Sermons

The Pearl of Great Price

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Lessons: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I collect baseball cards. It’s a fairly new hobby for me; I started collecting a few years ago, along with my son. Unlike my son, I don’t collect every card that comes my way. I collect Nolan Ryan because I became a fan when he pitched for the Astros while I lived in Houston.[1] While I collect just for fun, there are other folks who collect baseball cards as a serious investment. That’s when you get into the question of what something is worth. I have a 1969 Nolan Ryan Mets card. It’s in good condition but the photo is slightly off center and so that means it’s worth about $35. If it were mint condition and centered, it’d be worth $239.[2] A Nolan Ryan rookie card is worth over a thousand dollars. Now, you may be thinking, “You’re kidding – for a bit of cardboard that came from a chewing gum pack?” But that’s nothing. A few years ago, a 1909 Honus Wagner card sold for $2.8 million.[3] But – is it worth it? Would you pay that for it? Even if you had the money? I know I wouldn’t. A baseball card just isn’t worth it to me.

What is worth it? What is worth more than anything to you, to me, to us? Jesus looks at that question in today’s passage in Matthew’s gospel. He’s describing the kingdom of God, or the reign of God. It’s Matthew, so he uses the phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” That takes care of any concern Matthew’s audience, the Jewish Christians, would have with using the name of God. In all of theses kingdom parables, Jesus assumes the kingdom of God is something that can be perceived and experienced as a present reality, not just something to look forward to in the future. Read more →

With Unveiled Faces

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Today’s sermon was preached by Kathy Kwon.

Lessons: Exodus 34:27-35,  2 Corinthians 3:7-18

I’ll be reading out of 2 Corinthians in just a moment. But I first wanted to thank you all for allowing me this opportunity to share the Word with you this morning. I debated about whether I should thank you now or after my sermon and decided that once I got started, there was no guarantee you’d let me finish, so I should thank you now.

My experience of preaching is that it feels quite weighty—not pertaining to the preacher but rather to the weightiness of the content and the action. What does it mean—for a few moments at least—to be the mouthpiece of God the Spirit in full view of one’s own fallibility, brokenness, sinfulness, humanity? And then add to that the brokenness of the world around us, and it feels rather paralyzing.

Read more →

From Depth of Soil

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Lessons:  Matthew 13:1-9, 16-23

I remember learning in Sunday School that the parables of Jesus are these nice little life lessons.  Jesus is rushing around 1st Century Palestine, preaching, and healing folks, and gathering crowds – and every once in a while Jesus stops to teach.  And sometimes Jesus tells the crowd a little parable.  A little story:

  • The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  See how small the seed is.  See how big it grows.
  • Or, the kingdom of God is like yeast – it gets into a little flour and water, and see how it makes the bread rise.
  • Or, as in today’s text, a sower went out to sow.  She scattered a lot of seeds – some fell on hard ground, or in thorns, or in bad soil, and those seeds didn’t grow.  But some seeds fell on good soil, and produced abundant crops.

So, be the mustard seed, and grow.  Be the yeast in the dough, and rise.  Plant your crops in good soil, and reap your harvest.

The parables of Jesus are these nice little life lessons.

But, they’re really . . .  not.

There’s more to the parables of Jesus than just that.  Parables are tough to figure out – and they are meant to be.  The word “parable” actually means to throw alongside.  Parables are stories or illustrations that are thrown alongside life and the world as it is.  They don’t carry their meaning on their surface.  Instead, they insist that we engage with them – that we actively compare the world of the parable with the world of Scripture and with our world.  It’s like we are unwrapping a story within a story, seeking to find sacred meaning in our world through this ancient narrative lens.

And, here’s another thing about the parables that makes them even more challenging.  The parables of Jesus are actually — well, they are actually subversive.  The parables of Jesus are, as William Herzog has written, subversive speech.[1]  When Jesus tells a parable – particularly in the Gospel of Matthew – Jesus is proclaiming nothing less than the overthrow of Empire.  In these little stories.  That’s what’s going on.

Just look at Matthew, chapter 13, and its 7 parables. They are about “the kingdom of heaven” – or what may be more meaningfully translated today “the Empire of Heaven.”  Most of the parables say it explicitly right up front – “The Empire of Heaven is like .. a mustard seed”  or “The Empire of Heaven is like yeast.”  The Empire of Heaven.

Jesus is throwing a glimpse of the Empire of Heaven, alongside the Empire that his listeners know – the Empire of the World – the Empire of Rome.

