Monday, September 18, 2017

Peace and Justice

                                                          Isaiah 58:6-9
                                                            Matthew 20:1-16

               The Oakland Peace Center, where we have been part of a couple mission projects, building bunk beds, doing some painting, etc, asked the congregations that support it to focus on peace and justice this Sunday.  As one of those congregations, we have chosen to be part of that.  In particular we’ve been encouraged to focus on the connections between peace and justice.  Do you see connections between the two?
               What images or ideas come to mind when you think of peace? Doves, calm, nonviolence, non-conflictive, everyone getting alone.
               What images or ideas come to mind when you think of justice?  Courts, laws, punishments for those who did wrong, retribution, fairness, giving people what they “deserve.”
               These two can seem contradictory, or hard to reconcile.  Justice brings thoughts/images of violence, wrong doing and “pay back” in equal amounts.  Peace seems to exclude conflict at all.
               But today’s story about the laborers shows us something very different, something that is difficult and hard for most of us to grasp, let alone for us to feel good about.  You know the story.  The owner hires different workers at different times.  That means the workers work different amounts.  Yet, at the end of the day, each worker is paid the same amount.  And the laborers are upset about this.  They feel this is unjust.
               We can relate to this right?  Parents, grandparents, guardians spend a lot of time sometimes, trying to figure out what is “fair”.  To use some less serious examples: In our family, for example, Jasmyn got to go out with her grandparents for “special birthday time” starting when she turned 5 or six.  The grandparents decided though that it wasn’t “fair” for the younger kids to get to go out that young so they made the decision to wait until each child turned 5 or 6 to have that “special time” with the grandparents.  Does this seem fair?  Well, from my thinking, the grandparents aren’t going to be able to take the kids out forever and each child should have the same amount of time with them, so I think that each child should start at the same time being able to have that special time with their grandparents.  You see, it is a little complicated.
Another less serious scenario – when I was growing up, the older child always got a bigger piece of pie or cake or whatever because they were “bigger” and needed more.  Does this seem fair?  IN my family, it is my youngest child who needs the most calories and who eats the most despite being unusually skinny.  How do we define fair?
When we lived in San Leandro, Jasmyn went to Head Royce, a private school.  It was an amazing school that gave her basically a free ride.  They were committed to diversity, to taking care of others and the planet.  Part of their curriculum required each child to do some kind of community service, and they taught important values about caring for the world.  However, most of the kids who attended this school were filthy rich.  While Jasmyn got a free ride, the tuition per child was $24,000 a year.  And while they taught great values, one day Jasmyn came home and said, “Why don’t we have a play castle in our back yard?  Why don’t I have my own pony?  Why don’t I have my own bedroom?  Why didn’t we go skiing in France for our winter vacation?”  It didn’t matter what the values were that were being taught.  She was put in a situation where those she compared herself to made her feel poor, made her feel that life was unfair in the way that she didn’t have enough, didn’t have as much.  She could have compared herself to those in our community who lived on the street.  What I wanted for her was for her to realize our many, many blessing and riches and to realize that because of our blessings we have a great responsibility to care for those around us, to be as generous with others as God is with us.  But instead, she had the experience of being in a place where she was the “poorest” and she left that feeling that her life was “unfair.”
               I think about the times when people have offered us grace: like the time I was pulled over for running a light that changed just as I entered the intersection.  I normally forget about that grace that I was offered, though, when I see people speeding in their cars and find myself wishing that they would get pulled over.  I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are.  I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments.  I want justice for others and grace for myself.  But again, my definition of justice is subjective.
A more serious example: How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”?  In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film.  After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe.  There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it.  If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation.  But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film.  So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common.  It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made.  But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough.  But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film.  In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe.  And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid.  Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things.  People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed.  Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
               The truth is from a personal perspective, in our definition of justice, nothing is EVER fair.  When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair.  We don’t get what we think we deserve.  Others seem to get more than we think they deserve. 
But what I call us all to focus on today is the end of today’s parable, which reads, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
As Rev. Sandhya Jha, the director of the Peace Center said it, “What we see in this story is a redefinition of justice.  Typically, we define justice as ‘what someone deserves’ based on their actions or particular qualities….But in this story, the landowner redefines justice to mean a state in which everyone receives what is fitting to a laborer, regardless of their specific actions as a laborer.  This is a radically different notion of justice form our common usage.  The question of deservingness is separated from action, or personal qualities, and instead centers on identity.  This means that all people, as children of God are equally deserving of the fruits of labor.  In other words, it is a metaphor for God’s justice, which is a justice that gives freely to the measure that is sufficient to the needs of the person….justice or what is right is that status in which needs are met for all people equally….On God’s terms of justice, giving more to some and less to others based on merits is not right.”
So what does this mean for us?  Well, first, we have a choice about how we look at life.  Do we focus on what is Unfair?  It is unfair that I work hard for little while others don’t work at all and are given much.  It is unfair that I have to struggle with this challenge or that challenge while others seem to have charmed lives.  It is unfair that I do my best and still go through painful situations.  Life is unfair.  Or we can look at the many blessings that fill our lives:  Each of us in this room has enough to eat.  Each of us has a bed to sleep in.  We each have family and friends and a church that loves us and supports us.  We have educations and vacations and toys for all ages.  Our lives are filled with blessings and we can choose to focus on them and be grateful for God’s generosity to each one of us.  We have much more than we need, after all. 
               But more deeply than that, God’s definition of justice does not take into account what people deserve and instead focuses solely on what people need.  That is so hard for us to grasp, so hard for us to take in.  But Jesus presents this definition of justice to us and expects us to also stand up for this justice, this image of what it is to be just.  We are called not to award and discriminate based on what people “deserve” (and again for each of us what someone deserves will be different), but instead to care for and love all people, working hard to make sure they all have what they need.  That is a justice that leads to peace.  When people have what they need, there is room for peace, there is room for living.
               I know this is a really hard concept.  So I want to say it once more.  What scripture shows us is God’s definition of justice is about giving everyone what they need.  It is NOT about what people deserve.  EVER.  And we are called to strive for that same understanding of justice.  

               Next week we will be looking at judgment and God’s call to us to not judge.  That fits in well here.  If our understanding of justice is about giving people what they need, there is no room for judgement in that.  Judgement only confuses and confounds us because it throws us back into thinking about what people deserve.  This is so humanly natural that striving for a different way of looking at the world takes work.  But it is what we are called to do: to look with eyes of love and care, no matter what a person has done, no matter what we think they deserve.  The good news in this is that God looks at us the same way: with eyes that see past whatever we have done or failed to do that has been unloving.  And God wants justice for us as well: for us to have what we need.  This day and every day.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Honoring those who went before: grandparent's day

