Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Vacation

Did I mention I'm on vacation for the next couple of weeks?  Well, I'm on vacation for the next couple of weeks.  

Funny thing about vacation.  I was talking to a friend (not a member of our church) who seemed confused by my going away.  "You mean they let you have vacation?" she asked in honest confusion.

"Of course," I said.  "To not go on vacation would be sinful."  I meant it though she gave me a skeptical glance, as if to say, "Yeah, right."

In the end, she scoffed, "Sinful?"

"Yup," I said, and I was off and running.  It truly is sinful not to take time off in order to rest.  The best way to understand this is by changing the word from "vacation" to "sabbath time."  Sabbath time, coming from the Sabbath that God took on the seventh day after creation and enshrined in the fourth commandment, means time to rest.

Haven't you ever wondered why the command to rest would be stuck among all those "Thou shalt nots?"  How about because we need it.  We human beings don't know when to stop -- or to let our subordinates stop.  We burn out without rest, both physically and mentally.  We die.

For employers who don't care about their employees as people, this isn't a problem.  Just replace them with others who are all too willing to work themselves into an early grave for a meal.  But for those who care about their brothers and sisters -- and about themselves -- taking time off is crucial.  We regenerate our bodies and our souls.  Life regains meaning.

For clergy, there is an added dimension to vacation.  As one of my professors in seminary told our class, we need to go away so that we can realize the church doesn't really need us to survive.  "Go away, come back a couple of weeks later," he'd say, "and you'll be surprised to find that the church is still standing!  It does not depend on you being there every minute.  So get over your false sense of importance."

Isn't that true for a lot of us, too?  We think things won't work if we're not there at every step.  That's simply not true.  None of us is indispensable -- and time to rest will help us appreciate how freeing that can be.  We come back to work not only refreshed and rested but with a certain sense of burden lifted from our shoulders.  The world does not depend on me being there all the time.

A psychologist once said how he took the entire month of August off every year.  When questioned whether he didn't feel guilty about leaving his clients in the lurch if they had an emergency, he said that none had ever suffered unduly -- but that they would receive inferior treatment the other eleven months if he did not get away from work for a time.

So -- rest.  Vacation.  So few people take actual Sabbath time during the rest of the year -- they fill up their days off with unessential tasks or quick weekend trips that tend to stress them out more than refresh.  Why not get a little bit of your soul back by getting away.

Only, don't fill it up with more frenetic activity.  Spend at least one or two days doing nothing at all.  I know it's hard, but you can do it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Time for a Cup of Tea

In the old movie "Hook," Maggie Smith plays an old "Wendy" to Robin Williams' not-too-old Peter -- but a Peter who has forgotten all about Peter Pan.  He has married Wendy's granddaughter, has two children and has become a corporate raider.

When Captain Hook enters this world in search of Peter, he kidnaps the children and leaves a note for Peter to come and find them.  Peter and his wife are frantic, but Wendy sits down, "I've always found that in times of crisis, it's best to have a cup of tea.  Peter, it's time for a cup of tea now."  Of course, after that tea, she sends Peter on a fantastic journey of heroism and self-discovery.

I think she may be onto something.  In times of crisis -- or perhaps just times when we need to consider what to do next -- taking time for that cup of tea may be exactly what we need.

That sounds so British, but think about it.  When are many of our worst mistakes made?  When we are acting in crisis mode.  OR -- when we have decided that we don't like what we see and are going to fix it -- usually without considering the consequences.    You probably can think of endless examples of people rushing off to fix a problem or react to some crisis only to make the situation worse.  I KNOW you can find a lot of examples in the bible.

Take a look at our Gospel today.  This is one of Jesus' parables, so he's telling us about ourselves in general terms -- but also about God.  When you think of God in this parable, think of Maggie Smith saying, "It's time for a cup of tea."

So, here we have a landowner who's servants have planted good wheat.  Then, some enemy plants those bad weeds as a way to cause mischief.  The servants want to rush right out and and pull out all the weeds.  But the master says, "Hold on there.  Maybe it's time for a cup of tea so we can sit down and think about it.  No need to rush off and start tearing things up.  You might do more damage than the weeds themselves.  When the weeds grow up, they'll be easier to separate out. 

What does this tell us about God?  Well first of all, it tells us that our idea of speed is not like God's.  Those servants wanted to fix the problem RIGHT NOW.  Like us far too often.  We see something we decide is not too our liking, and we have to fix it.  That's often how wars are started.  That's often how industrial decisions are made that turn out to be disasters ecologically and economically for that fact.

Another thing it tells us about God is that God -- at least as depicted in this parable -- would rather take the chance of letting IN some bad weeds that to tear out ANY of the wheat.  It almost seems as if the master isn't all that concerned about whether some weeds get mixed into the harvest.  "It'll all sort itself out in the end," he seems to say, "But you might be surprised at just what the end looks like."  God might just have a different idea about what constitutes a weed, so perhaps it's a good idea to slow down and ponder what is ours to change, and what is not.

This parable tells us something about ourselves, too.  It tells us that ripping out the weeds is not our job.  We don't have the wisdom, the depth of love, or the skill to get rid of exactly those things God doesn't want.  

