Changing the Rule

Exodus 16:2-15  | Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1:21-30 | Matthew 20: 1-16

Everybody stretch your shoulders a minute for a brief exercise, if you are able. By a show of hands, how many of you here today are cradle Episcopalians, meaning you’ve been Episcopalian since your infancy? . . . (keep ‘em up, if you can) How many of you have been Episcopalian for 20 years or more? . . . How many of you have been here at All Saints’ since its beginning in 2007 or have been in The Episcopal Church at least 10 years? (you’re probably getting tired, cradle folks–hang in there!) Five years or more? For how many of you is this your first visit, or you’re not even part of The Episcopal Church but have landed here at this point in your spiritual journey? Here’s the thing:

All of you are welcome here, in this place and at this table.

(You can put your arms down now.) All of you are invited now as ever to taste and see God’s grace and mercy. Is there more grace and mercy available to you if you’ve always been faithful and devout? Do you have special privileges if you’re an old timer, get more bread at communion for holding your arm the longest? No. It’s the same for everyone, infinitely and abundantly the same. The kingdom of heaven, according to our gospel today, shows no partiality amongst its workers.

This is good news. We are all equal, have the same access to God through Christ, receive gifts of the Spirit. Why can’t we leave it at that?

Well, Jesus said, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” All I hear at first glance is that there’s a first and a last, and Jesus knows I want to be first. I want to be rewarded for my efforts. I want it to show how much I love and serve, how close I am to Jesus as His number one fan. Last week (I’m sure you remember) I mentioned that Peter’s question about how many times to forgive was a question of quantity: just how much do we have to do to be good or right? This is a humanly economical thing to do, to quantify something so we can measure rank or amount, put “stock” in something. With such a measure, we can gauge our self-worth, estimate our value. We can also judge others. I want to be first in my devotion and faithfulness, not the least devout and most unfaithful. In my striving to be the best and most, I compare myself to others. I might even begin to think that I don’t have what it takes to be first. So focused am I on increasing my value in the system that I complain when things fall short, I complain that I don’t have enough. I might even think that I am not enough.

When we lived in Fayetteville from 2004-2012, I noticed this increased lingo about who was “native” or not in Arkansas, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Returning to the area of my nativity, I can’t help but notice that this distinction between natives and non-natives has reached almost a fever pitch, as if only those born and raised here have a right to give voice to the way things should be, now or going forward. We’ve been here longer than they have, so we have greater value.

Consider also the young children brought here with their aspiring immigrant parents, parents who were hoping to find their place in the economy, establish their value in the social and cultural constructs. These children, many now adults, are struggling to maintain a sense of security in the only place they know as home. They are looking to the others who have been here longer to help them, to protect them. Somewhere along the way they heard and believed that people were to look after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, that people were to love their neighbor. As they clamor to rush paperwork, our DREAMers are trying to navigate a system that sees them as another statistic, another number.

With our emphasis on earthly things, we cling to our human economy, constantly compare, and make our value judgments based on what we determine matters most. We get anxious thinking that we will come up short in this valuation, afraid that we won’t measure up.

And then Jesus goes and affirms that if we’re first, we’re going to be last.

That makes us even more anxious, unless we understand the love and compassion Jesus shares in these words. Can you hear him saying that you can be first, third, 50th, or last; what matters is that you’re part of the kingdom. You’re in. Notably, however, we’re not the boss. We’re the hired laborers doing the work, tending to the resources made available to us by nature of our position. We tend to think that the materials we work with, the resources we use, the compensation we’re given is all ours. So we hold onto it. We might even do a really good job of tending it well, watching the quantity multiply. But holding it to ourselves traps it, in a sense, keeping it from being in circulation. Whether it’s money or time or products or anything valuable, if we hoard it, we prevent it from being in the flow, being part of what Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute calls “holy currency” (he has a whole book about it). Healthy congregations, healthy societies, healthy systems reap the cycle of blessings when the holy currencies are enabled to flow and fulfill the will of God, to manifest the Kingdom.

At one of his workshops, Eric Law shared with us an example of how not just someone but a community rallies to perpetuate an economy determined by values of the Kingdom, where everyone and everything has value. It did take the resources of one to help make it happen, but it has involved the whole community to keep it going. It’s the JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey. (JBJ for Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) It’s one of those kitchens with great chefs and many hands and many patrons. Where some pay for their meal with cash, giving whatever they can afford but at least the minimum donation, and some pay with an hour of their time to volunteer, paying for their meal with dignity. What is most valued here is LOVE.

