Weeds & Wheat, Brokenness & Freedom

19748394 10213643478988452 265816475924292413 nA sermon preached at Atonement Lutheran Church, Florissant, MO on July 23, 2017 on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-40; Romans 8:12-25

Those of you on Facebook might have seen that I recently spent 3 weeks in Sweden, Norway and France. For the Scandinavian portion of our trip, we traveled with one of my sisters, Pam, my dad, and his girlfriend, Helen along with our daughter, Leah and her best friend, Morgan. So we were a group of 7 traveling together for 2 weeks with the goal of not only sightseeing, but meeting some of my parent’s cousins whom my dad had met on previous trips.

In many ways, it was the trip of the lifetime and things went as well they possibly could as a logistically complicated trip with 7 people who had never traveled together. We had fun, saw incredible beauty, and had the loveliest and most meaningful time with cousins in both Sweden and Norway. We had 2 nights left on the Scandinavian portion of our trip after which Pam, Dad and Helen would head home, and my husband, Dan, Leah, Morgan and I were going on to Paris for a family wedding on Dan’s side.

I was tired, but feeling silly and was goofing around and I said something that Dan found hurtful. I didn’t even know I had hurt him, until he told me privately later. I didn’t mean to hurt him, I wasn’t mad, I didn’t have any underlying, unresolved issues; on the contrary, I felt so blessed and grateful, like one of the luckiest people in the world to have had these experiences.

But there it was: the weed of sin, brokenness, and my own capacity to hurt someone I love the most—coming up, sprouting, and bearing painful, rotten fruit.

“Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them” --meaning, you would uproot the wheat before it has a chance to bear good fruit. The parable continues, “at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in the bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

This parable of the wheat and the weeds, like the parable of the sheep and goats, are parables of judgment which only appear in the Gospel of Matthew. The Christians to whom Matthew writes in the late first century, are less concerned about their own sin, as they are about those who are not true believers, who do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew’s audience is also struggling against the power and oppression of the Roman empire—the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and their safety, livelihood and faith were all threatened. They wanted God’s judgement on these evildoers in their community and in these larger structures of society.

We can understand why people who are victims of oppression, violence, war, abuse, or terror of any kind, want the evil that caused their pain, eradicated. This is as true today as it was in the first century. There is sin in the structures, institutions and governments that exist in this country and around the world.

We’d like to think that it’s as simple as “some people are good and some people are bad,” allowing us, with Matthew’s community, to suppose Jesus’ harsh words in this passage apply to the evil and sin of those people over there, and in those structures, religions or countries over there. It would be nice if this were true—we wouldn’t have to look at ourselves.

In verse 41, however, Jesus says, “The Son of Man will send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.”

So it’s—not just all those other evildoers—those people and those oppressive systems over there —but all causes of sin, including in here, in our own hearts. Jesus doesn’t let us point the finger at others’ so easily.

The truth is, that some of those causes of sin are in everyone, some of those causes of sin are in me and in you—our selfishness, envy, addictive behaviors, fear, and capacity to cause pain (what Paul calls living according the flesh) even when we don’t mean to. We cannot escape our brokenness and sin, as much as we would rather spend our time and energy pointing out other evildoers and blaming them.

In our passage from Romans, Paul goes as far to say that the whole creation itself is broken from sin and groans with us to be restored from decay and death. But the decay and death, the tsunami and the earthquake, the hurricane and the drought, do not prevent us from beholding the majesty of Norwegian fjord or the Rocky Mountains, the hope of a new sprout in spring, the awe of a breath-taking sunset, the peace in a family of deer in the twilight, or the sacredness in the face of a newborn.

Reformer Martin Luther explained this experience of the wheat and weeds, the sacred and sinful, the beautiful and the broken, the love and the pain, indeed, the very goodness of God existing side by side with evil, in his teaching that we are, simul justus et peccator: we are at the same time, sinner and saint. We are justified and made righteous through Christ on the cross AND we live in a fallen state. We cannot escape sin until the Son of Man returns and brings the kingdom and the whole creation to fulfillment.

Paul describes this eloquently in Romans chapter 7 when he says, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me."

And so out come hurtful words from me, even while I am feeling embraced by God and loved by family.

