July 31, 2008
The first comes out of the collect - "Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness." As GAFCON folk throw grenades at a conference they chose not to attend (Lambeth) and a system they asked for (Windsor) refusing to life up to their side of the bargain I could riff for quite a while on what it means to be cleansed by God's continual mercy, and how true it is that we cannot continue in safety without His help, and how good His goodness is. But alas, I gave up church politics for Lent 2007 and until yesterday have felt so free from its oppression that I choose today to be defended by God and not return to the power-grabbing firefight that is the Global Anglican Communion until the moderates (who I still contend are the majority) grow a pair and start talking louder than the squeaky wheels on both sides of the carriage.
The second comes out of the Old Testament Lesson. Once again somebody is getting their name changed. If you pay attention to name change sequences in Scripture you'll note that they are very, very important moments. Jacob - roughly translated "the trickster" - has been the tricker and the trickee over the years, and God has decided that its time to change his mission, and so they meet in battle for a night. In the end, having wrestled with him all night (Jacob must have used all the tricks in his bag to prevail against God so long), God decides the time has come for trickery to end, and so he gives him a new name, Israel - roughly translated "God contended".
Words, generally speaking, name things. Nouns name, well things. Verbs name actions. Adjectives name qualities. You get the idea. Names, and by association, words, are important. If I call myself an Episcopalian one set of images come to mind. If I call myself a Christian another set is formed, and if I call myself a follower of Jesus Christ, the Messiah still another. The words we use are very, very important. The names, titles, and labels we are given are very, very important. Many names, titles, and labels that once suited the situation are now being reevaluated. Does Church need a new name? Has it been a trickster long enough? Does Gospel (not the Gospel) need a new name? Have we ruined the word in our usage? Does Minister, Pastor, Priest, Preacher need to be reevaluated? Does a profession clerical class even make sense?
When God gets involved and begins to cleanse and defend we must be prepared for change to happen. Names, identities, roles, long-held traditions, lifestyles, comfort zones, friendships, allegiances, you name it, if God starts wrestling with us, everything is subject to change.
July 30, 2008
The feeding of the 5000 might be their shining moment, and they don't even know it. "You give them something to eat." With those 6 words Jesus forever changed the nature of the relationships between him and them and the apostles the world. Matthew's account doesn't have this event in the same chronological place as some others do - these disciples aren't fresh from casting out demons - these disciples are still scratching their heads over crazy kingdom of heaven parables and getting run out of Nazareth of all places.
"You give them something to eat." If this were a reality show, this moment would be the BIG TWIST. You can see their faces, dumbstruck like the girls on Rock of Love or the guys who have to use communal showers on the Bachelorette. "Um Jesus, yeah, the thing is, well, we ain't got but 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish."
"You give them something to eat." Jesus takes their offering, blesses and breaks it, but the multiplication (yes I believe in miracles) didn't occur until they pass it out. They are feeding the 5000+ plus with a just little faith in (and a lot of the faith of) Jesus.
Today is the feast of William Wilberforce, a man who heard God (among others) say, "you end the slave trade," and he did it with just a little faith in (and a lot of faith of) Jesus.
The feeding of the 5000 tells me that we can do anything for the kingdom of heaven. God has been pulling at me the past couple of days to get off my ass (apparently I've become complacent). So please pray for me as I try to discern what God is telling me to do for the kingdom.
Having been found by God in his mid-twenties and having been convinced to stay in politics by none other than John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Anglican Priest and author of the hymn Amazing Grace, Wilberforce worked tirelessly to maintain his independence from the party system that was in place at the time. He voted by merit, making all decisions based on his Christian faith for the up building of the kingdom of God, not necessarily the Kingdom of Great Britain. In a time when "religious enthusiasm was generally regarded as a social transgression and stigmatized in polite society" (wikipedia) Wilberforce wore his faith on his sleeve. He championed such causes as the introduction of Christianity to the British colony of India, the establishment of a free colony for Africans in Sierra Leone, the development of the Church Mission Society (CMS), and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA); both of which exist to this day.
