Choose Life - 7/25/21
July 25, 2021
Maple Grove UMC
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Deuteronomy 30: 11-14, 19
11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
19 I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed may live
It was wintertime, just after Christmas, and I was driving on the beltway outside of Chicago traveling east on Friday evening rush hour when a car sideswiped me, dislocated my driver’s seat and set my Celica spinning out. All I remember was seeing the car lights coming toward me and wondering if it would hurt when I died.
But when the spinning stopped, I found myself stalled, facing the right direction, with a truck on my right, also stopped, protectively giving me time to pull over.
I was alive the car was drivable. How was that possible?
What had everyone had to do to get out of my way? And why I had been spared when so many good people die this way? And all I could think was, that whatever the reason I have survived, I should make sure to do something with my life. But what?
I was traveling to see a wise friend, a priest, about a decision to go for my divinity degree and PhD or to go back overseas. Both meaningful, one seemed to be the upward and steady path, and the other the downward and uncertain.
I saw the priest, who told me to listen to God. So, after getting the car fixed, I found my way to Niagara Falls. I donned the rain jacket, then took the elevator deep down to the tunnel underneath the falls. You can sense the ancient power of the earth there, 1/5 of the world's freshwater crashes down over those rocks, but there was something welcoming, too. I sensed that I was part of this, that we human beings are part of this power.
I walked down the portal, and there with water rushing in I heard clearly the answer to my question, seemingly spoken aloud: Go with what gives life!
Moses is nearing the end of his life and journey and is desperate for the people he's been leading to know what he knows. It takes 26 chapters of Deuteronomy to tell them.
He reminds them of all they have been through the ways in which their lives have been upended, shaken, shaped. He has described what God intended for them; to love God, heart soul and mind, in chapter 6 to cancel the debts of the poor, in chapter 15, to guard against excess wealth, 16 limit punishment to protect human dignity, 19 offer hospitality to runaway slaves, 23 pay employees fairly, 24 leave part of the harvest for those who need it.
Then concludes: 11 Now what I am commanding you today
is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. 19 I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed, your children, may live.
It’s your choice, the Lord says, it was the choice of those in the first garden, it’s your choice now.
The Creator of heaven and earth chose to reach out to us; to reveal Godself to us through a child whom we would love.
And Mary chose to bear that child and Joseph chose to claim that child. and then, Jesus, in turn, chose in the wilderness not to take the easy path but to follow his calling, then he chose his disciples, chose us.
And then, perhaps first by our parents, but then somewhere along the way, we chose this path for ourselves.
In story and questions and by his own life, Jesus shows us the choices before us: What brings forth life in the kingdom of God in you? Choose that life, he says.
Choose to speak when it’s easier to stay silent, to love when it’s easier to hate, to care when it’s easier to turn away, to give when it’s easier to keep, to forgive when it’s easier to resent.
As Jesus showed us, it isn't the easy life we choose, when we choose his way, it isn't the longest life but unlike serving the small gods, when we listen to that voice, we claim our true life.
Over and over, throughout our days, the voice quiet or rumbling, clear or hazy, says, I am here, and the choice is yours, once again. Life or death? Choose life.
I ended up choosing a rather downward path with profound consequences and wondered often about that other way. And yet, in that moment of the rushing waters the command and the path was clear.
It's not easy being our true selves, choosing to fully live into the life that is within us.
I recently heard someone talking about the Song “It's Not Easy Being Green.” It was an odd lyric to me. I never really connected with it.
But as Sesame Street marked its 50th anniversary this summer, I heard a woman recalling hearing that song for the first time.
She gasped. “Do you hear that?” she said, to her friend. They were singing about her, about them, about her living her life in brown skin.
And it's about living in yours and choosing again and again to claim the life God has given you. Think of that as Steve sings, and think of this: I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that you may live.
The Secret garden - 7/18/21
The Secret Garden
Mark 4: 26-34
Maple Grove UMC
July 18, 2021
Scripture: Mark 4:24-36
Please rise in body or spirit for the reading of the Gospel, which comes from Mark 4:24-36
26 Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
In one of the farthest corners of the Roman empire, Jesus tells his disciples and followers, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. And in today’s scripture that Nancy read for us, Jesus tells us something about that Kingdom, he says it is like a man who scatters seeds, then goes to sleep, forgets about them, yet they still grow, first a stalk, then the head, then the full kernel. And when the grain ripens, it’s ready to harvest.