You may have heard of the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is an author and an ELCA pastor serving in Denver, CO. She’s a recovering drug addict with tattoos of the church calendar up both arms, and she has a growing and unique ministry to people in recovery from addiction and others, who need to hear the Gospel of grace. Several years ago, I heard her speak at one of our National Youth Gatherings, and she told the story of learning from her now-husband, (also a Lutheran pastor) about Luther’s understanding of Simul Justus et Peccator. We are at the same time, justified by Christ and a sinner.

I’ll never forget her saying that it was the first time somebody explained to her why she had this great capacity to hurt and damage others, AND also had such a great capacity to love and to do good. The truth that God, in Jesus Christ, forgave her sins and worked through her to bring love, forgiveness and joy to others, EVEN WHILE she would always struggle with brokenness and the effects of addiction, led her on a journey of faith and a call to ordained ministry. THe congregation she started in Denver is in fact called "House for All Sinners and Saints."

After he describes our inner struggle between good and evil, Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death."

On our trip when Dan told me I’d hurt his feelings, I apologized profusely and felt terrible. The next day, I was still subdued and as we walked to our first destination, he came up and held my hand. He forgave me and we moved forward, enjoying the rest of our trip, which was as wonderful as the first two weeks.

Saturday morning, when I asked Dan permission to share this story of hurting his feelings on our trip, he asked, “what are you talking about?” He didn’t even remember it. That’s what Paul means when he says that Jesus sets us free.

Forgiveness sets us free—free to continue to love and serve! Forgiveness waters and feeds the good seed that God has planted in us, helping us to bear the life-giving fruit of forgiveness, love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.

These fruits of the Spirit enable us to participate with the good wheat in others, in our society and world, all the while trusting that Jesus will return. At the end of the age, the Son of Man will defeat all causes of sin in us and the whole universe, including death itself, restoring us, with all of creation, back to God.

Through Christ, we all will return to God, the very source of love and all that is good—who doesn’t even remember our sin—and instead, makes us shine like the sun!

Picture: Dan and me at the top of the Arc d' Triomphe in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

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Savoring Rather Than Rushing

blogpic catherineweddingcroppedTwo weekends ago my husband, Dan and I joined his family in Augerville-la-Riviere, France to co-officiate at our niece’s wedding. In preparing for the service, our niece, who was raised in France (Dan’s sister married a Frenchman), told us that the French like to savor experiences. Such savoring was an expectation not only for dinner (their wedding dinner lasted about four hours!), but the French also expected to savor the wedding service itself. A twenty-minute-get-‘em-in-and-get-‘em-out-wedding just wasn’t going to cut it. It was a new experience to bring this expansive attitude and energy to the planning of the service.

Being freed from both time constraints and the worry about them, allowed us all to breathe deeply and step into the experience with a sense of expansiveness and wonder. We had the time to take it all in, so that the emotions were felt more deeply, the significance of the moment was experienced more profoundly, and the bridging of family, cultures, languages, countries and continents was celebrated more vividly.

Because it was done in both French and English, the service was naturally longer than most American weddings. Some parts of the service were spoken in French and printed in the program in English and vice versa. Other parts were done in both languages. The homily (short sermon) was translated live by the groom’s two sisters who stood arm in arm and naturally took turns offering their interpretation.

Hand-written blessings from their immediate family members were written a year ago and kept in a small bag with their wedding bands. Then every guest at the service added their own silent prayer to bless the rings as the bag was passed around the congregation. Following the exchange of these very blessed rings, the immediate family members stood by the bride and groom and shared their blessing and hopes for them in both French and English.

This expansiveness of time and space that “savoring” the service offered, enabled us not just to talk about love, but to see it in action and to feel it in the moment. Savoring gave us time for honesty about the challenges of life together as well as its deep joys. Savoring allowed us time to build a community among people from such diverse places as we all affirmed that the deepest meaning and purpose in our lives comes through love and the relationships that sustain us.

I realized that savoring an experience is a spiritual practice. It helps me with what I think is intended when we talk about “mindfulness”—being fully present to the moment with an expansiveness that is freed from anxiety about the next thing. I wonder what else I might learn to savor? Perhaps this is also a gift of summer—taking time to savor a good book, our toes in the sand, a family game night, or time with our beloved. Perhaps prayer can also be savored--savoring God's presence and allowing God to savor being with us as well.

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Travel is Good for the Soul!

