Message July 30

The scriptures were: Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. It was another week of parables about planting, so my title was, “Another Sowing Parable.”

Before we get started, I need to apologize for failing to tell you last Sunday that I was planning to be out of town all week. I went with James, this year, to the coaches’ clinic in Bismarck. There was a session on a new piece of technology and he wanted me there to get the information on it. It was good, and there were lots of interesting sessions, but I hope that I will not have to go away overnight again this summer. I am good with staying home and getting things done around here and around home.

Our sessions included information about coaching ethics and philosophy and not just specific techniques, which was interesting for a change. One of our final presenters, a coach from Billings, MT, who did three of the four last hours, gave us his dilemma of walking into a team with absolutely no discipline. It seemed that for many years prior to his coming to West Billings High School, no one cared about the track team, as in no one—not administration, not parents and especially not students or even the track athletes.

After he took the job, he found out that they really were at the bottom of the proverbial sports’ totem pole in their school. The first thing he learned was that they didn’t have a budget, so no equipment purchases and don’t think about purchasing any other sort of things like meals for the meets. He fixed that with a fund raiser. On one of the first bus rides to a meet one of the athletes asked who would be next year’s coach. It was then he learned that before him no one coached there for more than one year, and because of it the athletes did whatever they wanted. In fact, everyone kept telling him not to get worked up because it was “just track.” I don’t think the schools of Eureka or Herreid would understand that idea. We have never been like that.

His point was that discipline and expectations are very important to building a program that will be successful, and then that success carries itself. He decided early on in his time there that he wasn’t going to be there for only one year, and that he wanted to build something that the student athletes were going to buy into and something they would work as hard at as he would.

He was asked to speak at the clinic because he has had a team win the Montana State AA title for 7 of the 12 years that he has been there. And on the other years, they were pretty much second or third. I forgot to write down how many times they have been 2nd or 3rd.

I think his belief that children need discipline and need to buy into a program has done wonders for their teams. Lately, the more news I watch and the more I pay attention to certain local politics, the more I realize how important discipline and following some sort of rules would be good for all of us. Enough said on that.

The reading that we had in Romans today, at least the ending part, might seem familiar to us. I am sort of hoping that it becomes less and less familiar to us, but … Those words are found in our bulletins when we have a funeral. The last verses of Romans 8 are the final part of that affirmation of faith that we read together following our funeral messages, before the final song and benediction. As a public affirmation, we read these words and if we believe, really believe what we are reading, we are telling everyone around us that we have bought into the message that Jesus brought to earth from God, which is that we are loved and accepted and wanted. We have importance. We are children of God and nothing will keep us away from his love, his acceptance, his family.

But what about the words we keep reading in the 13th chapter of Matthew? What about those parables about sowing and plants growing and good seed and bad seed? What about that idea that on the last day, the weeds will be torn from the good grain and sent to the fire to be burned. One of the commentaries that I read last week said that was a much easier concept for the people of our frontier to grasp than it is for us. If any of you have read the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you might remember the book called, The Long Winter. In it we read how they were out of fuel in the middle of that winter during a horrible blizzard, and they went to the barn and kept twisting hay and putting it into the wood burning stove to keep themselves from freezing. Having some extra weeds around to burn would have been a great luxury in those days.

So who are these weeds and who are these seeds that grow up to be the good crop? How does this difference happen? In today’s gospel lesson the parable is about a useless seed, a little tiny mustard seed that in the days of Jesus had no purpose, yet it grows up to be something of great importance that houses many of the birds of the air. It seems to be telling us that even what we think is nothing can become something. It seems to be saying that the least of these are important. Could it be telling us that we too are important? Could it be saying that even if we feel mostly inadequate, we are somebody in the eyes of God? Maybe we are supposed to connect them to other Bible stories of how the last will become first and the first will become last? Perhaps that is something for us to study in our age of importance and entitlement.

