Advent Themes: From Agitation to Patience, 12-7-14, The Rev. Connie Frierson

Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

From Agitation to Patience 
The Rev. Connie Frierson 

Once upon a time in front of my childhood home, there was a magnificent maple tree.  It was broad and tall.  I had a swing hanging from its branches.  The great trunk was so thick that I couldn’t reach around it. In fact, three children, hand to hand, couldn’t reach around it.  But about ten years ago, it grew too old, and too damaged and ultimately had to be cut down.  The day the maple was cut down was black day in our family’s life. My sister’s took off from work to be there the day it was cut. The tree went from a magnificent giant to firewood and brush and then just a stump.  The cutting down of the big maple was a family tragedy.  We all knew we would never see that great tree again. 
         I am thinking about that tree as I read this passage from Isaiah 11 on this Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. Our passage starts out with the image of new life springing from a dead old stump.  “A shoot shall grow out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  Our modern ears need a little explanation. Who the heck is Jesse and what does it mean that a branch shall grow out of that root? Jesse was the father of David, the famous David, who became King David. King David’s reign was a time of unification of all of Israel. This was in many ways the golden age. The shoot of Jesse is talking about the house and descendants of King David. So a shoot out of the stock of Jesse is more than just a son or descendant but is a great hope, a messianic figure, a savior of a nation and the soul of a people.
         The current reality for the writer of Isaiah was quite different from this hopeful rebirth and the coming of a peaceable kingdom. What this writer saw from his window or walls was that the mighty and cruel Assyrian army was threatening Jerusalem.  A great swarm of an army was about to over run the southern kingdom of Judea just as it had overrun the northern kingdom.  The writer could just look a little to the north and see Damascus and Samaria cut down, defeated, and in ruins.  The kingdom built on King David, Jesse’s famous son, had been axed. When this prophesy and poem was written the stump of that big tree of David was pretty fresh and raw. War was at the gates. The idea that a branch is ever going to rise from that old tree was unlikely.  Completely in contrast to the eminent disaster, our passage goes on to foretell a time of great and lasting peace. When wolves and lambs lay down together and leopards cuddle up to baby goats, and lions and cows are chummy and babies play with the snakes. This vision is extraordinary and unbelievable in the midst of war.
         If we look at this passage with both eyes open we see a vision that doesn’t make sense to us.  Out of one eye we see the reality of destruction. But the writer also wants us to look with the other eye and see God’s hope and God’s future.  This reminds me of those old View Master stereoscopes.  This was the hottest gift item for Christmas of 1958. It was a devise where you look through and both eyes look at the same picture and you get a 3-D image.  The picture came to life. What was a flat picture suddenly had depth.  I loved the View Master as a kid.  They jumped out at me like a lively dimensional figure.  This was the super 3-D of the ancient world of the 1950’s and 60’s.   Suddenly there was DEPTH.  I think this is what the prophet Isaiah wanted for us too, depth.  Holding both the reality of suffering and the reality of God’s promises in tension helps us to grow in depth.  We need to live and see this world clearly. Yet we need to hope and breath in the blessings of God’s love.  Without both of these dimensions we are flat and dull 2-D people. Without depth of soul, we are flat as a newspaper pessimists, or we are silly Polly Ann pancakes. 
          Our problem is that if we put the two visions, together it doesn’t make sense. Even in Isaiah’s age, it didn’t make sense. And if we look at the cruel world and God’s promise of a peaceable kingdom from our time it doesn’t make sense.  It is like this picture above. In one lens the tree is down and the stump is bare, but the other lens there is new growth and new possibilities.  Or the view is that the world is war torn, but the other viewfinder shows a peaceable land. Or the view is that we are a predator prey kind of world not the God’s eye view that shows a world of harmonious grazers. We can’t seem to hold both of these views at the same time.  Yet what this passage is saying to us is that faithful people trust in God’s promises and hold both visions simultaneously.  We need to spiritually grow a View Master, a God-a-scope. This View Master/God-scope is a radical change. The God-a-scope is calling us to an alternative reality.
