Proper 12A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

You’ve heard of United States Representative, civil rights leader, and conscience of the Congress, the late John Lewis, and of Bloody Sunday, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama on March 7, 1965 which lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No doubt you will have also heard of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott which occurred ten years before on December 5, 1955 that gave rise to the American civil rights movement.

But today, I want to tell you a less familiar story from 12 years before in 1942, about the church, racial reconciliation, and the struggle for justice in Americus, Georgia, a town less than 200 miles from Selma and Montgomery. It’s the story of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia farm where blacks and whites lived together and held property in common in what Jordan called an experiment in Christian community. It was fire-bombed, shot at, and boycotted by its Christian neighbors. The great civil rights leader, Andrew Young, said he and other leaders had known about Koinonia farm but never visited because if was considered too dangerous.

Clarence Jordan was a white man. He looked like Marcus Welby and Atticus Finch rolled into one if they had been an agriculturalist and bible scholar rather than a doctor and a lawyer. His home-spun translation of the New Testament is called the Cotton Patch Gospel. He was and is the spiritual father of Habitat for Humanity. Koinonia farm still exists to this day and its work continues.

One day, a neighbor and a deacon from the local Baptist church who led the effort to have Clarence expelled from the congregation for living with black people, drove out to the farm a few days after the vote filled with remorse for what he’d done. He couldn’t sleep for hearing that old hymn play over and over in his head, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, he confessed. He knew that he had been there. In fact, he had led the effort. He told Clarence he planned to resign from the church too. Clarence told him no. It was alright. He didn’t have to do that. “Instead,” he said, “I want you to go back to church and so live as to get kicked out.”

What might happen if we were to so live the gospel? How many places might we be kicked out of? Clarence Jordan’s advice to his neighbor and brother in Christ is a yard stick any of us can use to take the measure of our faith and a good starting point from which to pick up the thread connecting the five parables of Jesus that Matthew presented us with today.

Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 13:52). The treasures of our tradition are familiar, reliable, trustworthy, and wise. Yet also, by definition, they cannot be enough to tell us always what to do. What is most loving? Where does the Spirit lead? We must furnish the final answer. It’s up to you to decide.
Matthew shows us what it means to live as a person of faith serving the God of our ancestors who is always, already, working within each situation with crazy abundance sowing seeds of grace everywhere hidden in plain sight.

Like some display of fireworks, these five parables seem to point in every direction at once. Each is a work of art. Evocative, memorable, captivating, the meaning of a parable is difficult to put into words. Jesus apparently taught in parables. There is nothing like them in the Hebrew bible. The word means “something cast aside.” They are like something you only just see from the corner of your eye.

Jesus’ parables lead us somewhere new in our understanding. Their content is drawn from everyday life. Parables address themselves to people both inside and outside religion, people of faith and of no faith, to everyone confronting the same basic questions of life.

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a noxious weed giving shelter to flocking birds.’ The kingdom of heaven is like leavening yeast –which you’ll be surprised to know likely made our ancestors in faith scrunch their mouths into yuck-faces. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure you’d be willing to steal for. And also, the kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl you’d give literally everything to possess. And finally, the kingdom of heaven is an incredibly diverse community—like Koinonia farm—in which angels are working to sift out the bad and to keep the good.

The parables of Jesus turn us upside down and inside out. Pieced together, they form a treasure map. An ‘X’ marks the spot. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow the way of the cross. Like the cross, the parables of Jesus, point us toward the kingdom of heaven that is already here but hidden. Our search for treasure most likely leads, not to exotic lands, but next door, or across the street, into the next cubicle, or into conversation with a stranger. It may cause us so to live as to get ourselves kicked out of many fine respectable places.

Clarence Jordan believed “the principal problem of modern Christians was that they wanted God to conform to their agenda—to bless their endeavors and goals. Clarence said that was backwards. God has an agenda and wants God’s people to learn what it is and to become active participants in that agenda.” (Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John.)

If ever there was a Christian who lived on the road mapped out by the gospel it was St. Paul. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition greeted him in nearly every city he visited (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5). The book of Acts records at least eight murder attempts on Paul’s life. In Paul’s own words, he compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and even, “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Cor. 4:8-13). Therefore we have confidence in Paul’s life-tested assurance that nothing, “[not] death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Perhaps the most important word in all the parables is the first one: ‘Listen’. Hear now what God is saying so that the strength to endure may take hold in you, so that joy in God’s presence may shield you, and the abundant blessings of grace may fill you to overflowing with all the ordinary, wonderful treasures God has hidden around you.