But what about the rest of the parables, those little incidental phrases near the end of this passage? The themes of those seem to be that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure that is worth more than anything else we could ever have or ever want. Jesus is telling us that no matter what we have or want to have on this earth, nothing can ever compare to what we can have in the kingdom of heaven, in God’s kingdom. And the underlying message of that is sort of the opposite, the converse. It is the idea that we should strive for what we gain in the kingdom of heaven, not what we gain in this kingdom. In other words, what we do here—on this earth—should be in an effort to build up mansions in the great beyond, not mansions on this earth where things don’t last. We need to be buying into the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom on earth. Sort of gives you a different perspective on saving for retirement. Perhaps this is a different kind of 401K.

And what about the things we talked about a few weeks ago when I said, and I saw some of you agreeing, that we need to be about more than just sitting around waiting for the day when we join the kingdom of heaven?  Yes, we do need to be about more as a congregation and as individual Christians; we need to be active in spreading the gospel and loving our neighbors and caring for the world around us, “A Just World for All” and all of that stuff, but just doing that doesn’t make or break it in terms of getting us to the kingdom of God. We can’t ‘good works’ our way in, we can’t buy our way in, we can’t sing or teach or preach our way in, we all know that.

Paul in Romans 8:38-39 says there is nothing, nothing at all that can keep us apart from the love of God. Then how is it that there still are weeds that get pulled away from the good crops and thrown into the final fire? The fact is, there is nothing outside of ourselves that can keep us from God. It is what is on the inside that determines where we go on the day of dividing. It is what we believe, where our faith lies that makes the difference for us when our time here is over. All God asks is that we believe, that we believe in him, in his Son and accept the Holy Spirit into our lives to guide us and help us through all that we face. Will we be perfect at all times, of course not, we are human. But by following the words of Jesus, who says, “we are to love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.” If we do that then when our day comes, nothing will be able to keep us from that love that God offers us, which means on that day, that wonderful day; we will see Christ in Paradise.  And, as long as we can buy into that faith—that wonderful faith in Christ, I don’t think there is anything we can’t accomplish. Amen!

We can share

The scripture message for today was Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3:1-11. The title used was, “Teach us to share.”

As you mostly know, our oldest two daughters are fairly close in age, and they almost share a birthday. Jessica was born on Jan. 24 and Victoria was born on Jan. 25. When they were younger we tried to be good parents and give them each their own separate birthday celebrations. The one year in particular that I remember is when Victoria was 1 and Jessica was 3. Being in the middle of winter, and the days falling in the middle of the week, we did not invite any family over or go anyplace, but had their parties at home with just the four of us having a quiet supper and cake and ice cream followed by them opening their gifts, Jessica’s on Tuesday and Victoria’s on Wednesday. I know these things not so much because I have a good memory, but because we have old video tapes and have watched them quite often.

Part of why I am telling this story this morning is to tell a prominent family joke, which developed out of Jessica’s reaction when Victoria opened her gifts that year. One thing we were quite careful to do was to have each girl open one gift on the other’s birthday. Now this wasn’t such a big deal to Victoria being only one, but on that second day when Victoria had three or four really interesting looking gifts and Jessica only had one, well her reaction to everything that Victoria opened was to look at it and say, “We can share.” The other reason that I bring up this story is to give you the central idea of our focus scripture lesson this morning. The idea that “we can share,” the idea that we should share is the main point Jesus was making in the parable about the rich man who built himself some new barns.

But let’s back up a minute here. Let’s look at this from a farming perspective and try to figure out what is the problem in this story. The parable, if you just focus in a minute on that story, that idea. There is a man, a landowning farmer, who has a good year. Well, ok so not just a good year, but a really, really good year, and as the harvest is being brought in, he realizes that there is no place to store this fantastic harvest. We have all seen what happens when the elevator doesn’t have enough room for what comes in. I don’t remember if there was a pile here in Eureka last fall, but both Herreid and Strasburg each had an astronomical corn pile. I remember way back when that happened in Jud, ND, and in order to keep the mice and rats off it, they laid poison all around the pile. It didn’t take too long for nearly every cat in town to get sick and die as a result.

