Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 23, 2017
“Less for the Least”
Matthew 13: 24-30 – The Message
He told another story. “God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn. When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too.
27 “The farmhands came to the farmer and said, ‘Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?’
28 “He answered, ‘Some enemy did this.’
“The farmhands asked, ‘Should we weed out the thistles?’
29-30 “He said, ‘No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.’”
Boy, Jesus got this one right. Later in chapter 13, Jesus explains today’s parable and said, “thistles are subjects of the Devil.” Yes, only the devil could come up with something as evil as thistles! From the time I was probably 8 or 9 years old, right around the time I started to drive (yes, life on a farm is different); from the age of 8 or 9 among my jobs was to walk the fields pulling thistles. Up the rows and down, hour after hour, screaming at the Devil for those blasted thistles. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes they were as tall as me. But fortunately, we could pull them out only in our fields of pinto beans or sunflowers. To pull them up in out of fields of wheat would pull up the wheat too. So Jesus got the farming aspect right. And he got the thistle part right too. They’re evil. Well, maybe not evil… But they do love to torment the church. Art and I pull hundreds upon hundreds of thistles around the church every summer.
But I do well to remember that back on the farm, it was thistles that were the problem, not my parents who sent me out to do the work – who didn’t care that I would rather spend all day watching the Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. I’m sure I complained bitterly about my parents, but I’d like to think that I understood, thistles were the problem, not them. And it occurs to me, that’s important to remember today.
We’ve just come through another bruising health care battle. One of our UCC leaders, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, was among a group of faith leaders who were arrested outside the offices of the Senate Majority Leader on July 13. She said, “We are not here to stand for or against any political party. We are not here to play partisan games with any human life. We are here to stand against the wickedness of this legislation. [Because] any healthcare reform that denies access to coverage for an additional 22 million of the most vulnerable citizens among us is wickedness. Any health care coverage that provides less for the least than it does more for the most is wickedness.” Strong language. And, notably, carefully stated.
Unlike Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz who called the legislation “horrific, cruel, and unacceptable” but went on to call its proponents “evil people.” Along the lines of what someone on the other side said. “I won’t go so far as to say that I hate any of the Democrats involved in this mess. But I am willing to say I hate the Democratic Party because it’s evil.” As you know, this is the state of discourse to which we have fallen. This is the state of our country.
I was curious so I googled two phrases: 1) Are Republicans evil, and 2) Are Democrats evil? Plenty of people, like the two I cited, were willing to provide an answer. I googled “I hate Republicans” and got 21 million responses. I googled “I hate Democrats” and there were 20 million, 900,000. I would suggest that there are people on both sides who think things would be much better in our country if we simply eliminated the other – each one considering the other the thistle that contaminates an otherwise perfectly good crop of wheat.
Scripture does say:
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
preying on widows
and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10: 1–3)
But Jesus said in his explanation of today’s parable, “The harvest,” that time when the harvesters put the thistles in bundles for the fire and wheat into the barn, “The harvest,” Jesus said, “is at the end of the age, the curtain of history.” I take that to mean “So, what do we do in the meantime?” and leave the sorting out for God to do. And in that meantime, protect the widow and fatherless. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, invite in the stranger… Jesus said, “whatever you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” And he said, “whatever you don’t do for the least of these, you don’t do for me.”
The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t downplay the idea that there are enemies who do people harm. I might object to the word enemies, but it’s there. I would argue, however, the Gospel, at least in this parable, doesn’t identify who they might be but rather, in the meantime, how we respond.
In the same way, The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t downplay that there is evil in the world. Though I’m a good bleeding heart liberal who chafes at the very idea of evil, the point is still a good one. And that we share a temptation in every age to decide who is who.
But in the various translations, there’s even some conflict within the text about the exact identity of the enemy.
In the version we heard Melody read, the one who sowed thistles was “his” enemy – as in, it was the farmer’s enemy. This is how it’s also translated in the King James and New International Version. But in the New Revised, which is our pew Bible, and the Common English, which we often use, the text simply says “an” enemy, not the farmer’s enemy.
This could all just be a minor issue, but it seems significant to me. Because as I read and reflect on the parable, I might get caught up on who, therefore, my enemy is. You know, if the farmer had an enemy, who is mine? The desire to do so is a real problem in our divided, polarized and paralyzed world.
We’ve been here before. After Hurricane Katrina, Kira Schlesinger volunteered with those who were evacuated to Houston, handing out blankets and listening to the horrific stories of rescue and humiliation. In worship the Sunday after President Bush told the FEMA director, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” she heard her priest pray for the President by name. Having just heard the stories of so many evacuees, she sat in her pew fuming. I was spitting mad, she said. By the end of the service she conceded to God, “Fine. I’ll pray for the president, but I’m not going to like it.”