         One way we learn to use this View Master God-scope is with patience.  Patience requires us to live with the dissidence of an unhappy world and a joyous future. We look and see the real world around us but at the same time we sense God’s loving promises and see the great possibilities.  We live in a world of clear-cut forests and we wait for the seedlings to take off. We live in a world of survival of the fittest and we help the weak.  We live in a world where snakes bite babies and we look forward to a day when they are playmates. We live in a world of natural and eternal enemies, but God wants us to understand those enemies will be someday be friends. If we are not careful this double vision is going to drive us cross-eyed.  But God has made a way for us to get our balance by exercising patience. 
         Patience and waiting patiently helps us live in balance.  Patience helps us keep hope yet help in real time. This balance is sometimes precarious. We could fall off into cold fatalism and lose all touch with God.  Or we could fall off the other end, only looking to God’s work, but never sensing God’s call to for us to work on real problems of the real world.  On one side lay the dangers of nihilism, fatalism or even pride, when we think everything is our doing and our work. This side of error thinks that life is all about what we do.  But Jesus did say, “I am the vine and you are the branches, Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) On the other side is something called quietism.  Quietism takes faith in God but misuses that great love of God to put us to sleep.   When someone has fallen into quietism, they don’t act, they don’t hear God’s call to change the way the world is, if only for one person at a time.  Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, feed just one.”  But a quietist neglects to feed the one.
         Looking through this God-a-scope with the first two candles of advent helps to put our vision inside God’s light.  If we look for God’s light in the darkness and if we patiently and actively wait then we can see Our World and God’s World more clearly.  There was a little girl who had one small idea about working towards a peaceable kingdom.  Her name was Sadako Sasaki. She was born in 1943 and lived in Hiroshima, Japan. When she was 11, she developed leukemia.  She remembered a story that says the crane is supposed to live 1000 years. If a sick person makes 1000 paper cranes, gods will grant her wish to be healthy again. So she made cranes and she drew strength from making them.  Her wish over time grew to encompass a wish for a peaceful world. After she made crane number 654 Sadako died. Her classmates folded the other 356 cranes so she could be buried with 1,000 cranes. Sadako Sasaki’s letters were collected and published in a book that became known throughout Japan and then the world. A statue of Sadako Sasaki is in the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan and another in Seattle, Washington. At the base of the statue is this, “This is our cry; this is our prayer, peace in our world.” To make 1000 paper cranes takes patience and vision.  This is doing one small thing that moves us closer to God’s vision of our future.
         As we wait for Christmas we think of another child who is called the Prince of Peace. As we wait in patience we need to think of how to wait actively and dynamically.  Do we wait in passivity or do we wait in prayerful action. I thought we might turn to that wise elder for children, Fred Rogers, pioneer of children’s television, author, defender of childhood and imagination and Presbyterian minister.  This is a song Mr. Rodgers first sang in 1982. The title is “Let’s Think of Something To Do While We’re Waiting.”  What a wise thing to do. Thinking of something to do while waiting is wise for children and it is wise for grown ups.  We are living between two worlds, the one we walk around in and the Peaceable Kingdom that the Prince of Peace will bring to us.  Let us wait well.  Let us pray until we sense what we are to do while we wait. Let us work towards the things God is blessing.  Waiting become easier when you think of what God is calling you to do while you wait.
          Remember that huge maple tree at the farmhouse.  It looked like it had always been there.  But it hadn’t. My dad had planted it when he was ten years old. That tree had taken a lifetime to grow broad and tall.  My dad might have grown impatient for it to grow.  But he lived his life, raising a family, teaching Sunday school, helping his neighbors and doing good. He might have forgotten that he was waiting because his life was so full.   But when he looked at the huge tree he knew he was blessed to see it grow.  Now all these years later, the tree is a broad flat stump.  But as we gather at the farmhouse that tree stump is a destination. It is a destination for small children, my grand nieces and nephews. They are small shoots of hope, these nieces and nephews of the next generation.  As I watch them race to the big tree stump and stand on top, I know God is at work in the future as in the past. Meanwhile, with patience, I’ll think of something to do while I’m waiting.


