Sunday, August 17, 2014

Morning Walk

Morning Walk from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Genesis 32:6-12, 22-31

6The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and also the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, 8thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”

9And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff have I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. 11Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. 12Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”

22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children,  and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23Jd took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking on toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come,” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Jacob, the classic trickster of the Old Testament, is out of ideas. He may have fooled his father Isaac and stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, but now his brother is back with an army of 400 men. Jacob is a wealthy man, but all his gains are ill-gotten, results of his trickster ways and his ability to use his cleverness to gain at the expense of others.

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

Jacob, whose pranks are the stuff of legend, who has always managed to gain and keep the upper hand, is out of ideas. He writes off have of his household as lost, knowing that he cannot withstand an attack by such a large force, but maybe he can escape with the survivors. His mother’s favorite, but second-born, child, Jacob learned to always look for the advantage.

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and also the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”

Jacob, the heel-grabbing younger twin, faced with the potential wrath of a cheated older brother, is out of ideas. 

Unless,

Unless the promises of God, unlike those of Jacob, are reliable and sure. The only trick Jacob has left is that God is not a trickster like he is.

“And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’  I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff have I crossed  this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”

This prayer, I think, marks a turning point for Jacob. His whole life he has been able to take the blessing of a sharp mind, which God had given him, and used it for his own benefit. This time, with the weight of past debts riding towards him, that's not at option. He recognizes that his ability to outmaneuver his opponents has failed him, so he must turn from cleverness to faith, reminding God of the blessings of God's promise, and crediting God with what the Trickster had "earned" in his journeys.

He has no other option, and turns to God, knowing full well that if God chooses not to intervene, it will mean his destruction. "The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok."

Peter has been in and around boats his whole life. He was a fisherman, after all, before a traveling preacher named Jesus told him to "Come, follow me." Now he's learning to fish for people, but he's the one who feels caught.

He's caught up in the moments when Jesus heals the sick, he's caught up in the inspiration of the crowds when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, even when he doesn't understand Jesus's full meaning. Peter is caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee while his miracle-working master is praying on his own.

But the ranks of the disciples are filled with experienced fishermen, who know how to handle the wind and the waves. They're in the deep water, where their boat was designed to be. A strong headwind and some battering waves far away from land is a good workout, but no reason to panic, at least not yet.

But then something strange appears out of the fog, a human figure, at first mistaken for a ghost. "And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, 'Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.'" The disciples do not fear the storm, they have experience with the natural. The idea, however, that something supernatural is at work gives them reason to cry out in fear.

Something supernatural is at work at the Jabbok.

Jacob is striving against a mysterious figure, a man who is not clearly identified in the text. They grapple with one another through the night, and Jacob cannot quite get the upper hand. On the other hand, the unnamed man does not prevail against the heel-grabber either. "When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, 'Let me go, for the day is breaking.' But Jacob said, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.'"

The Trickster, the Heel-Grabber, refuses to loose his hold on the man, even though his hip is dislocated. “Jacob had asked for a blessing. Perhaps he dreamed of security, land, more sons. But what he got was a new identity through an assault from God.” He demands a blessing, and receives a new identity. "So he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Jacob.' Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.'" The Heel-Grabber is liberated from the hold the past held on him. Esau is still waiting for him, but a newly-named Israel is able to face his past without being bound by it. Instead of hanging on for every possible advantage, Israel can see the value in the struggle, knowing that the process is perhaps even more important than the results.

The blessing of Israel is a new liveliness that means he can move forward to reconciliation with Esau, he is no longer the weary trickster out of ideas, he is Israel, who has struggle with God and with people and prevailed. But he is neither in a position to strut, nor swagger. Neither can he run away from trouble or dodge the storms that lie ahead in his path. The blessing of newness of life is so great that it leaves him limping.

But the limp blessed him with the ability to step out on faith.

Peter stands on a boat in the middle of a storm, but the storm he can handle. It’s this supernatural walking on water that gives him pause. He cries out in fear at the sight. 
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come,’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.”

Peter hears his master’s voice telling him “Come,” and in it he hears a command powerful enough to convince him to get out of the boat. he hears the same voice that commanded him to put down his nets and become a fisher of people. He hears the same voice that told him that Blessed are the peacemakers. I wonder if he heard the Word that was with God and was God at the beginning. I wonder if he heard the Word that rang out saying “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” He heard his teacher and his friend say “Come,” so whatever was packed in that simple command, he got out of the boat and walked on water.

Peter can only hold on to his faith in Jesus’s command for a moment. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” 

Peter’s absolute faith in God’s ability to call him out onto the stormy water falters, but his hope that his Lord can still save him does not. When you’re out on the water, in the midst of a storm, and you go from walking on water to sinking, there are no more tricks. There are no sails for this fisherman to trim, no clever ideas for keeping the collection of beams and sealant afloat, because Peter, nicknamed “Rock” has walked out onto the water to have an encounter with God. Not even his faith, a blessing time and again in the past, is sufficient to save him. The only solid thing he has left is the hope that his Lord is trustworthy and sure, that God’s blessings can outmatch the storm.

“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’”

I imagine “You of little faith,” which is only directed at Jesus’s followers, never unbelievers, as though it is always said with a smile. Drawing Peter up out of the water, Jesus knows full well with which kind of limited people he is working. Jesus knows that the faith of all of his followers is finite.

But the God in whom we have faith is infinite, and perfects out faith in us even before we know how to act on it or carry it forward into the world. God’s blessings are not a promise that everything will suddenly be easy. In fact, God’s blessings challenge us to do what is difficult. Peter did not walk on calm waters, after all. He stepped out of the boat in the middle of a storm. While his fear sank him, for a moment there, God blessed him by letting him walk on water.

