Celebrating Grandpa

Below is the text from the sermon I preached at my grandfather’s funeral in Austwell, TX on Monday morning.
I hope it helps you know him even a little bit.

Growing up, I spent a lot of my weekends here in Austwell staying with my grandparents (as all of us grandkids did).

I would split my time between piddling around on the piano with my grandmother and going for drives with Grandpa, bouncing around the passenger’s side of his truck – no seatbelt, because as Grandpa told me once as I began to strap myself in:
“This is Austwell.  You don’t need that here.”

Getting his haircut from the same barber for over 40 years.

Because I was the only boy, Grandpa and I routinely did typical “boy” things that my sister and female cousins weren’t all that interested in: we built a flat wooden car to drag around behind his riding lawn mower, we organized our tackle boxes and cast for redfish from the peer, we played lots of catch, we shot at glass bottles with the be bee gun he had given me at what my mother insisted was much too young an age, and one of my favorites, we burned trash together – out behind their house on the bluff, in an old, rusted out barrel, poking the fire with sticks, sometimes talking, sometimes in silent awe of the flames.

As you all know well, my grandfather was incredibly skilled with his hands, could fix almost anything, was good with pipes, cars, and machinery and was first and foremost a farmer – some of the many talents he tried to teach our family early and often.

One of those teaching days in particular, I remember very clearly.
I was probably six or seven years old and early in the morning, just after our usual breakfast of Post-Toasties cereal with ½ and ½ instead of milk, Grandpa and I pile into his truck and drive out past the grain silos and the old warehouse into the fields, our sun-visors extended, with the staticky AM radio on (the static he always told us was the sound of airplanes coming in for a landing!) and with our hair blowing in the wind, as we had so many times before.

But something is different about this morning…the earthy smell of freshly turned soil blows through our open windows and as we get closer to the fields, I can see the dark black Texas dirt exposed and bare.

“Today is a planting day,” Grandpa says.

He parks the truck alongside one of his smaller tractors and invites me to follow for one of his ‘lessons.’  “This is the tractor we use to plant all the corn in all of those fields.”

He points to a huge metal container fixed on the back of the tractor. “See this tub?”

“Of course,” I say in my six –year-old, matter of fact tone.  Offended at such a silly question.

“Well, this morning, you and I are going to fill it with seeds,” he says.
My eyes widen.  “That’s alotta seeds,” I say.

“Yes,” he chuckles, “that’s alotta seeds. When you want a big crop to grow, you gotta plant alotta seeds.”

He taught me that each seed or kernel of the maize and corn he planted and harvested was a gem that held great potential inside of it and in order to bear a large harvest, the potential inside had to be encouraged to grow.

Looking back now, I realize that that morning, I learned a little about planting and a whole lot about my Grandpa.

I believe he held for each of us, his family and friends, that same hopeful farmer’s perspective – that he looked on you and me and saw gems holding great potential inside.

I think that’s how he showed his love for us –

not necessarily or usually by affection, but by always wanting to teach others something new, by gently and sometimes not so gently urging that inner potential to be realized,
to grow up and out of all of us.

He showed that love by hiring and befriending people in the community who others wouldn’t hire or who were hard to deal with at times, empowering them to work and help themselves.

He showed that love for this town while he served as mayor for eight years, cleaning up the water and sewer systems, helping Austwell progress as a community.

He showed that love in his compassion for people in need by always being the first to offer assistance whether out of his own wallet or going on middle-of-the-night propane deliveries when families were cold, or by helping other farmers who were short handed.

He showed that love to us grandkids by encouraging our imaginations and playful spirits, whether that was chasing us around the house as a howling werewolf or pretending we were weights hanging on his arms that he was lifting over and over (even when it resulted once in him breaking his collar bone).


United States Navy

He showed that love for his family when he would do just about anything he could to help them, like the time (at least this is how he told the story) the time he snuck around to the end of the firing line during basic training and took the shooting exam in his brother’s place (their uniforms had the same last name sown in them afterall) so that they could remain together rather than being separated in the next stage of their military training.