Ignored Parables: The Unjust Manager, by The Rev. Connie Frierson

Luke 16:1-9

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
 Ignored Parables:  The Unjust Manager
November 23. 2014
The Rev. Connie Frierson

Welcome to one more sermon in our series on ignored parables.  Last week Graham taught about a string of tiny parables about the Kingdom of God.  But this week I have chosen a parable that is quite simply mystifying.  As you listened to the scripture, did it make any sense?  Was the meaning clear? Jesus tells the story of a manager about to get fired.  The big boss man tells him, “Your fired.”  So the manager goes out and forgives large portions of debts owed to the boss, so that someone will like the fired manager when he is out on his can in the street.
         This reminds me the reality show that was wildly popular for a few years called  “The Apprentice.” The gist of the show is this; there would be some business transaction and several managers would have to start a storefront shop or build something or sell something. These were all business entrepreneur hopefuls under the vague and powerful tutelage of Donald Trump.  At the end of the show was the big accounting for the success or failure of the business. The scene would include an imposing corporate boardroom on the pinnacle of the Trump Tower. Donald Trump would sit in judgment, listening to the groveling explanations of his underlings. At the end one manager would hear “You have won the challenge.”  But some other poor unsuccessful slob would hear Trump bark out “YOUR FIRED!” 
          Can you see how the biblical story reminds me of “The Apprentice”? This biblical manager has messed up or squandered the boss’s property.  But the manager has a crazy plan.  There is no way to repair the botched job. He is sooooo FIRED.  The manager isn’t strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.  So the manager calls in the rich man’s debtors and cooks the books.  The guy who owes 100 jugs of olive oil, now only owes 50. The guy who owes 100 containers of wheat now only owes 80.  And then in the final scene instead of an angry boss, the big man doesn’t shout “Your Fired and your going to jail and your going to hell” but unaccountably commends the manager for acting shrewdly. What in the world is going on here?  What kind of topsy, turvy world is Jesus teaching about?
         This view of the world makes no sense to us. But if you think about it, Jesus was so often describing a world that was startlingly different than our ordinary reactions. Jesus was always setting things askew.  Instead of an eye for an eye, Jesus commanded forgiveness of enemies, and even more crazy, love of enemies. Instead of looking at the rich as those that are especially favored by God, Jesus pitied the rich as love of money made following God so difficult.  Jesus is always changing the way we look at the world.  Here Jesus is changing the way we look at the world with this dishonest manager. 
          The parable reminds me of a Picasso painting, particularly a painting from Picasso’s modernist period.  I have put on the front of the bulletin a painting by Picasso from 1932 entitled 'Girl Before a Mirror.' This shows a little of what Picasso was famous for. As you look at the painting we can tell there is a girl, we can tell there is a mirror. But the image is disturbing, even ugly.  What Picasso was doing was changing perspective.  What I mean by a changing perspective that is to look at this we see a girl from a side view, profile, but at the same time we see that girl looking straight on.  One of the ideas Picasso played with was trying to understand that the straight on view and the profile are different sides of the same person. In 'Girl Before a Mirror' the perspective is changed again in dark reflection in the mirror. We look at this and we are confused unless we stop and think.  We are confused until we stop and look at this picture from different perspectives.  It is often the same way with scripture. God is trying to make us look harder and dig deeper, perhaps even startle us into a new thought about ourselves and about God.
         Our problem with this scripture is that everyone in it seems like a bit of a rogue or a trickster.  The manager is inept and then a cheat. The debtors are in collusion cheating the master. And the Master seems the funniest rogue of all praising the manager for playing fast and loose with his assets, for giving away the store. How shall we make sense of this mish mash of perspective?  Perhaps it will help if we try to identify who is does each character represent.
         Let’s start with the rich man.  Often Jesus has used the rich landowner as an image for God.   You remember the story of the Prodigal Son?  Well the prodigal son’s father was a rich landowner. He was rich enough to divide his property and give it to his rebellious son to do with as he pleases.  Then when he makes a muck of it to welcome that wayward child back with open arms.  The rich welcoming and forgiving dad is God. Jesus also tells a story about an absent landowner whose tenants are running wild. So the landowner sends agents to warn and correct them, to tell them how to live better and they kill them.  Then finally the landowner sends his son, his only son, to deal with the evil tenants.  The landowner says surely they will pay attention to my son, my only son.  But they kill his only son.  Again the landowner is like God.  Jesus also tells a story about a rich man who invites all sorts of people to a banquet but they don’t come, because they are too busy.  So he invites everyone in from the street, the poor and the beggars. Here God is the rich man again. So in our story today, God says to the manager, “Give me an account of what you have done.” God would be justified in saying “You’re fired.” 