Every year for 18 years Wilberforce and his small group of abolitionists introduced a bill for the end of the British slave trade, which finally found popularity in the House of Commons in 1807. The final 26 years of his life were spent arguing for the complete end of slavery in the British Empire, which depending on which source you read happened either three days before his death or a month after he died. Either way, by 1834, the year after his death, all 800,000 slaves still held in the British Empire were set free.
Wilberforce's life puts to rest the idea that one can only serve God as a missionary or priest. As this august group is not doubt aware the kingdom of God is not the exclusive work of religious professionals, but the work of each and every follower of Jesus Christ. As Jesus described, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" The Kingdom life is found in the service we offer to others, the way we spend our money, and the way we vote. William Wilberforce lived the kingdom life and the Church offers his servant ministry to us as an example of how we too might work to usher in the kingdom. As the collect said, "my we have grace to defend the poor, and maintaing the cause of those who have no helper..." Amen.
July 29, 2008
How many American Christians, polite as we are, can comprehend spending a night wrestling with God (physically or otherwise)? If we can't wrestle with God as we struggle to understand our place in his kingdom, then how in the world will we learn to respectfully disagree with one another? No one human being, no one church has it all right. As denominations have split and reorganized, we all have taken bits and pieces of the Truth and then filled in the holes with our own versions of truth. Along the way (post-enlightenment) people started to forget that holes had been filled in and many versions of the Truth began competing for the coveted capital "T".
We can learn a lot from Jacob's eventful evening. It is OK to wrestle with God (or with one another for that matter). As we wrestle we learn from each other and in the end we are blessed by the pieces of Truth, the face of Christ, we find in the other.
July 28, 2008
My mother-in-law makes the best cinnamon sweet rolls ever! From what I can tell now that Cassie has gotten the recipe (and thus is well on her way to making the best cinnamon sweet rolls ever) there are two secrets. The first secret is icy cold water, and the second is patience. Without enough time to rise properly the doughy goodness would become hard and unappetizing when baked, but if you can wait long enough for the dough to rise, the reward is ultimately worth it.
There is plenty to be learned about patience in this morning’s gospel lesson. Patience with Matthew for stringing all the kingdom parables together – patience with the lectionary folk for stretching them out over three weeks – patience with Jesus as we try to figure out what he is talking about – and the patience of Jesus as he has to know full well that the disciples really have no idea what he is talking about. The most important thing that we are to be patiently waiting upon, however, is the kingdom of heaven.
Of the 5 parables we just heard and knowing my love for sweet rolls you can all but assume that I resonate most with the parable of the yeast. “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.” Baking with yeast, be it a waffle batter or in the case of this parable enough flour for 100 or more loaves of bread is slow. There is kneading and waiting and kneading and waiting and kneading and waiting.
The kingdom of heaven is, in all actuality, a lot like baking with yeast; patience is important. The Church to which Matthew writes is a group of Jews despised by their own people. Thinking they have found the Messiah and proclaiming that Good News has brought them nothing but heartache, strife, and in many cases made them the targets of physical violence. Their hope was to see the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven as soon as possible; if Jesus came back that afternoon, that'd be fine and dandy. As we know, however, Jesus didn't come back in their lifetime, and may not come back in ours. So with patience like a woman waiting for her bread dough to rise, Matthew's church went about the business of kingdom building on their own. They told the story of Jesus of Nazareth no matter the cost. They ordered themselves into a church structure. They lived lives of humility and forgiveness; doing their best to live into the ideal given to them by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
We can learn a lot from Matthew's church and their patient waiting upon the Lord. First and foremost we should note that while they waited they acted. For them waiting was not like at the doctor's office or Big-10 tire; waiting was an active verb. When Cassie places the ingredients for her sweet rolls into the breadmaker for kneading and rising, she doesn't stand and stare at the machine until its cycle is complete - instead she moves on to other things; preparing other dishes, dying easter eggs, trimming the Christmas tree, whatever it is it is active. As we wait for the kingdom of heaven to be fully realized there is no reason to sit on our laurels. For us, as for Matthew's church, waiting on the Lord should be an active verb. We are called to a lifestyle of humility, forgiveness, peacemaking, and justice seeking. We are called to acts of love to the poor, oppressed, outcast, and prisoners. We are called to disciplines like prayer, meditation, biblical study, and theological inquiry. There is much to do as we patiently wait for the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is a lot like baking with yeast.