But week after week she did it. “I prayed for the president. I don’t know if it changed him, but it changed me.”
And isn’t that the point of prayer? Not for the other person to change their ways, come to their senses, realize what a sinful person they are, but to change us? Not to think about someone, You’re the thistle and I’m the wheat, but to realize, maybe this parable is trying to teach us: “We’re in this together and we better get along.”
We’re in an interesting moment in the healthcare debate. Stuck nowhere. And both parties are so mad at each other they can’t imagine conceding an inch. You wouldn’t cooperate with us so we’re not going to cooperate with you. Even worse, there is so much blood lust about our president that the very idea he could claim anything as a “win” eliminates all willingness to work together for some solution. Democrats and Republicans have simply got to get over it. Whether the “they” in this moment are evil thistles, enemies, or simply on opposite sides, the health and wellbeing of too many people is too important to refuse to work together. Come to the table, I beg all of you. Yes, it’s not fair. But worse than fairness, it’s a matter of literal life and death.
So I googled “how to deal with enemies” and found a treasure trove. One advised “Stay out of their way.” Another, “Keep it classy.” Some were questionable, such as “Work harder so the boss will notice you and diminish your enemy’s ability to cut you down.” But another said, just, “Hold your nose and lie about how great they are.”
Of course, Christian sites advised “Love your enemies,” which I appreciate, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of a strategy for actually changing the situation. Obviously Jesus also said “pray for your enemies and those who persecute you,” and though it may not change the situation, it does offer the opportunity to change ourselves.
I’ve told this story before, but it seems to fit so well:
Once there was a monastery so beautiful and peaceful that people drove out of their way just to wander around and sit on its lush green lawn under big cottonwood trees. The monastery had gained a reputation among people who always felt frenetic and perpetually stressed. Go there and you will find relief.
But the monastery fell on hard times and many of the monks left in dissatisfaction. Soon, there were only a handful and their leader, the abbot. They were constantly fighting among themselves, each blaming their hard times on the faults and failings of the other. Such an atmosphere could be felt on the grounds and, slowly, people stopped visiting.
One day a travelling rabbi stopped to rest for the night. He ate and prayed alongside the monks. The next day, as the rabbi prepared leave, the abbot drew him aside. He told the rabbi of his monastery’s problems and asked for his advice.
The rabbi didn’t say anything.
The abbot begged. “Please, didn’t you observe anything that can help us?”
“Well, I did discover that the Messiah lives here.”
“The what?! Where? Here!? There’s nobody here but us.”
“Well, I’m not sure who,” said the rabbi. “But be on the lookout. One day you’ll see.”
The abbot was frustrated that the rabbi had no real advice but thanked him and wished him well on his way. He then gathered the monks together to tell them what the rabbi said. As they looked at each other, they were genuinely skeptical. There’s no one else here but us. No one said it, but each of them thought, there’s no Messiah among this bunch of SOBs…sad ornery brothers.
Certainly not Brother Henry. He could find the downside of the sun rising in the morning.
Certainly not Brother Thomas. He was always getting into people’s private business. Or Brother Michael either. He’s too quiet. Except for his scowls, we never even know what he thinks. But, maybe…
And certainly not Brother Robert. He’s so gruff and disagreeable. He never, ever has a smile on his face. Or maybe they’re all disguises. Maybe it’s the abbot…
But each of them eventually realized – uh oh. What if it’s me? But as Brother Clarence thought, my attitude makes me the least likely of any of us. And yet, what if I’m the Messiah?
A few months later, one of the brothers asked: “Doesn’t it seem like there are more people wandering around, sitting under the cottonwood trees?” Brother Adam agreed, adding, “It seems like every week there are more cars here than there were the week before.”
The atmosphere had, in fact, changed as each of the monks began to see the potential that one of them might be the Messiah – or even themselves.
In time, some of those wandering the grounds asked about joining. In time, every room in the monastery housed a new monk. And in time, it was once again a thriving community.
It changed them – as individuals and as a community. Yet as much as we can pray ourselves through problem situations and love each another through anything, what about the people who are still left behind – whether it’s only 2 million, 12 million or 32? Should we just have better attitudes? Think more positively about meals on wheels and clean water? “Just change yourself” would have been an easy way to leave this parable.
Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Parables are not direct answers to questions. As soon as we ‘know’ what a parable means, we’ve probably missed the point. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we’re probably getting a little closer to the heart of its meaning.”