But there can only be one Empire.  So when Jesus proclaims the Empire of Heaven, he is proclaiming the Empire of Heaven instead of and in the place of the Empire of the World – the Empire of Rome.  These parables are subversive of Empire.  Jesus is turning the world upside down. Jesus is critiquing the Empire of the World.  And announcing the Empire of Heaven.

Now, the folks who first heard these parables knew what life under the Empire of the World looked like and felt like.  Their experience of empire was one of military conquest – as the imperial army rolled in and established and maintained dominance through violence and force.  Most of the people listening to Jesus were peasant farmers who worked the land. They experienced empire through government and economic structures that took all of the wealth, and left them with a bare subsistence living.  And they experienced empire through local government and religious structures that legitimized the whole thing.[2]

But Jesus throws alongside that a different vision of empire – a new vision – the Empire of Heaven.

It would have been shocking to hear someone – anyone – dare to proclaim any Empire other than the one that was prepared to crush them daily.  But it was probably just as shocking to hear Jesus basically say this:  The Empire of Heaven is like this – A Sower went out to sow.  The Empire of Heaven is like a farmer sowing seeds.  To a crowd of peasant farmers, Jesus said: The Empire of Heaven is like . . . what you do every day.  Planting.  Growing.  Harvest.  That’s the vision – not military power, or economic exploitation, or political oppression.  Jesus grounds this Empire of Heaven in the agrarian cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, and planting again.  No armies, no violence, no exploitation.  Just this:

A sower went out to sow, and she scattered the seed far and wide.  Now some seed fell on the road, and it didn’t grow at all.  Some fell in shallow earth, and showed quick growth but didn’t last long.  Some fell in among thorns and got choked.  And some fell on good soil.  And grew.  And bore fruit – 100 times, 60 times, 30 times over.  This is what life in the Empire of Heaven is like.

Now if this is a glimpse of life in the Empire of Heaven, I want to notice a few things:

  1. It’s not determined by power-over.  Life in the Empire of Heaven – it’s not about coercion and dominance.
  2. The model for life in the Empire of Heaven is grounded in the agrarian cycle. It’s about planting, and nurture, and growth, and harvest, and planting again.  That’s the new paradigm.
  3. It is extravagant work – hard work – seed for growing that is cast as broadly and expansively as possible.
  4. And it encompasses a full range of results – no results; results that are promising but fade; results that are attacked; and – for the work that finds depth of soil – abundant harvest.  It is about ultimate abundant harvest that we may not see in immediate results.
  5. And, one more thing, in this Empire of Heaven, the work is never done.  If the work of the Empire of Heaven is grounded in the agrarian cycle of planting and harvest – it is always beginning again – there is always another season of planting.

These parables are subversive – they are about the present and coming reign of God – they are about an end to oppression and violence – and they are about an emerging world of justice and peace.  They are prophetic, and they are political.

And this parable – the parable of the sower – it’s also pastoral.   Jesus tells this parable just after he has faced some pretty severe opposition.  He has fed his disciples on the Sabbath; he has healed on the Sabbath; he is driving out demons.  The crowds are growing, and so is the opposition to what he is teaching.   And so Jesus takes a break to teach, and because the crowds are so large, he gets into a boat and goes just a little ways from the shore.  And he speaks to them in parables.  Jesus speaks to a bewildered crowd and to a beleaguered band of disciples – and he says – this is what life in this new Empire of Heaven is all about.  This is what justice work looks like.  This is what liberation work looks like.  In all of its ups and downs.

So here’s what I’d like to do.  I’d like to take this parable and throw it alongside something more recent, a part of our life, and see what we can see.  To listen to this ancient parable for meaning in this present moment.

It’s been about a month now since the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly met and acted on a number of important issues, and a lot has happened.  As many of you know, last month, the Presbyterian Church (USA) convened its national General Assembly.  Every 2 years, commissioners from regional presbyteries gather from across the country and consider, at the national level, initiatives that have originated in local congregations.  And this year, just last month, the General Assembly decided some long-contested, high-profile issues.  Two of those issues were brought by this congregation through our presbytery (along with other presbyteries).  (1) The assembly voted to divest from three corporations involved in building illegal settlements on the West Bank, and (2) the assembly voted to recognize pastoral discretion to celebrate the marriages of same-gender couples.  Both actions continue to face substantial opposition.

If we are to consider this particular moment alongside this parable, this parable with its cycle of planting and harvest, one of the first things to notice is that this moment – our moment –  has context; it has history.