Peter’s cry as he is sinking echoes Jacob’s prayer when he knows he will encounter Esau. Both rely solely on God’s grace when their own abilities, Jacob’s cleverness and Peter’s faith, fail. “Lord, Save me!” and “Deliver me, please,” are variations on the same hope. Our hope is in the one who blesses us in ways beyond our imagination.

But those blessings are not always the grace that is usually imagined. One could say that Israel limped on water for the rest of his life. He was free from his old patterns of behavior, but his damaged hip was among the blessings he was given that night at the ford of the river Jabbok. Jesus caught Peter and pulled him up, a reminder that even as a fisher of people, he had been caught already, and that one day others would take him to a place he did not with to go.

God’s blessings can leave us limping or empower us to walk on water. Perhaps though, those are not so far apart as we may suppose. Israel’s morning walk took him from the place where he had spent the night struggling with God, called Penuel, and led him to reconciliation with his brother, Esau, rather than the battle he had perhaps expected. Peter’s morning walk took him from the familiarity and safety of a boat into the middle of a raging storm just because his Lord called to him.


God has blessed us with each other, with a unique community and a particular place to go out and do the ministry to which God has called us. We will find our own version of walking on water as we seek to worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone. We will find our own painful reconciliation as we limp across the ford of the river Jabbok. But we know that the blessings of the LORD are all around us, and that whether we are limping or walking on water, God is still active among us, and for that, we will live in gratitude, service, and love, singing praises to the one who intervenes in this world and empowers our ministry.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dinner Conversation

Dinner Conversation from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 14:13-21

13 Now when Jesus heard [that John had been executed], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

My Dad is a storyteller, many of us know him from his days as the Executive Presbyter here in Western North Carolina, others of us met him Friday night as he moved around the reception, proud papa of a teaching elder. I, of course, know him in a different way than the rest of our congregation, what with him being my Dad and all.

Dad had some wisdom that he shared, periodically, on the subject of storytelling: "All stories are true, some of them actually happened."

A human life is a collection of stories. We are the main character in most of them, but not all of our stories feature our names on the title page. We inherit stories from those who have gone before us, and pass them on to generations whom we have not yet met. "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,"

Our stories define us and connect us with the ones with whom we share them. That's why we so lovingly choose children's books when we gather for a baby shower, books like The Runaway Bunny, or Goodnight Moon, or I Love You Forever, because we remember how lovingly those stories were shared with us, even before we knew why that mattered. We know that many of those stories did not happen, but that doesn't make them less true.

The stories that did happen are our Mothers reading us The Runaway Bunny and we knew that she would love us to the end of the earth, no matter what happened. The stories that did happen were our Father's telling us the stories of what happened at work that day, and making us feel loved and accepted by including us in the Dinner Conversations. The stories that did happen were our Mothers' making up a tune to sing while reading I Love You Forever, before we understood that it meant more to her than it did to us.

Our experience with those stories made their truth real to us.

But not every dinner conversation was a pleasant one, and there is more than one story in our anthology that doesn't have a happy ending. There are tragedies alongside the comedies. Those stories are true too, and their harshness shapes our lives just as much as the warmth of the happy stories does. We don't tell those stories as often, and we certainly don't tell them because they're pleasant, or happy, or polite dinner conversation.

In a few minutes, we will gather around the Lord's Table for a sacrament, but we will do so knowing that the dinner table was not a safe place for everyone. Some tables are terrifying centers of abuse, altars to trauma that removes our ability to tell our story the way it happened.

We tell the hard stories because they're true. Even we cannot face that truth straight on, we can tell the truth, but tell it slant.

Sometimes we tell stories in ways that open up old wounds, it's painful and may leave us bleeding, but it's also the only way to make room for healing.

All this happened, more or less.

Our Gospel lesson this morning tells the story of a miracle. Jesus, out of his grief over the loss of his cousin and colleague in ministry, John the Baptist, "he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns."

The story of Jesus is so filled with truth, that crowds gather and walk around the outside of a lake just for a chance to have a piece of God's truth.

"When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick."

Even in his grief, Jesus is still filled with compassion for God's people, and rolls up his sleeves to minister to them.

"15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’"

The disciples see God doing great things, and immediately miss the point. Again. But I wonder if maybe they saw that Jesus was tired, and that he needed space to grieve, but this crowd did not see it, they only saw their own need for healing. Perhaps the disciples were trying to protect Jesus, and were showing love and care for him, at the expense of the crowds.

16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 

The disciples, perhaps hoping to give Jesus a chance to rest, want to just wave the crowds off to fend for themselves, Jesus’s boundless compassion looks creatively at the situation and finds a way to teach the disciples what it looks like to love God and neighbor by feeding those who are hungry.

17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’

When our mission falls flat on its face, and we are left with “we have nothing,” God finds a way to include us in the healing work of God. God’s compassion includes us even when we think we have nothing to give. Because even when we have nothing, we can still share our story, our part in God’s story, our partaking of the bread of life. “The Lord’s Supper is, in the first place, the sacrament of the sharing of the divine life with humanity.”

19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Ah, the miracle. The part of the story where more empirically minded folk raise an eyebrow. There is some speculation as to how this miracle actually happened. One theory is the traditional magic basket approach, where the bread and fish multiplied and never ran out. The other is the stone soup version, where the crowed, inspired by Jesus's generosity in sharing what little the disciples had, revealed that they had brought a little with them, and the hearts of the whole multitude were changed such that they shared everything they had, with plenty left over.