Talk of evil and enemies and the Devil makes me uncomfortable. Just as uncomfortable as I should be about thinking that anyone with whom I see the world differently is my enemy. That their agenda is evil. That everything would be better if we could only be rid of them.
Setting that aside, believing God will indeed sort it out in the end, people of faith and conscience must still continue to demand that health care is simply a basic standard of human decency. To stop playing games with people’s lives. That any health care coverage that provides less for the least than it does more for the most is wrong.
The vision we hear Jesus teach over and over of the Kingdom of God is more for the least and less for the most. You know, the humble lifted high, the powerful toppled from their throne. The poor filled and the rich sent away empty-handed.
Yet, Jesus also teaches that God’s love is so abundant and so overwhelming, so plentiful and so profuse, so generous and so rich that we must abandon our obsession that there is not enough to go around for everyone. God is, so therefore, there is enough. And when we figure this out, we shall all live a life of abundant health and wellbeing. May it be so. Amen
 After the crowds leave, Jesus explains it’s meaning to his disciples in verses 36-43
 Matthew 25: 40 and 45
 “The Messiah Is Among Us,” unknown origin, found in the book Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Day Pearman, Pilgrim Press, 2007
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Live with Weeds,” The Seeds of Heaven, quoted by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 16, 2017
“Waking, Working, Wearied and Withered”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.[a] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
See that guy over there throwing seeds on the ground? That’s the Kingdom of heaven.
Parables are Jesus’ genius way of engaging us right where we are. Not in some theoretical state of being but in the everyday tasks of living. Jesus looked around and said, “see that flock of sheep over there? God is the Good Shepherd.” “See those people out there fishing? Come follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” “See those workers leaving the vineyard? In the Kingdom of God everyone is paid a day’s wage regardless of the hours worked. That’s what God is like.”
Jesus would come to Colorado and say, “See those people riding mountain bikes straight up the trail? The kingdom is heaven is like mountain bikers with calves as thick as watermelons. See those landscapers? The kingdom of heaven is like people who work long hours for low pay in the hot sun who will do anything they can to take care of their families. See those mountain goats, impossibly clinging to the side? God is like that.
The gospels record 58 parables. C.H. Dodd said parables are stories that tease our mind into thinking without us ever knowing it. There is enough wiggle room to never quite know if we’ve gotten it right. And what it means to me might not be what it means to you.
So as I approach today’s parable, I ask, is it a story about a sower? Is it a story about seeds? Or is it about soil? Or none of the above. And who are we in it? Are we the seeds that the master Sower casts onto the ground? Or is our call to be the sowers, encouraged to scatter our seed far and wide?
But the truth is today, after another week in our nation’s continuing chaotic reality, I just as often feel like the soil – sometimes producing good works, but other times feeling quite thorny, rocky. And seven months in, trampled. Flattened. Feeling like crushed dirt.
I’ve asked you that more than a few times in the past seven months “How is it with your soul today?” How are you keeping sane? How are you caring for yourself? Are you remembering to replenish yourself – or rather, do you remember that we cannot replenish ourselves?
The gift of being people of faith is remembering that we are the conduits of peace. We are not the manufacturers of peace.
Yet, despite that, Jeff Medefind describes the journey of many activists. First comes the waking: We ache over the wrong we see and yearn to set it right. Waking springs us into action working, excited, encouraged by early progress. But we often weary by the stubbornness of injustice to yield to our good works. And finally, one day we can find our idealism has withered away.
Waking, working, wearied, and withered.
And this isn’t just true for activists. It’s for teachers at the beginning of a new school year, first year nurses, social workers, public defenders. And I’m sure in your profession too. At times waking, enthusiastically working as well as wearied and withered.
Even new parents. You may have baby-proofed your house, but what have you done to prepare and protect your soul for the long haul of disappointments and disenchantments that our kids will inevitably reveal. That’s not to suggest that we “give up” before we even start. The state of “witheredness” is not obligatory and certainly not permanent. But we must be aware of such a progression and pay as much attention to the issues about which we care as we do to the nourishment of our soul. Just like breathing. In and out. As well as, out and in.
Jesus understood this for himself. Scripture tells us Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Today’s text began by saying the crowd was pressing in on him so hard, he had to get into a boat so he could speak with them. If the Savior of the World needed a break, how much more those who feel called to save the world? Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
The genius of Jesus teaching by way of parables is that one day we can see ourselves as the sower, one day as the seed, and another day as the soil. And maybe we’re none of those things. Because maybe the point isn’t about us but about how God is a careless sower who doesn’t hold back based on our potential productiveness. God doesn’t care whether I’m awake or withered. God keeps giving wildly, recklessly, wastefully, regardless of our ability to give back beyond ourselves. That’s grace. In this story, God is less concerned with the harvest than with never giving up planting.