Love is God’s economy, and we can’t get it fully because it defies our understanding. In our human economy we are so predisposed to focus on scarcity, of there not being enough, that accepting even the possibility of there being enough for everyone seems improbable. It’s improbable if our systems adhere to human economy. Enough for everyone is provided by God. We, as caretakers and workers of Creation have imposed our earthly values. Gold is just another metal except that “its rarity, usefulness, and desirability make it command a high price.” What if we replaced greed with love? What if we gave power to those who truly exemplified the love of Christ? What if we frame our hope for the future around a kingdom of heaven that does welcome all, that values love above all things, and requires us to be good and faithful workers in the field, doing whatever work we are gifted to do?

I’m an optimist. Of course I can imagine a place in time where we make the Kingdom a reality this side of heaven. I’m also realistic, so I know that the odds are not in our favor for the whole world to coalesce into a single hum of peace and love. But if we keep making pockets of the kingdom, we are doing good work. We support places like Soul Kitchen–places that affirm and support the dignity of all persons and pay attention to their stewardship of creation. We realize that whether we’re native or alien, we are here together–whether that be in Northwest Arkansas or in this country. Our job is to love one another. That might look like protecting one another. It might look like getting someone out of a ditch, carrying them to the one who has the cure, or standing or kneeling beside them in their deepest, darkest grief. We might have done this all our life or just realized that this is what we’re given to do. Either way, we don’t push our way to the front of the line.

We make a bigger circle so we can gather around the table and marvel at the beautiful tapestry of the heavenly kingdom revealed as beloved community on earth.

 

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Our Fertile Ground

 

Genesis 25:19-34 | Ps. 119:105-112 | Romans 8:1-11 | Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23

Hopefully you’re all familiar with the Sunday School curriculum we use with our children: Godly Play. In this curriculum, which is heavily based on story-telling, there are special lessons in golden boxes, golden because they hold something to be treasured and opened like a precious gift. These are the parables, holy mysteries in our tradition. And we tell the story in Jesus’ words and ponder at the mystery of it, wondering–because that’s what we do together in Godly Play, we wonder–what it is that Jesus is really trying to tell us, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

Thanks to our gospel lesson, we impatient adults don’t have to wonder too much today because Matthew shares with us Jesus’ explanation to the disciples. The parable of the sower is focused on the good soil, the fertile ground, that will bear fruit of the kingdom once it’s given the seed of the Word.

Whereas Jesus gave a very quick riddle of sorts to the great crowds that surrounded him (so much so that he makes an auditorium out of the sea side), he explains the parable to the disciples in clearer terms.

  • The word of the kingdom = seed
  • The path = heart
  • The various conditions = world/what’s between the world and the heart
    • Evil one
    • Lack of depth/roots
    • Too much of the secular world

It seems clear-cut, but what does it mean for the “word of the kingdom” to be sown into our “heart”? The seed is not just the words that come from Jesus’s mouth but his very words and deeds, actually himself that is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the seed, sowing himself into the hearts of those who surround him . . . or at least trying to.

What of the various conditions of the soil, of the hearts of the people in whom Jesus Christ is trying to germinate?

In the midst of the pericope we have today, in the verses we jump over, Jesus quotes Isaiah. Isaiah was prophesying what would go wrong with the people of Israel, what would come between them and the LORD their God and set them up for judgment, and we realize that this is also true of the people in Jesus’ time because he says the prophecy is fulfilled in them. They can’t understand or perceive because

“… this people’s heart has grown dull,

And their ears are hard of hearing,

And they have shut their eyes;

So that they might not look with their eyes,

And listen with their ears,

And understand with their heart and turn–

And I would heal them.”

The great crowds are flocking to Jesus for healing, whether they knew it or not. Their hearts drawn to him like a magnet.

Contemporary Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault says that the heart–our path, our soil–is an “organ of spiritual perception,” the “perfect holograph” of the divine. Created as we are, perfectly and in God’s image, our heart is the “homing beacon” that ever yearns for its source, its pure identity. Can you imagine the magnetism of Jesus, perfection incarnate? Bourgeault and others point out, however, that our hearts are overrun with interference, which drown out its connection to its source, dulling it so that we neither see nor hear the kingdom at hand, even when it’s within our midst. Our hearts are dull, indeed, our ears hard of hearing, our eyes unable to see.