I think either one counts as a miracle. I personally favor the traditional interpretation, that God provided abundance from nothing so that all could be fed. The more modern understanding, however, that God changed the hearts of thousands through a simple act of generosity is a profound miracle as well.

I also think that if it were essential for us to know one way or the other, the Holy Spirit would have included the pertinent details in the unique and authoritative witness we have in scripture. Such a detail would fit in well alongside the stories of God providing manna in the wilderness, or alongside the account in Numbers of each tribe's identical offering for sacrifice and for the tabernacle.

But irrespective of the details, the truth of the story is that through God's intervention, we are fed and what looked like scarcity has become abundance.

But without the stories we tell, we would never get to experience that truth. For Presbyterians, the reading and proclamation of the Word is always tied to the sacraments, because the story and the truth it contains, give us language to describe our experience of God. “The elements of bread and with mediate the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ only insofar as they are celebrated in the larger context of those narratives that identify Jesus as the Christ.”

All stories are true, some actually happened.

But the stories we tell around God’s table are not empty fantasies, they are truth-laden testimony to who God is, and to who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.

The proof is at the table, where we are invited by Christ to dine with our God throughout the power of the Holy Spirit. We are elevated by God through the sacrament to sit and share a meal with disciples in every time and place, and the elements of bread and wine awaken us to the real presence of Christ among us.

One theologian, writing about what happens at Communion, confessed that nobody really gets it, that the sacrament, by its nature, is a mystery. “Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret to lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.”

Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand serves as a reminder that we cannot do our work apart from God. Communion reminds, reveals, and promises the God is in our midst, empowering our mission, finding ways for us is worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone.


Thanks be to God for that.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ordination Service!



Watch my ordination live! The service starts at 6:30, we'll probably start streaming around that time as well.

You can also watch it on youtube.

Thanks to everyone who is helping with the service, my administrative commission, all the musicians, and everyone who travelled to be here today!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Go, Therefore



1 Kings 19:9-18
9At [Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah] came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it way."

11[God] said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD  is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so string that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and wont out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 14He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." 15Then the LORD said to him, "Go return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as King of Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kind, and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 28:16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Both of our stories this morning are, I'm quite sure, familiar to all of us. They are stories where God shows us something of himself. In 1 Kings, God reveals something of himself through the sound of sheer silence, or a still, small voice in other translations. In Matthew, God's self-revelation comes in the form of the post-resurrection Christ, sending the disciples throughout the world and promising to be with them.

But besides their familiarity and God's self-sharing, these stories are connected through the doubt they portray in those who serve God. Some of the disciples, seeing Jesus ready to ascend to heaven, doubted. Elijah is just coming off of a major victory against the prophets of Baal and loses his nerve, fleeing into the wilderness until he comes to Horeb, the mount of God, which is sometimes also called Sinai.

One story takes place where the instruction of God came down, the other where the Word of God made flesh was taken up, and both are filled with the doubt of those who lived through them.

We are living through frightening times. An hour's worth of evening news is good for a full night of unsleeping anxiety. That doesn't even count the innumerable small things that make our daily lives uneasy: family unrest, problems at work, troubled friendships, health issues, money troubles, the list goes on. Like Elijah, we may be driven out into the wilderness just for a chance to get away from the problems we see.

"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it way."

I feel like I've been doing everything right, and yet so much is still going wrong! I'm out of ideas, out of energy, out of resources, "I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." We can almost taste the unspoken plea as it rests just behind our lips and Elijah's, "O God, please help me..."

We expect God to intervene out of wind, earthquake, and flame, elemental solutions to the problems of our souls. We see them as something we can grab hold of, a solution tailor-made to impress us and restart our struggling faith.

But God was not in the wind, neither was God in the earthquake, or even the fire. "After the fire a sound of sheer silence." No distractions, no excuses: it's time for a face-to-face chat with the almighty.

I don't think it goes the way Elijah envisioned it.

When we're in the kind of mindset that I see in Elijah here, we expect that God has somehow done us a disservice, and that when we present our case, God will apologize and take us up into his loving embrace and promise that it'll all be better soon. "Look God, we had a deal. I would be a good person and you would make my life easy. I've been a good person, very zealous for the Lord, and yet my life is still difficult. Come on! Do your job! Make me happy!"

"Elijah..." says the LORD, in the same tone of voice, no doubt, that God used when he called to  Adam and said "where are you?" The tone of voice that indicates that God already knows the answer, but is giving us the opportunity to confess it ourselves. "There came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

So Elijah lays out his case, woe is him, for his task as a prophet is so difficult, and he's all alone. "He answered, 'I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.'"

I love God's response here, because it's so vastly different than what we expect from God when we're standing in Elijah's shoes. I think we expect a pat on the head and an invitation to rest until we're no longer tired of the big mean world in which we live.

God response, instead, bypasses our whining and sends us back out to work. For the prophet Elijah, on the run and feeling all alone, "The outcome of the [experience of God] is vigorous, risky intervention in the life of Israel and of its neighbors." Elijah's solution was to retreat from the world' God's commissions him to engage it, to continue preaching the Word of the Lord in the face of ridicule and persecution. God's command of faithfulness does not mean withdrawing from the world, but getting to work for the good of God's people.

And yet God does not just leave Elijah feeling ignored either. His concerns are valid, our world is harsh, and its people resist their Lord beyond belief. God reminds Elijah that he is not alone, as he feels. He is called to anoint the next generation's prophet: Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah. God also tells him of seven thousand other faithful people still living in Israel. Elijah is not as alone as he thought.

Though it's tempting to get caught up in our own struggles, and to imagine that we are alone in all the world, God reminds us that we do not go into the world by ourselves. Wherever we go, we're going together.

