Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Big Plant (Matthew 13:24-30)

I've preached a standard sermon on this passage before, but once in awhile I like to experiment. Here's the experiment. It says the same thing the standard sermon does; I've printed it before here.
I was sitting in my office on a dead-end street in Jerusalem trying not to think about the metaphor. I’d bought myself a drink to get my mind off it, but it seems I’m not much of a conversationalist.

She walked in, like they always do. If I’d been a rabbi I might have dropped my Talmud, but I wasn’t so I didn't. “You’re not interrupting,” I told her. She gave me a blank look. I was used to those.

It was even money whether she was in trouble or wanted to start some. Turns out it was the former, at least for now. No telling what might turn up later. The guy she worked for owned this wheat field, and a few weeks ago he’d sown some wheat seed in it. I guess that’s what you do when you have a field and some seed – me, I was more interested in vinyards than farms.

Now the wheat was beginning to show up, but it wasn’t alone. Right in the middle, mixed in with all the good stuff, were weeds. Tares, we sometimes call them. She and the outfit she worked for wanted to know where they’d come from and who might be behind it all. So she’d come to me with her question, which sooner or later a lot of people do here in Big J. For a denarius a day plus expenses, I'm the guy who finds the answers.

Since my appointments with the king and C├Žsar had fallen through, my day was open. I went with her to the field, where her boss and some of his crew were gathered. I looked at the field. Someone showed me which ones were the wheat and which ones were the tares. It was a good thing they did, because I’m a city boy and green on one end, dirty on the other is the extent of my horticultural knowledge.

I got the story about what happened when they’d done their planting. The boss was no slouch – once he’d planted his seed, he had some guys stand guard and watch the field. Wasn’t his fault they weren’t smart enough to watch a movie.

I quizzed him. “Any enemies?”

“Probably,” he said.

“They do something like this”?

“Probably did,” he said. He was less of a talker than I was, but that pretty much solved the case. Didn’t seem like it was worth a denarius, but he didn’t ask for it back and I didn’t offer. Made the dame who’d hired me happy too. I liked making dames happy, especially since I usually only managed to do that by leaving.

My job was over, but I thought I’d stick around to see how things turned now. Maybe I’d make the dame happy again. The chief flunky spoke up in a sincere effort to keep the job he’d just been shown to have fallen down on.

“Master, since an enemy has done this, do you want us to dig out all the weeds?”

Like I said, I was no farmboy, but even I knew this was a bad idea. The wheat and the weeds were too close together. Tear out one and risk ripping up the other. The boss would take a significant hit in the wallet, and I’ve never met a boss who likes that. I caught his look and raised an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes back at me.

“No,” he said, and explained what I’d just thought of. “We’ll wait until harvest and sort them all out then. We can store the wheat and burn up whatever weeds are left.” He looked at me again and I understood the meaning behind his words.

He wasn’t an ordinary guy, this boss. Sure, he’d run his field like any other farmer would and take care of his wheat. The workers would till around it and make sure it got watered and fertilized. And when the harvest time came, he’d do just like he said and have them separate the wheat from the weeds.

But I’d heard everything he’d said, including that last phrase: “whatever weeds are left.” He didn’t just intend to take care of his wheat. He counted on being able to work on the weeds themselves. By the time he was done with them, he counted on them being transformed – they wouldn’t be weeds anymore. They’d be wheat.

I nodded once at the dame and walked away, headed back towards my office. I knew the real reason the boss wanted to wait wasn’t just because he was worried about his wheat. He was worried about the weeds too, and he wanted the time to work his transformation mojo on them. Weeds into wheat? Why not?

Even gave me some hope for me.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Distracted (Luke 10:38-42)

We only know a little about Mary and Martha (and their brother Lazarus, who we encounter later on). They are apparently people who met Jesus at one point and became friends with him. They know him well enough that when he travels through their village, he stays with them. Considering the hospitality codes of their culture, this speaks of a much more intimate relationship than we would ordinarily think of people we call "friends" -- maybe even something more like family.

I'm only guessing here based on what we do read about them, but I think Martha was the eldest child. The culture might not allow her to inherit as her brother would, but culture means bupkis up against the oldest child syndrome, and Martha has it in spades.

When we meet her and her sister Mary in this story, she is performing the proper duties of her role as a hostess. She's making sure everyone has enough to eat, enough to drink, the dishes are being taken away when they're finished, that everyone's seat is OK and that no one needs anything. Even if she's just supervising others doing the work, it's a busy task. Before we go on, we should understand that Martha's actions themselves are not the problem. Sometimes people suggest Jesus reproves her because she's spending so much time on everyone else and none on him. But the idea wouldn't make sense to anyone in this story: The hospitality codes made it the host's or hostess's duty to tend to the guests. The purpose was to make the guest feel welcomed and at home. Remember that Jesus himself called out Simon the Pharisee for omitting some of those same courtesies when he hosted the Lord and his disciples.

Where Martha goes wrong, I think, is that she mistakes the things she's doing as the point, instead of understanding that they are a way to get to the point. She has become so distracted by her many tasks that she forgets the tasks have an ultimate purpose: Making guests feel welcomed and at home. Because of this distraction, she's overlooking that Mary is doing exactly that by listening to Jesus speak: She's paying attention to the guest of honor.

My own belief is that too often, we use this story to beat up poor busy Martha for not slowing down and taking time for Jesus (Yes, I am also an oldest child. Why do you ask?) We need to do less and be more. OK, sure. That's probably the case for almost everyone and there is plenty of good in finding a better mixture of doing things for Jesus and being with Jesus. I think a more useful lesson is not to allow ourselves to let either our being or our doing distract us from the why we're doing it.

Businesses and corporations -- and these days, most everybody -- seem to be big on mission statements. Almost everywhere you look, someone has developed a new mission statement or is developing one or maybe rethinking an older one. Some of the emphasis is silly, a way of trying to catch on some kind of trend or shake up a complacent environment or work force.

But good mission statements are very useful. They answer the questions, "Why are you here? Why are you doing these things?" If you want to accomplish something, those are good questions to ask and even better questions to have answers for.  It's good to ask them again before a new task or project. Does the task directly contribute to our mission? No? Then why are we doing it? And it's also good to ask them "mid-project" sometimes, too. Are we doing these things for their own sake, or are we still doing them for our overall mission?

I think Martha had fallen into that last problem. The tasks of hospitality distracted her from the purpose of hospitality, so she failed to see that Mary was performing her role as well. The whole family had a role (we don't see Lazarus here, so maybe his role was grilling the burgers), and together they made up the welcome that the guest had a right to expect.

It's easy to do this as a church. To forget that committees, Sunday school classes, projects and just about everything else aren't supposed to be ends in themselves, but are ways to get to an end. It's easy to do this as individual Christians, too. To forget that Bible study, prayer, worship attendance and just about everything else aren't important unless they have as their goal our growing closer to God and conforming our lives to his call.

Because otherwise, there's a lot of other things I could be doing on Sunday morning.