Exodus 20:12
2 Timothy 1:3-13

A little boy was in church next his parents and grandparents.  During prayer time, he said a small prayer, "Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and all the family to be healthy and happy."
Suddenly he looked up and shouted, "And please don't forget to ask grandpa to give me a bicycle for my birthday!!"
"There is no need to shout like that," said his father. "God isn't hard of hearing."
"No," said the little boy, "but Grandpa is."
Grandchildren don't make a man feel old; it's the knowledge that he's married to a grandmother.
It's amazing how grandparents seem so young once you become one.
If your baby is "beautiful and perfect, never cries or fusses, sleeps on schedule and burps on demand, an angel all the time," you're the grandma.
An hour with your grandchildren can make you feel young again. Anything longer than that, and you start to age quickly.
A teacher asked her young pupils how they spent their vacation. One child wrote the following:
"We always used to spend the holidays with Grandma and Grandpa. They used to live here in a big brick house, but Grandpa got retarded and they moved to Florida and now they live in a place with a lot of other retarded people.
"They live in a tin box and have rocks painted green to look like grass. They ride around on big tricycles and wear nametags because they don't know who they are anymore. They go to a building called a wrecked center, but they must have got it fixed, because it is all right now.
"They play games and do exercises there, but they don't do them very well. There is a swimming pool, too, but they all jump up and down in it with their hats on. I guess they don't know how to swim.
"At their gate, there is a dollhouse with a little old man sitting in it. He watches all day so nobody can escape. Sometimes they sneak out. Then they go cruising in their golf carts.
"My Grandma used to bake cookies and stuff, but I guess she forgot how. Nobody there cooks, they just eat out. And they eat the same thing every night: Early Birds. Some of the people can't get past the man in the dollhouse to go out. So the ones who do get out bring food back to the wrecked center and call it potluck.
"My Grandma says Grandpa worked all his life to earn his retardment and says I should work hard so I can be retarded some day, too. When I earn my retardment I want to be the man in the doll house. Then I will let people out so they can visit their grandchildren."
As I prepared for today’s sermon, I found myself reflecting on how we honor our ancestors, how we honor those who went before, or even those who are still with us but are of different generations.  How do we show that their lives mean something to us?  That the way they did things, though different, is still a valuable part of our heritage, of who we are?
I enjoy going to museums and seeing how my ancestors did things, how the people who went before me lived and worked and played and survived.  I am a 5th generation Californian, my kids are 6th generation Californians, and I take pride in that history.  I enjoy learning about my ancestors travelling to come here to work on the railroad, about their purchasing the land that still remains in our family.  I enjoy learning how gender roles were divided, what women did for the ranch lands and what men did, how they built things, how they washed and cooked and cleaned and made their livings.  It is fascinating to me, and, I feel an important part of my history.
But with every generation there are changes, and those changes seem to be coming at a faster and faster pace.  We don’t just change how we do things, what work looks like, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat, we also change how we practice faith, IF we practice faith.  We change how we do relationships.  Many of those changes we embrace, but I think every change also brings challenges, perhaps especially for those who have gone before.  And I think one of the reasons is that we can see these changes as either judgments on how we did things, or we can feel that it makes our lives irrelevant.
I remember reading in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith,
 “I remember as a kid, the (Rabbi) admonishing the congregation – gently, and sometimes not so gently – for letting rituals lapse or disappear, for eschewing traditional acts like lighting candles or saying blessings, even neglecting the Kaddish prayer for loved ones who had died.
But even as he pleaded for a tighter grip, year after year, his members opened their fingers and let a little more go.  They skipped a prayer here.  They skipped a holiday there.  They intermarried (-as I did).
I wondered, now that his days were dwindling, how important ritual still was.
‘Vital’, he said.
But why?  Deep inside, you know your convictions.
‘Mitch,’ he said, ‘faith is about doing.  You are how you act, not just how you believe.’ (p.44)…”My grandparents did these things.  My parents, too.  If I take the pattern and throw it out, what does that say about their lives?  Or mine?  From generation to generation, these rituals are how we remain…connected.”
As I read that I found myself wondering, do we feel personally insulted when our kids don’t do what we did?  And how about the next generation, when our grandkids’ lives are so VERY different?  I know I struggle at times with the choices that my kids make that seem like they will be different from the choices that I have made.  There is a part of me that feels like that choice to do something different IS somehow a judgment on what I chose, on what I did.  It’s not, but it feels that way.  We can see this when we look back… we know it isn’t a judgment on women’s worth as homemakers that women now work outside of the home.  It isn’t a judgment on those who walked everywhere that we now drive places.  It isn’t a judgment on those who hand washed dishes and clothes and scrubbed the floors on their hands and knees that we now use machines to do the hard work for us.  It isn’t a judgment on our ancestors and foreparents who were farmers and ranchers when we work in the city at computers.  But it can feel that way.  It can feel like those are statements that say our way of life, our way of living is quickly forgotten.  What mattered to us no longer seems to matter, what made our lives worth while seems no longer relevant.  What about when they no longer go to church?  Does that feel like they don’t value the things we valued?  And are we okay with that?
          I don’t think that updating things or doing things differently means that we no longer honor the past.  And I think it can be seriously problematic to believe that in order to be loyal to what was, you have to reject what is.  The Amish community for a long time has been a separatist community of faith because they did not want change of any kind.  And while that has served them for a time, the Amish are now finally having to make some adjustments.  In Ohio where I lived there was a very large Amish population whose farms were becoming unsustainable because of the cost to run them without electric equipment.  They have finally conceded that they have to change.  As hard as that is, they, too have had to change to survive in this world.  That is not a judgement on the past.  It is not a statement that says all that they did is no longer meaningful or relevant.
So how do we honor those who have gone before?  If not by doing it the way they did, how do we honor them?
Telling stories. Reading and hearing their stories.
        Caring about history and trying to learn from it.
Spending time with those who are older than us.
Listening to the things they value and trying to understand why they value them.
Avoiding ageism (there is a great deal of ageism in our culture.  We equate elderly with less intelligent and less productive rather than seeing the wisdom and maturity and honoring that.  We need to be better about this.).

And if we are those who would like to be honored, how do we move forward?
Telling stories,
Writing down our stories,
Sharing the histories of our grandparents and our parents so that they, too, will be remembered.
 Sharing the mistakes we've made, how we worked through them and how we moved forwards afterwards.
Choosing to spend time with those younger than us and being open to learning from them.
Sharing our values with our kids and why we hold them: not in a way that shames them if they come out in a different place, but in a way that is simply explanatory: this is why I feel the way I do.

Does that mean we have to stop the world from spinning around and stop the changes that our younger people are making?  I don’t think we could if we wanted to, but more importantly, I think the attempts end up only hurting ourselves as we can end up isolated from those we love.  The world is changing, everything about it is changing.  When I think about the fact that when my kids were born, people did not have cell phones and that it wasn’t until graduate school for me that people had personal computers.  When I think that in my parent’s life time TV was invented and that in my grandparent’s life time cars were made… Church has changed radically too.  Calvin allowed no instruments, and especially not organs in his worship.  And as we know, young folk simply aren’t going to church much anymore.  We can’t stop the world from spinning.  But we can teach our young folk about what matters to us and why.
I shared this with you last year, but I love it.  It’s from Kahlil Gibran’s “the prophet”.  ON children:
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
They have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Finally, we honor those who went before and we honor those who are to come by practicing love.  By being the people we hope to be: by living lives that are loving and giving and that bring joy, grace, and light to the world.  In our baptism promises, we promise to care for one another, to love each other and to raise each other in God’s grace.  As a result, all of us, whether we have blood relations in this place or not, are our family.
As one commentary I read this week said, “Some of the people we call grandparents are such because they are our parents' parents — they are blood relations. And some of the people we call grandparents — or "elders" in some cultures — are such because of a quality of compassion, concern, wisdom, and generosity that they demonstrate toward us. The Search Institute has identified that children who have at least five caring adults in their lives, in addition to their parents, are more likely to thrive and less likely to become "at risk." Every congregation is blessed with "grandmas" and "grandpas" who love and share their faith in ways that form us as an extended family, a tribe, a clan of people embraced by the love of God.”  So we honor one another especially by loving one another.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A ramble about boundaries, inner darkness, and listening...