The great thing about Jesus' parables is that there is usually one clear and obvious meaning. Every time we read a parable, however, that clear and obvious meaning seems to change. Up until now I have assumed that we, the Church, are the woman in this parable, but with all this action, all this movement, all this work, it seems to me that we could just as easily be the yeast; hidden away in enough flour for 100 loaves of bread we are working feverishly to ferment this world and to raise it to new standards. Yeast is a fascinating micro-organism. In researching for this sermon I stumbled upon the Fleischman's Yeast website breadworld.com where I learned perhaps the best yeast analogy for the kingdom - a single yeast cell can produce tons of yeast. The method of production sounds somewhat like the early life of the Church, the spiritual journey, and the slow and methodical in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven.
"Using a strong microscope, one healthy and vigorous yeast cell is selected from the desired strain. Once selected, the cell is planted in a test tube, which contains all the nutrients necessary to make yeast grow. Once the yeast has multiplied into a small mass of pure cells, it is transferred to glass laboratory flasks which contain a mixture called wort; a nutrient-rich growth medium containing molasses or another carbohydrate source, vitamins, minerals and other components. When the yeast cells have increased many times, the fermentation stage begins. The flasks are emptied into fermentation tanks. The tanks contain more wort, which causes the yeast to continue to multiply. As the yeast cells continue to grow, they are transferred to increasingly larger tanks. The final tank can be as high as a multi-story building, with a capacity of up to 60,000 gallons. By the time the yeast is ready to be harvested, it will have grown into tons of yeast, ...over 3 generations!" (1)
Having determined the best way to put the whole world to rights, God selected his only Son to come to earth. In three short years Jesus went from an obscure rabbi in Nazareth to a religious and political icon who had to be dealt with harshly, but the small group of devoted disciples that he had accumulated, spread throughout the known world would continue to grow the kingdom that began innocently enough with an out-of-wedlock child born in Bethlehem. By the end of its third generation the followers of the Way of Jesus had firmly established the Church. Since then the Church has grown and grown and grown - feeding on the passion that Jesus lived and died by - permeating all aspects of culture, life, and creation; slowly but surely bringing new glimpses of the kingdom of heaven to all sorts of people in all corners of the world. The kingdom of heaven is very much like yeast.
Aren't parables great? A one sentence parable spoken by Jesus to a crowd of people allows our imaginations to run wild as we ponder, "the kingdom of heaven is like..." Who are we in the kingdom of heaven? Are we the baker? Do we wait patiently upon it? Are we the yeast? Do we actively work to bring it to earth? Do we somehow do both - acting as both baker and yeast? The bread that the kingdom of heaven continues to reproduce and gets larger by the minute, and each of us has an opportunity to be a part of its growth. Are we ready to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, to bake, to ferment this world for God's glory?a
(1) http://www.breadworld.com/Science.aspx accessed 25 July 2008.
And yet, despite how deserted, how lonely, how dark this place is in which Jesus finds himself (and places himself), he is still full of compassion. He musters the strength to heal, to comfort, and to multiply several of loaves and a couple of fish into enough food for 5000 men + women and children.
This could be read as an example for us, we too should always be looking to be compassionate even in our deserted places, but I don't think God necessarily expects that. I think it is better read as another example of just how much God loves his creation. In the midst of the most painful place Jesus found himself, short of the cross that is, he was still reaching out in love and mercy. That is how much God cares. That is where we see Jesus as fully God and fully man.
July 25, 2008
I fell in love with parables this week. Somewhere in my reading I came across a line that said, "parables have one clear meaning." Which I have pondered on all week. But as I read the parables over and over again this week it became clear to me that the parables do have one clear meaning, and every time I read one that meaning changes.
I've decided to preach on the parable of the yeast (Mt 13.33) exclusively this week. It isn't that the other parables aren't good; I love the inherent fraud in the parable of the treasure (13.44) and wouldn't mind doing a little theological dancing with the clear judgment theme in the parable of the mullet net (13.47-52), it is just that I love products that contain yeast - bread, sweet rolls, waffles, beer, you name it - i love it.