Then he tells us that the kingdom is like a small mustard seed, that grows into a large plant, a plant so big that birds can build nests in the shade of its branches.
Jesus’ use of parables tends to create more questions than give answers.
One description of a parable says that it doesn’t “tell a truth to a person as much as it helps a person discover the truth.”
Pastor Mary Luti wrote a reflection called No Idea, here is a portion of it, Luti says “A preacher I know once stopped in the middle of her sermon, head down, silent. After several seconds, she looked up and said softly, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Luti goes on to say, “She hadn’t wandered from her point or lost her place on the page. She been cogent and confident right up to that moment.
The moment she was overcome with a searing awareness that she was out of her depth. The moment it struck her that when it comes to the (capital M) Mystery, neither she nor anyone else on the face of the earth has the faintest clue.
The moment when she, who’d been nattering away like a person who knows things, was so mortified by her impudence that she couldn’t go on.
Luti continues…The pastor then finessed the awkward moment with a joke, finished, and sat down. Afterwards, nobody mentioned it. Except one parishioner who told her that when she’d said “No idea…” he’d want to shout “Hooray! The truth at last!”’
So the truth is, we’re all out of our depth, none of us have the faintest clue. Not just me, up here, trying to unpack these parables from Jesus, but all of us who are seeking to resolve (capital M) Mystery, to speak of the holy, who want to know the unknowable, and hope to control the uncontrollable.
Today’s scripture says that Jesus spoke to them, as much as they could understand and when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
Earlier in this same chapter, following the parable of the sower, the disciples asked Jesus to explain it to them, and he said, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?”
There are a lot of levels of understanding. Like for instance, we all understand that our lives depend upon us breathing, but it’s astonishing to me, to learn from someone with knowledge of physiology how breathing affects our nervous system, our metabolism, our sleep, and even the shape of our face.
And, I understand how to put out birdseed and draw flocks of birds to my feeders all day long, but a bird expert can help me attract specific birds based the particular seeds, nuts, fruit, and insects that suit the beaks and diets of those visitors I’m hoping for. And that expert can tell me how to keep the squirrels, skunks and raccoons away from my feeders too.
Some things can be easily learned, and fully understood; given sufficient information, however, the more holy and sacred, the infinite and eternal truths, the Mystery, are ineffable, and we can only hint at and point towards and tell parables about them.
Jesus, as a spiritual master and wisdom teacher, according to the Gospel of Mark, didn’t say anything to the disciples without using a parable. Parables don’t give information, as much as they give an experience. They don’t help us see something new, as much as they help us see in a new way. Parables offer a new perspective. They stretch our minds and hearts and invite us in; they don’t give a quick and easy understanding; they say, in effect, Slow down. Come closer and listen. Let me tell you a secret…
Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello advised his readers to always carry around a parable. He said, give these stories a chance to work on your subconscious mind and reveal their hidden meaning. He said they will worm their way into your heart and break down barriers to the Divine.
So the Kingdom of God is like a man scattering seeds and going to sleep, and the crops grow. It’s like a small seed, growing into a large shrub, a place for birds to perch.
Certainly, at one level of meaning, we can hear these two parables speak to us about qualities we might consider essential in the Kingdom of God. They’re soaked in grace - crops grows and produce with so little effort on our part. It’s all by the grace of God. Life emerges, growth is given, life supports life. Grace abounds.
And through observing nature, we learn to trust. There is an animating source, a power beyond us, greater than us, sustaining this grand and mysterious universe which is always undergoing transformation. Always changing, growing, maturing. Always productive and generative. Moving through cycles.
Grace, trust, and transformation would be gift enough for us to glean from these parables. But what else can we hear and see in this parable? What more? What other perspective might we gain?
Since we are in a garden sermon series this summer, I feel like I’ve got to talk about the research that indicates nature is not only our teacher but our healer as well. We’ve long known that trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. We’re now learning that time spent in nature, or even watching and listening from our window, has many health benefits.
According to Park Rx America, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship, they say, studies show that being out in nature is associated with better cognitive development in children. And that the closer we are to green spaces the less likely we are to suffer from cardiovascular, respiratory, neurological and digestive diseases. Nature helps to decrease high blood pressure and reduces stress, depression and anxiety. Even crime is lower in areas with more trees. It seems we’re healthier, happier and more peaceful when connected to nature.
