Abingdon, Matthew 13:1-23, Reflectionary

Death Comes to the Hydrangea

As it was when planted.
As it was before planting.

When I married at age 41, one of the gifts I received was a hydrangea, the kind that grows someday into a beautiful umbrella of pink blossoms. I delighted in it. Despite our young dog’s scrabbling at its roots, and rude winters freezing it in a bent over position, it blossomed abundantly. We staked it and pruned it and relied on it, until after a not-so-bad winter, the wedding present hydrangea, aged 7-and-a-half, simply did not put forth leaves or buds. I stood beside it downhearted, wondering what I could have done differently. How could I have saved it?

In the fall, when it became clear that my marriage would not outlast the hydrangea, friends came from all over the country to stand beside me, and in the way that people have when they want to help us, but the real problem can’t be solved, they fell to doing tasks around my house. They painted and raked and mowed the lawn and tried to fix the icemaker and filled the freezer with lasagna portioned into little containers. In the midst of a flurry of yard work, a dear one offered to clear out the dead tree. I agreed, turned away to consider a lilac that needed pruning, and a moment later turned back to see it was already out of the ground, like an oversized twig in her hand.

Whatever happened to my hydrangea had happened at the root.

Truly I tell you, it is not wise to spend our time assigning roles in the parable of the hydrangea. It is enough to say its death reinforced my sense that something was over.

I find it to be the same with Jesus and his metaphors. What if we just let the images wash over us instead of being in a hurry to assign parts to ourselves and to others as if they were absolutely unchangeable? Suppose we meditate for a moment on the idea that the Good News of God’s love is forever being sown in the world…scattered widely without regard for likely climates or soils, strewn wildly even in the places it is least likely to be received.

A sower went out to sow, and on any given day that least likely place might be any of our hearts.

But now and then, thankfully, we are the soil where God’s seed takes root. Now and then, thankfully, we are the seed that makes contact and grows where someone is hungry for God’s grace. Even occasionally, we are the ones to put a hand into the bag slung over our shoulders, the ones who fling the seed of Life and Love into places where it assuredly takes root.

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(It’s a little strange to offer this one up, since I wrote it before I came out, which would almost certainly have an impact on the way I might tell the story now. The general point remains, however, valid. For more depth, here’s a sermon from 2011, Seed Changes, and a poem of the same vintage, Hydrangea.)

I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, Acts 1:1-11, Ascension, Reflectionary

God in the fly space (Ascension)

The Manga Bible, by Siku
The Manga Bible, by Siku

My teenage daughter loves Manga, those Japanese graphic novels popular in this country, too. They read from back to front, and in her collection are numerous multi-volume teenage romances. But she also has a Manga Bible, illustrated by an artist, Siku, whose other work includes “Judge Dredd.” I particularly love his approach to the Acts of the Apostles, which is in many ways the adventure story of the early church.

For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?

I once sat with half-a-dozen normally talkative people in a Bible study, reading the Ascension texts. They had things to say about the epistle and the gospel, but when we read the Acts passage, they fell silent. I asked a leading question. Nothing. That physical ascending hangs us up. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between?

I decided to re-read verses 9 and 10:

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (Acts 1:9-10, NRSV).

Everyone was listening earnestly, and then I said, “Suddenly two men in white coats stood by them.”

Someone looked surprised. Someone else laughed, nervously. Seriously, if you had just seen your friend and teacher, previously dead, whisked away into the sky, wouldn’t you wonder if those guys in white were there to take you away?

Practical people don’t like this story. It strains credulity. We like our Jesus in the flesh, telling stories, walking dusty roads, eating dinner with people. We don’t like him somewhere indefinable. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that he is more than our brains can rationalize.

Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. And that’s really the point of the story. It’s not about the ultimate disposition of the Resurrected body of our Lord and Savior. It’s the prelude, the overture, to the great adventure of being Christ’s Church. Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and share the Good News, in your words and your actions and on your blogs…and even in your graphic novels.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, John 4:5-42, Lent 3A

The next day, and the next

Half full, all empty.
Half full, all empty.

In Japan, in the weeks after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the troubles at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continued, and 150 miles away in Tokyo, mothers were being warned not to mix their babies’ formula with tap water. Although authorities advised the residents not to hoard, it happened. They hurried to buy up bottled water, understandably. If the water is not safe for infants, why chance it for anyone else? Every hour of every day, the people of Japan had to think about what really mattered and what they really needed to survive and how to care for the people they loved most.

In the aftermath of disaster, we all stop and think about what matters to us. We don’t even have to be directly touched by the disaster ourselves. Just knowing there is death or mayhem brings us up short, causes us to look more keenly at our children, our parents, our friends and our loves. After September 11, people ended marriages and began them, because whether you were unhappy or happy, life was too short to stay the first or lose a chance at the second.

But the most dramatic moments in our lives will all be followed by the need to go, the next day, back to the well and draw more water from it.

It must have been so shocking. He told her everything she had ever done. He told her the story of her complicated life. He didn’t blame her, or anyone else, for it. He simply named it.

And that’s the key to this story. The rest is a lot of possibly confusing metaphor, in addition to numerous parenthetical attempts at explaining what everything means and how poor even the disciples are at understanding Jesus. The Samaritan woman is smart enough to engage with Jesus about the water. It must be a pleasure to talk with someone who catches on so quickly! He even reveals to her that he IS the Messiah. The disciples don’t understand him. They don’t get that he is speaking in images when he talks about food. They don’t get him.

The Samaritan woman does.

She goes back to the city, illuminated by their short conversation, and she spreads the word, and it has to be with an air of certainty that convinces people, or at least makes them curious, because they go out to meet Jesus, and he stays and wins hearts and souls.

Even so, the next day, that woman must go back to the well, for the regular, ordinary water needed in her household, where she lives with whoever isn’t her husband.

The work of being alive goes on, day after day. And although Jesus told her the hour was near, we are still waiting.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also 2015 and just signed on for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.