toward the reality that is permanent – a reality filled with light and life.
When we live according to the promise of God’s eternal truth, our lives then become centered on God – the source of all goodness.  And when our lives are centered on God, then we will shine like the sun. 
But when we live our lives trying to combat evil and death, then we ourselves get tangled up in evil and death until we become empty and lifeless.  When our lives are defined by trying to rid the world of evil, then we become the evil we are trying so hard to fight.
In the end, we are called to have faith that God is taking care of evil and death.  God has the whole world in his hands.  And the good news is that we have reason to hope that God has taken care of evil and death through Jesus – the crucified One who is risen from the dead – the One who lives beyond the worst kind of evil this world has ever seen. 

We are called to let God be God.  And when we let God be God, then we can focus more on being the people God made us to be.  When we let God be God, we are free to focus on living into our true vocation, we are free to focus on being the children of God who shine like the sun.  When we let God be God, when we are influenced by the eternal promises of God, we, the children of God, shine so brightly that evil becomes only a footnote in the story of salvation won for us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.            

Monday, July 3, 2017

Welcome: Risk and Reward

          “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” This tag line represents our church’s commitment to welcome all who come seeking the Lord.  This tag line also challenges us to remember that there is no asterisk next to the word “you.”  You are welcome – no if, ands, or buts about it. 
            This past week St. Paul’s welcomed about 20 youth from the Diocese of Olympia, which includes the western part of Washington state.  They were traveling through the South on a Civil Rights pilgrimage.  And I am proud to say that St. Paul’s gave them a warm welcome because that is who you are.  St. Paul’s has a lot of gifts to offer and high on that list is hospitality and welcome.
Stained Glass Window as you enter St. Paul's
            This church embraces new comers and visitors in ways that other churches only dream about.  Most of the churches I’ve been associated with have had official welcoming committees with meetings and trainings.  But not at St. Paul’s, because welcome and hospitality is what you do and you do it well.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  A quick exegetical note tells us that the term “little ones” in this passage does not translate into “little child” like you might see in other places of the gospel.  Rather, “little ones” in this passage can be better translated as “itinerate disciple” – a pilgrim.
            With no advertisement, I receive phone calls from all over the country asking if St. Paul’s can host itinerate disciples or pilgrims.  Again and again, St. Paul’s welcomes these pilgrims warmly.  And I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a “simple” meal or welcome in the St. Paul’s vocabulary – you go all out!  Clint and Jill Wilkinson hosted a feast at their river house this past week for the group from Washington.
            You may remember several years ago when the President visited Selma.  And St. Paul’s, who is located smack dab in the middle of the city, was able to accommodate about 150 pilgrims in the courtyard.  You handed out bottled water.  You had snacks.  You had phone chargers on hand.  You even pulled out the TV so the crowd could watch the President live.
            Next month, a group who is on a nationwide bicycle ride in the name of homelessness is making a pit stop in Selma and will be staying on our campus.  Yet another opportunity to welcome the itinerate disciple or pilgrim. 
            In March of next year, St. Paul’s will host an Episcopal Youth Ministry called Happening.  You will be asked to prepare meals for the group.  You might also be asked to invite these youth into your homes so they can take showers over the course of the weekend. 
            Whether you like it or not, St. Paul’s is known for her incredible hospitality and welcome.  Every year St. Paul’s is asked to host a meal for the Sawyerville Day Camp staff.  And every year, the staff looks forward to the meal we provide the most because again there is no such thing as a simple meal at St. Paul’s.
            The posture of welcome might seem commonplace for us at St. Paul’s but welcome is a radical gift that Christianity gets to offer to the world.  Our Christian faith is grounded in the truth that ours is a God who welcomes us home every time – no matter what – through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
            Of course, the posture of welcome is challenged when we start expanding the circle of who exactly we are welcoming.  Our country is in a heated debate about how to welcome refugees.  The Episcopal Church continues to lead the conversation on how the Church can further welcome and include members of the LBGTQ community.  And of course, this church, St. Paul’s, after a few contentious vestry meetings, welcomed Jonathan Daniels and others who came to Selma for the Civil Rights Movement.
            In many cases, extending welcome comes at a cost.  Jesus said as much in last week’s lesson – “members of one’s own household will be divided.”  Today’s lesson concludes Jesus’ Missionary Discourse in Matthew and we have heard again and again in this discourse that living into the gospel message often comes at a price, for Jesus that price was death on a cross and for most of his disciples that price was persecution.
            Whatever the cost of our welcome, Jesus says, “you will not lose your reward.”  This is one of those sayings from Jesus that is easy to scratch our heads over.  What kind of reward will we not lose?  I’ll give you a hint – it is not a monetary reward.  But I suspect you already knew that.  Instead of trying to explain what Jesus means, I’ll tell a few stories.
            One of the many rewards for welcoming the youth from Washington came in the form of a blog post from Ari.  Ari talked about her experience of crossing the bridge – the same bridge that was crossed 52 years ago by the likes of Dr. King and John Lewis.  Ari said she had a very specific idea of what this crossing should be like – somber and reverent.
            As she crossed the bridge in silence, Ari noted that cars were whizzing by blasting music like it was just a regular day.  At first, she was frustrated because her expectations didn’t match reality.  But then this occurred to her, she wrote, “I saw how that state of mind could harm a place. Because there was more to Selma than Bloody Sunday and if we want to make change in the world we cannot look at any place as simple a historical landmark but a place that lives and moves forward.”
            Perhaps the greatest gift of welcome is that the very act of welcome builds bridges.  Acts of generous hospitality open us up to relationships that once did not exist – even relationships we thought couldn’t exist.  And these relationships, which center on the grace-filled welcome of God through Christ, are the relationships that have the power to bring healing and wholeness to a world that is broken by suspicion and ignorance and violence. 
            A few years ago, St. Paul’s welcomed a group of pilgrims who were contemporaries of Jonathan Daniels.  These pilgrims were remembering the 50th year since Daniels’ death in Hayneville.  We hosted the group for lunch in Parker Hall.  The program included Miller Childers, Harry Gamble, Celia Alison, and Alston Fitts.
            As the group listened to Miller and Harry and Celia and Alston, you could see bridges being built.  For 50 years, these pilgrims held some over-generalized ideas of what Selma and St. Paul’s were like.  One of these pilgrims emailed me to tell me what an impact these talks had on his understanding on what God was up to 50 years ago.  He closed the email by saying, “I shall have quite a different story to tell about St. Paul’s and Selma – one that is filled with beauty and hope.”
            As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, I would like to remember the words of welcome that thousands of immigrants received on Ellis Island when first coming to this country.  A poem on the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
            In a world that is devastated by division and suspicion, the gift a welcome is desperately needed.  Of course, there will be a cost to our welcome – Jesus says as much.  But the good news is that we will not lose our reward.  If we commit ourselves to the grace-filled welcome that God in Christ grants to us all, then how can we lose our reward?  Ours is a God whose welcome took his only Son to the cross.  And ours is a God whose reward lives beyond death and the grave.
            In the coming weeks and months and years ahead, I can’t wait to see how God continues to use St. Paul’s as a place of welcome – a place of generous hospitality – a place that continues to welcome Jesus Christ in the face of all people.  As Frederick Beuchner famously said, one’s vocation or calling is at the intersection of your greatest gift and the world’s greatest need.  For St. Paul’s, this intersection is welcome and hospitality.
            As we grow in our identity as a church who welcomes all, may God give us the grace and courage to risk more and more for the sake of the gospel.  May God give us the grace to be convicted of the truth that when we welcome other’s in the name of Christ, we will never lose our reward – no matter the cost.  Amen.