A Prayer for Mustard Seeds

A Prayer for Mustard Seeds 
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ 
May 20, 2018
(This prayer deserved its own post.  Thank you Michael for letting me share it!)

Thank you, dear God, for dangerous, peaceful people who have planted mustard seeds in our world.

Thank you for troublemakers and agitators, people who upset the norm, for protesters and marchers, for leaflet printers and speech-makers, for joke-tellers and those who speak truth to power, for people who refuse to sit down, refuse to stand up, people who won’t shut up or be shut out.

Thank you for parents who know better and for children who ask why.

Thank you for teachers who love knowledge and for students who speak bravely and prophetically even in the face of gun violence, for people who won’t take it anymore, who fight back, fight cancer, fight with chants and charts, teach-ins, sit-ins, and kiss-ins.

Thank you for Bill W. and for Nelson M. and for Ruth B.G.

Thank you, dear God, for people who peacefully resist and civilly disobey, people who use their minds and their words instead of guns and bombs.

Thank you for those who work to heal the wounds of Santa Fe and Palestine and Brea.

Thank you for justices who vote for justice, for the justice workers who keep working, and for the indefatigable power of love of all kinds.

Thank you, God, for Jesus Christ and for all prophets who overcome.

And, thank you, Loving One, for planting a seed of all of these things in each of us so that we, too, might lend a hand, a hug, a thought, a tear, to the effort to change the world from a place of fear and domination to a place where children and ice caps are safe, where justice and equal access wins the vote, where there’s enough room for everyone at the dinner table, where people stay at the negotiating table until problems are solved, where good is common and the Common Good prevails. 

In the name of peace, 

Amen 

© 2011, 2018 Michael D. Lewis 
All rights reserved.

Seeds of Hope

Fire Poppies
Five years ago, a seed was planted– in me.  I began to believe I could grow a garden of California natives.  My next door neighbor Tomaz had planted a successful native garden a few years before, and he was willing to help. The homeowners association gave me permission to reclaim my front yard, and it must have been a God thing because for months I was waking up early so I would have enough time to create my garden.  I worked hard, and I loved it.  And my garden grew!  

Homeowners Associations hate native plants; they are not furniture.  Most native plants, if watered like a lawn, will die.  So designers have given up on them.  Large natives are not transplantable. You have to start small.  Many natives go summer dormant; they look dead. And some natives sit in the place they were planted for three years before they finally decide to start growing. There are desert plants from around the world that are less trouble.  Unless you want to turn your irrigation off all summer. Then you need California natives.

A garden is a collaboration between nature and humans.  The Kindom of God is a collaboration between God and humans.  As the garden grows, we do not control it.  So the Kingdom goes: we cannot make it happen, we can only be good gardeners.

A garden that is not made of furniture is ever-changing: it has seasons of growth and flourishing, and seasons of dormancy and loss.  The Kingdom of God?  It too is ever changing, springing up like the first Pentecost now and then, cut down in other seasons, some times just about invisible, like a tiny seed.

*****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
May 20, 2018, Pentecost Sunday

Hope from Seeds and Weeds

Rom. 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Mark 4:26   He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
            30   He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;  32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
            33   With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;  34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


We live in a culture of instant gratification.  Somebody mentions a name I’m not familiar with, and I google it on my phone.  I want an obscure out of print book, I order it from Amazon.  Unfortunately, the things that really matter take time; they require patience.

The suggested reading for this Sunday is the story of the first Pentecost.  By tradition we call this the birthday of the Church.  In this story, the Holy Spirit appeared to the apostles as tongues of flame.  Miracles happened very publicly, and three thousand people were baptized that one day. 

At that time, they expected Jesus back any day to set the world right, establish the Kingdom of God on earth once and for all. Instant gratification, and enduring perfection.  But it didn’t work out like that. 

Apparently God didn’t work that way.  A dear friend, who is a skeptic, pointed out to me one time: where is that Kingdom of God?  Look at the mess the world is in.  Look at all the ways churches have been ineffective or just wrong.  Why should I believe in the power of your God?

I suspect people were asking the same questions when Mark wrote his gospel. Jerusalem was under siege.  Where was the Kingdom of God? Mark offers parables about seeds and weeds.  Because the things that matter take time; they require patience.  They require learning and experimentation, and we do not control them.  They have seasons of flourishing, and seasons where we can only hope they’ll reappear.  But we can learn to nurture the seeds of the Kingdom just as we can learn to nurture gardens. 