I read a story, some years back, I’ve been unable to find it again, to tell you the source or even verify it but it stuck with me, and it came to me again as I thought about the different state of mind evoked through nature. The story, as I recall, was about a psychotherapist, who would take on patients that other therapists had been unable to help. People who were trapped in deep mental anguish and distortions. This therapist lived on a patch of wooded land; he had a couple of cottages on it as well. Once he took on a client, they would move into a cottage and were given a journal. His therapy with them begins not with meetings between the therapist and client but with the client journaling daily and delivering the journal to the therapist each evening, for him to read and return for the next day’s journaling.
The therapist and client begin to meet for sessions once the client stops writing about all the disturbances, distractions, and obsessions going on in their mind, and begins to write about what they are observing in nature. When the client had moved to journaling about their awareness and connection with the natural world outside them, the next step of therapy would begin.
A garden invites us into the present moment, into stillness and silence, out of the busy, calculative, anxious mind. Calling us beyond just the mind of logic and reason. It speaks the language of the heart and soul. Encouraging us to rest and release and receive. A garden is disarming. It can break down barriers to the divine.
In a talk by Irish theologian Peter Rollins he said that “The core subversive message of Christianity is not that we are trying to get into heaven but we are screaming to get God out of heaven, into the earth, into the grime of the everyday of life.”
Rollins said while growing up in Ireland, he’d hear stories about the IRA, and how they had a tactic where they would plant an explosive in a building and phone up the authorities and tell them they have 5 minutes to get everyone out. Rollins said he remembers hearing a tale about a man named Seamus, and Seamus dies, and he finds himself in heaven, and he meets Saint Peter. Saint Peter pulls out a big old dusty book, sets it down, opens it up, looks in it for a bit, then looks at Seamus, and he says “Listen mate, you’re not in the book, look you’re in the IRA, you’re not getting in.” Seamus says ‘No, no. You misunderstand, I’m not trying to get in, you’ve got 5 minutes to get out.’
Jesus, living in the first century, in the farther reaches of the Roman empire said the kingdom of God is in your midst.
Jesus’ overarching message is that the “kingdom,” the “reign,” the “realm” of God has come near — near enough that we can reach out and touch it. It’s not somewhere else; it’s here. It’s not later; it’s now. That was the primary news that Jesus brought. This is the Good News of the Gospel. It is the news that God is not remote and removed from us in some distant sphere. Instead, God is in our midst, active in our daily lives, offering us gifts, inviting us into the freedom and fullness of life.
For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
And through parables, that work on our subconscious and worm their way into our hearts, the Kingdom of God comes as an invitation, a grace, an offering, we’re not pressured, there’s no force. Through a spiritual power, Jesus reveals this sacred, enchanted, mysterious kingdom hidden in our midst.
“God comes to you disguised as your life” spiritual teacher Paula D’Arcy says. And Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s response is… “that’s a disappointment to us.” Yes, especially right now when the world doesn’t seem to make any sense; it’s feels unsafe and scary, it’s chaotic, it’s tragic, it’s messy, it’s incoherent.
Us humans, have spent many decades believing that through our logic and reason, reality and God, would be knowable and controllable. In Rohr’s book "The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Chaos, Reorder" he says “Physics has discovered that when we get to the smallest points (such as atomic particles) and the biggest points (galaxies and black holes)—it’s mystery again! It looks knowable, yet finally it’s unknowable. Control eventually gives way to mystery and the letting go of control. Suddenly, we are not in charge. The physicists are becoming mystics, while the clergy are becoming psychologists.” And it is great scientist Einstein who said, “The most beautiful and profound experience is the feeling of mystery.”
And as Pastor Luti says “when it comes to the Mystery, no one on the face of the earth has the faintest clue.”
Though we may be out of our depths in understanding the Mystery, the really Good News is, we are all part of it. Just as the seeds grow, producing kernels and perches and shade, occupying their place in the kingdom of God, at One with the infinite and eternal, whether they understand it or not - we are too. And that’s the truth that grounds us. That’s our security and our knowing.
God is here – in our midst – disguised as our life - we can relax and tend to the business of scattering seeds in the Kingdom of God.
I leave you with these few lines by poet Mary Oliver:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Take Off Your Shoes - 7/4/21
Take Off Your Shoes
Maple Grove UMC
July 4, 2021
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Exodus 3: 1-5
3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.