This congregation has a substantial history of working for justice in Israel-Palestine.  It has been hard work and a lived-out commitment.  Not just words, but action.  This commitment has emerged through active engagement and conversation with the people of Israel/Palestine.  Each year, through its Keep Hope Alive program, this church sends delegations of workers to plant olive trees in the spring and to harvest in the fall.  You actually sow and harvest.

Alongside that ministry, this congregation has advocated in the presbyteries and in the national church for justice for Palestinian people.  That advocacy has included advocacy for divestment from companies involved in building illegal settlements, and for a declaration that the segregation of the Palestinian people constitutes apartheid.

And that advocacy has not been easy.  I can remember presbytery meetings in Garberville and Novato where the issues were hotly contested – sometimes painfully so – and where this advocacy did not move forward.  And then in 2012, this justice work was endorsed at the presbytery level, but lost by the narrowest of margins at the national level.  And then this year, at the General Assembly, the divestment motions passed.

But even with that, the reaction has been swift and fierce – coming at some of the highest levels of power – the measures were denounced by the Prime Minister of Israel on Meet the Press.  I’ve read the news coverage – and the op-ed pieces in opposition – and they are riddled with inaccuracies.  It has been hard and painful work.  Even more hard and more painful, is watching the news from Gaza right now, as the violence continues there.  Even with a step toward divestment, it can feel like – well, it can feel despairing.

This congregation also has been deeply involved in work for marriage equality in the church.  For years, that struggle has been caught up in the Presbyterian Court system, as pastors were brought up on charges for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples.  There have been hard defeats – when a court of this presbytery voted to censure Rev. Janie Spahr, while at the same time proclaiming that her ministry was faithful to the gospel, and when the national Presbyterian court affirmed that decision.  But then, just a few months later, at a presbytery meeting in this very sanctuary, our Presbytery voted overwhelmingly to reject any rebuke of Janie, and instead to celebrate her ministry, and to proclaim the gospel as Good News for all people.

Each year, for as long as I can remember, and I’ve known you almost 10 years now, this congregation has sent overtures to the General Assembly seeking to affirm the full dignity of same-gender couples and our families.  And up until this year, these measures were voted down.  But this year, the overtures passed with around 70% of the vote.  And again, reaction was swift, as congregations have continued to threaten to leave the denomination.

If we put ourselves at any one point in either of these struggles, there are two temptations.  At the most painful and frustrating points, there is the temptation to despair.  When the crops don’t grow, or when they seem to get choked out. When opposition is fierce.  We can feel that all is lost, or that our hope is beyond reach..  AND, At the points that feel like progress, there is the temptation to frame those moments in terms of winning and losing – to think in the way that the world thinks – I win, you lose – to replicate the existing ways that we exercise power over one another.  But those don’t work.  And they never have.

This parable of the sower gives us a broader range of vision.  This parable grounds us in the Empire of Heaven.  To those who first heard this parable, and to those who have sought to follow Jesus ever since, it says you are engaged in work that is part of a cycle of planting, and growing, and harvesting, and planting again.

And this is part of it:  There will be days when it feels like there is no progress.  There will be others still where it feels like your deepest longing in this work is being choked out by the thorns.  But continue to work, continue to dig your hands down lovingly into depth of soil, continue to scatter seed with abandon, continue to nurture and tend what you are growing – because this work is about planting and growing nothing less than an entirely new world – a world where the love of Christ is made manifest — a world powered not by exploitation and oppression and violence, but a world powered by steadfast planting, and growing, and harvest, and planting again.  By tender, steadfast care, and love.

And here is what I think is most subversive in this parable.  If you’ve got it handy, please pull out your bulletin and take a look at the photo on the cover – the photo of cupped hands holding a sapling.

Jesus sits in his boat, just a little ways off shore, and he says, “A sower went out to sow.”  To the crowd on the shore – to the crowd of peasant farmers – Jesus says the Empire of Heaven looks like someone planting and growing and harvesting.  He says to them, The Empire of Heaven looks like what you do every day.

Jesus says to them, and to us, the work of the Empire of Heaven is in your hands – in your weary, calloused, soil-soaked, life-worn hands – in your hands – that is where the Empire of Heaven – the reign of Christ is coming to life for the blessing of the world.  Ultimately, this new world is not powered by emperors or kings or armies or corporations.  Ultimately, it is powered by God, and it depends upon your willingness to work in depth of soil – upon our willingness and our courage and our tenacity to plant, and to cultivate, and to harvest, and to plant again.  Our willingness to join in God’s hard work of building a new world of justice, freedom, and peace.