I live in Irvine, the land of Homeowners Associations.  A homeowners association allowed me to have a front yard garden that required no work on my part.  The designers of the garden chose from a palette of plants that survive almost any condition. They act more like furniture than living things.  And instant gratification: who wants to move into a housing development with baby trees in it?  Why wait, when semi trucks and forklifts deliver full grown trees in 60-inch boxes. Sometimes the planters and the delivery people don’t coordinate their schedules; I drive by each day and and watch the full grown tree dying.  Oh well, deliver another one, and then deliver two tons of dead potted palm to the dump.

I like having that green furniture all around my condo complex. And I have known for a long time that if I was required to grow my own garden for food, I’d starve. I have not been willing to show up, to be patient, to accept failures, and really learn how to grow food in my backyard.

But a few things have grown persistently. Sweet peas, which some of you have been enjoying this spring: I planted them once, and for the last twenty years they have been volunteering amid the roses; all they require is time…to die on the vine and make the garden look unacceptable to Irvine sensibilities, so that they can reseed.

Five years ago, a seed was planted– in me.  I began to believe I could grow a garden of California natives.  My next door neighbor Tomaz had planted a successful native garden a few years before, and he was willing to help. The homeowners association gave me permission to reclaim my front yard, and it must have been a God thing because for months I was waking up early so I would have enough time to create my garden.  I worked hard, and I loved it.  And my garden grew! 

HOA’s hate native plants; they are not furniture.  Most native plants, if watered like a lawn, will die.  So designers have given up on them.  Large natives are not transplantable. You have to start small.  Many natives go summer dormant; they look dead. And some natives sit in the place they were planted for three years before they finally decide to start growing. There are desert plants from around the world that are less trouble.  Unless you want to turn your irrigation off all summer. Then you need California natives.

In typical Southern California willfulness, we have demanded of nature the unsustainable: lawns without weeds, tropical blooms 12 months a year. Nature obliges, at a cost. The Roundup and pesticides you are most likely to be exposed to are not in the grocery store but on your lawn, and your neighbor’s.  And roughly half of our suburban water goes on our yards. 

I wanted to respect the earth, but that’s not why I planted the garden. I wanted relationship.  I wanted a little slice of the Bay Area coastal hills that fed my soul when I was a teenager.  In order to create that, I had to plant, and learn, and experiment, and wait.  I am still learning.  And there is a three foot Catalina Cherry in my backyard that has grown six inches since I planted it four years ago.  I’m learning patience.

A garden is a collaboration between nature and humans.  The Kingdom of God is a collaboration between God and humans.  As the garden grows, we do not control it.  So the Kingdom goes: we cannot make it happen, we can only be good gardeners.

A garden that is not made of furniture is ever-changing: it has seasons of growth and flourishing, and seasons of dormancy and loss.  The Kingdom of God?  It too is ever changing, springing up like the first Pentecost now and then, cut down in other seasons, some times just about invisible, like a tiny seed.

Fire poppies only grow in California.  They are not subtle.  They are only seen in abundance in areas that have burned a year or two before.  Their seeds wait decades between fires, unseen, but ready to awaken when conditions are right.  They remind me of Pentecost, those magic moments when the Gospel is so public and so compelling that everything is aglow with God’s spirit.  May we see such things in our lifetime! 

Mark never speaks of Pentecost fire blooming.  Nor does he speak of the majestic trees of the forest that were sometimes used by prophets and psalmists to describe earthly kingdoms.  Cedars of Lebanon, the closest thing the Middle East had to Redwoods. No cedars in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  (And just in case somebody explains to you that the bible is inerrant, error free, mustard seeds are small, but not the smallest seeds on earth.)

Mustard seeds produce mustard bushes. Anybody who drives up the 57 freeway north of Brea has seen that brilliant yellow that in wet springs covers the hills. (Not this year.)  I love that brilliant yellow.  Mustard seeds do not produce majestic trees; they produce annuals, bushes that bloom brilliantly for a season and then fade.  Which might be a clue to us about the Kingdom, the kin-dom of God on earth.  Maybe it is less like a majestic tree, and more like a showy annual plant.  It has its season, and then waits again for a chance to bloom.

I love mustard flowers. Imagine my dismay to discover that our local mustard flowers are pernicious invasive plants that take over hillsides and wipe out the natives. California birds do love mustard, not for nesting or for shade but for eating the flowers and seeds.  Maybe mustard is different in the Middle East.  Or maybe the established order, the powers that be, experience the Kingdom of God like a weed: as an invasion and a threat, that doesn’t follow the fire code. Imagine if we really put people the environment before money.  Imagine if we said, “Yes in my backyard,” house people in need of housing.  Imagine if we put as many resources into peace as we do into war.  That could be a threat to the powers that be.