I am terrible at telling ahead of time what events in my life are going to be a big deal to me. I didn't think my Seminary graduation back in May was going to be a big deal, and it surprised me. I thought the Presbytery meeting on Tuesday would be just another, final, hoop through which to jump, after all, I've already been a pastoral presence in this congregation for two months. I had been through the wind, the earthquake, the fire, in seminary, in the committee on preparation for ministry, and the call search process. No distractions, no excuses: it's time for a face-to-face chat with the presbytery.

It did not go the way I envisioned it.

Like Elijah’s prideful loneliness, I had overlooked my community of faith who surprised me with a profound expression of y'all's love for me. A group of folks, representing this whole congregation, met at the church at way-too-early in the morning to ride the church bus for two hours because we neither struggle nor triumph alone. Wherever we go, we're going together.

That's the lesson I took from Elijah's encounter at Horeb, the mount of God. The impressive fanfare of wind, earthquake, and fire do not contain God, although they point to him. Once God has our attention, through the sound of sheer silence, we encounter him face-to-face and are reminded that, excepting only Christ, the world does not begin or end with any lone individual. God elects a people.

We have stories of individual encounters with God, Jacob at the ford of the river Jabbok, Moses at the burning bush, Saul on the road to Damascus. "These encounters with individual persons are characteristically not ends in themselves but concern [the LORD's] larger purposes.”

God’s purposes are almost always larger than a single individual. God intends good for all of creation, and for all of those whom he loves. God gives us one another and calls us to journey though our lives as connected, particular people. We each have our own experiences and are called to share them with one another. Even though I was surrounded by my fellow Presbyterians on Tuesday, many of whom have known me since childhood, the fact that my church sent a group to represent them means more than I can express. Through your expression of love, God spoke to me saying that wherever our church is going, we’re going together.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

There will be days when we have doubts, both as individuals and as a congregation. When we do, however, we join the company of Elijah and Christ’s earliest disciples. They make for good company, even in our doubts. Even though Elijah’s plea may taste just a bit like self-centered whining, even though the disciples doubt in the very face of the resurrected Christ, their doubts are not unfounded.

We are living through frightening times. An hour's worth of evening news is good for a full night of unsleeping anxiety. That doesn't even count the innumerable small things that make our daily lives uneasy: family unrest, problems at work, troubled friendships, health issues, money troubles, the list goes on…

But we do not have to face our fears alone.

Like the disciples, called by God to a place of worship, we have seen the risen Christ among us. God has promised to go with us, even when it means death on a cross and the depths of human suffering. Like Elijah on Horeb, the mount of God, we are reminded that there are faithful people in our communities who can be a comfort and fellow kingdom-workers with us.

God shares himself in the face of Elijah’s fear by giving him a job to do, and reminds Elijah that he is part of a beloved community on whom God would not give up. “The LORD said to him, "Go return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as King of Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place… Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” I do not know where this church is going, but we are going there together.

Christ sent us out into the world saying “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I do not know where this church is going, but I know that God goes with us.

We will have doubts, we will have fears, but we will also have triumphs and will lift up our heads in hope, because God goes with us as we travel together. From Horeb, the mount of God, to Galilee, the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to the foothills of Western North Carolina in a little town called Lowell, we will move forward together, knowing that God goes with us.

These stories are familiar to us because we have keep telling them to one another. They are not just bible stories, they are our stories, and we have lived them as much as the characters who are featured in the text. We know that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that support can overwhelm our loneliness and help us get back to showing the love of Christ as we work with each other and walk hand in hand.

I do not know where this church is going. My hope is that we are on the edge of profound spiritual growth and faithful service, but I do not know what that journey will look like.

I do not know where this church is going. My hope is that we are leaning forward into a future where we will see God’s wonders in our congregation, our presbytery, our denomination, our community, our region, our world, but I do not know what service God has in mind for us.

I do not know where this church is going, but I know we go with God, and with one another. So let us Go, therefore, into the world. We have work to do, obedient service to Christ our king. It is not our ability that makes this work doable, it is the fact that wherever we are going, we go together. It is the truth that whoever we are going, God goes with us.


Alleluia, Amen

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Invasive Maneuvers!

Invasive Maneuvers! from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

44"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So will it be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." 52And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

God intervenes.

I was meeting with the chaplain at the hospital near where Leah and I live. One of the first people I met at Shelby Presbyterian Church had gotten the impression that I wanted to be a chaplain and so set up a meeting for me with the the head of the pastoral/spiritual care unit at Cleveland hospital. It was a good meeting, we shared lunch. Towards the end of the conversation, the chaplain asked me what single phrase I would choose to describe the good news God has given me to tell through my ministry.

There's a lot of good news to tell! So much that it took four gospels to describe just some of the aspects of who this Jesus character is! No one person could carry the whole of the good news through their ministry, except of course Jesus. Spoiler alert: I'm not Jesus. So Chaplain Len Byers question has stuck with me as a way of focusing myself, not trying vainly to give the whole truth, which is so much bigger than me, but just pointing to the piece of it I have been given to tell.

God intervenes in this world.

Jesus taught in parables, we've all grown up hearing them, and the last three weeks worth of gospel readings were from the same chapter, and all of them are parables. "[These parables] are not simple illustrations but...enigmatic utterances teasing the mind into reflection and response." They're a window that allows us to see how God is at work, but only dimly, because they can only describe what the kingdom of heaven is like, they can't paint an unambiguous portrait that encompasses the whole of God's kingdom.

