I tried my hand at gardening this year. I put in the plants late, and kind of on a whim. With Naomi’s help I dug up the sod and returned a small patch of my back yard to a nice loose bed ready for seed and plants. It even has a little brick border of scavenged bricks.
I planted three cucumbers and one tomato from bedding plants and I bought seed for beans, a little bed of radishes, and a couple short rows of carrots. When I bought the seed packets and put carrots, and beans and radishes in the ground, what do you think grew from those seeds? I was not surprised to find that carrot plants and bean plants grew – and beans are the best because they grow so fast at first and the day they pop through the soil is so exciting. So far the beans were the best producers, although the cucumbers did pretty well. There are clusters of still green tomatoes on the plant and the carrots are about an inch long. We’ll see how they do. [Scroll down to see an epic pickle fail from my cucumber harvest.]
James takes us back to planting season in the epistle today. The harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. That’s just fancy for ‘when you start out with peace-making and justice-making, peace and justice are what will grow.
For Jesus, in this story, the seeds justice are planted in welcoming. That’s where the Gospel story ends. We have guests here with us today. We often have guests, visitors, out of towners. And I think we’ve come a long way in our openness and welcoming-ness. I am grateful for that. I’d like to read a welcome that comes from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona, FLA. It appears in their bulletin.
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.
We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flt, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
“Tom Tate, the pastor of the church, said he received reactions from people across the country. ‘The ones that are upset think we are pitting atheism against Christianity,’ Tate told The Huffington Post in April. ‘We are actually pitting kindness against hatefulness.’” Indeed they are also pitting openness against insularity, and welcome against exclusivity.
[I mistakenly said in my sermon on Sunday morning that Tate is the pastor at Our Lady. In fact, he is a pastor at another church sited in the Huffington Post article linked above. An article about the sign at Tate’s church can be found here.]
Jesus puts a child in their presence and he tell is disciples that they need to welcome those who are like the child.
Kids, the welcome that I just read covers pretty much everyone, but doesn’t really mention children, except the crying baby and the unruly teen. But this story is about someone like you. Jesus thinks you are important and he want you to be present with him and with the church. In this story, however, this child is also a stand in for much more. The welcome is to be for everyone that I name before and more; for the vulnerable, for those who are on the outside or even just feel on the outside, for those who have been hurt, for those in need. For those, as Menno so eloquently puts it, who are naked and hungry and in need of shelter.
James has something to say about that too. His ‘live your faith,’ ‘be a doer of the word’ instruction from this week is about letting go of envy, and selfishness and embracing gentleness and wisdom. You can’t be genuinely welcoming if you are worried only about yourself, your position, getting the best and the most and staying on the top.
“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” James says. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” When I read this passage again in preparation for today I had recently been watching a reality TV show. The one I was watching happens to be about drag queens. I enjoy this program, but like almost every reality show on television it was about elimination and ranking and let me tell you, the claws would come out. The producers of those programs encourage ‘envy and selfish ambition and boastfulness’ and they are, in a sense, reality. They are entertaining, but they are certainly ‘false to the truth.’ False as they are, though, they do reveal those traits of envy and selfish ambition that we sometimes secretly, sometimes not so secretly carry inside us.
Envy, ranking and competition are is where the story of Jesus and the child begins. It begins with his disciples in Galilee, with Jesus talking about his death. “He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” And after that he heard his disciples arguing.
Here is what I wonder: I wonder if they heard, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” and after that their ears and their understanding shut down. Because when I put myself in their shoes, and hear my teacher, who I love, who is also my best friend say ‘Because of this work, I am going to be caught, and I am not going to live through it.’ I do not hear, ‘But it’s all going to be okay.” They’re afraid to even ask him what exactly he means; they might not like the answer so much.
I am sure that the part of the statement about dying would not have seemed so unlikely, really. They knew Jesus, they knew their culture; they observed conflict between Jesus and authorities. They also – I would think – would have wanted to maintain their movement. If their beloved leader was killed, what would happen to them? Who would be the leader in the case of such an outcome? Would one of them succeed Jesus after his death? Would they need to disband? Reorganize? Perhaps there is an element of pragmatism rooting the argument.
Or maybe it was just idle chatter. Our culture seems to like making lists of things. Especially lists that rank things. Is seems to me that especially men like to do this. For example, top five greatest Cubs pitchers of all time. Top ten greatest race car drivers (I bet Weldon could put that one together). Top ten greatest film directors. Top twelve disciples. Maybe they were rating themselves – maybe in comparison to Jesus. I remember when I was a kid, it was not uncommon to hear, ‘So and so thinks she’s so great.’ Well, the speaker usually thought pretty highly of (usually) herself as – there was some ranking going on there – and probably some jealousy , some judgment. (For example: Jody Peterson thinks she’s so great just because she has a Barbie Dream Dancer, but she’s not as great as she thinks she is.)
A harvest of righteousness, James says, is sown in peace. In English, ‘righteousness’ has a much different ring that ‘justice’ but in Greek, the language in which James wrote, the word is the same for both – or they are the same thing: dikaiosune. So if we plant seeds of peace, they grow into justice. If we plant seeds of envy, bitterness, dispute and conflict, what do they grow into? Jesus wants to nip those plants in the bud, so to speak. There will be no garden of injustice for team Jesus. So the talk of welcome didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from the seeds that the disciples were sowing and watering and nurturing.
We had the first meeting of the brand new Spiritual Leadership Team this week. You might say that we are in the planting season for the SMC structure. It was exciting! We weren’t quite planting but we were planning the garden.
Around about January or so every year my dad used to literally map out his garden – the beds, what would grow where. He had it drawn out on a big piece of paper and he started the plants that needed to be started under a grow-light or in the green-house. So when spring came everything was planted in its place. I really feel that’s what the SLT is doing. For those of you on the eCommunicator list, you’ll be linked to a brief summary of our meeting, but let me say this about it, the feeling of a deep love for this congregation permeated the meeting and the strong desire that this welcome and love be felt and extended and communicated to each person.
I think it’s easy – almost too easy – to unintentionally plant seeds of inequality and alienation (or whatever the opposite of welcome is.) I have a confession to make: I try hard to be welcoming and I know that my growing edge is working on coming out of my shell, seeking out those who are different rather than like me or known to me. I can also speak before thinking and then regret it later. So last week when we welcomed someone new to Seattle from Goshen, IN, I asked everyone who had gone to Goshen College to raise their hand. I cringe now to think of it because although there are indeed many from Goshen college, there may me even more for whom ‘Goshen College’ is a foreign language, who never heard of Goshen college and for whom that was likely an alienating and exclusive activity. I am sorry.
It is easy to be unwelcoming without realizing it and I think if Mennonites have a prevailing sin it may be exclusivity. We are actually pretty good at being doers of the word in the way that some of our banners portray: helping with our hands, hammering a nail. MDSers represented here known well – and I celebrate that service! We can also be pretty exclusive. You see what I did there? MDS…Mennonite’s have a lot of those little acronyms. This one happens to be Mennonite Disaster Service.
We have a lot of those and other ways specific to our congregation that are like unspoken ways that we work and it takes some figuring to get to them. Well, Jesus says, welcome everyone as you would this child. As we gathered as SLT, we recognized the truth of that and we mourn it and we want to change it. We carry this burden, but we carry it lightly, with hope and with anticipation. We are grateful for the grace-filled Spirit among us who can translate our love and welcome to all.
In the same way that we anticipate the first sprout of spring and the harvest of the fruit and vegetables in fall, we, each of us, have within us the capacity to grow something wonderful, full of peace, justice, and the open arms of Jesus.
Amen. Thanks be to God.