        I had been taught in my counseling courses at Seminary that, generally speaking, men and women listen differently and share differently. When men listen to someone sharing about a problem, they generally want to fix that problem.  This is at least in part because men tend to share what is bothering them when they are wanting advice themselves, we were taught.  So they expect that when women are sharing, it is because they are wanting advice as well.  In contrast, women share for support.  So women know that when another woman is sharing something with them, they are wanting to be heard, to be understood. If a woman wants advice, she usually will state that, "I am wanting your advice", or she will ask a man.  Until men and women figure out this difference in the way we communicate and the way we listen, it can create real problems between the genders.  Women often feel insulted by the advice or the obvious statements that men make in response to their sharing because they feel the advice or common sense statements belittle them.  We hear the advice as a commentary on our ability to make our own decisions, to see things clearly or to be able to work through a problem.  We talk because we are processing out loud, not because we are children who need help.  In contrast, men can sometimes misread the fact that women don't offer advice as women not having insight or opinions as to what should be done in a certain situation.  We have opinions, I can assure you, but we trust you to make your own choices and feel it would be insulting to try to tell you what you should do.
       This is what I was taught.  And my own experience has been that this is accurate.  I definitely need to process out loud.  But when my expressions of struggle, hurt, or pain are met with advice, or worse, with a "just don't feel that way", or worst of all, stating the obvious, "well, you just need to make a decision", my response is usually further hurt and anger.  I wasn't asking advice, thank you very much.  Telling me to "get over it" is not going to make the feelings just go away.  And stating the obvious makes me feel like you see me as completely incapable of seeing the nose on my face.
       However, yesterday, as I found myself in several different conversations about listening, I heard all of this differently.  I'm no longer convinced that the differences in the way people listen is as simple as "some want advice and therefore give advice while others want to be heard so they hear."  I realized that sometimes our boundaries, or lack of boundaries are the deeper issue.  Sometimes when we have poor boundaries, we give advice as a way of shutting people down because their pain hurts us.  If I tell you what to do, I no longer need to listen.  If I can sum it up in a few words, there is nothing more that needs to be said.  I can then move on from the pain that you are experiencing which is also hurting me.  I can dismiss the problem as "solved."  I can make an artificial boundary of "I've solved this problem therefore it no longer exists" rather than working to build an appropriate boundary of "This is you, and I am me.  I can love you and care for you without being torn apart by the pain that you are experiencing.  I can be with you in your pain and I can walk this journey with you without needing to shut it down, end the feelings, or withdraw."
        A personal example: It is part of my job to listen to folk.  That is a part of my work that I really enjoy.  I like hearing how people are, I enjoy being with people as they live their lives and go through their lives.  I feel truly blessed and honored by being able to provide the pastoral care and counseling that is a large part of my work. It is not only easy for me to listen, but a real joy for me to do so.  I can reflect back, ask questions that I hope will help them think differently about their situation, and sometimes offer a different way of looking at a situation.  I am never tempted to offer advice.  But my boundaries feel very clear in that situation.  In contrast, when my children share with me their pain, I often find myself jumping into "fix it" mode.  Their pain physically hurts me.  I want it to stop. I find it difficult to tolerate their hurting. So I shove it away by trying to tell them what to do so they won't hurt anymore (so I won't hurt anymore for them).  Sometimes I have stepped in where I shouldn't.  Often I have given advice when it was not wanted, sought or needed.  I don't have the same good emotional boundaries with my children, and as a result, I often react differently, in unhelpful, and occasionally hurtful ways.   My lack of good boundaries with my kids cause me to fail to hear well when I am listening to them.  Instead, I try to "fix" it.  It doesn't help.  It makes it worse for my kids who want someone to hear them.  But it is because they are hurting, and because I am therefore also hurting, that I don't handle their sharing well.
        As I thought about this, I found myself reflecting on other similar situations.  When I was giving birth to my second child, I was in so much pain (yes, the reality of childbirth) that it was almost unbearable.  Despite what the experts say about forgetting the pain once the baby is born, it was bad enough that I do remember it.  What I remember even more, however, was that my husband became overwhelmed with my pain.  He was not able to have a good boundary around my pain, and he broke down.  The midwife who was working with us shut that down fast, however.  She said to him, "You have to get a grip!  She has to go through this. She has to.  The end result will be beautiful but she has to go through this to get there. There is nothing you can do about that.  But if you start focusing on the pain that her hurting is causing you, you are no longer with her to support her.  You become your own needy island and no one is helping anyone else.  She needs your support right now!  You have to get out of yourself and how much her pain hurts you and you need to be the support person she needs in this moment!  Get a grip!"
        When I was studying anthropology in college, one of the classes I took required us to read a book about a tribal culture in which the boundaries between people were not so confused as they sometimes are here. People in this tribe were incredibly happy, they didn't complain but laughed a great deal and focused on the good rather than problems. The author described a man who had a serious cut in his leg that needed stitches.  There was no anesthesia so each stitch was painful.  His wife held his hand throughout the process and supported him with her love, with her smiles, with her care.  But the anthropologist who wrote about it noted that if a similar situation had happened in the United States, the wife would have flinched and probably cried out herself every time her husband was gripped with the pain of a stitch.  She might even have excused herself, unable to stand watching her husband suffer in this way.  She would not have been able to stay present and strong with him without being traumatized by his pain.  But in this tribal culture, where boundaries are clearer, she was able to be a support without experiencing the pain herself.  As a result, her presence was a huge help to him and carried him through the experience.  
         I recently saw a youtube video in which a couple fathers were in a grocery store with a couple children who were having temper tantrums because they wanted candy that the fathers would not give to them.  Again, with our lack of boundaries, the normal reaction when our children act up in the grocery store is to grab at them, sometimes harshly, because we are embarrassed.  We try to get them to stop the tantrum because our lack of boundaries tells us that this reflects badly on US.  What is interesting is that our attempts to shut them up usually increase the length of the tantrum, the severity of the tantrum, and their inclination to repeat it when they don't get what they want again; after all, it successfully upset us.  But in this video, the fathers really remained calm.  They clearly stated "no" and stood watching the kids throwing the tantrums, but they didn't allow themselves to get upset or embarrassed or even angry with the kids. They didn't abuse the kids, they didn't walk away from the kids, they didn't threaten the kids, but they also were clear that they weren't giving in.  There was a clear sense of boundary: the fathers did not take on the embarrassment or shame of the kids' behavior.  It wasn't the fathers' bad behavior after all, it was the kids' behavior and they understood that.  And what was interesting is that the kids themselves became quickly embarrassed about their own behaviors and ended the tantrums, again with very little time, themselves.
       One final example.  I know two couples who have this boundary issue in another way.  When one person in the couple says something that the other feels is wrong or stupid, the one hearing the comment responds with embarrassment and sharp critique of their spouse.  They are unable to remember that their spouse is not a reflection on themselves.  And, as with the other examples, their lack of boundaries and the subsequent harsh critique of their spouse then leads to others seeing them as unkind. They are treating their partner meanly and everyone sees that.  While they are trying to avoid the judgment they believe will come their way from the comments made by their spouses, they are instead incurring judgment for their attempts to "correct" their partners, especially in this public way. While trying to avoid embarrassment, they are bringing shame on themselves as those around them watch this painful interaction.
         What is ironic about all of this is that those with stronger boundaries, and a clearer sense of what is mine and what is yours are often also the people who see more fully how interconnected we all are.   Those are the very people who often really understand that we must care for all people in all things if any of us hope to be okay as individuals.  Somehow that clear sense of boundaries, of where I start and end also allows people to be more open to the understanding that under all of it, we are still one.
        All of this leads back to where I began, with the way we talk and listen to one another.  I think we would be better at hearing and supporting those we love if we were able to step back a little and be okay with witnessing (and experiencing) pain.  As with my story about childbirth, most pain must be gone through in order to come out to the gifts on the other side.  Shoving pain down does not get rid of it, it does not end it, it does not solve it.  We have to deepen into those hard feelings in order to come through to the other side.  Even if we cannot set up a boundary that allows us to be with others without experiencing their pain, perhaps we can find ways to go through it with them rather than trying to just make it go away.
            In my spirituality circles, there has been a great deal of focus lately on our desire to avoid the darkness, to avoid the unpleasant and uncomfortable, rather than facing it, feeling it and dealing with it.  But everytime we do that, the darkness has a way of making itself bigger until it finally has our attention.  I'm reminded of J.K. Rowling's Fantastical Beasts.  The magic that is repressed became an evil force.  Our feelings, when repressed, do damage.  Our dark sides, when avoided rather than faced, grow into monsters within us.  We see this again and again as those people who condemn something in others are caught in those actions themselves (our politicians who speak so harshly against LGBTQ folk being caught in homosexual liaisons, for example).  When we cannot face within us what we do not value, do not like, what we condemn: when we cannot look with honesty at all of who we are, those parts of us we try to squish or stomp down tend to reappear in frightening and destructive ways.  Scott Peck, in his book, People of the Lie, says that we do evil when we cannot face something in ourselves so we put it out there onto others and work to destroy it in the other.  If we want to be people of light, people of love, people of hope, we have to be willing to look hard at those parts of ourselves we condemn and to work with them and through them.
         We can start by listening to others, really listening, rather than trying to 'fix' what others are going through.  We do them no favors by failing to truly support them.  Nor do we aid in their recovery by encouraging them to suppress and stomp out their feelings.  We also do great damage to ourselves by denying the reality of unwanted feelings, unwanted thoughts and unwanted pain.  We have to step through.  There is no other way.  "Can't go under it, can't go around it, guess I'll have to go through it" as the children's song tells us.  The pain we and our loved ones experience is not pleasant, but it is an opportunity to grow, to work through problems in a different way, to move forward in our journeys towards wholeness.  The journeys are easier if we travel them together.  But that starts with a commitment to listening and being present, even with those things we would rather not know, rather not hear, and especially, rather not feel.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Tragedy of the Commons