But these parables invite us to be curious about how God is at work in the world. They provide narratives into which we can insert ourselves, but it's not always clear what God the Son is telling us about God the Father through these stories. When Jesus asks the disciples, at the end of our reading this morning, "Have you understood all this?" I picture them awkwardly shuffling their feet in the sand before giving their teacher the answer they think he wants. We can imagine them wondering, maybe it'll make more sense once I hear the next thing. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't get it. Maybe he'll be disappointed in me if I say no. So they say "Yes?"

But I don't believe them. I'm highly suspicious of anyone who claims that they totally understand everything Jesus said. The truth is not dependent on our understanding or knowledge, we're just people after all. But when knowledge fails, we still have faith, which guides us forward in spite of our limited understanding.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand.

In fact, we often understand very little of the world around us. One of the oldest questions that religions all over the world have had to address is "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

One of the solutions to this issue is to write off this world as inherently sinful, and that those of us who are saved will ascend to heaven where there will be no more suffering. I'm sure we've all heard celebrations of "When I get to heaven, something will no longer be a problem." There's even a taste of it in our scripture passage, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So will it be at the end of the age..." I think that kind of theology can be a great comfort to people at certain points in our lives, but when we get stuck in that mindset, it can train us to only look to the future for God's activity. One day God will do this... as though God is distant, or sleeping, and not active in the world all around us.

This mindset may be especially appealing in our success, when we can tell ourselves that our victories are out of our own ability and goodness, rather than free gifts from the God of all creation.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future.

I've always pictured the parable that begins our passage this morning through the classic Sunday School image of a tiny seed that grows over time into a mighty tree. Whenever someone brought up the image of a mighty tree, I always pictured the 200 year old oak that sits on the front lawn at my home church in Morganton, so big that it takes several people holding hands to wrap their arms around it, with long branches and broad leaves. We've got one beside our church. Isn't it amazing that such a small seed can grow into such a mighty tree!

But that image doesn't take into account what a mustard plant actually is. "Jesus probably has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image, drawn from the Old Testament, that a mighty Political Kingdom is like a great and strong tree." Growing up in temperate climates and deciduous forests, our image of a great tree brings oaks and hardwoods to mind, those are noble trees. But a mustard plant is a fast-growing weed, sure its seeds can be used to make spices, but in the arid ground of first century Palestine, growing plants for flavor was a waste of garden space. Imagine Jesus standing in the shade beneath a mighty tree, perhaps one of the cedars mentioned so often in the Old Testament in connection with Israel's monarchy, and describing the greatness of the kingdom of heaven as being like... kudzu.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers.

Jesus is a master of reversing our expectations. We expect a mighty tree, he gives us an invasive weed. We expect inspiring speeches, he gives us veiled stories. "He put before them another parable." We expect a conquering king driving the occupying Romans out of the Holy Land, he gives us a poor traveling rabbi. We expect a great and strong tree, he gives us a mustard plant,"it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." It's a wild and invasive plant, it's tiny seeds would get mixed in with the seeds a farmer would plant in his or her field, and the farmer would never know something different was coming until the fast-growing mustard would appear in the midst of his carefully cultivated crops.

So too the kingdom of God tends to mess with our carefully cultivated ideas. I think sometimes God likes to remind us exactly who is in charge around here. In the words of one writer, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." We try to put up barriers to God so that we can maintain the illusion of control over our world instead of relying on the faith of one who finds a "treasure hidden in a field... then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."

These parables give a picture of the abundance and invasiveness of God's kingdom, not as a far-off future, some utopia for which Christians can hope. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God is at hand, not on the way. The kingdom of heaven is breaking into the world and we get to watch as it happens. As followers of Jesus Christ, we even get to participate, as God works through us in the world, showing that God does not always wait for an invitation, but seeks out those who are in need. So too the church seeks ways to gratefully live in faith.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. 

Someone told me recently about a preacher who confessed that many of his prayers were variations on "God, I have a problem, and here's how I need you to fix it..."

But we don't get to choose the solutions. Sometimes we get the ones we pray for, the one's that we think fit our plan the best. Other times we get a mustard plant in the middle of our wheat field. It's never what we would have chosen in our own narrow view of our needs, but that's how the kingdom of heaven works. It pops up where we do not expect, and will take over our carefully cultivated plans in a hurry.

We can try and hold on to our own interpretation, and it is faithful to try and discern whether God is invading or if something else is trying to pull us off course, but it's important to remember what God has already done in our lives, to be reminded of who it is we serve, and to help us discover what God is doing in our midst. It will be surprising and sometimes frightening, because it's out of our hands. But we're in God's hands, and though it's not our control, it's even more comforting.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. We don't control the way God moves in the world.

So we're not in control, but we do have faith in the Almighty God, whose kingdom is already present among us, breaking into our daily routines that surprise us, and comfort us at the same time. Perhaps, when we learn to watch for God's activity among us, we can put aside some of our fears and trust God to carry us not just at the end of the age, but right now. Our hope is in the future God has promised us. Our comfort is in the mighty works God has done in the past, recorded in scripture and remembered in the stories we tell from our own lives.

But we have the opportunity to sing praises to the God who is doing marvelous things. So our response is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, because he's not content to let us alone, but claims dominion over all creation, from the earth, all stars, and planets rushing through space to the daughters and sons at prayer here in this small-to-medium sized church in a little town called Lowell. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."



I wonder how God has intervened in our lives?



I wonder how we can watch for the kingdom of heaven present among us right now?

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. We don't control the way God moves in the world, but we are rescued and reformed by God's invasive maneuvers.



I wonder what God's invasive maneuvers will be in the life of this group of people?