These stories and countless others that we will have the opportunity to tell and re-tell in the days and weeks to come are examples of how God’s kindness, God’s love, God’s own hope for the kind of people we have the potential to become, were alive and well in my grandfather.

And that is what we celebrate today – the life of our friend, and father, and uncle and brother, and grandfather, which was infused with that divine hope and goodness that sees us as gems and calls out to each of us to learn and to grow into our potential.

And that’s also the reason we mourn today…because our connection with that godliness that was Grandpa, our relationship to that particular incarnation of the divine named Roy William Wise is now changed…not gone, not lost…but surely changed.

And so we grieve, and we tell stories, and we cry holy tears.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they have had something to lose.
Blessed are those who dare to risk loss
for only they have known love.

And yet, if we learned anything from all that God wanted to teach us through Roy, we do not mourn without our own renewed sense of hope.  Hope in God’s faithfulness to his promise that death is not the end, but rather just another kind of seed that sprouts a whole new kind of life. The kind of resurrection life that had it’s potential deep down inside of Roy and is now fully grown in his death. We know that God has now transformed Grandpa’s life into a new and even more sacred existence, an everlasting life where he is at one with the gardening God whom we experienced at work in him.

We are here because our lives were touched by my grandfather, because we loved him, and because in some way he helped each of us grow- because he was in some sense, our farmer as well.

And so…today is a planting day.

Another day to learn from him.  Another opportunity to allow to grow in us those gems that he saw and nurtured while he was here with us.

Another cycle of harvesting what has grown and using the seeds from that fruit to plant another crop with all those we love and want to encourage.

In these last months, my grandfather took to a fairly atypical response for him when one of us would say, “I love you.”
He began saying back to us, and sometimes shouting back,
“I love everybody!”

And this morning, we say,
“We know, Grandpa.  We saw it.  We felt it. We learned from it.

We know.”


Wilderness and Water

The season of Lent is a journey for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus.  A time of preparation, of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and sacrifice.  Throughout the scripture readings assigned for the Sundays in Lent, two themes or images keep coming up, keep appearing in the Hebrew Scripture stories as well as the Gospel and Epistle excerpts: wilderness and water.

Water is a source of life – nourishing, quenching, greening, facilitating movement and growth.  But it can also be a source of death and destruction – over-saturation, drowning, flowing waters uprooting or carving it’s own new path.

Wilderness is a place of danger, of darkness, of the unknown, it’s where the wild things are.  But it can also be a place where new discoveries are made, where, in the midst of the wild, we can learn some things about ourselves.

These images, these themes of water and wilderness appear in the readings for the first Sunday of the season, and so they kind of set the tone, show us where it is we need to go in these 40 days.

First, we heard the conclusion to the flood narratives, the end of the Noah and the Ark stories.

Noah and the inhabitants of the ark have floated through forty days and forty nights of purging rain, on (as the Genesis story tellers told it) what seems to be an ever-rising sea of God’s anger at the social disintegration of humankind’s inability to love one another and care for creation.

Despite the way you learned it in 1st Grade Sunday School, this is NOT a good children’s story and I’m afraid, over the years, the felt boarding and colorful picture books have done some great disservices to the intentions of our ancestors in passing this story along.

It’s terrifying, it’s violent.  The flood waters kill everyone and drown everything except Noah and his family and those animals in the ark. And if you’re a fan of folk music from the 60s or of Shel Silverstien’s poetry, you know that the flood even kills the poor unicorns who missed the boat!

It is a frightening story… UNTIL we get to this morning’s conclusion, when God makes a covenant with the whole creation. “See,” God says, “I have set my bow in the sky as a sign of a covenant with you” and there in the sky appears a bow – in the Hebrew language it’s the bow of a bow and arrow.  After the devastation of flooding waters, in a deeply symbolic action, God lays down his weapon of destruction and promises never to take it up again.

Regardless of our interpretations of the flood stories, regardless of believing or not believing the factuality of these stories, the truth our ancestors were conveying in them is still true: there are always consequences to our sinfulness.  When we don’t live in the ways we were created to live, when we don’t fulfill God’s dreams for us when we don’t steward God’s dreams for creation, we suffer.
And, often times, even the innocent get hurt.