Building a barn or several barns sounds like a reasonable thing to do after a good harvest. I can remember one year that we added a small round grain bin to our farm, and now as I look at the huge round steel bins near the elevator where I live, I have to laugh at the size of that little thing we thought was such a big deal so many years ago. But we have to look closely at what this parable was really saying in order to understand the point Jesus was getting at. This was not about storing the harvest for the future. This was about hoarding the harvest.

I want to take you off subject, or perhaps just on a different turn for a little bit. Some of you may have thought of another Old Testament Biblical figure who built barns after a good harvest. I don’t think I clued in on it myself, but it certainly was in a couple of things I read. Go back to ancient Egypt when a man named Joseph was in charge of a few things. He came to power after interpreting a dream for the Pharaoh, something about seven fat cows being eaten by seven skinny cows and seven blighted ears of grain taking over seven good ears. Joseph understood the dream to mean that seven good years of harvest would be followed by seven years of draught and that something needed to be done so that the people could survive the drought. He listened to God’s warning and set out a plan, an elaborate plan to store away the excess so that during the hard times there would be enough for everyone, even those from outside of Egypt and that is how he saved his own family and the people of Israel.

Jesus’ parable about the man with the good harvest wasn’t a story against those who do well. It wasn’t a story about being a good manager or a good farmer or even good at anything you do and prospering. It was a story about and against greed. I don’t know how many times as I am working on a message I pause to consider how it will be accepted. Who will think that I might be writing with them in mind, and I want to be clear, I have only one person in my mind, one human-physically present in the church person in mind as I am sitting at the computer and putting together the message for any given Sunday, and that is ME. As Miss Piggy would say, Moi!

Jesus told this parable to let the young man with the question about inheritance, to let those listening around him, to let us know that we are to share our bounty and our abundance with those around us. Love thy neighbor as thyself. And as much as I like to think that I do some of the things we are commanded by the scriptures, I know that sharing with others is the one I need to work on the most. And don’t try to tell me that I share. I don’t—not enough. Sharing with others, giving to others should not come from our excess, though that is a start. Real giving is when we cut our sandwich in half or give it up completely to feed someone else.

If we really look at that passage from beginning to end, we see it started with a young man who wanted some leader or teacher or someone to validate his claim to an inheritance. From the reading we get the point that this man’s brother was not sharing or dividing what has been left behind by their parents, and he wants what is his. He wants his fair share, so he asks Jesus hoping to find someone who will take his side in the matter.

Well we all know from other stories and other readings how that will work. Jesus does not bite on those types of questions. Jesus doesn’t settle legal disputes. He did not come to earth to be a worldly leader. He wasn’t running for any office, he wasn’t trying to build an army to overthrow the Romans or even to take over the temple. Jesus came to teach morals of right and wrong and what is needed to enter the kingdom of God.

Instead of giving him the legal answer that he so badly wanted Jesus tells the young man about another man. One who had great plenty, but rather than use it for good, he decided to hoard it all for himself and sit back and relax for the rest of his life, and ironically that is pretty much what he did, though his life was a little shorter than he anticipated.

In our Epistle lesson today, Paul is writing from prison in Rome to a church that was having internal difficulties surrounding what exactly they believed. Paul was writing to remind them that Jesus was the head of the church and it was the teachings of Christ that they were to follow. In verse 5 he tells them to put to death the earthly parts of themselves and Paul gives them a list of what he means, and at the end of the list he puts the word: Greed and in parenthesis it says, which is idolatry. To be greedy as the man in the parable was is to worship something other than Christ. For such a short and seemingly simple parable, I would say Jesus’ point pack a pretty hard punch.

As we finish today, I want to share with you a wonderful example I found on the national United Church of Christ website this week. It was in the related quotation section and has a bit of a historical piece in it. This is: A story about the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped the American colonists during our War of Independence from Britain, 18th century:

When he [Lafayette] returned home to France, he lived on his big estates and did very well. He was in the same social class as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but acted very differently. In 1783, after a poor harvest, Lafayette’s workers were still able to fill his barns with wheat. “The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat,” said one of his workers. “This is the time to sell.” Lafayette thought about the hungry peasants in the surrounding villages. “No,” he replied, “this is the time to give.”

