Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sermon on Yeast (Matthew 13:33)

Matthew 13:33
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.”

National Coming Out Day may not be on every church calendar... yet. But I believe it is important to pause and notice the day. And it is a day where I could spend time preaching on one of those five or six verses that folks, like the protesters outside our morning service, read to us with their loud speaker pointed right to our windows. It is true, in some ways-- they helped get the sermon started as many folks walked in. But the truth is, I’m kind of over it. Because it is a matter of reading style where we just have to agree to disagree. And sending you out with talking points about Sodom and Gomorrah being about hospitality and sexual assault probably will not convince anyone that that ancient story is not at all about two loving men wanting to hold hands, raise a sweet baby and grow old together. We could spend today talking about Biblical models of marriage, but as you look closely, most of those models involve one man and his first wife, his second wife, his third wife and maybe some concubines that he has control over... which to be frank, is not a model of marriage I’m interested in exploring. And we could spend today talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans and dive into the finer points of what he means when he says “natural” and “unnatural” sexuality... however, I prefer to save that conversation for Valentine’s Day and invite all of you back for a Wesley Pub where we can get serious about Paul’s Roman and Jewish culture and decide for ourselves how much applies to our guidelines for a life-giving sexuality.

Today, I think we move past these verses that folks want to lift up in the face of our world becoming ever more open and inclusive. It’s time to rise. I pause today in wonder of how far we have come. In 2003, I was working on a project for my Masters in Education called Heterosexist Language in the Secondary School Climate. I researched how often words and phrases meant to dehumanize and hurt were thrown around the classroom and batted around the hallways of a school. You couldn’t go a minute in a hallway without hearing the phrase, “That’s so gay.” And it was so common, it was said without much thought. At that time I was in high school classrooms and invited conversations around language, because I believed that when we dehumanize with our words, we take steps to dehumanizing with our hands. And yet, today, 15 years later, a word for which I would have sent students to the office is a part of our ministry. Fifteen years ago, I sent students to the principal for using the word queer, and yet today we have a campus ministry effort called QueerFaith on Campus. This is radical change, to live in a time when a community claims a word used to wound. And so today, we name how far we have come and acknowledge how far we must travel. We can celebrate the change we have seen and yet acknowledge just how vulnerable our progress seems to be. This is why we must rise, resilient and strong.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast that a woman took and mixes in three measures of flour until it was leavened. This Parable seems simple; it invites us to consider this little agent of powerful change, this yeast. To imagine a woman, feet planned firm on the cool floor, arms caked in flour up to her elbows, the dough she works, smelling sweet and sour and to see her turning those simple ingredients into something that nourishes. It is not hard for us to imagine the dough rising and the baker woman, her hair still dusted with flour, pulling the fresh, warm bread from the oven. This is a short story we can get behind with ease and want to be a part of this yeasty presence of God that rises, expands, transforms, and nourishes people.

But even yeast is complicated. We cannot take yeast out of context. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until it was leavened. Yeast is not simple. We might remember yeast as something that comes in these cute little packets, contained, friendly... not much different from a Kool-Aid package. But this is not what Jesus is talking about. It would be more like sour dough starter, which I asked Maria Walker to make for us this week. When she brought it to me, she warned me of how it could explode! Jesus is talking about an leavening agent and it takes a little experience and wisdom to work with leaven. It is really left over bread, allowed to mold and ferment. It is volatile and it has its own life and process; too little time and it is useless; nothing will rise. Allowed too much time, it becomes dangerous, poisonous even. Yeast is powerful and must be cared for. It has its own timing. Maybe this is why Jesus uses yeast in different ways. There is good and bad yeast. Paul does this too, and they learned it from their Jewish tradition. When Jesus talks about bad yeast, he is talking about the Pharisees, which is not, as some people have taken it to be, a suggestion to encourage anti-Semitism. It is rather a critique of a competing perspective on practicing Judaism. And I might add, I think he would level the same critique of us modern Christians. Perhaps we can see the power of our faith as yeast: too little time and care, it is flat and useless; diving too deep into the ancient words without care for the people of the context around you and a hope for the most vulnerable, it is dangerous. The Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast, good yeast that gives life and permeates every inch of the dough so it can be transformed, so it can nourish.