         So who is the bad manager, the manager who squandered away God’s gifts?  Oh Golly!  We are the dishonest managers.  Who here hasn’t mismanaged God’s gifts? Have we used the gift of time well?  Have we used the gift of smarts and a mind to promote our own interests or Gods?  Have we used our creativity to praise God or to reap praise ourselves? Have we used our time? Have we used the precious breath inside us for anything more than hot air?  How about your money and material wealth?  If we examine ourselves we do find that we are like the manager in the story. 
         So I have a little Thanksgiving reflection for you.  It is traditional at Thanksgiving to think of all our blessings.  So this week let’s think of any gifts and strengths you have.  As I look out at this congregation, I see so many gifts.  Some have the gift of teaching, others of organization, others of welcome and hospitality, others music, others business sense and others prayer. Here is the Thanksgiving homework for you.
Make a list of your gifts and blessings then ask two questions.  1) Have I used this gift well?  2) Have I used this gift for myself or for God?  The answer for most of us, myself included, is that sometimes I haven’t developed and worked at my gifts.  And when I have, it was for my own benefit not Gods.  So we are all in the position of the dishonest manager. If we were running the local McDonalds and God were corporate headquarters, God would fire us. 
         So now we know who the rich landowner represents, (God) and now we know who the manager is, (us.) Now we turn to what the manager did.  To our eyes, we figure the manager cooked the books.  We look at this like modern day accountants. But there is another explanation that the people of Jerusalem and Galilee would have understood.  Managers often weren’t paid in money. They were paid in kind. They took a portion of the goods owed to the landowner and that was there commission. So as the manager is making this last ditch effort to appeal to the tenants, he might well have been cutting off his share of the profit.  He may have been giving up his commission. Sometimes his commission was unconscionably high, an exorbitant 50%, sometimes it was more moderate 20%.  But in this last act as manager he is giving up what he thought of as his share of the pie. He is offering a sacrifice that he had not offered before. He is doing a fire sale. And it is his portion that he is giving away.
         In this desperate and pragmatic way, the manager had at last realized the important lesson. He realizes that radical generosity builds community.  That sacrificial giving says I care about you more than words. That if he is to have a place, a home, an eternal home, he needs to give and not to take. This is as pragmatic as cold hard cash.  There is no Hallmark card that can substitute for generosity. No symbolic gesture that can mean as much as honest sacrifice.  The rabbi’s had a saying. “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.”  Ambrose, a 4th century bishop, when he was preaching on the guy who built bigger and bigger barns to hold his stuff, said “the bosoms of the poor, the houses of the widow and the mouths of children are the barns that last forever.”
         Jesus parables were often gritty things, made of common life and common things, people we recognize, maybe even people like us.  So in our parable today run the risk of making this teaching spiritual and not pragmatic. We can spiritualize it to mean we can give away goodwill to our neighbors, kind thoughts to the poor and best wishes to ministry. Or we can follow Christ’s teaching with a pragmatic shrewdness, understanding the needs of this world and meeting them with concrete love and generosity.
         Returning to our musing about that silly show "The Apprentice." In our house, when the boys were small, probably about 7 and 8 years old, Allen and the boys would play a game based on “The Apprentice.” Allen, my husband,  would play the part of Donald Trump. He would have the boys help him look the part by smooshing his face into a rich boy pout and narrow his eyes and then finger comb his hair into the terrible Donald Trump comb over.  March and Nate would play the hopeful or pitiful apprentices, vainly trying to please Donald with their business ideas. The boys would make up original toys to sell and promote. Or propose new farming techniques to grow candy on trees. In the end they would grovel and then end up wrestling Pretend Donald to the floor with silly kisses and outrageous pleading. After the wrestling matches and the tickling, when they were all laughed out and Daddy would bark, “Well since I love you so much your not fired.”  I think this scene is what might be going on in this incredible parable.