Proper 11A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

COVID-19 is on the rise in Chicago among 18 to 29-year-olds. This week, Mayor Lightfoot threatened to be the mom who would stop the car and make kids walk home if they didn’t take the virus and the public health more seriously. “We are at the precipice,” she said. “We are dangerously close to going back to a dangerous state of conditions.” (Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Sun Times, 7/15/20) Personally, I really hope they listen. Illinois is one of only two states that met all of the federal government’s criteria for reopening before actually reopening. The other was New York State. (Pro Publica, States Are Re-Opening, 5/20/20). I’m proud our state and local leaders have kept us safe while keeping our economy going. Sometimes, I wish God would take charge like them too.

Are you guys still fighting? Get out of the car and walk. In fact, none of your cars, planes, or trains will work. Your guns won’t shoot. Your drones, fighter planes, and bombers won’t fly. You’re not allowed to make another mortgage loan unless it is to a community of color. It’s time for God to get the kids under control. It’s time God set some limits, raised expectations, and demanded accountability because the whole world is at the precipice. We are dangerously close to disaster.

Jesus says we live in a world where the weeds must be left to grow among the wheat. Evil and good are mixed together. ‘It’s like someone went into the field while everyone was sleeping and sowed tares among the wheat,’ Jesus said (Matthew 13:25). The Tares to which Jesus referred is a plant we call bearded Darnel. It has two prominent characteristics: first, it’s poisonous, and second, until it matures, it’s virtually indistinguishable from wheat. The kingdom of God is like a wheat field in which we can’t distinguish good from bad. In the beginning, yes. God created a good world. Indeed, it was very good! But now look. There are poisonous weeds everywhere! What a mess. Why doesn’t God do something?

I suppose religious people, through the ages, may be forgiven for getting impatient. People of faith tend to think they can help God out. First, they circle the wagons of the righteous. They dictate the terms for how every person ought to live and call it God’s plan. Then they go on the attack. They begin naming, judging, and eradicating evil wherever they find it—most often in others. These strategies soon prove tragic and misguided, of course. A religious person trying to create the holy becomes nothing but a hypocrite. The religious person who wields the machete of righteousness soon sees that everything looks to them like a weed. Everything is hacked and cut down. Which, by the way, is exactly what would happen if God were take us up on the invitation to start cleaning house and be more like our political leaders. Soon there wouldn’t be anything left of any of us.

So maybe it’s good –or anyhow—it’s lucky—God has a different plan. On God’s farm weeds become wheat. Our functional but false selves may be transformed through faith in Christ. With patience the poisonous bearded Darnel of our hearts and minds ripens into fruits of the Spirit some one hundred, some sixty, and some thirtyfold.

Our parable and our second reading from St. Paul both counsel patience. The entire universe is in labor. Paul wrote that not only humankind, but “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” as it waits for God’s salvation. You and I might choose to start over. We would dig everything out and start fresh. New seeds, new plants, fresh soil, we would not show the same patience with creation that God does. There would be no place for us.

Jesus said, ‘I have come not for the righteous, but for sinners. For those who are well have no need of a physician,’ (Matthew 9:13b & 12). Jesus did not weed out Peter, even though he denied him. Jesus did not reject the disciples though they all ran away in fear. Even Judas had a place at Jesus’ table. We feast again today on God’s Word in thanksgiving for the Life Jesus pours out for us with tenderness and mercy, not because we deserve it, but precisely because we so desperately need it.

The paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is quietly at work in us. The Holy One intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, delicate surgery is going on in us, to transform the weediness of our hearts into grain for the harvest. Our eyes begin to open. Our ears are unstopped. We see and hear differently. Could the poison of selfish pride begin to recede in us? Could America’s original sin of slavery and systemic racism be redeemed? Can freedom and equality join hands?

This week I watched the short documentary film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. It tells the story of the heatwave that killed more than 700 people in Chicago in 1995. It exposed a pattern, not just in that disaster, but in almost any natural disaster you can name. So often the real killer is poverty and racism. The same pattern of unequal impact is exposed by the pandemic. People in poverty, people who live in specific zip codes, have shorter lives, are more likely to experience gun violence, are less able to access health care, or to get a loan, find a job, or even be able to shop at a grocery store. These neighborhoods consist mostly of people of color. We cannot become wheat without striving to become anti-racists. The poison of bearded Darnel we carry will not leave our veins without doing God’s work with our hands to tear down the barriers that intentionally lock so many out from access to opportunity in America.

Because God is not finished with us but is patient, we dare to hope that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice. Because God is good and created us in God’s own image, we are confident history is on our side. God the great co-sufferer does not leave us in our sins but will work to redeem us. God who has searched and known you, God who has seen the restlessness in your heart, will even now, works to ripen your spirit, restore you in the broken places, and bring you with all creation, into bountiful wholeness.