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

               While we were on vacation, I took my family to the Exploratorium.  They have an exhibit currently on social dilemmas in which people are invited to look at times when they choose for themselves and their own best interests, vs times when they choose for the good of everyone, the common good, the highest good for others.  The exhibit entrance starts with a look at what was originally called the tragedy of the commons.  The tragedy of the commons describes a situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, (this used to be the way it was done in English villages).  If a herder puts more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing may result. For each additional animal that a herder adds to the common, that individual herder will benefit, but the whole group will suffer from the damage to the commons. If all herders were to make this individually rational economic decision, the common would be depleted or even destroyed, which would harm every herder there, including the one seeking self-betterment by putting more than his fair share of animals on the land. 
           The tragedy of the commons has been used to study many things including sustainability, care for the environment, economic systems and human psychology.  And, depending on who does the study and how the study is done, the results vary between communities where people put their own self-interest above others and communities where people truly work together for everyone’s best interest. In the United States, the study tended to show people to be more selfish and self-oriented, taking advantage of what was common to serve themselves above others, and only really understanding, too late that what was harmful for others, also was harmful to themselves. 
               Another part of the exhibit explored a study called the Career criminal dilemma: The scenario is as follows: Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the main charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
       Obviously the best self-interest of each alone is to betray the other, though if they have a bigger view of connection or care for the other, then neither will betray the other.   Interestingly, usually in this situation, neither does betray the other.
               I’ve shared with you before one other example of this.  I have a family member who was a psychology professor at Cal State East Bay.  Every semester for his many years of teaching he used to do an experiment with his psychology class.  He would tell the class that everyone would have a choice about how many points they would get for attending class that day.  They could choose to get 5 points or 25 points.  However, if more than 15% of the class were to ask for 25 points, everyone in the class would get zero.  What do you think the results were?  Always the entire class would receive no points.  Every single time it was almost exactly 70% of the people in the class who would ask for the 25 points for themselves.  Even when they knew the results of other classes in which Gene had offered the test, the percentage was the same.  There was, however, one thing that could change that percentage.  If the professor told the class that those students who asked for the 25 points for themselves would have their names read aloud, the effect went away.  The fear of loss of social status was the only thing he found that was greater than the fear of not getting ahead in points.  That fits in with our other two examples.  In the prison dilemma, both would have been aware of what the other had chosen, so the pressure to act in a way which benefits the other is strong.  This is opposed to the tragedy of the commons in which people could probably find reasons to justify and ways to hide the choice to be more selfish.  These experiments also show us that much of the issue here has to do with personal connections.  People act and vote and generally choose behaviors that benefit those of their own community – their own family, their own economic class, their own race… people generally act in the best interests of people they understand, can relate to, who look like them and share cultural commonalities.
               My children recently found and purchased a book entitled Hyperbole and a Half (Simon and Schuster, Oct 29, 2013).  In one section, author Allie Brosh wrote,
“I like to believe that I would behave heroically in a disaster situation.  I like to think this because it makes me feel good about myself.  Conveniently it is very unlikely that I will ever actually have to do anything to prove it.  As long as I never encounter a disaster situation, I can keep believing I’m a hero indefinitely.  Similarly, I can safely believe that I am the type of person who would donate a kidney to a loved one, give a million dollars to help save the animals, and survive a biological disaster due to my superior immune system and overwhelming specialness.  As long as no one I love ever needs a kidney, I don’t become a millionaire, and my immune system is never put to the test by an antibiotic-resistant super flu, these are just things I can believe for free.
It gets a bit trickier when I want to believe a thing about myself that actually requires me to do or think something.  The things I am naturally inclined to do and think are not the same as the things I want to believe I would do and think.  And I’m not even slightly realistic about what I want to be.  …I desperately want to believe I would seize the opportunity to help a loved one without a second thought for my own well-being but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t play out like that. …   What I am is constantly thrust into my face while I’m trying to be better than I am.  Even if I’m actively doing all the right things, I can’t escape the fact that my internal reactions are those of a fundamentally horrible person. I don’t just want to do the right thing. I want to WANT to do the right thing. … being aware of not wanting to do the right thing ruins my ability to enjoy doing the right thing after I’m forced into doing it through shame.“
               The point is that these feelings are pretty normal, I think.  If you realize that 70% of us, at least in the United States, choose selfishly for themselves in a class room of highly educated people, that means that probably 70% of folk struggle with that sense of wanting more for ourselves and focusing predominantly on caring for ourselves and our loved ones rather than for the “least” of these.  I say in the United States because we know there are other cultures that do not behave this way.  For example in South Africa, there is a word they use: Ubuntu.  It means, “I am because we are.”  The belief behind it is that they understand that each person does not and cannot exist in isolation.  How this manifests in South Africa: if someone asks for something, they are given it because you exist together and what serves one serves all.  An anthropologist had been studying the habits and customs of this tribe, and when he finished his work, had to wait for transportation that would take him to the airport to return home. He’d always been surrounded by the children of the tribe, so to help pass the time before he left, he proposed a game for the children to play. He’d bought lots of candy and sweets in the city, so he put everything in a basket with a beautiful ribbon attached. He placed it under a solitary tree, and then he called the kids together. He drew a line on the ground and explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal. And that when he said “Go!” they should rush over to the basket, and the first to arrive there would win all the candies. When he said “Go!” they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply shared the candy with each other and happily ate it. The anthropologist was very surprised. He asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to arrive at the tree could have won everything in the basket – all the sweets. A young girl simply replied: “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”
               But in the United States, we are a culture that is more focused on individualism.  As a result, it is harder for us to remember that we truly are all connected and that what hurts you hurts me.  One of my favorite quotes as a result is: a good person fights for themself and their own. A Great person fights for everyone else.
               What does all of this have to do with our faith?  Today we heard two stories.  The first was about Moses who was called to set the people of Israel free from their enslavement.  It is important for us to remember the context of who Moses was, because although he himself was born of an Israelite mother, he was raised by the Pharoah’s daughter.  He was brought up with all privileges and advantages of being in the royal palace with those in charge.  But from that place of privilege, he gave up all he had to fight those who had raised him, those who had loved him, those who had cared for him in order to set free the people of Israel.  Moses gave up his security, his privilege, his house and wealth and riches and travelled in the desert for 40 years.  He died there, following God’s call, after having given up everything to help lead people out of slavery. 
Then we have Jesus.  Jesus gave up his life loving us, caring for us.  But he also told us that we are called to follow.  In this passage he is very, very clear.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” 
When we are willing to die caring for Jesus, caring for God, caring for the ones God loves, caring for God’s children, we will find our lives.  When we put our own self-interests first, we will lose our lives.  We will be lost.  The tragedy of the commons says the same thing: when we put our self-interest above the self-interest of others, all of us lose out.  ALL of us.  We go down as well.  According to the experiment that my brother and law always did, only about 30% of folk get that.  The rest?  Not so much.  But our faith calls us to act on behalf of the least of these, the poorest, the most oppressed, the most displaced, as Moses did, as Jesus did, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we want to do only what is best for ourselves and those closest to us, even when we are afraid. 
               This desire to care for others should affect every single decision that we make.  How do we spend our money?  Where do we shop?  Does the places we shop and the things we buy use child labor?  Do they damage or harm others?  How do we vote?  Do we vote in ways that lift up the poor, the oppressed, those suffering?  How do we decide what to do with the money we “earn” that has been entrusted to us by God to use for the glory of God?  How do we treat the “least of these” – those who are poor or oppressed or struggling?  How do we treat those who make us uneasy, those who are cruel, those who are mean, those with whom we disagree?  How do we behave in our cars towards others who are unkind or who make mistakes?  How do we behave even when we are afraid?  Do we take from others to save ourselves?  Or do we willingly put ourselves at risk in order to care for God’s “least of these” in whom, we are told, we will find Jesus?
               As I was working on this sermon, a praise song came to mind, written by Matthew West, “My Own Little World”:
               In my own little worls, it harldy ever rains
               I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve always felt safe.
               I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet
               In my own little world: population me.