Of the several "clear meanings" I found in the parable of the yeast this week I decided to flesh out two; baking with yeast requires patience and yeast is amazingly fertile.
This week has been challenging for me. Coming off a working vacation is always tough, but then we had friends stay with us for a few days which is always fantastic, but hard to keep routine, and add in a busy week of pastoral visitation and planning and, well, I'm not sure if what I've prepared for Sunday makes any sense at all. Still, it is my job as a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven to do my best to bring out of the treasure that is the parables of Jesus both the old and the new. Man, I love the gospel lection this week.
July 24, 2008
I had a day like that yesterday, but at noon I was still expected to offer the Eucharistic Prayer on behalf of the faithful gathered in the chapel. I am thankful for the Spirit who intercedes on my behalf with sighs too deep for words. I am grateful that the Spirit finds other means of raising up prayer to God - rising out of my fingertips, toes, noses, and shoulders. I am thankful that even in prayer - and especially in celebrating the Eucharist - it isn't about me.
July 23, 2008
If it is indeed the Father's good pleasure to give us the Kingdom then it is similarly his pleasure to give us understanding minds. To connect with the mind of God is to begin to understand what it is that God dreams for Creation. To get glimpses of that dream is to be privy to the inauguration of the Kingdom. To be privy is to be motivated - to see the Kingdom and not work for its presence here and now is impossible.
Prayers over this past year have carried many words heavenward - words of pain, confusion, loss, discernment, hope, and thanksgiving. Above all else, as I read the prayer of Solomon again, I am convinced that each of these words were in their own way asking for an understanding mind.
July 22, 2008
I imagine Jesus utilizing his gift of sarcasm in today's gospel lesson. After peppering the crowd with parables of the Kingdom of Heaven (five of which we hear in the lesson) Jesus stops and asks, "have you understood all this?" I'd love to see a stained glass image of this exact scene - Jesus with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek asking the crowd, who never, ever, understood anything if they are on board with his veiled and vague parables for the Kingdom of Heaven which is so vast, so amazing, so incomprehensible that 1000 parables would do it justice.
The stained glass image would have to represent the moment just after the crowd shouts "Yes!" in unison. Jesus' tongue is still in his cheek but now he is posed like a V-8 commercial with his right palm smack against his forehead.
The challenge for the preacher this week is in this exchange between Jesus and the crowd - be honest about our misunderstandings while doing her best to paint as clear a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven as she can by bringing out of its treasure the highs and the lows; the good and the bad; the old and the new. Should be a fun week of study!
An excerpt: "I know that most people think the "news story" here is about divisive controversies over sexuality, but my sense is that the real news story is very different. There is a humble spirit here, a loving atmosphere, a deep spirituality centered in Bible study, worship, and prayer, and a strong desire to move beyond internal-institutional matters to substantive mission in our needy world."
July 15, 2008
A couple of days ago I stumbled on FoxNews as they were discussing this Mayan calendar ending in 2012 thing. Take a look.
Yeah, that's right, they had a countdown clock to 2012 at the bottom of the screen. I don't have the official numbers, but I'm guessing on average a person's fear list looks something like 1) public speaking 2) death 3) the end of the world. But it seems to me, in reading the hope filled message of redemption in Romans that #3 need not be such a fearful thing. God's dream for Creation has been, from the beginning, a perfect union between him and us. His plan for doing that in Jesus Christ is by our adoption as sons and daughters and thus co-heirs of the new heaven and new earth with Jesus. It has been a long and convoluted road getting here in Romans, but it is all worth it when we hear these great words of comfort from Paul, a man who longed to see the veil lifted in his day and age, and no doubt still waits with eager anticipation for God to finally set it all right-side-up for good.
July 14, 2008
There is a rule in Prayer Book studies that says, in effect, if it is mentioned first it is preferred. That is why I argued in a different post (and many argued with me) that Adult Baptism is the preferred method of baptism in the church. Anyway, I'm wondering if that same rule might be valid as Jesus explains this parable to his disciples.