And yet, this is NOT what God wants.  God has covenanted with us, with all creation, that God doesn’t want violence or destruction.  God has promised that even when we are far off, even when we are living in a socially disintegrated way, God wants not death or obliteration, but a new kind of life for us and for all people.  This promise, marked by God’s ritual (you might say even liturgical) action of laying down his bow in the sky, shifts the symbol of water from being a death dealing force, to being the elemental vessel through
which God will bring new and transformed life.

Fast forward 70 generations or so and we hear a story of how water is being used by John the Baptist to shift the Jewish understanding of cleansing in a profound way.  Ritual bathing or washing has become a custom in 1st Century Palestine, as a way for the Hebrew people to be cleansed when they have broken a purity code law or in some other way become ritually unclean.  John, however has been preaching that in order to be prepared for the one coming after him, we need to be cleansed not from our ritual impurities, but from our moral uncleanliness.

His baptism is one of repentance, of turning back to God – he’s using water as a vessel through which a person re-orients their whole life around God…and in this morning’s Gospel story, he has just baptized Jesus himself, and as Jesus is coming up out of the water, a dove (the very animal from the flood stories that carries the news to Noah that the waters have subsided) descends from heaven and a voice cries out, “You are my son, my beloved and I am so pleased with you.”

Jesus emerges from these waters of baptism and immediately, Mark tells it, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness.

Now the young Nazarene hasn’t even begun his Rabbinical teaching yet, not even called his first disciples.  He’s not even dry from the water in Jordan river, that voice of affirmation and assurance is still ringing in his ears, and immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness where the temptations begin to chisel away at him…  (spend 4 minutes watching this video.)

Though Mark doesn’t share the exact nature of those temptations in the way his successors Matthew and Luke do, this first Gospel account does make it clear that the Spirit doesn’t abandon Jesus out there. The Spirit of God is the very thing on Jesus’ lips as he responds those temptations. The angels minister to him out there, even in the midst of where the wild things are.

For the synoptic gospel writers, part of Jesus claiming his true identity, his real self that was just affirmed in his baptism, is going into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. He learns something out there about himself, is somehow strengthened and transformed by that wilderness time and is then able to emerge from that time preaching to a broken and hurting world that  “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The truth our early church ancestors are conveying in this story about Jesus is still true: growing up, spiritual and emotional maturation requires movement into and through the dark, dangerous, wild places of our lives.   Going there is scary and out there it’s easy to get tricked, tempted, lost, depressed.  The traps set for us in the wilderness are the same as those that were set for Jesus… and yet there is something to be gained in that wilderness, some reason our scriptures and our tradition tell us we need to go there.

Our forty days of Lent are intended to do just that: to make us mindful of the ways that we fall short, to show us how far we have still to go, to help prepare us for what is to come, to get us to that place where we can acknowledge that no matter where we are in our journeys the seductive voice of temptation is ever present.  And I can promise you that out here in this wilderness, we will be reminded of the consequences to our sinfulness.

We will be made aware, perhaps in ways we were never aware before that by not living into the fullness of life that God dreams for us, we have hurt ourselves, and sometimes caused the innocent to suffer.  And it may be scary, and it will definitely be hard, and you can count on us wanting to emerge before it’s time, to be done with it all quickly.

But…if we can recall the tone set by this morning’s stories, perhaps we will remember that, though it may seem otherwise, God does not desire destruction or pain or death, but has promised us, God’s people, has covenanted with us that he truly desires new life.  Perhaps we will remember that on the other side of this wilderness, we will have been renewed and transformed in ways that we did not expect, cleansed not just ritually but morally and spiritually, and will be ready to preach in word and deed to a broken and hurting world that God’s kingdom can be and is a reality here and now.

Young Adults in Church

Just came across a really interesting article summarizing some research done for a book about American Young Adults (18-29) and their aversion to the church.  It suggests six main themes in this disconnection, and one of them (not surprisingly) is the experience that Christian Churches are too exclusive:

“Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences.”

Here’s the rest of the article.

