Tuesday, October 31, 2017

1 Samuel 25: 14-18

1 Samuel 25: 14-18
"14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, ‘David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.’

18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19 and said to her young men, ‘Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.’ But she did not tell her husband Nabal."

My favorite part of this scripture is the note that Abagail didn’t tell her husband what she was doing.  She is a woman we don’t hear enough about; she is left out of the lectionary reading cycle that guides many churches and there are zero Sunday school songs that echo her story. Perhaps this is because she is a woman caught between two pretty egotistical men. One of whom happens to be the man that will be King, King David is the King against whom all other Kings in Israel’s history will be measured except here… he is not looking partially good.  

David is caught in an in-between space, named as future king, plucked from the middle of no-where, the last son of no-body important. Some lowly shepherd on his way to being king. The problem with David being named as the future king is that there is a current king and power is not something kings let go of very easily… it would seem. And yet David has been useful, even to the soon to be outgoing king, in terms of his military leadership. So this moment we find David with a crew of folks, a small army, a band of marry men out in the country side. Except they are really not so noble. This group of men need to be fed and housed and are depending the people they are “protecting” for this payment. They are perhaps like pirates without a boat, they might even be people we would label today as a terrorist cell, a roving militia striking fear into peoples hearts to get what they want. This is where things get messy with Abigail.

David crew brushes up into Nabal, Abigail’s husband. He is a wealthy man leading a wealthy household and the author of this story wants us to be clear that Nabal is ill-natured. He is difficult to say the least, and it is named over and over. Perhaps a more vivid translation would be peppered with adjectives I don’t want children to repeat. He is difficult, and there is this kind of sense that that is just Nabal, like he is the Ancient Mediterranean Prequel to Grumpy Old Men. The problem is when David’s militia demands something of Nabal, Nabal’s response is sort of along the lines of “David Who? That nobody from nowhere.” This response is natural for Nabal to give, just as it is obvious to us readers that David, Future King David’s, Ego is not going to take kindly to this insult and refusal. And so the battle is set. David promises sure and certain destruction and death to Nabal and his household. Nabal seems unfazed by this threat, however, the servants in his household are not. They seek an intercessor, a leader that will save them from David and the only person that can save the day is Abagail.  

She hears the story of what has happened and takes the word of the servants to heart that David and his men were caretakers of them when they were in the fields keeping the flocks. And she responds. The thing she responds with bread.

18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19and said to her young men, ‘Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.’ But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 

Not just a little food but a lot of food. Perhaps this is why the details have so much real-estate in the story. She takes bread to an army. She takes wine to a terrorist cell. She takes raisins to fight pirates. She meets fear and uncertainty, a space of potential violence with abundance. And it works. Her massive spread of food changes the threat of violence into a banquet of sharing. David thanks her,

32 David said to Abigail, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! 33 Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from blood-guilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!’

She met violence with peace and scarcity with abundance. She looks at an army and shows up with two hundred loaves of bread. She brings so much food it takes a caravan of donkey’s to move it into place. And it changed the course of events.

That is the interesting thing about all the stories around bread in our Bible. They are totally unreasonable. Jesus is in a desolate place, and yet thousands of people are gathered on a hillside and he tells his disciples its time to feed these people. They give him a spreadsheet of reasons it cannot be done, they didn’t have time to plan, there are to many people, no one RSVP’ed, it would take a years wages, there is no bakery, and in the face of all their reasonable, understandable no’s Jesus picks up a few loaves of bread and shows them how to say yes. With enough loaves to count on one hand, he blesses and breaks bread and there is not only enough when everyone else does the same, there is more then enough. They have so much they collect extra and there must be someone putting it in to-go containers making sure everyone gets a little bite for the road. It is totally unreasonable and it happens in breaking bread. We see it in the heart of the Parable when Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is live yeast that a woman took and kneed into three measures of flour. Three measures of flour is a lot of flour. It reminds us of Sarah and Abraham’s story. Abraham seeing three strangers on the horizon, welcomes them and as a part of the welcome he runs in and asks Sarah to take three measures of flour to make them some cakes. Amy-Jill Lavine reminds us this is like making 60 dozen busiest. It is no wonder Sarah is laughing at the end, she is exhausted. 60 dozen biscuits for people you didn’t invite and an event you didn’t plan is totally unreasonable.  

These bread stories are totally unreasonable. Something so small and simple, bread, changes everything. They are reckless and abundant. 200 loaves of bread, 60 dozen biscuits, feeding thousands at the spur of the moment, you cannot miss the message of abundance that is wrapped up in the stories of bread. Perhaps they teach us something about being bread for each other, how it requires a lot of us, our utmost. Being bread, being faithful is totally unreasonable and requires us to be reckless and wild. 

I believe that is why we gather because we waiting to make our 60 dozen biscuits. Of course, not literally, we may not all be ready to load of a donkey with a feast of bread, wine and raisins. But we have something to give. God has seeded gifts in our very being and we are waiting to give them, to discover them, to share them and to be inspired to give them beyond reason. We gather each week to explore what that might be, to dive into our spiritual life so we can come out ready to share our best with the world. Maybe it is your time, maybe it is your resources, maybe it is your talents maybe it is all of the above. But at every step we are called to go big, to be unreasonable and unrealistic and change the world. Abigail changed everything by meeting fear with compassion, scarcity with abundance, and the threat of destruction with the promise of hope. We can too. May we have the courage to be bread for each other. Amen

Discussion Questions
1. What did you know about Abigail before this study?
2. What do you see in Abigail’s story that gives you courage as you chart your own story?
3. What does it mean to be bread for each other? 

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