What does it mean to collect first all causes of sin? It seems to work against his own interpretation - the weeds were "children of the evil one." Yet it seems as though Jesus is saying, on the last day, his primary focus will be not on those who have succumb to the temptations of Satan, but rather Satan and his army of tempters AS WELL AS (and here is where I'll get in trouble) those institutions and people who cause others to sin.
This, I believe, happens in two ways. First, there are those institutions like Madison Ave and the Federal Government which work hard to set the priorities of normal Americans - these I believe are what Jesus had at the forefront of his mind (government more so than advertisers in 1st century Palestine). Secondly, there are people who have bought into it all and look with disdain on those who have not. They drive their flashy car while talking on their i-phone in their Armani suit and make people like me covet - I'm probably projecting here, but I hope Jesus meant these people too as those who the angels would come after with primacy of focus.
This has been a long and windy post, and I'm sorry about that. I'm just process this new thing I've found. If you've worked on this, please feel free to comment and correct me.
These are the lessons for my sister's wedding on Friday. I'll be officiating, so this week I'll probably look at both sets of lessons, and I may not post all week.
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
“Go look at the roses again. You’ll understand that yours is the only rose in all the world. Then come back to say good-bye, and I’ll make you the gift of a secret.”
The little prince went to look at the roses again.
“You’re not at all like my rose. You’re nothing at all yet,” he told them. “No one has tamed you and you haven’t tamed anyone. You’re the way my fox was. He was just a fox like a hundred thousand others. But I’ve made him my friend, and now he’s the only fox in all the world.”
And the roses were humbled.
“You’re lovely, but you’re empty,” he went on. “One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
And he went back to the fox.
“Good-bye,” he said.
“Good-bye,” said the fox. “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
July 11, 2008
I have to confess something to you this afternoon. I cheated on Sunday. I knew something about the text that made my sermon a bit of a stretch, but I so wanted to tell the story of our time in Mississippi that I chose to ignore it. Preachers do that sometimes. They even have a term for it. Good preachers do what is called exegesis – which in Greek means “to lead out.” It is doing research on a passage of scripture in order to tease out its meaning. Most Sunday’s I have done some sort of exegesis so that I can, to the best of my ability, share with you what I think the Scriptures are trying to say to us as a community of disciples. Bad preachers don’t do exegesis. Really bad preachers do eisegesis – which in Greek means “to lead in.” It is a way of interpreting Scripture in order to introduce one’s own ideas. On some level I was a very bad preacher on Sunday because I eisegeted Jesus’ claim that “his yoke is easy and his burden is light” to fit my desire to tell the important story of our trip to Mission on the Bay.
I will make up for it, I hope, on some level, today by repenting of being a bad preacher – maybe not a bad preacher, but preacher that my homiletics professor would not be proud of – AND by sharing with you what I know, through good exegesis.
It is a fairly recent phenomenon to believe that by intrepret study one can fully understand the meaning of Scripture without bias or interpretation. Really, it is a concept that came out of the scientific quest for truth that developed from about 1630 through the mid-19hundreds. Before that Scripture was understood to be fluid - living – “open-ended and needing interpretation.” Rabbis around the time of Jesus “understood their role in the community was to study and meditate and discuss and pray and then make decisions of how God meant us to understand the Scriptures… Different Rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called the rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended in the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke. Jesus said his yoke was easy. The intent of a rabbi having a yoke wasn’t just to interpret the words correctly [as modernists hoped]; it was to live them out. In the Jewish context, action was always the goal.”
Jesus, a rabbi, said his yoke was easy. Jesus could say his yoke was easy because he could live it. Every dream God had for humanity in giving the rules of the community – the law of the covenant – Jesus lived in flesh and blood. He wasn’t stooped over – weighed down by all the rules of the law, but was free to live life to the fullest – the way God intended it – because he knew what it meant to live out the will of God. His yoke was not heavey with the burden of law, but light with the freedom of grace.