20170624 163356As I type this, I am riding a train from Stockholm to Gothenberg, Sweden. We are traveling with my Dad, his partner, Helen, and my sister, Pam, to meet some cousins in Sweden and Norway!

As we sat on the plane for our flight, Dan remembered a story his parents told about their first trip to Germany. They sat behind a family in church and marveled at how well their children spoke German; youth in the US don’t speak so fluently until high school! Their next thought was, “how stupid can be?!” Of course German was these children’s first language, not English as in the US.

We bring all of our cultural assumptions, expectations, and habits with us everywhere we go, and that’s why especially, international travel is good for the soul. It expands our frame of reference! It’s easy to make the leap that our way of doing things is not only the best way, but perhaps even the only way to do things. Visiting another country pops a hole in our assumptions and our “normal” framework. Since there are other ways of dressing, navigating the streets, building a house, or running a government, then maybe there are also different ways of seeing and experiencing God, too! How does someone of a different culture view religion and experience spirituality? And if I can be curious about this with someone of another culture, can I also then, be curious about and dialog with my own neighbor who is different from me?

Travel opens our heart and mind to the rich variety of creation and ways of living. But even if I cannot afford the time or expense of getting on a plane, I can be open and curious about those who live near me. St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia; I can expand my life and view of the world by befriending and welcoming them.

The Apostle Paul reminds us to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2); and this renewing begins by expanding our frame of reference, and opening ourselves to new ways of thinking and living. Sr. Carla Mae Streeter, Professor Emerita at Aquinas Institute of Theology, identifies such operations of consciousness as functions of our spirituality.

We have learned that our Swedish cousins receive a year of new parent leave from work with 80% pay, and the father's are required to take at least a month! Their summer house includes small cabins for each family unit so the extended family can be together. We loved learning about this more integrated way of balancing family and work and play!

So be sure to take a trip this summer--if not across the world, then perhaps across town or across the street, to engage in dialog with someone you don’t know or understand! It will indeed be good for your soul as it creates an opening for the Spirit to move within your heart and mind.

This is the first time I have typed and posted an entry from my phone, and this is also good for my soul! I even posted this picture from my phone of my Dad (on right) with his Swedish cousin, Kjell! Ja ja!

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Falling in Love with Church Again

Bishop Elizabeth A Eaton Select 05We can get so cranky about the institutional church today as loyalty to such organizational structures continues to diminish. But this past weekend, as I attended our Synod Assembly (like a District, Diocese or Presbytery in other denominations), I fell in love with Jesus and my church more deeply. It’s not that I was out of love with either, but our human tendency is to look at and even seek out the mistakes, the failings, and the sins of our institutions. Of course, it’s true that brokenness exists in the church as in everything that human beings do alone and together. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we also bring remarkable gifts of grace, healing, and empowerment to people in need of all the gifts of God we are blessed to share.

That was the message of our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, our special guest speaker at this gathering of pastors and lay leaders from Missouri and Kansas, as we observed the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Bishop Eaton is such a gift! So genuine, so humble, so real, and so passionate about the message that through the gift and grace of Jesus Christ, God sets us free—free to serve our neighbor generously, free to love God passionately, and free to live whole-heartedly.

I came away thinking that helping people fall in love with Jesus and with their church is the most powerful goal for every church-related gathering, be it our local council and committees, regional coalitions, or national gatherings. This is the effect Presiding Bishop Eaton has wherever she goes! Fall in love with how your church is sharing Jesus’ grace in the world! What we can do together as church is so remarkable, and so much greater than anything we accomplish alone.

God is working through us, even as sinful people; God is blessing the world through our churches, even as broken institutions. Hold fast to the big picture! We are reducing hunger in 63 countries through ELCA World Hunger! Lutheran Social Services is the largest social service agency in this country! We have over 240 missionaries in over 40 countries! We sent 79 women from 38 countries to the International Women’s Leader seminar in Germany! Lutheran Disaster Response is the last to leave communities affected by natural disaster whether it is an earthquake in Haiti or flooding in the Midwest; we accompany people until the job is done! The ministries go on and on!

At this assembly, we were reminded that the church does not have a mission in the world, but rather, God’s mission has a church in the world. Jesus sets us free and blesses us with all we need to accept this mission, and to carry it out with wholehearted generosity, faith, and love.

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