How I garden matters. It matters for the land, and the ocean and the bees and other creatures.  Instant gratification comes at a cost that I am not willing to pay, so I do a lot of hand weeding. Things grow slowly without fertilizer, go dormant with less water, sometimes I lose a plant to pests. 

If we want to collaborate with God to grow the kin-dom, how we do it matters.  If we want to win at any cost, or give up at the first failure, if we’d rather be right than be in relationship, if we use force or fail to respect people… we may grow something, but it won’t be of God.  If we follow Jesus’ teachings, certain strategies and tactics and ways of doing business that are taken for granted in the larger culture will be off limits for us.  We will pay a price for that.   Let us pay that price, because only when our methods are Jesus’ methods, are we participating in be the Kingdom of God.

Growing a garden is not a product, it’s a process.  Maybe the Kingdom of God is also a process, ever sprouting, growing, fading, being destroyed, waiting invisibly, until the conditions are right for it to bloom again.

Maybe we can’t even imagine what the Kingdom of God will look like.  The most delightful part of my native garden is the volunteers; the seeds that spring up that I didn’t plant.  The sweet peas are reliable and I recognize them.  But new native sprouts pop up, and for a while I don’t know what they’ll become.  Californa Sagebrush, the most delicious-smelling plant ever, pops up now and then.  White Sage.  California Fuchsia.  Desert Bluebells.  Beach Primrose, and more.  All of these would be labeled weeds in the furniture garden next door, and removed by the HOA gardeners. 

I can’t force wildflowers to grow on my terms, and we can’t force the Kingdom of God to happen.  But we can collaborate with God, instead of controlling, and see what grows. Hard work, patience, and unpredictable results.  Just the opposite of instant gratification. 


May the Holy Spirit work and among us, growing us in faithfulness and love, in strength and wisdom to follow Jesus.  May seeds of hope surprise and delight you.  May we be patient in seasons when God’s work seems invisible, or under attack.  And may we be witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit, wind and fire, new life sprouting and growing, in a world still groaning for the birth of God’s reign. Amen.

A Prayer for Mustard Seeds 
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ 
May 20, 2018

Thank you, dear God, for dangerous, peaceful people who have planted mustard seeds in our world.

Thank you for troublemakers and agitators, people who upset the norm, for protesters and marchers, for leaflet printers and speech-makers, for joke-tellers and those who speak truth to power, for people who refuse to sit down, refuse to stand up, people who won’t shut up or be shut out.

Thank you for parents who know better and for children who ask why.

Thank you for teachers who love knowledge and for students who speak bravely and prophetically even in the face of gun violence, for people who won’t take it anymore, who fight back, fight cancer, fight with chants and charts, teach-ins, sit-ins, and kiss-ins.

Thank you for Bill W. and for Nelson M. and for Ruth B.G.

Thank you, dear God, for people who peacefully resist and civilly disobey, people who use their minds and their words instead of guns and bombs.

Thank you for those who work to heal the wounds of Santa Fe and Palestine and Brea.

Thank you for justices who vote for justice, for the justice workers who keep working, and for the indefatigable power of love of all kinds.

Thank you, God, for Jesus Christ and for all prophets who overcome.

And, thank you, Loving One, for planting a seed of all of these things in each of us so that we, too, might lend a hand, a hug, a thought, a tear, to the effort to change the world from a place of fear and domination to a place where children and ice caps are safe, where justice and equal access wins the vote, where there’s enough room for everyone at the dinner table, where people stay at the negotiating table until problems are solved, where good is common and the Common Good prevails. 

In the name of peace,  
Amen 

© 2011, 2018 Michael D. Lewis , All rights reserved.

Love Makes a Family

Love makes a family.  I hear that saying to describe nontraditional families created by same-gender-loving people, and I enjoy hearing it.  Sadly, the family that love made has often had to stand in for the family a gay person grew up in.  The good news is that gay marriage is legal, and more and more of the time, love is winning over prejudice, and families are accepting their children the way God made them.

Love makes a family.  When I grew up, this saying was used to affirm adoption: that adopted children truly belong.  This might seem a given to you, but in many times and places adopted children never quite belonged. 