A sower went out to sow, and she scattered her seed over the earth extravagantly.  And though some fell on dry places and some fell among thorns, still other seed fell in depth of soil, and it grew, and she tended it, and the seed bore fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

And in the spring, she planted again.

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[1] William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville: 1994).

[2] A more detailed description of agrarian societies under imperial rule – the world into which these parables were spoken and later written – can be found on pp. 53-73 in William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville: 1994).

 

© 2014 Scott Clark. All rights reserved

Sent

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Lesson: Matthew 10:5-15, 40-42

When you think of missionaries, you might picture young Mormons in black slacks and white shirts, walking through neighborhoods and knocking on doors at inconvenient times. You might picture someone like the Reverend Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, who heads to Africa to save souls but cares nothing for people. Or you might picture someone like Jane Holslag, who met with the Church and Society Committee a few weeks ago. Jane is a Presbyterian missionary who just retired from teaching theology at a university in Lithuania. She described with joy and excitement how one of her former students was setting up a non-profit Christian program for “orphanage graduates” – for helping young adults who were raised in orphanages find homes, jobs and a sense of belonging.

What you probably don’t picture when you think of missionaries is yourself.

In this morning’s passage in Matthew, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples, instructing them not only to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, but to make it real by performing the same works of healing that he is doing.  He sends his disciples out to be missionaries. We are Christ’s disciples, too. And so this is a mission we now share. Matthew assumes there is simply no other way to be the church.[1] According to Matthew, all of us are sent. Read more →

Called Beyond Comfort

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Lesson: Matthew 10:24-39

I’ve mentioned before that I taught a marriage preparation class a couple of times a year at the church I served in San Francisco. We focused on a couple of things. One of them was recognizing the expectations people bring to marriage. Usually these expectations come from our families of origin, and often they are unspoken. Let me give you an example, an actual quote from a class participant: “I know my fiancé plays at least 18 holes of golf every weekend now, but he won’t want to do that when we have a family.” This revelation was not a welcome surprise to her fiancé. Every once in a while, I wonder how that couple is doing.

Another focus of the class was figuring out an approach to conflict that worked for both people and that built up rather than tore down the relationship. These are tough topics, and I hoped that what came across was that a good marriage is hard work, but worth it. I tried to present the material with lightness and even a sense of humor, and most people enjoyed the class. Still, every now and then I’d get a note on one of the evaluation sheets people handed in at the end of the class that went something like, “You shouldn’t be so negative about marriage.” Or, “You make marriage sound too hard.”

If the disciples were able to turn in evaluation sheets to Jesus, this morning’s lesson in Matthew’s gospel might get the same response. “Jesus, why are you being so negative? You’re making discipleship sound too hard.” And I suspect many of us would respond the same way. In today’s passage, Jesus sends the twelve disciples out to teach the truth as he has taught, to heal the broken as he has healed. He warns them that this won’t make them popular with everyone. Although there have been crowds of grateful and amazed people, they already know that Jesus’ brand of truth-telling upsets the religious establishment. In the hindsight of the crucifixion, which is when the gospel was written, Jesus’ warnings must have had even greater impact. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be maligned as he has been.[1] He also gives them a stark picture of the kind of disruptive discipleship to which they have been called. They shouldn’t expect this to be a bed of roses, and they shouldn’t be surprised if close relationships are uprooted.[2]   Even their families could turn against them.[3] Read more →

Three Ways to Say I Love You

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Lessons: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte is known for witty and thought-provoking paintings, many of which include floating apples and men wearing derby hats. One of his more famous paintings shows a bent-stemmed, Sherlock Holmes-ish pipe. If I were to ask you what it is, you’d probably say, “That’s a pipe.” But the artist is ready for this question, and has already answered it in the painting itself. Below the pipe are painted the words, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe,” which is French for “This is not a pipe.” And the artist is right, of course. Try smoking it. You’ll figure out that it isn’t a pipe, after all. It’s only a picture of a pipe.