The Gospel of Thomas, which didn’t make it in our canon, shares this same parable in a different way. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a WOMAN, who took a little leaven, (hid) it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman making this abundance of bread. In the parable when it says three measures of flour, we might think of three cups, you know - a nice amount there on the counter. But three measures of flour is a lot. And maybe it is just a coincidence. Or maybe it’s not. You see, there is another place where a woman works with three measures of flour. It is right before that whole Sodom and Gomorrah incident in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah, the founding partners of our faith, were camped in the midst of their wild wilderness journey. They were not particularly pious, holy, kind or even brave all the time, but they did follow God on a crazy adventure. They left a perfectly fine homeland and wandered because God called them to do it. One day Abraham, eyes to the horizon, saw three strangers. He did not circle the wagons, get his weapon to stand his ground or prepare for the worst, he prepared for the best in them. He ran to offer hospitality; actually he orchestrated the hospitality. They killed a fatted calf, they got out the best stuff, and he ran to Sarah and said take three measure of flour to make them cakes. Amy Jill Levine likens this to making 60 dozen biscuits! Can you imagine your partner out in the street talking to people you don’t know, then running in and saying, “Honey, can you make them 60 dozen biscuits?” I think this is why she laughs at God at the end of the story - she is covered in flour and exhausted. 60 dozen biscuits is a totally unreasonable gift. No skimpy, just enough bread for dinner. Three measures of flour is too much dough for one woman to work. It is baking for a banquet; it is a feast. This is the hospitality of the Kingdom of Heaven. It calls a woman to bake an unreasonable amount of bread. It calls for care and attention to the yeast, that it be just right and permeate every inch of the dough.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in three measures of flour until it was leavened. We are called to rise, to be that wild, lively yeast, to be unmanageable in the best possible way. We are called to unreasonable, holy work that asks a lot of our time, passion, and energy. Work that asks us to make 60 dozen biscuits. We are called to let God’s love permeate us, so we might be changed, with every cell and fiber permeated so we, like yeast, can permeate this community and world. It is big and holy work and it rises out of something that seems so small. We are the leavening disrupting the shaming structures that say, “You are of little worth” or keep people feeling small, we are the leavening to repent and shape a new church. We are the leavening proclaiming a new day. Rising to say, “You are beloved, period.” Rising with love in spaces of hurt and harsh words. Rising with compassion though surrounded with apathy. Rising with hope in a world of despair. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Let’s rise to the occasion.

May it be so. Amen.

Discussion Questions
What is your experience with this parable and the image of yeast/baking? What does it mean to be good yeast?

What are your 60 Dozen Biscuits? What does hospitality mean to you in the Abbey, in your home, in your work?

What are the spaces that limit your hospitality or your courage? What can you do to live a little differently this week?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A New Lens on Repentance

A few weeks ago we celebrated communion in a service that I will always remember as the day I publicly insulted one of the most important mentor in my professional life. I did this on accident and because I was trying to be funny. Bread in hand, I was inviting people to the table and sharing that this is a meal of grace and not to worry if they have questions or needs. Looking at Dr. Dan, cup in hand, I was trying to remember how many years he had served… and I couldn't remember… and I thought about how many years he was a DS and then how to say he retired but was still serving, and then I thought about saying he had the compassion of a hundred pastors plus ten… and decided that was dumb and sounded like Dr. Seuss. I cycled through all my unscripted ideas and got nervous about my long pause and I said, “He had like 100 years of experience.” I knew immediately by the groaning laughter in the room how far I had just stuck my foot in my mouth. I tried to explain. I tried to back track. I got red, and my cheeks got hot, and I felt bad. And I just had to say… “That was a bad choice. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.” I served communion and felt like my face was so hot it must have been toasting the bread. It wasn’t until the 5:30 service that I knew the music guild was playing such a great song while we served communion.