               I try to stay awake thru Sunday morning church
               I throw a twenty in the plate but I never give ‘til it hurts
               And I turn off the news when I don’t like what I see
               Yeah, it’s easy to do when it’s population me.

               What if there’s a bigger picture
               What if I’m missing out
               What if there’s a greater purpose
               I could be living right now
               Outside my own little world.

               Stopped at a red light, looked out the window
               I saw a cardboard sign that said, “help this homeless widow”
   Just above this sign was the face of a human
               I thought to myself, “God, what have I been doing?”
               So I rolled down the window and I looked her in the eye
               Oh how many times have I just passed her by
               I gave her some money then I drove on through
               In my own little world there’s population two.

               I’m going to break my heart for what breaks Yours
               Give me open hands and open doors
               Put Your light in my eyes and let me see
               That my own little world is not about me…

               Jesus is clear: we must be willing to lose our very lives for our enemies as well as those we love if we want to find them.  That is what it means to follow in the way, to follow the call of Jesus, to follow the God of Love.  It isn’t easy, but when we practice what is hard, it does become easier, it does become clearer.  The call is for all of us.  Amen.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rage, injustice, change - a rant

      There is so much rage right now in our communities.  And very few of us are immune to it.  It seems to almost drip from the trees: the anger, the fury.  We know that anger is a secondary emotion. That means that anger usually is hiding another feeling, or is the expression of a deeper feeling. Often that feeling is grief, sorrow, hurt.  But currently I think much of the anger we are seeing and experiencing is fear.  
             People are scared and while some of it is not justified (as a wonderful ad I saw recently pointed out, life is not a pie: equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you!) much of the fear is very justified: when people are being threatened and in some cases are losing their lives because of their skin color or their religious beliefs or where they were born; when others are trying to control whom they can love; when people are being relegated to "other" and treated as if, by their very presence they are criminals - then anger is justified.  As hatred, prejudice, racism, other "isms" have become acceptable to express once again, they are rearing their ugly heads in more and more overt and scary ways.  As many have pointed out, it is probably not that these feelings have necessarily increased - they were always there.  But there is a growing culture of acceptance and even a condoning of such awful hateful behavior that is allowing it to run in rampant and unexpected ways. The anger is absolutely justified.  When a person's life is threatened, when the lives and well-beings of people we love are threatened, anger is not only righteous but a necessary and correct response.
           That being said, we have to find ways to deal with our anger that do not further escalate the problem.  And therein lies the trick.  Psychological studies show that when we are angry, the judgment parts of our brains actually disengage.  This is a big part of why I cannot see how it will ever be safe for people who tend towards anger to have weapons lying within easy access and reach. If you have that anger within and your brain shuts off in those moments, bad decisions, or decisions stemming solely from the anger rather than from rational thinking, will be made.  We are seeing the reality of this again and again as people in rages go on killing sprees.  
          But even from a place of simple communication and how we choose to talk to one another, allowing our anger to control us is a huge problem.  I want to tell a "lesser" story - it is not about the big confrontations we have seen in our communities and around the country, but I am hoping that it will illustrate my point in a way that maybe will be easier to relate to.  
         As some of you know, I've had problems with my son starting school this fall.  He comes with a series of issues which make life around him challenging for us all.  This beginning of school year was no exception.  He was finally approved for an IEP in January (for those who don't know this lingo, that's an Individual Education Plan - that means the school, the district, the country recognize that he has special needs that greatly affect his ability to do well in school.  As a result, he is assigned some special supports to help him succeed).  But because this was the 4th time I had requested that he be evaluated for an IEP, when he was finally evaluated by an outside group that works with the school, and when the determination was finally made that he did qualify for this designation and the assistance that accompanies it, it meant there were some extra steps and things that have been in place that are not the "norm" for most folk with an IEP.  However, this has caused problems because not everyone has recognized his IEP or has been on the same page with his IEP team about what classes he is supposed to be taking at school.  So he began school with one schedule, which was not right and which, (unfortunately AFTER his orientation, so after he'd already walked around with the first schedule to try to have a grasp on what he would be doing) was challenged and redone. That was before school started, though too close to school for him to really get a handle on where the new schedule put him and at what time. Tuesday, then, was the actual first day of school.  I was very anxious about it because this is his first year in High School, he is going to a different High School from all of his friends, part of his challenges include an inability to handle change (any change) well, and I felt all these changes in themselves were a lot for him to be dealing with. My anxiety was not lessened when I picked up my crying, shaking boy, who was struggling hard to hold it together in front of the other students, and who refused to tell me what was wrong while his sister (whom I had picked up down the street at her school minutes before) was still in the car.  Okay...  
      When we arrived home and I could talk to him on his own he informed me that in the last period of the day the teacher had grilled him unkindly, insisting that he was in the wrong class, demanding to know who had set up this schedule for him, and then promptly sitting at the computer and rearranging his entire schedule.  I asked him to see the new schedule. He told me he did not have a copy of it, but that the teacher had told him he could find it on-line. 
           "Find it how? Find it where on-line?" I asked.  
           "I have no idea!  She just said it would be on-line!"  
           "Well, this isn't going to be a publicly published thing.  Do you have a username, password, website for this kind of thing?"
            "So I'm not understanding how I'm supposed to get this for you."  Anger rising from both of us.
        I called the school.  "Oh, you can come get it first thing in the morning!" I was told.  
        "Can I know what the new schedule is now?"
        "Oh, no.  No one who could help you is in the office now."
         "Can I talk to his school counselor?"
          "She's gone for the day."
         "Can I talk to the special needs teacher?"
         "Also gone for the day."
         "Is there anyone there at all who can help me with this?"
          "No one is at the office now.  You will have to come back in the morning!"
        I called his case manager at the district office.  He, too, was gone for the day.  At this point I became frantic.  My son was having a melt down, was beyond himself.  He did not want to go to school the next day because he didn't know what his schedule would be, he was concerned about them changing it yet a third time, he didn't like being yelled at by a teacher (one who specializes in special needs kids!) whom he didn't know, about a class schedule that he had no part in creating, and he was done with all of this.  Again, for a normal kid, this situation might be challenging. For my son who struggles with small changes - dinner time being slightly later or a day of vacation that most kids would look forward to - this endless confusion around where he was supposed to be and the long list of changes in a life that already cannot handle change was simply too much.  Mother-bear exploded in me, which is not a pretty thing to see.
        I became angry.  Enraged even.  The underlying emotion?  Fear for my son.  Anxiety about his life this year.  A sense of loss for the good teachers and helpers he's had in the past who have aided us and cared for him.  But none of that was at the forefront.  Instead was just blind rage.  Whipping out my computer, I sent a couple of pointed emails.  Well, okay, to be fair to myself, what I actually sent was the following:
          I understand from my son that:
1.  There is a miscommunication about what classes he is supposed to have - in particular whether or not he is supposed to be in Academic Success
2.  As a result his schedule has been completely altered although he does not have a copy of the new schedule and has no idea how to get it.
First, (my son) is supposed to be in  Academic Success according to his IEP.  His IEP was given to him in January through a settlement with the school district and as a result his "case manager" is ___ at the district office.
Second, (my son) is freaking out (which you will not see because he has learned how to control his behavior at school) and is not planning to come to school tomorrow because he does not know his schedule.  Can you please help with this?  My understanding from my son is that his schedule was changed while he was in your class, so I am concerned and confused by this.
Thank you for your time and attention.
             I followed up on all of this the next morning by stationing myself at the school office where I was finally able to get hold of his schedule at least.  Counselor and other helpful people were still not available and apparently wouldn't be before the time when I had to get my daughter to her school, so I made a nuisance of myself leaving more messages for everyone to call me.  The one person who finally did return my call was the vice principal. Yes, it went all the way up the line.  She was not someone I had left messages for, but I think everyone else saw the mother bear and chose to pass the buck to someone with more authority.  The conversation?
         She was defensive. 
         She was cold.  
         She was... well, not unkind.  She explained the situation, but it is clear that we are not on the same page.
         The point?  It is crucial that for my son's sake, his teachers, his counselor, his IEP team, and perhaps especially the vice principle and I are on the same page.  If I want him to succeed at this school, we need to be able to talk, to work through what his challenges are in a reasonable way.  
        But I was angry.  Rightfully so?  Well, it depends on your perspective, I guess.  As far as the school goes, they were simply trying to fix a class situation that wasn't right in the quickest possible way.  From my perspective, a little information given to my son and to myself in a timely way (such as giving him his new schedule as soon as it was made and explaining to both of us why the changes were necessary), especially given my son's special challenges, seems like a reasonable thing to ask for.
      Still, if I had been able to act from a place of calm insistence rather than anger; if I had been able to step back and focus on putting my son at ease rather than trying to get the bureaucracy of school to behave in a humane way; if I had put into practice what I preach and worked harder to be peace in a sea of confusion and pain, then all involved might still be on the same page.  We are not.  It will take work to change those relationships from hostile to collegial.  It will take time for me to no longer be seen as the "problem, difficult parent".  We have started on a bad foot.  And while I will not claim all the blame for that, I do claim my piece of it.  I failed to put into practice what I believe to be important.  I came at this from a combative place.  My son is the one who will suffer most from that choice.  And that is not an acceptable outcome for me.
       To back up, then, from this particular example: we do not help ourselves by choosing to take on our problems from that place of anger.  I need to put the caveat here that I do see major differences between my little problem and the huge issues we are facing. For one thing, supposedly the school and I both have the kid's best interests at heart.  I am aware that in our political situations too many people do not have the best interests of the other in their minds at all. We do not start on the same page, when others are not even seen as human, as deserving of the same rights and privileges that we have, when we forget that we are all one, all interconnected and that what hurts anyone else, hurts me as well.  Many people cannot understand that.  I see this.  I also see that the justified anger is over much bigger issues than just a child's school schedule but is about lives, in some cases whether they will live or die.  I see that.  And I think that anger must be there to motivate us with its energy towards action, towards change.  
        But I also believe deeply that in the larger scheme of things, we escalate conflicts, we divide countries and we plunge ourselves into wars more often because we respond to the injustice and violence with violence in our own actions and our own words. There are so many other choices in how we stand up for injustice. And when we start by failing to listen, when we approach one another with rage and violence, when we let go of our faith mandate to love even our enemies, we escalate rather than confront the problems. I am not saying that we will be able to change everyone.  I also believe there are people who are so steeped in their own evil hating that they cannot be touched.  And I will say it again: there are legitimate, real and important reasons for the anger.  But if we learned to talk to one another, to act and stand up and protest and speak to the injustice in non-violent ways, to strive to cross bridges and to create understanding rather than escalating the polarization, anger, rage and hate; if we learned truly to step into another's shoes and to try, even when we are upset, to approach one another with openness and care, we would surely create a much more beautiful, less conflictive, less violent and less angry world for all of us.  Those are goals we must aim for.  We must.  For the sake of our children...