In the weeks ahead we will be gathering a few times to have some fellowship, maybe share a little Bible story, perhaps even have a cup of something and munch on this or that, and either sew a little on some quilts or gather up some school supplies. We will do all of that, but mostly we will be looking into ways to be about the business of really being the church; we will be looking into ways to share what we have with others. I hope you take the time to join us. Amen!

Thankful #9: Being prepared

I will be lazy today. I am posting my message as the thankful for the day. I am thankful for scripture passages that make me question what they mean enough to do the research necessary to figure out at least one interpretation of them. I realize that there are many different ways to speak on these passages. This is just what I saw, and I realize it is no where near what I get when I look at the ponderings of those far more educated. I need to get on that educated part real soon.

In another note, we had a bit of snow this morning when we woke. It has almost all melted already, so no pictures. The geese are starting to move and fairly rapidly. Not sure how good the hunting will be of geese in these parts. I am guessing it will be much better farther south. I just took a picture to add to this as it has started snowing again. Hopefully Paulina makes Bismarck before dark and with good roads.

Snow forming around the fountain pond.

Snow forming around the fountain pond.

Snow under the willow tree.

Snow under the willow tree.

Oh yes, the other thankful is children who come to visit parents. We had three sons in church today. They were there to visit their mother, who turned 89. One was from Arizona, one from Colorado and the youngest from right across the state in our capital, Pierre. For those who don’t know it is pronounced pier, not as the French name that it is spelled like. They have been here a couple of times this year, and so nice for her. They all lined up for a family picture with the stained glass window in the background. It was really nice for her. All she could say was, “they just don’t want to leave here, those kids, they just keep talking and talking.”

So here is the message they all heard. It was one of those think all week and write on Saturday night after a bit of a nap. I actually woke at 3 a.m. and finished the final two pages. I guess that is how I think. Hmmmm!

The scriptures used today were: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13. The title is as above, “Being Prepared.”

Watching the weather forecasts for this weekend and hearing about the possibility of snow coming in this morning or sometime this afternoon, it became apparent that we had better get a few things accomplished at our house on Saturday. I had been planning to do more work inside on Saturday, maybe finish shredding up the ratty looking zucchini on the counter, or rearrange a cupboard to better fit some of the items I bought at the auction earlier this year, but it didn’t happen.

We were outside moving flower plants from the car shed to the basement, getting the grill into the shop, tucking lawn chairs under cover, dumping the sand box to store it away, and even planting irises into a new bed. We did all those sorts of things that you do around here to get ready for winter. We were trying to be prepared for the storm to come.

Getting ready for winter seems to be something we do around her quite naturally. Farmers are working to get the final harvest into the bins or hauled to town. Hay is being moved closer to the farmsteads for feeding later this winter. Gardens have been cleared out, even some cattle are being sold. From the sounds we heard most of Thursday night, it must have been a large sale in Herreid with lots of cowless calves and vice versa. We are in days of preparation, and we don’t have time to dawdle. We know that certain things left undone in the days and weeks ahead will be costly in finances or time or possibly even animal life.

The church is also nearing a time of preparation. We are only a few Sundays away from the beginning of Advent. The last Sunday of this month is the beginning of Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas. I bet if we were to venture to one of the big shopping centers in the area, we would find lots of Christmas trees, decorations, cards and wrapping paper and even those specialty gifts that are only on shelves during Christmas. Commercially it seems that Halloween is barely over and the preparing for Christmas begins.

In the church, the beginning of Advent brings us to the beginning of another calendar, at least another cycle of scriptures. The church year doesn’t follow our actual calendar and it doesn’t follow the “school” calendar as we sometimes think it does. The church year begins with Advent, and so we have things to make ready in the church building and in our church mindset.