Authority vs. Power

“Jesus entered the temple and the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.'”  Matthew 21.23-27

What is the difference between authority and power?

Monty Python has something to say about it here

And here’s an excerpt from my take on what Jesus has to say about it in last Sunday’s Gospel reading:

By turning the question back on the church leaders, Jesus exposes their fear, and fear is a byproduct, not of authority, but of power.  See, power is an external dynamic (the Greek word that is translated as “power” is dunamis), and because it is external, those in power always fear that others will try and take that power away from them. So to counteract their own fear, the powerful create or perpetuate fear in those whom they have power over to keep them in their rightful place. And so the response to power is either submission or coercion.

Authority, on the other hand, is a more internal, organic thing.  In Greek, it’s a compound word, “exousia.”  Ex- coming out from, and Ousia – one’s substance.    And the response to authority, as Jesus’ parable of the father and two sons illustrates, is not submission or coercion, but obedience.  He concludes the lesson with a provocative claim about tax-collectors and prostitutes. Jesus sees the Kingdom of God being made real in the lives of the very people who appear to be disobeying God, the people whom the religiously powerful have said are beyond hope, beyond grace, beyond favor, beyond redemption, beyond love, mercy, and compassion, beyond their boundaries. Men who have betrayed their own people in order to collect taxes for the Roman State.  Women who have sold their bodies to whomever has enough coin.  These are the ones who are changing their minds and being obedient to the exousia pouring out from who Jesus is…these are the ones who are revealing the Kingdom of God in their lives and in the lives of others.

Then there are the chief priests and elders: men who are living the epitome of the religious life and who model their life around the Scriptures for the sake of others.  These are the ones who, because of their unwillingness to see that they too need to change their lives, end up revealing nothing but their self-protecting concern for the way they’ve always done things, for their rites, rituals, and for the maintaining of the status quo.  These are the ones who say the right things and follow the law, but have lost the plot, and are missing the life that God offers.

God in a Thorn Bush

A few thoughts as I’m wrestling with the sermon for this week and thinking specifically about this odd sort of God who, despite the Israelite’s (and our) traditions, refuses to be geographically pinned or penned.

The Holy Presence is in a thorn bush.  Burning but not consumed.  In the middle of the Midian desert where there isn’t much other than rocks and dirt.

Why here?  Because that’s where Moses is?  Perhaps.

Or maybe here, in the desert, in a thorn bush as a poetic way of showing God’s people that God is in all things, in every place, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
Perhaps God reveals God’s self in this bush to show Moses that God is present even in exile.
Perhaps the bush is burning but not consumed because even in exile, when the world as we know it is burning down around us, God’s presence is not consumed.

Then the Lord said, “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
(Exodus 3. 7-8)

I’m reposting this poem from the blog of a poet-theologian that I’ve come to envy, Steve Garnaas-Holmes :

Today, in the wilderness you wander,

         in the slave quarters you inhabit,

         in each task and every moment,

you are accompanied,

         not merely observed from afar,

by One who sees you,

and hears your silent cries,

who sees what oppresses you,

         sees through the illusions that confine you,

who knows your suffering,

         who shares your experience,

         who lives in your flesh,

who comes to set you free

         to bring you out of what diminishes your life,

         out of your old self,

into a broad and fertile place,

         a new life.

All this, today.

         And again tomorrow.

Creation and Seed Sowing

In their first Creation story (Genesis 1) the Hebrew Poets beautifully craft a beginning – seeking to answer the most profound (and basic) of human questions:  “Who are we?  Where did we come from?  Where are we going?”

This past week’s gospel account from Matthew has Jesus teaching his listeners from a boat on the sea using what’s deemed “The parable of the Sower.”  This parable is our diocesan theme for the year and the theme my team (The Rev. Sean Maloney and Cathy Villani) will be drawing from during our week at Camp Capers.  I believe these two stories are vitally connected and that the particular way that the poets tell their truth actually and deeply shapes the truth of the parable Jesus uses.  Here’s what I mean…

In the formless void of that particular beginning, God is the first sower.
Using words like “Let there be light” as His seed, God sows and sows and sows until the formless void has substance and order and Eden, which means “beauty.”