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Supporting Characters: the real heroes?

     One of my children mentioned last week that she felt that Hermione was the real hero in the Harry Potter series and she stated that if she had written the books, Hermione would have been the main character.  She would have written the stories more from Hermione's perspective. I found myself reflecting on that quite a bit.  For me, the real hero in the Lord of the Rings has always been Sam, not Frodo.  So perhaps this tendency to look at the supporting characters as the real heroes is a genetic thing.  Or perhaps my daughter and I both have this perspective because we are, ourselves, more likely to be supporting characters rather than the heroes in the dramas of life.  Both my daughter and I do a lot of writing.  And when we write from a personal perspective, we are, necessarily, the heroes in our own narratives.  But when we look at the stories of our lives, it is usually other people whose story lines we end up supporting, other people whose lives seem more the center of the particular drama, other people who are the bearers of the rings and "the chosen ones" who take on the villains.  Maybe, then, it is from the perspective of being "supporting characters" that we find ourselves more attracted to and interested in the supporting characters of the books we read.  Maybe.
        And yet... I still think Sam is the bigger hero in the Lord of the Rings.  Without Sam, Frodo would not have succeeded.  Without Sam, Frodo would never have made it.  Without being carried by Sam, Frodo would never be the hero.  And while Frodo carries the burden of the ring, he also wins the glory of being the hero.  Sam does not have that glory.  He has only the burden of carrying Frodo, a much heavier burden in some ways for it includes both Frodo and the ring.  The same could be said of Hermione.  Hermione is the one to plan, to think, to study, to learn.  She is the one who gets them out of the tough situations with the supplies they need, having thought through and planned ahead of time.  She is the one who thinks through the challenges and who keeps going no matter what is confronting her personally.  She is the one with the eyes to see and guide the "hero" of the novels.  And while her work is as intense and as burdensome as Harry's, she does not have her name on the books, she will never have the fame that Harry carries as a result of the challenges he can only face with her support.
          Harry, Frodo, all the other heroes we recognize as heroes: their names are forever emblazoned in our hearts and minds.  But they never would have been able to do what they did without those supporting characters who made their journeys possible.
          I think about this in light of some of the challenges we face as a community, as a country, as a world today.  There are real problems that must be faced and addressed.  And I think many people (I've seen on FB many people) are wondering where the heroes are, where those who will step up and lead us and make things right could be.  But the truth is, the reality is, that it takes all of us to change the world.  It takes every act of love and courage and support of one another to confront the "isms" (racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism) of the world, to take on the hate with love, to confront the violence with actions of active peace.  We may not be the heroes.  But we are called to do our part anyway, and to be the supporting characters that will make a difference for those we will identify as heroes.
          When you feel yourself acting as a supporting character in someone else's drama, I hope you can remember that some of us recognize you for the true heroes that you are.  We see that it is with your courage and strength that others can claim the title of "hero."  We see.  We honor you.  We are grateful for all you do.  We do not underestimate your burden and challenges.  Your name may not be up in lights.  But we know you are there.  Thank you for your supporting roles, without which the stories, the healing, the growth would never happen, and could never be told.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Good and Bad Soil