For much of church history, well-meaning believers have attempted to offer statements that tell us exactly who God is. Some of these attempts work their way into church doctrine. We put them in our creeds and recite them as though they are fact. But attached to every such attempt, even the ones that become doctrine, should be a label reading something like, “Ceci n’est pas Dieu” – “This is not God.” Every doctrine that describes God is not God, but rather, a picture, a concept that tries to explain or describe our experience of God, and no more than that.[1] Read more →

The End (Not)

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Lesson: Acts 1:6-14

The ten days before Pentecost Sunday is the season of the Ascension. “Ascension” is not a word we use much, but if we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we say we that Christ “ascended into heaven.” I’m guessing many of us just slide right past that, probably because it sounds like science fiction. When I was looking for bulletin covers for this morning, I found lots of paintings showing the disciples looking up at the soles of Jesus’ feet; one had a pair of bare legs dangling like a couple of chopsticks from the top of the picture. But perhaps a better picture of the Ascension would be to show the disciples alone, Jesus gone. That might better capture the feeling of loss, of absence, of change, that the disciples felt. Whatever they saw, what the Ascension tells us is that, at some point, something about the disciples’ access to Jesus changed.

The Acts passage begins with the disciples asking the kind of question most of us would ask in the face of startling change or loss. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” They’re asking, “What’s going to happen next? Is it going to turn out all right?” The disciples want to know the future. I know that feeling. I’ll bet most of us can remember times, times of transition or change, when we found ourselves reading our horoscopes every day, or even noticing those signs, “Madame Some-one-or-other, Palms and Tarot Cards Read.” It’s when life looks most uncertain that we long for certainty.

Jesus doesn’t comfort the disciples by answering their question. He confounds all the “Left Behind” folks who predict the end of the world by saying it is not for them to know God’s timing. But he does tell the disciples there is something they can count on. They will receive power from God to be God’s witnesses. The message he gives to the church is that Christ’s disciples are supposed to quit watching for the Second Coming, and start living as though the kingdom has come.

Then, according to Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, Jesus floats off on a cloud like a child’s helium balloon. Jesus is gone, and the Spirit that will arrive with Pentecost, that Jesus has promised, has not come. Read more →

Pinpointing the Spirit

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Lesson: John 14:15-21

This weekend kicks off the summer blockbuster season. Large action movies tend to have a certain amount of plot twists in common that keep the action moving forward. One such plot device is the tragic death of a beloved person whose final words motivate the hero or heroine to action. You know how it goes…the action tends to stop around them, the film becomes quiet, and we all wait for the final words before the action comes roaring back.

When the beloved person is a mentor/teacher they tend to realize they are dying and pass on some little nugget of wisdom that the hero will call upon in the midst of the final battle. The pupil will then use this experience to clarify their resolve to save the day or the planet or the solar system or the galaxy far, far away. Perhaps the mentor’s voice will pop in their head at just the right moment. For instance, what Star Wars fan could forget the scene between Luke and Yoda in the cave on Dagoba in Return of the Jedi? As we all remember, Luke comes back to complete his training but Yoda is too frail. As Luke helps him into bed for the last time, Yoda gives his final teaching, “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. …do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor or suffer your father’s fate you will.” And “the Force runs strong in your family.” This last one leads to the realization that Leia is family and proves to dissolve tensions so that Leia, Luke, and Han can turn their full attention to the battle at hand. Thank you, Yoda, for these insights.

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Returning Home

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Lesson: Mark 6:1-6a

Mason went to school on Monday after taking some quizzes the previous week. He got back his spelling quiz and he did great on it, 100%. Then the teacher handed back his math quiz, where he got a D. Mason returned home from school that afternoon, and his mom asked him what happened in school. Mason said, “I got my spelling test back, 100%!” “That’s great!” his mom replied, “Anything else?” After thinking for a moment Mason said, “Nope.” We’re so quick to share good news, but reluctant to share bad news. Jesus returned to his hometown fairly early in his ministry to share good news, for he had already been teaching and healing, and he had a lot to share with his family and friends. Yet he did not receive the response he expected.

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The Go-To Psalm

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Lesson: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47

On Friday, our intern Dan Robertson told me that hospitals periodically have to replace the Bibles in their patient rooms and chapels, and the reason is the Twenty-third Psalm. The rest of the Bible might be almost like new, untouched, but the page on which Psalm 23 is printed is so worn out they have to replace the whole Bible. I looked it up and it’s true. Sometimes the page is even missing. Patients or people who love a patient tear it out and keep it, so it will be handy when they need it.[1]

Why does this psalm speak to us, why do its words go down into the deepest places in our hearts, why does such ancient poetry continue to sing of God’s presence to us? Familiarity, certainly, but consider this intriguing fact: In the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after the phrase, “Thou art with me.”[2] “Thou art with me” – “You are with me” – is at the very center of the psalm. God is with us. We are not left on our own. The Lord is our Shepherd, who loves us before we can love God back, who cares for us, and who gives us this world, which has all we need. Read more →