It is hard to make mistakes. Hard to hurt people you care about, no matter how big or small the infraction. It’s hard to grow and change. Maybe that is why communion is a meal of grace and perhaps this is why our faith is woven through with treads of forgiveness, transformation, repentance, and peace. 

Repent… it is all over the Bible. We might hear the word and shutter; unless we are talking about someone else, of course. Then we are quite good at figuring out what other people should confess. We have such a good eye for the sins… when they belong to someone else, and we know the things they should do differently or better or not at all. We can pity their low self-awareness or lament their lack of compassion. If knowing how much other people should change was a competitive sport, most of us would be pro. If we are really honest, some of those things that drive us the most crazy are probably things that we project and drive us crazy about ourselves. 

In Luke Chapter 3, John tells people to repent and he starts his sermon by calling people a “brood of vipers” (Lk 3:7), and I can’t think of one culture where calling people a bunch of snakes has been a real compliment. He has a hard job teaching repentance. At least the way we hear it. We hear it like it is coming from an old time preacher, pounding on a pulpit or a stranger yelling at you as you walk across campus, “REPENT Sinner.” We hear it from a place of unworthiness, shame and guilt. We hear it used to make us feel small or force us to conform to someone’s boxes about behavior. The thing is, I don’t think that is what John is preaching. 

Repentance is about changing, adjusting course, turning around. Turning that gaze inward and seeing how and what we ourselves need to change… not just consulting for others. It is what John the Baptist is out in the wilderness asking people to do. And the most critical thing about repentance is his reminder, of who they are. If they claim status as children of Abraham, they are a part of a people that make relationship with God. They are created in the image of a life-giving, all-loving, creative and powerful God, and they are called to show up in the word that way. John reminds them they are a people of covenants and promises written in stone and crossing the sky in rainbows, they are beloved, so beloved Jesus even calls God, “Daddy”.  John the Baptist reminds them they are children of God and that that doesn't allow for easy or cheep repentance. This repentance is born out of worth, value and love. It is completely opposite of trembling with shame, just feeling lucky God would glance at our unworthy, messy lives. 

Maybe that is why people are actually coming out to see John. They don’t have to, he is kind of a strange man, eating bugs and honey, out on the margins of society and people come to repent. They come to take that step of changing and they can do it because they are so beloved and they are so worthy and they are reflections of a life-giving, creative God.

They ask John what is the next step and each one must answer with their lives. Sharing. Sharing food, sharing coats, and not exploiting people with one’s power and authority. This must be what he meant when he said, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) Change is hard and it must be real. It must be lived. That is why, I suspect, practice is important. One strategy I have learned is call Life-Centered Prayer by Ben Campbell Johnson (slightly adapted from Marjorie Thompson in her book, Soul Feast).

1.  Gather the Day. Identify the ten or twelve major events of your day… prayers, conversations, meetings, meals, work and activities. Make a list.

2.  Review the Day. Reflect on each item in your list, without judging yourself, avoiding feeling, or making excuses. How did you feel? How were you present?

3.  Give thanks for the day. Thank God for each part, person, moment, and celebrate God’s loving presence in the midst of it all.

4.  Confess your sin. Sin is brokenness. Acknowledge your faults in thought, word, and action toward God, neighbor, self and creation.

5.  Seek the meaning of the events. Reflect on the larger significance of each event.  Ponder: What is God saying to me? What am I being called to do? How do I want to be present?

Give it a try? Change and growth are hard and the gift is the grace to do it in community, fueled by a God that seeded resilience, love and passion in our very souls. We can change. WE can even repent and it’s not because we have to or be punished, it’s because we are so deeply loved that we can change. 

Blessings from you friendly, local Abbot
(Who would never start a sermon by calling anyone a bunch of snakes but may have to publicly apologize to her Mentor.)

Rev. Debra