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

               When I have time to garden, I enjoy it very much.  I enjoy digging around in the dirt, working with the life of plants, helping them to grow and show their beauty.  Each time I dig around in the dirt and encounter tree roots, rocks, hard ground, or other barriers to growth, I find myself reflecting on this parable.  This parable is so rich with meanings.  And where we stand, where we live, what we experience daily has a great deal to do with how we hear and understand and relate to every parable, this story being no exception.  Even with Jesus’ explanation of the parable, we still hear it from our own contexts and understand it in that light. 
               What, for example, does rocky ground look like today?  When you hear this parable, what comes to mind when you think about those who, in the words of the parable, receive the seeds of Good News, of hope, of promise, with joy but then quickly fall away?  And what are we talking about when we talk about seeds?  These seeds that are planted but do not always grow or do not grow strong?  Are we talking about faith?  A belief in the Good News?  Are we talking about a commitment to following in the Way, to living out our lives with justice and compassion and commitment to our God of love?  Are we talking about lives dedicated to loving our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves? I believe this parable, and these words can even be applied to easy, simpler situations, not just to the big picture of what it means to be people of Faith.  Sometimes we feel God’s call in our lives, for example, to do something specific and it just doesn’t take: God plants the seed in us of a dream, a hope, a calling.  But sometimes when we feel called to do a particular thing and it doesn’t work out for us, we can wonder if we’ve heard the call wrong, or if the seed we planted just wasn’t very good.  But this parable gives us another way to understand it.  Sometimes the call we have or the message we’ve been called to follow just hasn’t found the right soil yet.  Or perhaps the soil needed more tending, more tilling, more fertilizer.  And sometimes it simply isn’t the right time for the planting.  That’s why common church phrases such as “we tried that once and it didn’t work” are simply not helpful.  When God plants a seed in us, a call, an idea, sometimes it won’t work not because its bad seed but simply because the soil isn’t right for it at that moment or in that place or, most likely, with that particular combination of time and place. 
               But whether we are talking the little seeds of a particular task God gives us to plant or the big seed of living out lives of faith and following in the way, the ultimate point of this parable is that planting the seeds, being the sower, being the one to bring and attempt to grow things, ideas, visions, missions is hard.  Trusting in our calls to carry the Good News, in our words, in our actions, in our lives; trusting in the seeds that we are given, especially when they don’t seem to grow, can be so very hard.
For the disciples, these words that we hear Jesus speak today, this parable – these are words of encouragement.  After Jesus has gone, the disciples will share their stories, their experiences of Jesus, the imperative to live lives of love with others, but they must be aware that their words, the Word of God that they speak and that they ask others to live out, may not easily be received or followed.  They will encounter all kinds of people and they will not be able to succeed with everyone they meet.  Each person will come from their own place and their own perspective.  Some will not understand at all and will never be able to hear.  Others will hear and accept with joy the Good News they are given, but will have no depth in their faith, in their understanding, in their commitments to living the life that this demands of us, that will allow them to persevere when things become hard or challenging.  And some will find they are lured away from acting or living out, growing their seeds to fullness by the values of the world.  Jesus tells them this parable to reassure the disciples.  Their job, their only job, is to plant the seeds, to speak Good News, to live God’s truth, to be the people God calls them to be and by so doing to plant and plant and plant the seeds God gives them each and every day.  They are not responsible for how it is received or what people do with what they hear.  They are not responsible for the growing of those seeds, only the planting of them.  There are many reasons why those seeds might not grow, why the visions God gives them to plant might not grow, and ultimately the disciples may not know the good they are able to accomplish in some.  But that is not theirs to worry about.   
               We are given the same words of encouragement.  But still they are hard.  What do you do when things don’t work out?  When you think the seeds you’ve planted, by actions, by deed, by the way you live your life, or by your words were good and you think the soil or groundwork foundation upon which those seeds were planted was well fertilized and abundant, but it still just doesn’t work out?  What do you do when the seeds don’t grow, for one reason or another? 
               Current emphasis on church growth looks at doing studies ahead of time, or, to put it in this parable’s terms, to actually dig into the soil to understand it a bit before seeds are planted.  But this has been found in many ways to be ineffective.  Will we ever really know what is in or under the soil?  We can be educated about our communities’ needs, we can care about what is going on in the lives of those around us, but ultimately, knowing the heart of one another takes time, it takes work, and it takes a willingness to plant seeds without knowing whether they will flourish long term or not.
Sojourner’s magazine published an article entitled, “Have churches become too shallow?”  Stephen Mattson wrote, “Christians ultimately attend church to meet with God. But sometimes we turn our churches into distractions, and spiritual leaders mistakenly prioritize things beyond God, becoming obsessed with marketing, consumerism, and entertainment — creating false idols…..Truth is gauged by the amount of attention received, morality judged by popularity, holiness measured by fame, authority determined by power, security based upon control, and happiness evaluated according to wealth.  This is what happens when we ignore God — or simply try to make God more marketable: Jesus becomes a product. The Gospel becomes a promotional tool. Parishioners become customers. Pastors become celebrities. Sermons become propaganda. Churches become businesses. Denominations become institutions. Faith becomes a religion, which eventually becomes an empire.  Instead of striving to be a place for divine communion where disciples praise and worship …, churches become infatuated with accommodation — making people comfortable, happy, entertained, safe, and content. Contrarily, churches can go to the opposite extreme and remove any hint of joy, encouragement, comfort, and inspiration. Instead, they choose to implement fear, guilt, shame, and other abusive tactics to legalistically manipulate people into “loving” God.  