From Dark in the Lightness to Light in the Darkness


ISAIAH 61:1-11 
                                                                                              November 30, 2014
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lords favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Often when I prepare for a sermon, I take time to read the passage and then sit in stillness, trying to just get a sense of what stories, metaphors, or symbols a passage bring up in me. I sat in this stillness this past week (which was hard because it was Thanksgiving), and I thought, What does Isaiahs focus on bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners make me think of? In that stillness I remembered the experience of a Jewish rabbi named Michael Weisser.
Weisser is a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska, and back in the mid-1990s, he was the target of harassment from the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan, Larry Trapp. Trapp believed that the Jews, among other minority races, had polluted Nebraska with their false religion, and so he decided that his mission was to drive the Jews out of Nebraska. He had targeted Weisser for intimidation, leaving a series of hate-filled, anti-Jewish rantings on Weissers answering machine. He talked about how the Jews were only half-human, and that someday people would rise up and finish what Hitler and the Nazis started with the concentration camps.
   Eventually Weisser had enough, and tracked down his tormentor. He learned all he could about Trapp. He expected to find a man who was evil to the core, but he was surprised to discover that Trapp wasnt a powerful, evil figure. Instead, he was a broken, struggling man. He  learned that Trapp had been abused both by his family and in prison, and that he was confined to a wheelchair. He realized that he couldnt meet hate with hate, but he had to find a way to speak Gods love to Trapp. So he started leaving messages on Trapps answering machine. He left a message asking Trapp whether he knew that among the first people murdered by the Nazis were those with disabilities. He left a message telling Trapp that one day he would come face-to-face with God, and what would he do in the face of Gods judgment? He left messages telling Trapp that God was love, not hate.
   One evening, as he was in the process of leaving Trapp another message, Trapp picked up the phone and yelled, What do you want?! Why cant you leave me alone? Weisser paused for a second, and said, Larry, I know that you live alone. It cant be easy. Do you have enough food? Would you like me to get you some groceries? Trapp paused in response, and then said, No, Im okay.
   A few days later, Weisser left another message offering to help Trapp with transportation or anything else. He left more messages offering help. Then one day Trapp surprised him. He called up Weisser and said to him, I cant do this anymore. I want to get out. Can you help me? Why did he call Weisser? In an interview years later, Trapp said, "When Michael started calling my racist hotline, I could sense something in his voice that I hadnt heard before something I hadnt experienced. It was love."
   Weisser picked Trapp up and brought him back home for dinner with his wife and family. He took off Trapps swastika rings, and gave Trapp a silver friendship ring, telling him that among Jews this was as symbol of friendship and love. Slowly Weisser helped Trapp transform his life. Within a few years Weisser and Trapp began to travel around the country, talking about racism and how to overcome it. Trapp was crucial in helping people understand the mind of a racist. Trapps life was transformed by Weissers love. In fact, when Trapp fell ill a few years later, and was dying, he moved in with the Weissers, becoming known to the children as Uncle Larry.
Trapp initially lived his life like many people do, looking for the dark in the lightness, but Rabbi Weisser looked for the light in the darkness. He wasnt a Christian, yet he was steeped in the words of Isaiah. Isaiah shared Gods promise that the oppressed would be lifted up, the brokenhearted would find love, and the suffering would find compassion. Weimar embodied the words of Isaiah.
The difference between Larry Trapp and Rabbi Weisser is that Trapp looked for what was wrong, seeing bad all around, but Weisser looked into what was evil and still saw good. He understood the Christian and Jewish idea of looking for the light in the darkness