Let's find out.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Taking on Heirs



Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went awy. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' 28He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29But he replied, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together intol the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"...

36Then he left the crows and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of he field." 37He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 28the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up wit fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Romans 8:12-25

12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh - 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!" 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Leah and I have been married for a little over three years now, but have been a serious part of each others lives for almost nine. We met one another's parents pretty early on, but the question of fitting with one another's extended family took a while longer to get settled.

There's always some trepidation involved with meeting new family, especially family you're trying to impress so that they'll say good things about you to your future father-and-mother-in-law. So several years ago, when Leah took me to meet her family that still lives in Alabama, I was more than a little anxious. Alongside the hugs, the greetings, the welcome homes, there was also the furtive discussions of "that boy." Wouldn't you know it, every one of those discussions involved pointing fingers, stealing glances, and meaningful nods in my direction. I was "That Boy" to her family.

But as the weekend went on, I had a chance to gather around a table and graze on h'ors d'oeuvres with some of Leah's older cousins, while their children played in the back yard. Eventually, Leah's cousins broke off leaving only their spouses and me and half-eaten bowls of vegetable dip at the table. Then the conversation turned.

Each of the folks around the table introduced themselves to me again, and started sharing stories of how they used to be "that boy" or "that girl." They remembered their awkwardness aloud, and got to know me in a way that was more full of camaraderie than expectation. Each of them remembered their family inspection, and as a group they adopted me into the "that boy" club. We former outsiders made our own in-group out of the shared experience of trying to live up to the person who introduced us to the family.

That memory is perhaps the highlight of my Alabama trip.

Just so, Paul's theology of adoption is one of the highlights of his letter to the Romans. It's an image for the way God claims us and defines our identity.

The Christian Church in Rome was founded by someone other than Paul, and as such his letter to them does not address a specific issue in the life of the church, as many of the other letters of Paul do, but rather it introduces the Apostle, and gives us a summary of his theology as a whole.

But there was an issue that was eating up the Christian church in Rome. There was division between the Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul is speaking to a church that had divided itself along racial lines. The Jewish Christians on the one hand, the Gentile Christians on the other. The Jewish Christians were very proud of their heritage, of their connection with the ancestors whose stories and struggles are told in the Old Testament. They had been a part of God's covenant people already when they heard the good news of Christ.

When a social group gets put under pressure, there's a natural human tendency to try and hunker down into a defensible position, and to identify who is and is not part of our little tribe. When we feel threatened, we start dividing ourselves into smaller groups, to pull inward because it feels safer. We revert into an almost primal state of making sure our group, and only our group, will have access to the limited resources around us.

But the gospel challenges us to reach out to those around us, rather than to reach into ourselves. Because we have been adopted as fellow heirs with Christ, and whatever may be threatening us is "not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us."

Paul is a Jewish Christian, and was trained as a Pharisee before he converted to Christianity, so he has the same connection that they do. But he was sent as an Apostle to the Gentiles, to spread the good news beyond his own people. He does not discount the importance of the covenant with Israel, but he describes the relationship that we have with God in a deeper, more powerful way: Where there had once been a law, an instruction, a covenant, now there was adoption. God  claims us and defines our identity. Unlike a law we could break, "redemption is the powerful act of a loving God... and part of that love is not to allow us to botch it up." Redemption means adoption into God's household.

We are members of God's household, not as servants, but as fellow heirs with Christ. We are not hired into the household, we are adopted into the family.

My family line is very important to me, I keep wondering how much it would cost to get an artist's rendering of my family tree, depicting both the people and all the complicated relationships therein. I am, after all, Joseph William Taber IV: son of a minister, grandson of a neurologist, great-grandson of a construction worker who was also a poet. That's just one line, the Joseph William Tabers. There's also the Potters, the Barnettes, the Shrewsburys, the Boshells, the Barnards, and many dozens more than I could hope to count. Each family has stories to celebrate, triumphs and struggles, and more than a little baggage that their members carry with them.

But even though my family heritage has shaped my identity, it's not the founding principle of who I am. I am a child of God, adopted into God's household, and a fellow heir with Christ. There's not anything I've done to apply for it, I don't have some special genetic link, I certainly don't deserve such an honor, but that's the Christian claim: We are adopted by our heavenly Father. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we are somehow holier than those who do not go to church every Sunday. I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we are always going to be happy or successful in this life. I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we have access to some magical ability that is otherwise inaccessible.

The Christian claim is that God claims us and defines our identity.

My father-in-law tells a story of when he was young. It was the time in our cultural history when it was fashionable to leave home and go "find yourself." He packed his bags, and got ready to go, and announced to his dad that he was headed out to go "find himself." His Dad replied, "You don't need to go find yourself, I'll tell you exactly where you are. You're Don Boshell and you're standing on my front porch in Townley Alabama." Don was apparently satisfied by that, because he went back into the house and unpacked.

God claims us and defines our identity. But part of our task as the church is to remind one another of that adoption, because we will forget from time to time. Paul, in Romans, was writing to a church that was struggling with its own identity, with what it meant to be united in Christ, rather than divided by family and ethnic ties. The early church faced persecution, and Paul's assurance is that there is hope that outweighs the present suffering. Verses 18 and 19, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God."

God claims us and defines our identity.

It is tempting to set aside who we are and whose we are when things get difficult. It is tempting to trust in our own ability, because we can see the work of our own hands, but trusting the hope we have in God takes faith that may look like a luxury when we are suffering. Paul is pushing us towards acting in faith, knowing that part of the life of a Christian is suffering, but the claim God places on us through adoption defines us more than suffering ever could.

God claims us and defines our identity.