Just like artists must be more passionate about making art than selling it. Teachers have to love teaching more than watching their students cross the stage at graduation. What is our motivation? Because imagine the consequences:
We can fake it for a while, we can stretch it little farther, but when the days of our witheredness come, it will be like seeds sown on rocky ground. Since they don’t have any depth, they’ll spring up quickly, but get scorched in the sun. Or times when seeds are sown among thorns or are thrown on hard dirt, trampled and carried off by birds.
Some nights Bryon Alvarez says he can’t get the stories of the immigrants he works with out of his head. Children who have crossed the border alone. Immigrants persecuted at home who need asylum. Mixed-status families trying to stay together. Calls come day and night from desperate men, women, and children depending on him to help them to secure their status.
Just as withered as his colleague Susana Zamorano who sometimes comes home so frustrated, sometimes so angry, she feels like she’s going to break down. “It’s like I’m in the middle of an endless ocean and I have no strength left.”
They are just two of many fighting for social justice who know how to craft strategy. They know how to operate in crisis mode. But they’ve never had their endurance so tested. They are selfless and sacrificial givers who have been forced into receiving help in order to keep giving it. So, they’re among activists signing up for dance classes. And learning to garden. Taking up hiking and yoga. Turning off the television.
Understanding what it takes not to be overwhelmed by our 24-hour news cycle, so that our response is not simply to give up the fight.
Jesus said, “Listen. All with ears to hear, listen.” Meaning, this is important!
Then he said in verse, “19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the hard path.” Word of the kingdom. AKA: The Common Good. What I call an open, inclusive, just and compassionate world. That very thing most at risk today. As William Barber of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina would put it: Our concern is not about a series of causes at risk but our loss of common values as a nation.
“20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.” Such a huge temptation. After the election 700 people came to a SURJ meeting – Showing Up for Racial Justice. A few months later, 150. Sure, 150 is great. But what happened to the others?
“22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Whether it’s wealth, power, status, beauty. Or the worst, the desire for a comfortable, easy life – with no exposure to poverty, pain, violence, or hate. Hidden behind walls created for the privileged.
“23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Jesus emphasized hearing and the need for understanding. Repeating the word understanding. That is what it takes to endure in times of persecution and cruelty. Depth. Rootedness. Hearing without understanding is like acting without planning. It is thinking I can do this all on my own and burning out. Because the Freedom Riders didn’t just get on a bus. The Bridge Crossers in Selma didn’t just go for a walk. They first had to understand, which takes time. And then builds upon itself, which requires stepping away to think. And hike and dance and garden.
The three-point plan must be repeated: to ponder and wonder and contemplate. We gather to do that every week through worship. Not only to hear scripture but listen to it. And pray to understand, such things as
The kingdom of heaven is like a sower… But not just saying, OK, got it! Because it’s more than that. A few verses later, Jesus said:
Is the kingdom of heaven a merchant or a mustard seed? Is it a fishing net or a traveler? Is it treasure or a landowner? Which is it? Yes. It is. Because some days Jesus looks over at us and says you look like a sower and some days he knows we feel like dirt.
But we come to understand that on the journey of a lifetime of faith, we will awaken, work, become wearied, and even wither. And we will wake, and work, and weary, and wither again.
And more to the point today,
Which is it? Yes, it is.
The Kingdom of heaven is that feeling of waking and working. And the Kingdom of heaven is like feeling wearied and withered.
And the whole time God never stops, always planting seeds waiting to take root. And if they fail, to try again. God never gives up.
And if we are smart and faithful about it, we won’t have to give up either. Because we understand the kingdom of heaven means what we do is in Christ’s name and as vessels of his love, conduits of his peace, channels of his compassion. And that we do it together.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote:
I want to be in partnership
with the universe
like the tiger lily poking up
its gorgeous head.
among the so-called
in the uncultivated fields that still abide.
But it’s okay
if, after all,
I’m not a lily,
but only grass
in a clutch of curly grass
(all) waving (together) in the wind,
one [among] those
sweet, abrasive blades.
 Jeff Medefind, “The Activist Soul,” Christianity Today, July/August 2017
 Ten examples in order: Matthew 13:45, 31, 47, 33, 44, 52; 18:23, 20:1, 22:2, 25:14
 Luke 17:21
 Mary Oliver, “I Want”, Evidence (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009, 56)
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world