How good are we at looking for light in the darkness? I look around at our country today, and i see a land of people who are immersed in light but see nothing except darkness. Im not sure why it is, but all I hear and read about, when it comes to our country, is that everything is wrong and bad. We live in a country where people are more blessed than any people ever in the history of the world, but what most people complain about is what they dont have. They look at everyone else and see darkness. The world is filled with light and beauty, but all they see is darkness and ugliness.
The irony is that the prophet Isaiah was speaking to people who were genuinely in darkness, yet who were being told to look for light. They had been enslaved by the Babylonians. They had been marched over 700 miles through desert to become palace, house, and work slaves for wealthy Babylonians, and Isaiah was telling them to look for the light. No matter how dark things were, God was present and God was working to bring love, compassion, and light into their lives.
The problem today is that so many people have embraced cynicism and pessimism, which are spiritual poison. Why do I say that they are poison? Because they come out of darkness. Cynicism and pessimism, and sometimes even skepticism, put us in a place where we can only see whats wrongwe can only see whats dark. And when we are in that place, we cant see God. We cant sense Gods presence. We cant sense Gods love, light, and grace because those would bring light. We have been poisoned by darkness.
Whats even worse is that cynics and pessimists often drag others into darkness. You know what I mean. Have you ever been in a conversation with people who are deeply pessimistic and cynical? They start on their rant, and their anger gives them more and more energy. The problem is that as they suck energy out of us. They become more indignant, and we become more drained. The worst is when we cant escape, when we have no choice but to sit and listen. They drain the light out of us. Now, contrast this with what happens when we are around people who are hopeful and optimistic. They give us energy. They spread their light and can actually cast out our darkness. They help us to see light in the darkness, while cynics drive out the light with their darkness.
As Christians, we are called to see whats light and whats right. I believe that this is how God looks at us. God is completely aware of our sin, but God still focuses on whats good. Too many Christians think that God is only consumed with our sin, but I believe God is consumed with love, and that love leads God to recognize sin, but to focus on whats good. Why else would God have constantly reached out to a Larry Trapp?
We are also called to look at life with a focus on love and light, but to do so means understanding the difference between analysis and discernment. We are steeped in a world rooted in analytical thinking. Analytical thinking can bring about great results. It is at the root of all of our technological and engineering advances. Its at the root of our medical and scientific advances. And all of us have been trained to analyze.
Have you ever wondered what it really means to analyze? When we analyze, we look for whats wrong so that we can fix it. We look for the problem. Thats our training. We learned these skills in high school. When we read a book for English class, we were trained to not only understand the plot, but to analyze it for whats wrong with it. We learn how to listen to anothers argument and to see whats wrong with it. Thats the center of debate. We are a nation of analyzers, and as a result we often only see whats wrong, what the problems are, and what needs to be fixed.
The Christian life is based on something different. It is based on discernment, the prayerful looking for what is right rather than what is wrong. Its like panning for gold. We sift through all the junk of life to look for what God is doing, what God is calling us to do, what is good and right and blessed in life. There may be some analysis involved in determining what isnt of God, but the focus is on looking for whats right rather than for whats wrong. This is what it means to look for the light in the darkness rather than the dark in the lightness.
Looking for the light in the darkness requires looking for whats right rather than whats wrong. It requires panning for Gods gold by looking through all the junk to see what sparkles. It requires looking for what God is doing, rather than what God isnt doing. And it requires prayerfully paying attention to Gods light all around.