But it's easy to forget that truth when things are going well for us. In times of trial, we fall back on our faith for comfort, crying out "Abba, Father." But when things are going well, it's easy to forget what it means to be God's children. The church's job is to remind us of what it means to be a fellow heir with Christ. "If they are God's children, they are to think of themselves as in the same family as Christ, set to inherit all that Christ inherits. What Christ receives at his death is both suffering and glory"

God claims us and defines our identity. We are not who we are because we are successful, neither do we find ourselves in our suffering. We find ourselves when we orient our lives toward our relationship with God. The church is a community who have come together to remind one another of who we are and by whom we are adopted.

This church family has adopted me, and some of y'all are fiercely protective of me, others have expressed, and shown, a willingness to help me in any way possible. The reception we had to welcome me and Leah a couple of weeks ago was a big event in a long line of confirmations that this congregation and I are called to walk together into the next chapter of our ministry.

We know that new life in Christ is emerging into the world through the cross and the empty tomb, but it is a difficult transition. Paul is dealing with the suffering that still exists in a redeemed world, and uses the beautiful metaphor of childbirth to explain the connection between suffering and hope. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."

We are not satisfied with the state of the world right now, because we have seen a piece of the what redemption looks like, the first fruit of the Spirit. So we work to show the world the hope we have in Christ, and to proclaim the kingdom of God in our midst. When the rest of the world turns inward in the face of tension, dividing into opposing camps, the church is called to go out, and proclaim the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Perhaps that's the next chapter in our ministry, to be the strange folk who run to help, knowing that even when we stumble or end up going the wrong way, we are still adopted by God, and there's nothing we can do to lose that claim.

God claims us and defines our identity.

Because we have received a Spirit of adoption, and our church is stepping into the breach to share the hope we have for each other and for the world. We also know that we are not our own. We belong to God, as fellow heirs with Christ, who will not let us go. We will not always get it right, in fact we humans have an almost majestic capacity to botch things up. But we at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell have been called to be together so that we can share in both the suffering and the hope as "we groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." While we wait for that adoption, that new life, we know who it is that claims us and defines our identity. We know that it is God who redeems us. Therefore, let us orient our lives toward relationship with God, and to live out our adoption into Christ's love.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Understanding Mystery

Understanding Mystery from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 55:10-13

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there until they have watered the earth,
Making it bring forth and sprout,
Giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11So shall my word be that goes from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty
But it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
And succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
And all the trees of field will clap their hands.
13Instead of the thorn shall come the cypress;
Instead of the briar shall come the myrtle;
And it shall be to the LORD a memorial,
For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the crowds stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

My Dad spent many of his days off working in our yard, doing landscaping to make it feel more like home to him. I think he also did it so that he could spend a day working and see the results at the end of the day. Seeing the results of work in a church is a rare gift for a minister. Whenever I could, I helped him in the yard.

The soil in Burke County, where I grew up, is mostly red clay. When it's wet it turns into the heaviest mud you've ever seen and when it dries back out it turns into brick. Not a lot of good soil for planting and growing.

So Dad would order truckloads of topsoil and build up raised beds around our yard, breaking up the uniformity of the grade and adding some texture to our yard. We planted mostly flowers and shrubs. We went to the local hardware store and carefully select which little plastic tray had the best looking plants, then individually popping them out and placing them in a carefully measured hole in the high-quality topsoil we had purchased for the raised bed. We'd diligently mold the soil around the roots, top it off with a little mulch, and repeat the process until the project was complete. Then we'd carefully water the whole bed so that our little shrubs could properly thrive.

At the end of the day we'd sit on the porch with a glass of cool water or iced tea and survey the work we had done, enjoying how pretty and inviting the flowerbed already looked. Some days, instead of a raised flower bed, we'd work with potted plants to spruce up the porch or the driveway, transplanting plants into larger pots as needed, carefully cultivating our time and money to bring about the best possible result.

While I'm sure that God the son would be pleased to see a father and son team working side-by-side, Jesus tells a parable of a different style of planting. Rather than transplanting from pots and trays to a carefully prepared bed, he begins with, "A sower went out to sow."

The New Testament is full of parables, stories that are layered with meaning. They're kind of like an Advanced Placement version of discipleship. We've been unpacking them for hundreds of years, and they still have something to teach us. Jesus spins tales that invite curiosity and encourage us to explore what God is saying to us with each revisit to the story.

The parable of the sower is probably familiar to each of us. A farmer goes out to plant his crop, and he tosses out his seed, and it lands on several different kinds of ground, and each type results in a different kind of growth. Some dies before it can sprout, others sprout quickly and then wither, but some lands on good ground and provides a huge return on the farmer's investment.

Our human understanding would then suggest that we find more good soil, and only plant there, saving the seeds for the ground that will yield the most produce. We could carefully cultivate a garden with what God is doing, and find ways to maximize the gospel in that way, sort of a theological "best practice," as though the purpose of the church were efficiency, rather than faithfulness.

But the problem with that plan of action is that we only have a partial understanding of what's going on. God is often active in ways which we cannot see in this lifetime. Sometimes, we have to understand God's mystery through faith, rather than rthrough our own insight.

And that means spreading the word abundantly. We do not know which patches of soil God has elected as good, so the word must by spread with hope for all.

The farmer in our parable this morning is not setting up a greenhouse full of potted plants. His livelyhood is wholly in God's hands, and he is tossing out his seeds with reckless abandon, nowing that God's hgood harvest is assured, but not knowing where the best yield will come up.

So he casts his seed about, into the weeds, onto the road, in the shallow soil, and in the good soil.

