Tuesday, July 15, 2008

From a Distance?

Psalm 139:1-18

Several of my church ladies are quilters, and they go to quilting retreats at the Twin Lakes Christian Center just east of here. Just after they came back one time, we were working on Psalm 139 in our Monday afternoon Bible study group. As she read it, one of these quilters who was in the class got to laughing. They have kids’ church camps at Twin Lakes, and evidently they have some interesting ways of helping the kids memorize Bible verses.

Bev said when they were over there for this retreat, she noticed Bible verses stuck all over the place, in various spots where the kids would be sure to see and read them. On the back of the restroom stall door they had posted the first two verses of this psalm:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.

Now, intellectually I know that God is always present with us—but it is a little embarrassing to think that God is there when I sit down on that particular seat (although, so the story goes, it was on such a seat that Martin Luther received the great revelation of God’s grace that sparked the Protestant Reformation).

Several years back Bette Midler sang a song called “From a Distance.” Most of the words are quite nice, dreaming that the world could realize the peace and harmony that appears to be ours when we see the world “from a distance.” But I’m not sure about the theology of the chorus: “God is watching us from a distance.” Is that true?

I don’t think our psalmist would agree. The author of Psalm 139 seems to believe that there is no place we can go to be away from God’s presence. God does not watch “from a distance,” but is there with us wherever we may go.

But some people have not been comforted by this. Jonah tried to flee from God’s presence, and found out the hard way that it couldn’t be done. And have you read the poem “The Hound of Heaven”? (Google it.) The narrator is fleeing, evidently in terror, from God. But eventually, at the end of the long poem, God catches up with him—and then God’s touch, so feared by the narrator, turns out to be a loving caress.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dirt (Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23)

First of all, I wasn't necessarily scheduled to post this week. But the blog has sit silently for over a week so I'll go ahead. If I stepped up and took your week, sorry. Just go ahead and post yours, too. (Dan Mayes)

Prior to moving to Iowa I spent 6 years of my life in Oklahoma serving congregations there. I had grown up in Kansas, close to Wichita. When we moved to Oklahoma we found a house to live in and initially thought very little about the smooth slab foundation. That is, until the first summer arrived, and the tornados along with it. In fact, while I was serving one Oklahoma congregation the building was completely wiped out by a tornado. Tornado times made me leery of the house I lived in because it provided no protection at all from the violent storms. You could hide in an interior room, but that was really not much protection.

I began asking around shortly after the beginning of that first summer season and found out that very few houses in Oklahoma have basements at all. Most that do were built prior to the depression. Builders there don't build basements because of the clay and sandstone in the soil. It cause leakage and foundation problems. It's even been know to cause basements to cave it.

So I like it up here in Iowa, where the rich, fertile soil grows the sweetest corn...and where the homes have basements.

In this week's Gospel lesson Jesus offers the parable of the sower. And unlike many of his other parables he offers an interpretation. In his interpretation we can notice a major difference in the allegorized interpretation offered here from how it is offered in Mark. Mark provides a little bit of a conundrum where the sower is sowing the word (v 14) and then later the sower is sowing the hearers (v 16). Matthew, however, does not focus so much on which is which, seeing the combination of seed and soil as a complete component, a recipe in which both ingredients are necessary. So the situation of each combination is likened to a different type of hearer and their response to the word.

The question this parable poses for all of us is thus: Which one am I? Am I like the situation where the seed is sown on the path, the rocky ground, among thorns, or in the good soil? When preached the call to self-examination should be obvious.

There is also direction that this questioning and self-examination leads to. There is a harvest at the end of the season. Jesus uses some pretty incredible figures, too. A hundred-fold harvest is virtually unheard of in Palestine at the time. It's such a harvest that it would easily make up for the seed lost in the other types of soil. The emphasis here is not so much on us and our response, it is instead on God's miraculous action. This is a passage about eschatological hope.

If we're focused simply on the bottom line of the harvest we have a problem.
On the one hand, it matters how we hear and respond.
On the other hand, it doesn't matter so much because God will still reap a bountiful harvest.

But maybe what Jesus is suggesting is that we leave the bottom line to God. We hope for and trust in God to bring about the fruit of the seed. It will happen. But what is in question is whether or not we choose to be a part of it. In this way, our response to the word determines our future.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and interpretations of this parable or any of the other lectionary readings for this week.

Dan Mayes