Proper 10A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We have green beans! These are the first fruits of the season from my backyard. We always had a garden when I was growing up. I remember eating tomatoes and vegetables, like this, straight from the vine.

A few years back I bought, cut, and screwed together some 2” X 12’s. I caulked, painted and put them out, two hulking wooden rectangles, laid perpendicular in the backyard. I bought maybe four yards of topsoil? They came and dumped it on my driveway. It seemed like an impossibly large amount of dirt. Yet, it all went in, wheel barrel after wheel barrel. So now, we have two raised-bed garden plots.

That was maybe 7 years ago, and I think we’ve planted a garden exactly twice in all that time. It turns out they’re not in the best location. I was too worried to leave room for the kids to play. They’re tucked away under some overhanging tree branches. They never get enough sun. Even so, it would be manageable, if we watered more regularly, if we didn’t try to stuff so many plants in close together, if we picked weeds –in short—if we weren’t such bad gardeners!

Yes. We’re bad gardeners but even we look good compared to God. Jesus says God is like a gardener too. But where we take care to plan and prepare, God is reckless. Where we carefully plant seeds in straight rows, eight inches apart, God is wasteful, like a foolhardy gardener slinging seed everywhere without preparation or care.
“Listen,” Jesus told them, ‘a sower went out to sow. He broadcast seed on the path, on the rocky ground; among the thorns as well as upon good soil’ (Matthew 13:3-8). God’s ways are mystifying. God’s Word is cast in abundance upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. God’s grace is poured out upon ordinary uneducated fisherman and disreputable tax collectors. God’s saving power was at work with Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. In Christ Jesus, God’s saving grace is poured out again for us today. It sprouts and grows everywhere—especially where we least expect it.

Just take a good look at the patriarchs we’ve been reading about. What’s most striking to me is how truly human they all are. They are flawed, fearful, and selfish. Yet, within their day-to-day challenges of infertility, multiple births, treacherous plots, and deviant behavior, the purposes of God are not turned back, but are steadily carried forward from generation to generation. They were good soil despite themselves.

There’s something reassuring about that. If you and I were to lay out our family tree through four generations and draw a circle around fifty of our closest relatives—how many awkward in-laws and off-putting outlaws; how many strained relationships, and broken dreams would we be likely to find? The children of Abraham and Sarah look a lot like members of our own families. Yet God worked mightily and gloriously through them. God’s profligate extravagant grace was maybe the one unchanging thing they could count on. What could God be up to in these crazy COVID-afflicted days of ours?

“In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one?” (Debie Thomas, The Extravagant Sower, Journey with Jesus, 7/05/20) God is at work in you and your relatives. God is at work in this community. Pray the Spirit of God will find good soil.

When it comes to good soil, we make the mistake of thinking only of the receptiveness of ourselves to God—our faith, our deeds, our righteousness. This is absurd. Good soil is the by-product of centuries. The top 2 to 8 inches on average of decaying plant and animal material called humus or topsoil, is incredibly complex and teaming with life. According to the poet Wendell Berry a healthy forest generates just two inches of humus every thousand years. The good soil, to which Jesus is referring, like humus, is the by-product of countless grace-filled lives.

We must take care not to squander the good soil of community as we have already done with so much of our nation’s topsoil. It is time—it is always time—to restore hope, to build up our collective strength, to nourish the Spirit of wisdom God has so lavishly sown among us. It is time to extend the garden to accommodate people of color. It is time to make room for everyone left out and locked out because in God’s garden, just as in creation, our lives flourish when all lives thrive.
The times they are a changin’ (Bob Dylan). They fill us with grief and anxiety about the future even as opportunities for new life sprout and take hold. #MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. #PeopleandPlanetFirst. Can we dare to hope God will bring a new day of faith to take hold in us and our church in the struggle for justice and equality for all? Will we be good soil?

“The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart…Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. [Christian] mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will normally do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart, yet this is when we need patience and guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Change Is Inevitable, July 5, 2020). Open our hands. Cast our seeds. Let them fall where they may. Can we be as reckless as our God
Bishop Tim Smith of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA has said “you can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you cannot count the number of apples in a seed.” Most apples contain five seeds. Many apple tree varieties produce up to five hundred apples each season and can produce fruit for eight or more years. It is too small a thing to live only for ourselves. We are meant to leave a legacy of good soil that will contribute to the flourishing of all the lives who will follow.

As surely as rain comes from clouds, God’s Word falls upon the whole earth. As snow comes from the heavens to refresh the land, the grace of Christ Jesus comes to soften the soil of our lives so that the good seed may grow and ripen into rich fruit in us to return into God’s hand (ELW 508). Just as lichen slowly eats away rock, and plants slowly restore nutrients to sand, the wasteful abundance of God’s grace transforms our hard-scrabble hearts into good soil. May God be praised.