Ignored Parables--Kingdom Parables

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
He put before them another parable: “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.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“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.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

You know, I’m not much of a baseball fan. I’ve said this before, and I always feel a bit guilty whenever I say it. I feel a bit un-American in admitting that I don’t really like it. The reason why is that I didn’t grow up with baseball. Nobody took me to games, and the few times I played fastball I got hit by the ball, which really hurt. I also was always more interested in faster-paced, physical sports like ice hockey, lacrosse, and football. Baseball has always too slow for me.

With that said, I’ve liked listening to baseball games on the radio, even if I don’t like watching them live.  The reason?  t’s all the little tidbits that the announcers say in-between pitches:  “The pitcher is getting the signal,… Did you know that this pitcher used to work on a crabbing boat during the summers when he was a kid? I guess that explains his weird wind-up,.. And there’s the pitch.  Strike one!”  You don’t get that kind of trivia in other sports.

Still, even though I don’t really like baseball, I do like baseball movies (golf movies, too, even though I don’t like golf much, either). My favorite baseball movies seem to be Kevin Costner baseball movies. He’s the perfect baseball movie star (and golf movie star—maybe I just like Kevin Costner movies).

When I think of our passages for this morning, I can’t help but think about the now classic film, “Field of Dreams.”I’ve always found it to be a deeply spiritual, mystical movie, even if it never mentions God. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s not hard to find. The plot is simple. Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer named Ray Kinsella. One day, while out in the cornfields, he hears a mysterious voice, whispering, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray has no idea what is going on, but he keeps hearing the voice. He yells over to his wife, sitting on their porch, “Annie, what was that?” “What was what?” she replies. He hears it again, “Certainly you hear that?” he yells. “Nope, nothing. Come on in for dinner!” she yells back.
It takes him a while, but he finally figures out that the voice is telling him to build a baseball field, complete with stands and lights. It’s such a bizarre idea, but the voice keeps telling him to do it. So he does it. His wife doesn’t understand it, but she supports him. 

After building the field, a baseball player wearing an old baseball uniform from the early 20th century appears. It’s Shoeless Joe Jackson, who died decades earlier. Other players mysteriously appear, especially players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox team that had been embroiled in a gambling scandal. These “ghostly,” but real, players begin playing baseball, and Ray is ecstatic just to watch them. As the movie continues, more and more people hear the voice, but at the same time, those who are closed off to it neither hear the voice nor see the players. They think Ray is going nuts, plowing under corn to build a worthless baseball field.

The field puts Ray close to bankruptcy. The cost of building the field, coupled with the tenuousness of growing corn, has put him in financial peril. His brother-in-law, Mark, desperately tries to convince Ray to sell the farm. Ray refuses. By now both his wife, Annie, and his daughter, Karin, also see the ballplayers. Each day they sit outside watching the baseball games between the dead-but-resurrected baseball players. People think he’s crazy, but what do you do when a mysterious voice calls out to you to do something that others don’t understand?

Watching this film, it’s hard not to think of one of our kingdom parables for this morning: “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.”
What seemingly crazy thing would you be willing to do if a mysterious voice called out to you? Our whole passage is Jesus telling us that there is a mysterious voice calling out to us. And it’s calling us to something better, something greater, something more,… but we have to be willing to take a risk to reach out to that greater life.

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, we often misunderstand what he’s talking about. What we think he’s talking about is the place we go after we die. He’s not. He’s talking about a present reality. He’s talking about God’s Kingdom that is already here!

He’s telling us that we live in the Kingdom of the World all the time, and that’s generally what we see. But there’s a deeper reality that’s also always here, and we don’t easily see it or live in it because we get so caught up in the Kingdom of the World that we lose our vision for God’s Kingdom that is always here. How can we see it if we aren’t looking for it?

It’s hard to explain the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it works, to people who don’t think about it or aren’t aware of it. All we can do is give examples of it and hope that people come to embrace it.

A great example of the Kingdom and how it works comes through something that Walt Kallestad experienced. My guess is that you don’t know who he is. He is the pastor of a Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Glendale, Arizona.
When he first came to Community of Joy, he had just graduated from seminary. He was armed with all sorts of ideas. Unfortunately, the members of the church didn’t like many of his ideas. He tried to push them to follow, but they resisted. Eventually many left, causing the church to dwindle from 200 to almost 100 members in his first year. He was so discouraged that one day he called the bishop, asking to be transferred to another church, saying,  "If I stay here another six months, I'm sure I'll be able to close the place down." The bishop encouraged Kallestad to stay, but to also spend time alone in prayer seeking what God wanted.

During that time he complained to God, saying that the people weren’t listening to him, they weren’t doing what he was telling them to do, and they weren’t being church the way they were supposed to be. What he heard shocked him. In essence, he heard God saying to him, “I never put you there to tell then what to do.” “What did you put me here to do, then?” he asked. He heard, “I want you to be faithful to your calling. I want you to really love the people in your church."

So, Kallestad changed the way he did ministry. His sermons became sermons of love. Instead of just shaking parishioners’ hands every Sunday, he embraced and hugged them. He made a concerted effort to be loving in everything he did, and it made a difference. Slowly the church began to grow again. People wanted to be in this place of love. Eventually it grew from that small church to a church today of over 15,000 members. It’s not the numbers that matter, but the love that led him to live in God’s Kingdom.