This might sound very esoteric, but practically speaking, we realize how true this is. If you were to answer on a scale of 1-10 how fertile you think your heart is to receive the Word, to let the Spirit fertilize and nurture the Word in the midst of your life and others so that you bear fruit of the Kingdom, are you super-rich soil at a 10, or nearly depleted and rock-hard at 1? Chances are that we span the spectrum on any given day, really.

During morning prayer, I’m fertile ground, and journaling feels like a dance with Spirit, pouring out my heart and soul, nearly writing poetry in praise and thanksgiving. Then the weeds and thorns start to crowd in with all the stuff of life that has to be done. What if I’ve just gotten back from a conference or a really good gathering that has given me one of those mountain-top experiences? I’m high on life lived in the Spirit, but then I can be devastated by tragic news, someone’s terminal diagnosis, or a challenge I don’t see a way through. Then put me in 5:00 traffic on I-49 in a construction zone, and my heart can become rock-solid. Morning prayer is long-gone, and by the end of the day, I’m too exhausted even for compline.

It would be easier for me to tell you the ingredients we could buy to amend the soil of our hearts, where we could go to find the best soil and keep it ever-fertile and rich, but the truth is, as faithful disciples of Christ, we don’t buy anything or go anywhere. We can’t, actually. We have to be who we are, where we are. We realize that the very heart we have, whatever state of health it is in, it is our path to God. We might get benefit out of a retreat or vacation, to let some of the interference fall away, but we open our hearts right where we are; there’s no escaping them, no place we can go where our heart isn’t with us (at least in the same room, in cases of surgery!) just as there’s nowhere we are that God isn’t also present.

The Word that we see or hear may be out loud or beneath the surface, kind of like a parable, but we only find what we seek, we only see what we’re looking for. We only grow that which we nurture. Any gardener will tell you that a garden requires work and tender loving care to produce the best fruits. Now, Spirit is generous and sometimes gives us abundant volunteers (I used to think the compost pile was an intentional cherry tomato factory), but the best fruits come from loving intention.

Between our God-given heart, the Spirit that dwells within us, and Jesus Christ, the Word that is, as our Psalm suggests, “a lantern to my feet and a light unto my path,” if we focus our attention and intention on God’s will, what is there that we cannot do? It might sound like we have to align the stars just right–and in a way, we do–but it’s not impossible. When we acknowledge and comprehend that God is very much at work in our lives, the stakes change.

Like I’ve said before, life can get harder. The evil one that plucks the Word out of our heart before it’s had a chance to sink in gets even more stealthy as our faithfulness grows. But so do we. We learn what practices keep us nurtured. When and how do we pray. With whom do we surround ourselves? What are we listening to? What are we reading? What kind of community are we nurturing locally and globally in the decisions that we are making? Am I doing this all on my own, or am I letting the Trinity work through me? Am I giving my best effort to tend to my gifts and skills so that when people meet me, they know that I’m doing something important, even if they don’t know what it is. It could be that Jesus is healing them through us.

This has mostly been framed with a mind toward the individual, but it works at the corporate level, the group level, as well. What is the state of the heart of All Saints’? We’ve been planted well, the Word settling deep in our heart. We’re still young as a congregation. Seedlings have to be tended to carefully, often supported by something more stable, as we have been by surrounding parishes and are by the diocese. We’re often repotted when we’ve outgrown our current pot, eventually settling in a place where we can let our roots grow even deeper.

But all the while we are living and growing, participating in the cycles of our lives and the liturgical year, always beginning again with the purpose first and foremost to give glory and praise to God. At the Tri-faith book club, we realized that our traditions all have as our focus to worship God. Worshipping God is part of our mission in the Christian Church, which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, in Love. We work toward this restoration through prayer and worship, through proclamation of the Gospel, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. (I’m not just making this up; it’s in the Catechism, BCP p. 855.) These are good practices to keep the heart of All Saints’ nurtured and aerated and nourished so that the Word of the Kingdom will fall onto our rich soil, our ready heart and bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven in ways we have yet to imagine.

And that’s why we hold the parables in their golden boxes. The mysteries they hold are full of divine imagination we will receive differently at various times in our lives. Sometimes we’re ready to understand, and sometimes we can’t quite yet. We have to make sure our path, our heart, is tended to so that when the gifts come our way, we’ll know how valuable they really are.

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