There's another story in the bible that is similar.  Here, you have Rebekah and Jacob on one side of the family, and Isaac and Esau on the other.  Now, Isaac apparently wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and Esau wasn't the most subtle, but Esau was the heir.  Only problem was, Rebekah was sure Jacob would make a better leader, so she helped him plot to steal Esau's blessing from an unwitting Isaac.  

Well, Jacob got the blessing -- but then he had to run for his life because Esau was so made he was going to kill him.  As a result, Jacob spent more than 20 years in exile.  The story we read about him today tells of when he is running away -- and there he encounters God.  God makes him promises during this dream, and in the end, Jacob says to himself, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”  God was with him BEFORE his deceit, too, but he probably didn't know that, either.  He was too busy worrying about how HE would fix the future.

He eventually did return home to take over the reigns from Isaac, but who knows what he might have done -- or how things might have turned out had he and Rebekah not decided to change things by stealth and deceit.

Originally, I thought of calling this sermon, "Don't just do something.  Sit there!"  But the point is not that we never do anything.  The point of the parable or the cautionary tale of Jacob is not that we should never address the wrongs in this world or try to better our own lives.  

Just that we would do well to slow down our approach to consider whether our instinct for immediate action is the best.  To consider a much longer term approach to our actions.  And to approach things with humility.  Maybe we DON'T know best.  Maybe what we consider as bad isn't in the long run -- I think of the meandering Mississippi which the Army Corps of Engineers worked to tame for the good of the nation -- and has been paying for it ever since with floods and devastating erosion.

There are times when we must act, of course, but even then, we would do well to act with caution and a willingness to reconsider that action if we come to see it was not best.  Too often we plow ahead with bad ideas that seemed good at the time.  God has a much bigger view of things than we do -- Jesus asks us to slow down and consider that God might just have an idea of what God's doing.  So have a cup of tea -- it'll do us all a world of good. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rocks and Thorns

This may be an appropriate parable for getting ready for VBS which is Operation Creation….  After all, we're talking about taking care of the earth and what grows in it.

But you know, it's not easy, is it?  We've been filled with doubts -- will we pull it off?  Will we have enough students?  And assuming we get the students and pull off a great week, will those kids learn anything?   In short, will all this work be wasted?  

That's one of the questions that plagues us all, isn't it?  What's the point of doing whatever I'm doing?  It's not going to make a difference.  

Well, this parable Jesus told is just right for us, but not because it's about farming.  Rather because it's a message of hope.  A message that says, relax, it'll be all right.

Shall we look at it for a moment?

Jesus describes the old form of farming called broadcasting where you prepare the soil basically -- but then you walk through the field and scatter seeds with your hand, litterally casting them in a broad arc.  It's a given that you'll lose a huge percentage of the seed.  But you will generally get enough to grow to help you make it to the next year.

Which is exactly what Jesus is telling his followers. 

But if we put it in VBS terms, it might look like this.  Sometimes you send out invitations to attend, but they either don't respond or tell you they can't go because of other commitments like vacation or other camps.  Then some say, "that sounds good, we want to go," but they never turn in their registrations.  Some will even come for the first day and disappear.  

Then you get to those who DO arrive.  Some of them get the snacks, play the games and go home having had a nice week.  Others go home and talk about it with their folks.  But one or two might have something change inside -- something we might never see but that could inspire that child to become the next Presiding Bishop or Nobel prize winning earth scientist.  

The funny thing about this parable is that sometimes we are the soil, and sometimes we are the sower.  Sometimes we're the VBS student and sometimes we're the staff, if you will.

When you're the soil that Jesus talks about -- what does that mean?  Well, I know for myself, sometimes I can't hear God talking to me -- in any way shape or form.  Sometimes I see others talking about God and it goes right over my head -- it just doesn't make sense.  Other times -- like when we're getting ready for Towel Camp or VBS or when we're talking about Buildings and Grounds or the budget, I'm WAY too preoccupied and worried to hear God.  

But there are times when God gets through to me, and I hear, and wonderful things happen in my life -- and maybe even through me.  Like, every now and then, I preach a sermon and someone comes up to me and says, "That was exactly what I needed to hear to make it through another day."  It's not huge, but it's enough.

Maybe your life is like that, too.  Maybe sometimes you're the soil, and you hear God, but it might not make sense, or you're too worried or scared to let the radical news that God loves you really sink in.  Rocks and Thorns everywhere.  But notice this:  Jesus never condemns the soil.  Not the rocks, not the thorns, not the path.  And of course, not the good soil.  He simply lays it out there.  What Jesus understands, and we forget, is that people are not static.  Sometimes they are rocky soil, and sometimes they are good.  What we forget is that the seeds aren't cast just once -- but many times over the course of our lives, so that even if we aren't receptive at one point, we might well be at another point.  Even if we've been followers and fallen away, it might be that at another point, we will be ready again.

And sometimes, sometimes, maybe that word touches something in you -- and you see.  And you know.  And you grow in God's love.

It's times like that when you switch from being soil to being sower.  And when you do, Jesus says, don't worry about results.  Don't condemn the soil, either.   Never look at someone and say, "I tried that person before, and they're not interested."  You never know.  

Going back to VBS, I can assure you that God is touching it -- I can feel it.  But what the results will be, I have no idea.  Maybe all our seeds will fall on rocks and thorns.  But maybe, just maybe, we'll see thirty or sixty or a hundred fold growth.