First he sows the heavens and earth and then light and dark and then land and sea.

And if you listened really carefully today (and two weeks ago) you caught some of the genius, some of the brilliance of this wild sower: all that God creates has within itself the ability to create. The land that God sows, itself puts forth vegetation.  The seas that God spills out of his seed bag themselves bring forth aquatic life.  The earth gives form to cattle and creepy things.   And each of those creations, the plants, the fish, the beasts all have the potential to create as well – to multiply and fill the earth with their offspring more numerous than the stars in the heavens.

And then, in the place of Beauty, into this EDEN, God sows the seeds of humanity.

And again, from the earth, man and woman are formed and with his own breath, his own life source, God this reckless sower (Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.) breathes life and creativity into his creation.

Humanity, God-imaged, is gifted with the same seed spreading nature as our first sower. Like the rest of creation, once planted and grown, we too get to participate in creating new and abundant life and that IS beautiful.  And so by design seeds become sowers.

“Let anyone with ears hear!” says Jesus as he teaches his disciples using these multilayered parables that confound their understanding.  Conjuring images and metaphors his students would easily relate to, he twists the endings of stories, he uses double meanings, he tries to get them to see the world, themselves, one another with renewed perspective.  Jesus is the second sower.  He sows the seeds of a new way of life, a new and fuller way of being, and he completely embodies that life that he is harvesting.  And by the end of this particular sowing day, the disciples are left wondering, “Am I rich, nurturing, good soil?  Or am I rocky, dried up, harsh ground vulnerable to birds and thorns and heat that might snatch or strangle or scorch this new life planted in me?”

These difficult questions that this parable raises are indeed its intention: as his followers wrestle with it’s meaning and their place in it, they are harvesting the seeds the sower has sown.  And this new way of life, what we might call the kingdom of God, begins to root itself more deeply in them and break into their daily existence, growing and stretching.  And so again, by design, the seeds become sowers.

And now, like the disciples before us, we have some wrestling to do.

If the scriptures, from the poetry of Genesis to the parables of Matthew, are to be anything more than ancient words on a page, if they are to be the Living Word, then you and I must do the work of both

finding ourselves in these stories and finding these stories within our own stories. Once we find ourselves in and find in ourselves these living words, we are naturally and irresistibly moved to act.  We are the next sowers.

Compelled by Jesus’ teaching, compelled by his life, death and resurrection, compelled by our baptisms into his new way of life to sow with wild abandon, not worrying ourselves about which kind of soil we are planting the seeds in.  Just sowing.  And sowing and sowing and sowing.  Trusting that there is some kind of method in the madness, that some kind of beauty and order and vast gardens will bloom, that the creation we participate in will take an amazing form that will give life and facilitate life for all.

And now we’ve come full circle, back to that particular kind of beginning, back to that Garden where we began.  And that’s our Sower’s intention, is it not?  To step into those places of darkness and void in our lives, those places that seem meaningless and without order and to sow a new beginning?
For us to once again walk with him in the midst of that creative creation, growing more and more fully into our roles as co-creators, co-sowers with him?

You see, seeds always become sowers.
That’s how we’re designed.

Easter People in a Good Friday World

Sewanee in the Spring

Wrestling with what Resurrection means in our world, our culture, our existence today, here’s an excerpt of what I came up with:

In our death dealing world, resurrection is what people are truly longing for:

A widow whose husband died at a much too early age.
A man who is struggling with a new career at midlife
and fears his ability to cope with new challenges.
A grandparent who has lost all their independence
and has to live in the 24 hour care of strangers.
A young mother suddenly raising children on her own.
A friend who has been laid off and can’t find work.
A colleague who falls into a deep, clinical depression
and struggles to live through the day even with meager energy. 

People are longing for resurrected life.

And if you and I are serious about why we’re here today, then we have the responsibility to them and the Risen Christ himself, to live in a way that demonstrates that death has lost is power over all of us…that resurrection didn’t just happen once upon a time, but that resurrection happens again and again and again…to point out to them and provide for them opportunities to experience new and risen life.

Read more of this sermon here…