There's no indication that he's aiming for any one particular place. He's just tossing out some seed, trusting God to produce whatever yield God chooses. Whether that be a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. The usual yield for a field of planting was three or four time as much return as one had invested. But the sower in Jesus's parable throws out the seed anyway, not in carefully prepared potted plants, but recklessly thrown wherever the seed might land.

The sower and cultivation of seeds is probably an image that came readily to mind in the farming culture of first century Palestine. But in 21st century America, most of us don't plant in the same way. We carefully set the boundaries of our gardens and raised flower beds, we choose the best bag of grass seed for the shaded parts of our yard and another kind altogether for the parts of the yard that get full sun. With very few exceptions, we're not relying on our yardwork to pay our bills for the year.

So what does it look like for us, if the recklessly faithful sower is not an image with which we can easily connect? If Jesus were shedding light on God's mysteries among us today, what image would he use to reveal this truth to us? An investment banker choosing stocks at random? A tech company developing whatever computer programs crossed their desk on a particular day?

I don't know how Jesus would tell it now, but I've seen some seeds planted this week at Workcamp.

By the end of the day Tuesday, I started to hear construction sounds around the neighborhoods as I drove to the houses where my crews were working. I assumed they were my crew, hard at work, and got ready to congratulate them for staying on task. When I arrived at the house, however, the crew was taking a break, sharing a devotional together, but the construction sounds continued.

As the neighborhood saw one house being repaired, they were inspired to do a little work in their own yards. They didn't have our funding, or our team of handymen guiding them, or our staff delivering supplies, but they got out their tools and tore down the old shed before it collapsed. They went ahead and added a railing to their back steps. They went ahead and pulled the nails out of the pile of scrapwood to make their yard safer.

When you scatter seed with abundance, you never know where you may find fertile soil. Perhaps in the hard ground of inner-city Petersburg a few seeds may sprout, not just in the houses where we work, but also in the neighborhoods that surround those houses. If we can take just a half a step in a week, that's worth celebrating.

Workcampers are are known in the city of Petersburg, where we have worked for twenty-six years. This year our home base, where we ate together, prayed together, played together, and collapsed from exhaustion at the end of each 16 hour day together,  posted bulletin boards covered in newspaper articles about us from the past 26 years of camp.

Two of my crews were on some of the roughest streets in the city. We sent teenagers into the area of the city where EMTs have standing orders not to enter until the Police have cleared the area. Driving up to one of these crews, I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of drug sales and I know I saw more than one handgun. We asked the police to increase their patrols in that area for the week we were there, but when our decorated vehicles and matching T-shirts rolled in, most of that activity moves away and leaves us alone. We may not have fixed their house, but we've done work on their grandfather's house, or their aunt's yard, or their sister's windows.

So by Thursday morning, all of the unsavory influences had moved away. That in itself is amazing, but what astonished me this year was when a couple of nine or ten year old boys approach one of my crews and asked if they could help paint the exterior of the house! Through their work, those two boys connected with our resident's son, a 22-year-old named Thaddeus.

Workcamp shows up for two weeks a year, we do some home repair, show the residents we love them, and maybe crime goes down or moves a short distance away for those weeks, but we're just passing through. Those 9-10 year olds found a male role model in their neighborhood who is going to be there for their day to day lives, and maybe show them a different possibility of what it means to be a man than they would have seen from the front porches in that end of town.

And if we had sought out the carefully cultivated raised beds, where we would have predicted that our seeds would grow, we never would have gone into those areas at all. It would have been easy to write them off as a lost cause, and moved on to areas that don't require as much bravery, as much faith, to enter.

"A sower went out to sow," and he tossed the seed all around, knowing that some of it would fail, just as the paint we put on the walls will eventually chip away, just as the gutters we repaired or installed will eventually leak, just as the handrails we built will eventually sag. "The work of the kingdom, like the work of the [sower], will take its share of blows, will have a series of overwhelming setbacks, but the abundant harvest is sure."


We will often not understand, in this fear-filled world, how God's abundant harvest will come, but God's will is not bound to human understanding. So the sower tosses his seeds around abundantly, know that God will provide from a place he may not have expected. The growth that comes from those who hear and understand the Word is worth the efforts that fail. God is able to pull up growth in places we did not expect, but we only get to see that happen if we throw the seeds out trusting that God will put them where they need to be.

Our scripture verse contains both a parable and an interpretation, which is pretty unusual. Jesus is content to just let most of his parables float out there without giving us much more insight. But understanding, in this parable, is highly valued. It's not enough to just hear the word. One has to be changed by the way God is working in the world, and in our lives. For Matthew, understanding is not just an intellectual exercise, it's is a commitment of being, rather than just grabbing new information.  "Such an understanding is so far beyond intellectual competence that it is regarded as God's gift." There's no way we can get to that level of understanding on our own, no stack of commentaries can change our lives, only God can bridge the gap to transform us.

God's will, however, is not bound to human understanding. God is always working in ways we cannot grasp. We are limited, God is not. So God is able to take scattered seeds and call them up out of the ground into a harvest beyond measure.

There's a lot in this world for us to fear. There are a lot of unknowns in each of our lives. But we know that our God reigns, and we know that God intervenes in the world. We also know that God's will is going to be done whether we understand it or not, and that God is working to the good of all creation.

So like the Workcampers who go to the dangerous neighborhoods to do their work, like the sower who spreads seed recklessly across all kinds of ground, "the church is called to 'waste itself,' to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God." We know that, even if we don't understand, our future is sure, so there's no need to try and maximize things on our end by investing only in potted plants. When we have the faith to live abundantly, to share love recklessly, we know that we are finally understanding mystery.