The Old Testament passage that we read today hardly seems like a scripture of readiness. Yet we should look at it in that way. Joshua had picked up where Moses left off. He brought the people over to the Promised Land, and they were taking claim of what God had promised to them. They have fought some of the battles with the people who had been living in the land, and they are ready to settle down and make a great nation of people and dwelling places. This is the end of the writing of Joshua, and in this ending we find a renewal of the covenant the people have with God.

Even if the passage doesn’t give us details about the importance of this covenantal agreement or how elaborately it may have been organized, we must know that this is some major event. In the opening line it says, Joshua gathered all the tribes, the elders, the heads, the judges, the officers before God. Naming all these people of importance tells me this was a big deal. It was likely a major celebration and accompanied by a meal or other forms of entertainment.

Joshua knows what sort of people the Israelites are and he says they are to choose which God to follow. He doesn’t demand they choose the God of Abraham. He simply reminds them of their ancestry and lets them decide. He does tell them how difficult it might be, but they don’t care. The Israelites are determined to follow the one true God. They are given a choice, and they choose to follow God.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus is relating another of the many parables he told. This time, he is telling the story of 10 young women who are getting ready to attend a wedding. They are not just guests at the wedding, but bridesmaids. Interestingly there seems to be no bride at this wedding, just a bridegroom. Jesus makes his point that the bridesmaids wait outside the feast for the bridegroom to show up and invite them inside. The fact is weddings as Jesus knew them were a bit different than they are carried on today. There was no elaborate ceremony as we have in our modern weddings.

Weddings in Biblical times have three parts. And perhaps it is worth looking at considering we will be talking about the wedding of Mary and Joseph sometime in the near future. The first part of a wedding was the signing of the contract. When this was done the marriage was legal, but it did not mean that the couple immediately came together as husband and wife. In fact the contract might have been signed by the parents when they were young, but when it was signed, it was a legal contract, a covenant between the two pledged for marriage.

The second part of the wedding would be the consummation, which took place at the home of the bride. When that was completed, the couple and all the guests would go to the home of the groom for the wedding feast, and this is the focus of the wedding in the parable we hear today. The groom is heading to his home to begin the wedding feast. It is the big day, and time for the guests to enter his home to celebrate his wedding. It is the time that he has been anticipating ever since that contract was signed and he wants all his friends there, but he isn’t about to stand at the door waiting for everyone who is dawdling about to get inside.

It sort of reminds me of the school music or play contests. You don’t have time to mess around at those places. Get in and get your seat or you will miss the show. It isn’t like that at big concerts, or movie theaters, but maybe if it were people would be more likely to follow a stricter time schedule to show up, but that is another story.

Today’s parable always bothered when I heard it growing up. I could never understand how the “wise” bridesmaids were glorified and lifted up when they appeared to me to be selfish. I could never get why they didn’t share. It didn’t seem to me that the wait was so long that they would run out of oil, and would they need their lamps when they got inside? It just didn’t seem to make sense.

Now as I read the parable again with the mindset of what it really means, I understand a little better the truth of wise verses foolish. It wasn’t just the oil; it was being prepared in general. It was being ready to enter the celebration. It was having all things prepared for what was to come. Getting the oil for the lamp was a detail, it was a conscious effort, it was a choice of the wedding guest. The wise maids made the choice; the foolish maids were just hanging around helter-skelter hoping that they would make it inside.

We are the wedding guests and Jesus is the bridegroom. We have to decide if we want to be one of the wise maids or a foolish one. Do we want to have all the details in order or do we just hope to make it inside for the celebration? Do we risk getting there after the event has started and we are locked out?

Just as we prepare ourselves for the coming winter months, just as we gather in the harvest and put away the toys of summer, so too we need to gather our selves spiritually for a time when we will be part of the grand celebration where we will be present with the Lord. Just as this parable says the bridegroom was delayed, we have no idea when that time will be—for us. We need to be like the wise maids who were ready. We need to be like the people with Joshua who renewed their covenant with God. They knew what they wanted, a life with the one true God. May we know our choice and be prepared. Amen!

Paulina just called to say that there is no snow north of town, but as soon as she hit the state line there were birds every where. The geese are on the wing!

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