Both types of Christianity are illusions built upon lies and a facade of clich├ęs, where cheap sales techniques and overused stereotypes are reinforced using the powerful motivations of insecurity, convenience, ignorance, and a deep fear and hesitation of being brutally honest, uncomfortable, humble, and vulnerable — scared of risking it all.  This is why people often abandon Christianity and stop attending church — because God has been replaced by shallow gimmicks.  Instead of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, sheltering the homeless, fighting injustice, speaking for the voiceless, sacrificially giving, and wholeheartedly loving our neighbors (and enemies), churches have become co-opted by secular values and empty content.  Emulating Christ is not for the faint of heart, and following his commands will probably mean becoming a church that embraces conflict, discomfort, work, pain, suffering, and truth. This is the messiness of Christianity — following God through the Pilgrim’s Progress of life, forsaking the riches of this world for the treasure of a Divine relationship. Are we brave enough to embrace this?”
The call to plant seeds, to do the work, to have the conversations, to risk truth-telling and to risk truly loving others, and acting in a way that really empowers, liberates and feeds others – that call requires being brave.  I found myself thinking about the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who.  Horton did not want the job of protecting the teeny tiny Who community that was on the little clover flower.  But he took it because the job needed to be done and it was in front of him.  He was given the seed, the opportunity to serve and he planted it by taking the job.  In contrast, a little later when the Whos were trying to get the attention of Horton’s disbelieving community by shouting with all of their might, one of the little Whos was not participating.  This little Who didn’t want to do it, he didn’t think it would matter whether he did what he was called to do or not.  In the end, when he was finally convinced to try, it was his voice, the littlest voice of all, that added enough volume to the collective shouting that Horton’s community could hear him and change their minds about the Whos existence.  That one voice, that one decision to say “yes” to the call to answer the needs at hand, to stand up, to be a voice for truth and justice, that one voice made the difference.
Will it always?  No.  But again, we are not in charge of the outcome.  We are not in charge of whether or not our voice, our work, our efforts make a difference.  We are not in charge of whether or not the seeds we plant will grow.  I realize that is a hard lesson to bear.  When we work hard at something and get nowhere, it is easy to give up.  It is easy to say, “it’s not going to make any difference, so why bother?”  (starfish?)
We also can’t always anticipate which seeds will grow what, or what good they will do.  Sometimes the things we consider to be weeds give the most life.  As a world, for example, we are having a crisis about bees dying.  In the process of studying bees, one of the things that has been found is that one small reason for this is that we get rid of “weeds”.  One of the weeds we get rid of, dandelions, happens to be one of the bees’ favorite flowers.  Similarly, gold finches are most attracted to thistle.  Sometimes when we think the seeds we’ve planted are turning into weeds, we have to take a more studied look at what is, in fact, growing after all.  We may find ourselves unhappy about the thistle and the dandelions until we see the life that surrounds them.  I have a friend who planted what he called a “butterfly plant” in his yard.  He found that the caterpillars of the butterflies kept eating most of the leaves on this butterfly plant.  He became very upset and determined to poison the caterpillars until his son pointed out that the caterpillars were what was becoming the butterflies he was hoping to attract.  He had a choice.  To let the caterpillars eat much of the plant but be rewarded with the butterflies, or to kill off the caterpillars and lose the butterflies as well.
               I began today’s sermon by saying that where we stand has a great deal to do with how we hear this story.  Wherever we stand, we tend to assume that our hearts represent the good soil, that we are the ones who have heard, in whom the seeds have taken hold and grown, the ones with depth of soil in whom the roots can also find room to move and deepen.  But my experience says that all of us hold all those different types of soil in one area of our lives or another.  Maybe the good soil within us, for example, takes strong hold of God’s words of grace offered, given and accepted into our hearts through our trust and faith in it.  But maybe at the same time, the call to love our enemies as ourselves has not found good soil in terms of loving a certain kind of person, a certain type of person, whatever or whomever that may be.  Or maybe it is the opposite.  We have good soil within us that encourages us to live lives of action and love towards our neighbors, but when it comes to the soil that allows the seeds of God’s grace and forgiveness, the new life that God offers to US to grow, our soil is not so rich. 
               In all of these cases, the soil is not up to us.  What happens with the seeds that we plant is not up to us.  We can pray for good soil, pray that God will enrich the soil, fertilize the soil.  But what we are called to do is our job - keep planting the seeds, within our world, within our communities, within our churches, and mostly, within ourselves – to keep doing the work of God, being open to receiving the seeds God asks us to plant, keep listening in every way that God speaks, and to pray for the good soil that only God, ultimately, can provide.
               I want to leave you with one more thought about planting seeds.  There is a story about a group of people who were taking a pottery class.  The teacher divided the students into two groups – a quality group and a quantity group.  The quality group was told all each of them had to do was make one beautiful pot.  The quantity group was told they needed to just make as many pots as possible.  Which group do you think did the better job?  The quality group did not do well because they spent all their time on one pot and when it was not going well, they just kept trying to redo it.  The quantity group produced beautiful pots because with each one they made, they learned something and could improve on it with the next pot. 

               When we do the work of God, we will be given more seeds to plant.  Each time we will learn and get better at the planting.  Do justice.  Speak the truth.  Share the Good News of God’s love for ALL people.  Stand up for the voiceless.: the call under all of it is simply to love one another.  These are the seeds we are called to plant.  Plant lots of seeds of love.  Each time you do, you will get better at it.  But even so, let go of the results.  We are not in charge of the soil, that is up to the hearers.  And we are not in charge of the end results: that is up to God.  And in that, there is great hope.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.