July 13, 2014 - The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
The Reverend Deacon Tom English

Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112
Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

We are now at the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost in the long, long green season. It sometimes called ordinary time, not because it is boring, but because of the use of ordinal numbers to designate the weeks following Pentecost, as in the First Sunday after Pentecost, Second Sunday and now Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. 

So let’s review where I think we’ve come:

On Pentecost we wore red to symbolize the tongues of fire appearing on the heads of the disciples. Jesus said to them: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit,” sending them out to do ministry.

Icon of the TrinityTrinity Sunday, the First Week after Pentecost, Father Bingham told us about his experience in England: He said, “As I continued to pray in front of the Icon (Trinity, Ruble) …,” “I started to notice the empty space at the table in the front, a spot at the table for another. The three individuals are all looking at each other, but their bodies are positioned towards that empty spot, almost as if they are inviting you to join them. God is love and we, who are made in God's image as we heard in the Genesis reading, are invited to the open space at the table, invited into God's loving relationship.” 1

On the Second Sunday after Pentecost we heard about the cost of discipleship. Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

On the Third Sunday after Pentecost: God tests Abraham’s faithfulness by asking him to sacrifice his only and beloved son; or is it Abraham who is testing God? And we also heard: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” requiring those of us who are objects of ministry to welcome those bringing the good news.” Jesus makes it clear in our Gospel [today] that there is this mystical connection between him and us and God. And so when we welcome another person, we welcome Christ.” 2

Last Sunday, the Fourth Sunday: Pam Birrell spoke of the inner turmoil of everyday life that separates us from God.3 Hearts get broken and not just once, you know that. But that’s OK. Hearts are meant to be broken, just not turned to stone. Jesus tells us: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Today, in the Fifth Sunday, we “Hear [then] the parable of the sower. 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 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. 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. 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." (Matt 13:18-23) 

This passage speaks to how the circumstances of our everyday human lives affect how Jesus’ message will be received. How the cares of the world and the lure of wealth yield nothing.

The themes of ministry, love, faith, discipleship, and religion are woven throughout all of these passages. As I have been listening to them, thoughts about how I might apply them today in the 21st century, here at St. Mary’s pull at my mind.
In her book, Speaking of Faith: Why religion matters and how to talk about it (Penguin, 2008), Krista Tippett talks about one of the episodes on her radio show of the same name. “We had been struggling with the difference between faith and religion for weeks,” she said, “interviewing experts from all the major religions and hadn’t made much headway. When we got to the Rabbi, he said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. Remember when Moses went up to the Mountain the first time? He came down with his face glowing so bright he had to put a veil over it. That is spirituality! When he went up the mountain the second time, he came down with the Ten Commandments. That’s religion.’” 4

Here are some of my thoughts: What do faith and spirituality mean today, what is religion; what is love? What makes an activity a ministry and how do all of these work in everyday life while getting the kids off to school, going to work, cleaning the house, paying the bills, and getting to church?

Here is some of what I have been considering. 

Pisteuo (Pist-yoo-o): The Greek word for “I believe” or “Credo” in Latin. When Father Bingham pointed out the nuance of meaning of this word, it provided clarity for what faith means to me. While Pisteuo can be translated as “I believe,” it is also translated as “I trust.” To me that is significant because we, 21st century people, believe with our minds, the same minds that sort facts and data. But we trust with our hearts. We trust in the truths of our stories if not the facts. To quote Maya Angelou, “Truth is different than facts. It is as ephemeral as the air…. and just as essential.” 5 This faith is never static, never etched in stone, but dynamic maturing with us---if we are willing.

Religion: The Rabbi was correct: religion is about the rules that structure not only what we trust in, but how we live into it. It is how we see meaning in the world, our place in it and the discipline to keep seeking the truth. In this sense everybody has a religion, transparent, disciplined, and documented, or not. In the best sense religion provides the vision and discipline for faith maturity. In the worst sense it has been a force for so much evil.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” 

“But, Deacon Tom, what if you don’t love yourself?” A good question from a particularly insightful inmate. So what does love mean in this context? How do you love God and your neighbor? A partial answer that continues to work for me is from Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. “Love is not a feeling,” he says; although feelings are present. “It is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”6 If you think about it, this definition does not require that you even like the other person or yourself. And that is how I think we love a God who does not need our love but requires it. When we have the will and do extend ourselves, that very act changes who we are in that moment and who we are becoming which in turn, informs who we choose to love next and on and on. When we are intentionally present for another person, we can’t help but be transformed ourselves, and then affection may happen.
That brings us, full-circle to ministry. “Love,” as I have used it here, is an active verb. It requires doing ministry in relationship to the other. The willingness to extend energy above self interest for the other person simply because the other also contains a spark of the divine is what makes action, ministry. It is the mystical connection between God and us. God is love and we, who are made in God's image are invited to that open space at the table Father Bingham described, into God's loving relationship,” whether sown on the path, on rocky ground among the thorns or on good soil.

Our vestry is focusing on increasing opportunities for participation in ministries for next two years. So many of you are active in our community in so many ways. I see you at United Way, at Food for Lane County, in Rotary, Kiwanis, Soroptimists, volunteering for the Bach Festival or Mozart Players as well as in the several outreach ministries here at St. Mary’s. At last count we had 22 programs represented on the Outreach Council alone and there are so many more church-based ministries in which we seek to serve each other and our neighbors. All of these ministries are in constant need of volunteers to share both the work and the grace.
If you are willing, you are invited. Bring your gifts of time, talent and passion and you will be welcomed. 

1 Bingham, Powell, Trinity Sunday, 2014
2 Bingham Powell, Third Sunday After Pentecost
3 The Human Condition, Pam Birrell. Pentecost 4, July 6, 2014
4 Paraphrased from Speaking of Faith (op.cit.)
5 From an NPR interview I heard on NPR while driving
6 M. Scott Peck, the Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. 1978, Touchstone Books Pg. 79.