Love makes a family. Jesus said something very like this.  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. And the will of God?  The details will be specific to your life, but the short form is to love and be loved, and to figure out how to put that love into action.  We will do it far from perfectly, but as we seek to receive fully the love God gives us, to step into its flow and to share it generously and wisely, we find kinship with others who seek the same thing, a kind of family beyond traditional family.  With a little word play, we can transform the Kingdom of God, a rather archaic concept to us, into the Kin-dom of God, because we are all kin, all connected by God’s love. 

****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
May 13, 2018

Love Makes a Family

Mark 3:20-35 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
            28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;  29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—  30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
            31   Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Love makes a family.  I hear that saying to describe nontraditional families created by same-gender-loving people, and I enjoy hearing it.  Sadly, the family that love made has often had to stand in for the family a gay person grew up in.  The good news is that gay marriage is legal, and more and more of the time, love is winning over prejudice, and families are accepting their children the way God made them.

Love makes a family.  When I grew up, this saying was used to affirm adoption: that adopted children truly belong.  This might seem a given to you, but in many times and places adopted children never quite belonged.

Love makes a family. Jesus said something very like this.  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. And the will of God?  The details will be specific to your life, but the short form is to love and be loved, and to figure out how to put that love into action.  We will do it far from perfectly, but as we seek to receive fully the love God gives us, to step into its flow and to share it generously and wisely, we find kinship with others who seek the same thing, a kind of family beyond traditional family.  With a little word play, we can transform the Kingdom of God, a rather archaic concept to us, into the Kin-dom of God, because we are all kin, all connected by God’s love. 

I am the oldest of four children.  I have a sister and two brothers, and my two brothers are adopted.  I don’t remember the details of Joe’s arrival as a small baby, but I have a picture of big sister Terry, beaming from under a mop of bangs, sitting on a sofa in my blue plaid school uniform, with my bobby socks and Mary Janes sticking straight out because my knees weren’t long enough to reach the end of the sofa. My arms were holding a little skinny bundle of blankets with a red face.  Joe is over six feet tall now. I remember my mother’s fierce love for this baby, and the ways she sought to assure Joe that he was truly part of our family.  “My other children just showed up in the usual way,” she would tell us “But we chose Joe special.”  She so wanted him to trust that he belonged.

Later, I got another brother.  Rich was my cousin by birth, and he needed a home; my grandmother couldn’t keep up with him.  My mom hadn’t expected that addition to the family, and she couldn’t frame it the same way, but I saw how she longed to help Rick belong, and how hard it was for a child faced with a new caregiver to trust that this family, his third, was a keeper, and to find his place, to belong.  I could take belonging in my family for granted, but maybe because of witnessing my brothers’ journeys, I do not. 

There is a rhythm to belonging and separating that most of us know, reaching inward to the people who defined us for nurture and familiar roles, and reaching outward to find and express our unique path in the world, and possibly recover from some early wounds.  That rhythm is not always easy for those we love.  We all have roles and expectations around family, and in some situations those roles don’t fit.  In his public ministry, Jesus dashed the expectations of his family. He was no longer the family breadwinner and the reliable presence; he never did start a family of his own.  Instead he went on the road and stirred up trouble.  And so we are blessed, because he had something much bigger to create: this Kin-dom of God, this wider form of belonging. 

The Gospel of Mark does not shy away from showing us conflict in Jesus’ ministry. Power, good and evil, and family are in today’s reading.  All reliable sources of conflict.

Simple peasant that he was, Mark could tell a good story, and he often told it in the form of a sandwich.  Chiastic is the technical term.  The bread for the sandwich is about his family.  The top slice of bread:  “Jesus, your family is coming to town, and they’re upset.  They think you’re crazy.”  (And this is only chapter three; he’s barely started causing trouble.) The bottom slice of bread: “Jesus, your family are pounding on the door, they want to talk to you right now,” but instead he names those gathered around him listening and learning as his family.

A spicy strange filling lurks in the middle of this sandwich.  We might need a little help digesting that filling, that talk of Satan and unforgivable sins.  Here’s the short form: How do you make Jesus really angry? Call his healing and liberating power evil.  Take someone filled with the power of God, and say they are possessed by evil.

Jesus tells a strange parable about binding a strong man, that’s Satan, and setting the captives free, that’s us.  What does that mean?  It’s what Jesus does for us, according to the gospel of Mark, but it’s in Mark’s strange language and worldview.  I don’t like personifying evil, but evil is real. Does anybody feel oppressed by events in the news? By the carbon-generating lifestyle in which we are trapped?  By economic systems that use people like they’re disposable, that make accumulation of obscene wealth a virtue, and structural poverty a vice? It’s easy to go to fear and hopelessness and helplessness, or to try to come out on top in a sick system, or to just put our fingers in our ears and hum.  That’s how we live in the strong man’s house, in a system that treats people like tools and the earth like a garbage dump.  And when it is all we know it feels normal and we accept it as normal.  Getting freed is disruptive, even scary.