“Jesus expects his followers to be engaged in the endless process of deciding what it means to actually live the Scriptures.” Together, as a community of disciples, we are expected to do the work of interpreting God’s will for Creation. We hear the Scriptures, a preacher offers a suggestion, but really it is up to us all to figure out what God has in store. Whatever it is we pursue as the dream of God; family promise, foley elementary school, draughting theology, whatever – Jesus promises that if it is what God has in mind it will give rest to our souls. Where our deepest desire meets the worlds greatest need – that is where God is calling this community of followers. May we take on his yoke, and please forgive me for weighing down my own yoke with eisegesis. Amen.
Being the emerging low churchman that I am, I don't really have a problem changing the outmoded language of the prayer book, so for me the prayer is something like, "help me to know and understand clearly how I should be living - what I should be doing - and by your grace and power help me to live it and do it with faith and perseverance."
As Paul told us in such a rambly - just out of seminary - fashion last week, it is one thing to know what we ought to do and quite another to actually do it. Our prayer must be for both. To know and not do or to do and not know are both problematic ways of living, but to know God's will and then to do it - well that is none other than they way of Jesus whose will was one with the Father.
July 10, 2008
Anyway, this Sunday it is all worth it. Paul's encouraging words for the followers of the Way - that ALL of us have the Spirit and ALL of us can live a life of the Spirit. The best line in it all is "you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you."
It is hard to break away from a life of the flesh. A "me first" attitude is all but expected in 21st century America, but it need not be that way. God has given us a gift - his Spirit - who dwells in us and leads us to a life of "God first - others first" Kingdom living. Being raised to new life in the Spirit means we are no longer focused on our own best interests, but God's. And despite preachers who might tell us different - ALL of us who claim Jesus as Lord are able to live that life. Sure the flesh creeps in and makes us wonder if it is all worth it, but ultimately, if we are open to it, the Spirit will lead us to "life and peace."
July 9, 2008
From Isaiah - "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it."
From Psalm 119 - "Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path."
The purpose for which God speaks is to illumine our paths so that we might produce fruit. Here at St. Paul's we are planning for the 08-09 program year (I hate that term) and it feels a lot like walking a tightrope in the dark. We know the direction God is leading us, but the route we are to take remains poorly lit. How often in life does that happen? We feel like God is calling us somewhere - physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc - but we haven't a clue how to get there. Our prayer then is for God to fulfill his promises - "enlighten our path, O Lord, that we might follow you."
July 8, 2008
Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I found myself driving around the ruins of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi this week wondering how these words of Jesus could possibly be true. Here I was in the middle of the Bible belt – surrounded by God fearing people – looking three years removed at what was left after one of the most destructive events in American history. Alexander, Ian, Joiner and I spent last week in a Quonset hut on the concrete slab of what was once the Christian Education building at Christ Episcopal Church in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. On both sides of the 9 acre property were empty lots where homes had stood and been passed down from generation to generation for over 150 years. We worked at two sites; both of which sit at least half a mile north of the train tracks – water had never breached those tracks before Katrina.
The first site we were sent to was the where Katrina Relief of Waveland had been housed since the storm. Led by a woman named Kathleen Johnson, Katrina Relief of Waveland is a umbrella organization charged with keeping the local churches from fighting with each other so much that they become unable to reach out. Its head quarters is a house at 700 Tabor Street that sports new drywall that has yet to be taped and mudded everywhere under 8 feet from the floor. Kathleen lives in an RV out front while she houses recovering drug addicts and a few homeless in the bedrooms of the main house. The three car garage serves as a tool shed and the backyard was just big enough to hold two Quonset huts 20 feet wide by 50 feet long. Our task was to dismantle one of those huts and move it, its foundation of rotting pallets and 4 foot by 6 foot osb slabs, and the 30 hand made bunk bed from the back yard to their new site across the bay in Pass Christian. There was nothing easy or light about this two day task. Yet our group of 20 or so from Alabama, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Massachusetts never complained, not once. It wasn’t what any of us expected when we came to help with Katrina rebuilding, we thought we’d be helping people get their lives back, but it was no less rewarding. Somewhere along the line it became clear that by helping Kathleen move her camp and get the grant she was up for we were helping thousands of others come and help out. Our task – strange as it seemed – was doing a lot more good than we could even imagine. Tuesday was a nine hour work day, but we finished setting up the Quonset hut at the new site. It was locked up and dry with all the beds inside and the much smaller group of Alasconsinukians were glad to have accomplished such a big task in such a short period of time.