Kallestad tells another story of living in God’s Kingdom. Years later they felt called to move their church to a new place on 25 acres. They wanted to create a church that would reach out to all people in love. They prayed for God to reveal the property God had chosen for them, and soon they found a perfect spot. But would the people sell? They initially focused on one particular farm of five acres that was key to the project.
Kallestad drove up the small dirt road belonging to the owners, and found a run-down trailer.

He knocked on the door and slowly the door was opened. According to Kallestad:

“An elderly man dressed in farmers’ bib overalls stood in the doorway. I introduced myself and explained that I was the pastor of Community Church of Joy. I explained that many at the church were praying about his orchard, wondering if God would provide a way for us to buy it and build a new center for mission with a worship center, a Christian school, a senior’s center, a place for youth, and much more.
The old gentleman grabbed my arm and pulled me in. He told me his name was Scotty and asked me to follow him to the kitchen table where his wife, Ruthie, was sitting. As I entered the kitchen Scotty said, ‘Reverend, please tell my wife what you just told me.’

So I told Ruthie about our dream of purchasing the land in order to build a new center for ministry. Ruthie started to cry. I noticed Scotty was crying too, large tears running down his grizzled face.

Trying to regain composure, Scotty eagerly said, ‘Reverend, my wife Ruthie and I moved to this land forty years ago. Five acres of these orchards belong to us. Nearly every day for the last forty years we walked around our orchard holding hands and praying that one day there would be a great church built here.’
I lost my composure and joined my tears to theirs. It was one of those holy moments when you sense the mysterious moving of God’s spirit.” (from Kallestade’s book, Turn Your Church Around)

This kind of Kingdom of Heaven stuff isn’t just true for churches, it’s true for life. I was reminded of this ten or so years ago through something a woman who attended Calvin Church before moving, told me. I got her permission back then to tell this story.

She had suffered through her husband’s suicide, and felt alone and isolated. She had been coming to Calvin Church because this had been a healing place for her. We talked about the times that she thought she had experienced God. She told me that during really bad times she had sensed God’s presence by seeing feathers. They seemed to convey messages from God to her during times of crisis, saying simply, “I am with you.” For instance, one particularly bad time she wondered where God was in the midst of her struggle. Crying as she walked outside, she saw seventeen feathers sticking up out of the grass. It was as though someone had planted them there. Another time she cried about her plight, and was amazed to find a feather sitting in the middle of her living room. 

In one of our conversations she asked me a question about a book. She had met someone who had praised a book titled Illusions, by Richard Bach. It was very popular in the 1980s, and is about a man called to be the messiah, but who is reluctant. She mentioned that her friend had told her how much the book had changed his life, and she wanted to know if I thought it might help her.

I replied that the book may contain a message for her from God. I knew the book from my earlier days. Before I returned to the church at age 24, I had read the book and it had made a big difference to me. I figured that perhaps God was wanting to say something to her through the book just as God has spoken to me through it many years ago. 

A few weeks later, after one of our worship services, she took me aside, saying that she wanted to show me something. After we talked she had remembered that she already had the book, having bought it at a garage sale several years before. It had sat on her bookshelf for five years. She then pulled out her copy of Illusions, and as she did she also pulled out of the book the feather she had found on her living room floor over a year before. It was a blue feather that matched almost perfectly—in size, shape, and color—the feather on the cover of Illusions. She then said, “But that’s not the really amazing part. Look at the inscription in the book.” I opened the book and read what it said:  “Best wishes from Calvin Church.”

    Apparently some member of Calvin Church had sold it, a member who had received the copy years before that. Our best guess is that it was a book that Joe Shields, a now passed-away member, had given to a graduating senior back in the mid-1980s. at any rate, this woman had received a message from God’s kingdom, a message planted many years before.

 There’s a whole realm that we can live in even while we’re living in this realm. It’s all around us like the air, giving us life and the opportunity to live in harmony with God’s purpose for us. But we have to make the choice: will we live entirely in the world’s kingdom, or will we open up to God’s Kingdom?