Jesus, and Mark, knew better than to demonize people.  Yes, people do evil things.  Yet people are not the evil.  The strong man is not a man at all.  People are just accustomed to living in the strong man’s house, to be part of a system that does evil.  Labeling people evil and making them the problem is called scapegoating, and it only makes things worse.  When the system is sick, you can trade out all the people and most likely the new ones will behave just like the old ones.

Does this sound like tricky stuff?  I think it is.  It’s horrifying to admit that we are trapped in systems that suck the life out of us.  It’s easy to pretend that we’re fine.  Everything’s fine. This is normal. No. What is happening in our country, in our name, is not OK.

With the power of Jesus Christ, we lose our fear of naming oppression and evil for what they are, because we can trust that oppression and evil will not have the last word.  We are not helpless, and we are not hopeless.  Our freedom upsets people who do not understand why we do not just keep quiet and pretend everything’s OK.  And sometimes we confuse the people we love, and sometimes we discover new people to love, and who love us.  The Kin-dom of God. Our love is too small, I know. So limited.  But not God’s.

And then there’s that unforgivable sin.  Raise your hand if you’ve spent time wondering about what the heck is that unforgivable sin anyway.  “Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.”  What does that mean? People extract that verse from its context and puzzle over it.  Place it back where it belongs and it’s pretty simple.  First, Jesus is angry. He might not have been making a theological statement for all time. He might have exaggerated a little in his frustration.  I’m sure none of us have ever done that.  Set in context, he is simply saying, “Can you believe what ridiculous lies they’re saying about me?  Being called crazy is one thing.  But publicly labeling God’s work evil?  That’s the worst. Just the bleeping worst.” God’s work of transformation can be disruptive.  You don’t have to like it.  But publicly labeling it evil… means God’s not getting through to you anytime soon.

For the scrupulous among us, how do we avoid labeling God’s work evil and relieve any worries about the unforgivable sin?  How about “Do not judge”?  Withholding judgment doesn’t mean putting up with everything.  It means expressing concerns respectfully, not scapegoating, treating people respectfully, and admitting that we may not see the whole picture.

So in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is busy setting people free from what binds them, and messing with the corrupt established order, and angering the Powers that Be, and creating new kinships of shared values, and it’s a wonderful adventure, but it scared his family. And they had reason to worry– it got him killed!  The reason Mark was still talking about it a generation later is because families were still getting scared by people following Jesus and getting freed from oppression and evil. Who knows, that might still be happening.

The kin-dom of God is life-giving relationships.  Where do we find it today?

Anna’s father was a trucker. Her mother was long gone, and she spent long hours and even overnights at the babysitter’s.  That babysitter raised her.  That babysitter loved her.  And at some point in her teens that babysitter insisted on legally adopting her, an event that filled Anna with amazement and joy.  True belonging.  Anna has a married child of her own now, and I never would have known her story, except she wanted to brag about her mom to her pastor. 

Essie Parrish and Mabel McKay were sisters.  They shared a passion, around which they built their lives, to preserve and practice Native American cultural arts and spirituality in northern California in the mid-twentieth century.  Essie and Mabel them kept Pomo culture alive through much of the last century.  They were not sisters by blood.  They had just discovered each other, discovered their common gifts and passion, and declared themselves sisters.  And so they were to the end of their lives.

My youngest brother Rich had a lot of challenges growing up, and one bad marriage early in his adult life.  We sort of expected him to give up trying and stay single.  But he found Sandra when he was around forty, and I got to officiate at the wedding.  Sandra understands Rich, and brings out the best in him.  Now he is the wise and gentle patriarch of Sandra’s clan, all in a big house together: a son and daughter and son-in-law, and three grandchildren.  Rich is not yet fifty years old. And Rich belongs.

I was talking to a friend who’s been through a lot of health challenges about my plans at the church for Mother’s Day, I told her this theme, “Love makes a family.” “Oh, like you and me,” she said.  After a moment of reflection, I said, “Yes, like that.”


May Jesus Christ free you to risk the love that makes us part of God’s family, that widens and deepens your family. In God’s family, we are free to become who God is inviting us to be. In God’s family, you belong.  Amen.