Joshua 5: 13-15
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
What is holy ground to you? This sanctuary, your home, your parent's home, the ocean, the mountains, the woods, your garden?
Last week, a young man with our lawn service brought a weed-wacker to the parsonage and cut down a patch of ornamental grass that he presumed were weeds. He didn't know that this was something carefully chosen, tenderly planted, given water and light and fertilizer and room to grow.
He looked on the outward appearance, reckoned it out of place beside the tomato plants and daisies. It looked grassy, but it belonged and was loved. It was a part of the garden. But he didn't know that and cut it down.
I've done this. You've done this. Trampled over things, places and persons.
I've walked into a home and only realized some minutes later that I was the only one with shoes on in that home. And it wasn't so much that my shoes left a mark, it was the respect for the place and its inhabitants that I was missing.
I've walked into churches, I've walked into lives, without knowing the preciousness there.
When God first called Moses, God set a bush to blazing and when Moses approached said: Take off your shoes. The ground which you stand is holy.
Moses took off his shoes, and humbly led the people to freedom. When he died on the journey, Joshua took his place and led the people the rest of the way, and just before he entered the new land was stopped by a messenger of God who told him to take off his shoes. For this land was holy ground. God arrived before them.
This is the day that we celebrate our founding as a nation which belongs to the world. The place where everyone can begin again. A promised land.
Those who came to this amazing continent found freedom, opportunity and hope, but they struggled to take off their shoes to realize that God was there before they came, that God's presence filled creation and had revealed itself to these people so different from themselves.
To truly believe that all, all are created equal, endowed by our Creator with the same rights and holy longings has taken time to learn.
Moses had to learn, Joshua had to learn, we have had to learn, too about the holiness that goes before us.
So, I had to learn about taking off my shoes in Southeast Asia.
One day I climbed a mountain to find a wise old tribal leader to tell me his stories of God. But he was too busy with his root crops
and not up to emanating the earthy mysticism I wanted. So, I hiked back down the slope. If I hurried, I could get home by nightfall.
It was May, near the end of dry season and along the river, these native, first peoples pushed off their fertile soils, had built their small lean-tos by a dry riverbed.
I was walking quickly, the first storm of the year was threatening, when I faintly heard my name; then clearly, "Anak!, which means Child. I turned to see an old woman up on the riverbank waving at me.
"Come here," she said.
"Hello, Inang Filipa, Grandmother Filipa, how are you?", I have just come from the mountain, I am on my way home."
"Come here," she said.
"I must get home," I said and kept walking.
But the sky had opened and the rocks were wet. "Come here, child, it is raining!" Resigned, I scurried up the slope.
Bent double from osteoporosis, Inang Filipa shooed me under the roof and her daughter brought me a cup of sweet, hot, coffee made from scorched corn.
The rain picked up and the dogs crowded in with us; no way I'd get home tonight. Inang was talking and laughing about something. I brightened up and switched on my recorder.
"Does the water have a spirit," I asked. "Of course," she said.
Her daughter interrupted. "The militia keep coming by here, did you see them?"
Inang said: "Yes, they are always troubling us."
"No, I didn't see them today" I answered curtly. I had spent years documenting militarization, now I wanted to talk about the environment and spirituality.
I asked Inang, "How about the trees, do they have spirit?"
"Of course," she answered.
The daughter broke in again, "Pat, do you remember when we first met? It was at that rally?"
I nodded and asked Mother Filipa how she felt when the trees were cut but her daughter kept on talking.
"That rally was right after I was arrested. You remember. They kicked me in the stomach!" She shook her head, perplexe "...and me being six months pregnant."
I stopped breathing.
Inang said, "yes, that was an awful thing. And my nephew was just killed yesterday in the other village, poor boy."
Her face turned toward the riverbed, now with water flowing, then to me. "If they can look a person in the eyes and not see the spirit in them, and kill them, how can they see the spirit in a river or a tree?
“No, the Power, Holiness is all around them, yet is as nothing to them."
The rain was slowing now, I asked no more questions.
Just let this mother and daughter speak of life: human and bird, river and plain, a child's death and the cutting of trees.
In my blindness I had been treading the same path as the militia. There was no unholy ground. All things are charged with eternity.
We are part of the same garden, God's garden, chosen, tenderly planted, given this world in which to live and grow.
Take off your shoes, said the Lord for what you are walking on is holy.
Let's help one another not to forget.