Our second assignment was at the new home of Rose Nelson. Working with Catholic Social Services and Camp Coast Care Rose was using an MDA grant to rebuild her home on the lot next to her brother. Olivari Street welcomed us with what looked like a pavilion on the corner. I later came to realize that it was in fact a home that had been gutted to the exterior studs. It was a community center of sorts – a place where the men of the neighbor hood came to share stories in the shade – a semblance of life as it once was. Doug, the construction supervisor took us to Ms. Nelson’s house and as we entered it became quite clear that here too, nothing would be easy or light. Ms. Nelson lived in a FEMA trailer in the front yard of her new home which stood some five or six feet off the ground. Drywall had been hung on the master bedroom ceiling and improperly on the walls. Our job - to finish hanging the drywall in the approximately 1000 square foot home. Things got off to a rocky start when the very first ceiling piece that we cut was “without the vision” and most certainly backwards. Eventually, however, after two and a half days and thanks to some great teamwork between our strong backed crew and half of the team from Massachusetts we left at lunchtime Friday with the ceiling in the living spaces completed and 90% of the walls done. Our little group of 4 really worked hard and accomplished a lot. I am very proud of what we were able to do.
Still, I left on Friday finding it hard to believe that Jesus’ promise that his yoke is easy and his burden is light could possibly be true. Our work last week was never easy or light. It was hot, dirty, heavy, and slow moving. Life post-Katrina for the people of Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pass Christian has not for one day been easy or light. It has been frustrating, dangerous, and depressing. But I found myself hoping and praying that it was true. I knew deep down that Jesus wasn’t lying when he said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light.
By the 4th of July 2008 Mission on the Bay had housed over 6,800 volunteers from various denominations and churches. According to Butch Jones, Director of Mission on the Bay, what these 6,800 people have given to the Mississippi Gulf Coast is much more than new homes, but a real sense of hope. Hope was lacking in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. News agencies focused all their attention on the flooding in New Orleans. Communication systems were completely destroyed. FEMA was overwhelmed. Things looked desperate. Then, people started coming. Kathleen Johnson came down from the Midwest immediately following the storm for a three week stay and is about to celebrate her third anniversary on the Gulf Coast. 6,800 members of the body of Christ have come through the doors of Mission on the Bay offering their help, their open hearts, and their listening ears. In so doing the Body of Christ has eased yokes and lifted burdens and offered hope.
Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and he spoke the truth. The work to which he calls us my difficult and heavy. Our lives may be disrupted by events that are frustrating and depressing. But by living together as the Body of Christ – spreading his love, care, and compassion to the hopeless and voiceless – we the Church can help make the promise of Jesus a reality. We are called in this passage to learn from Jesus. “He is calling us not just to read further in the Gospel or to mull over theological ideas but to incarnate for ourselves the virtues demanded by his speech and exhibited in his actions. We learn of and from Jesus by doing, by adopting his spirit and living his imperatives. The truth of [this promise from Jesus] is in the living. To read about feeding the hungry is one thing; to feed them is quite another.”
There is something miraculous in all this. Hard and heavy work combined with frustrating and depressing situations equals hope. By doing the work Jesus exampled for us in his lifetime we are given the opportunity to make true his promises. This week I learned that despite appearances to the contrary hard work in Jesus’ name offers rest for our souls. Where will your soul find that rest? How will you allow Jesus to lift your burdens? Whose yoke do you carry? Amen.
 From www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/6/2008#
I am thinking a lot today about the constant cycle of soil that is my heart. There are days, maybe even hours, in which I run through all 4 types. I meet people, judge them, and harden my heart. I get really excited about a ministry opportunity, but never follow through. I am easily distracted. Then, maybe as much as a third of the time, my heart is good soil; open and willing to accept what comes its way. As the seeds of the kingdom fall in those times I welcome them with excitement - what a treasure it is to return 30, 60, or 100 fold!
Kingdom living is about cultivating the soil and being constantly prepared for seed to fall. The sower comes without warning, are you ready to accept the seed of his will?