Bearing Fruit – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Acts 8: 26 – 40
Psalm 22: 24 – 30
1 John 4: 7 – 21|
John 15: 1 – 8

I think that it is safe to say that the further we get from our agrarian past, or even just from the practice of having a small vegetable garden in the back yard, the more foreign some parts of Scripture will be for us. Much in Scripture, and certainly in the Gospels, assumes a familiarity with different aspects of agriculture. But what was once common knowledge, even if it wasn’t firsthand knowledge, now must be learnt, not from experience, but from books or podcasts.

My mother delighted in telling me a story when I was visiting her a number of years ago, about my then, 6 year old niece Callie. Callie was helping Mum, whom she called Oma, make lunch one day, and in the midst of the preparations Mum instructed Callie to go out into the backyard garden and pull a few carrots from the vegetable patch for them to have with their lunch. Wide-eyed Callie put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Oh, Oma, Callie said very seriously, carrots don’t come from gardens, carrots come from grocery stores. Clearly, poor old foolish Oma didn’t know anything about carrots, and certainly not where you could get them if you wanted to have some with your lunch.

If we no longer know where carrots come from, as obviously some people in this world don’t (and here I don’t mean poor old foolish Oma!); if we have forgotten our agrarian past; if there is no longer any dirt under our finger nails; if our only experience of food production is what we find in shops; what are we to make of a text such as we have today from John’s Gospel that assumes a degree of knowledge of viniculture, or even just basic gardening. Read More

The Prodigal Father – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim WoodrumLuke 15:11-32

Wasteful, extravagant, profligate, spendthrift.  These are all words that are synonymous with the first definition in the dictionary of the word prodigal.  I have to admit that it was only recently that I learned that word’s true meaning.  I grew up in the Baptist church and all my life have been steeped in scripture.  I have heard this parable from Luke’s gospel thousands of times in my lifetime, but I never knew the true meaning of the word prodigal.  I had always assumed it either meant ‘lost,’ as in the parable of the lost son.  Or perhaps ‘repentant,’ as in the parable of the repentant son.  These certainly could fit.  But after finally looking up the word, it all makes sense.  Prodigal:  spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.  So as we read the parable and follow the son’s journey from his restlessness at home to eating pig slop as a result of his reckless and wasteful spending, we see how it is that the young son earns the name: prodigal.

Generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous.  These are all words synonymous with the second definition of the word prodigal which reads:  having or giving something on a lavish scale.  Jesus says when the young son returns, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant, the father does the unthinkable.  He orders his slaves to bring out the finest robe for his son and to put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger.  To be given a robe to wear was to be honored and only members of the family wore sandals.  Slaves and hired servants were required to be barefoot.  And probably the most shocking of the father’s prodigality was the giving of the ring.  In that culture if a man gave a ring to another man it was the same as giving him power of attorney; an act so generous it defies common sense even in our day.[i]  How many of us would hand over everything we owned to someone who could not exhibit proper stewardship of just a fraction of that.  But this is what the father does and orders his slaves to kill the fatted calf and to throw a huge party to celebrate his son’s return. Read More

Come to the Wedding – Br. James Koester

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Jackson MS

Br. James KoesterExodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Before I joined the monastic community where I now live, I was a parish priest for a number of years in a small parish, on a little island, off the west coast of British Columbia. It was a wonderful place to live, right on the ocean, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. In many ways it was idyllic, and one of the churches in the parish was a picture perfect gem, and for the standards of that part of the world, being 100 years old, it was considered ancient and quaint. Indeed, for that part of British Columbia, there probably were not too many building that were older than St. Mark’s.

Because of where it was, and because of its age, people loved to be married at St. Mark’s. It was one of those places, no matter the day, no matter the season, no matter if you were inside or outside, you couldn’t take a bad photograph, so bridal couples, wedding photographers and family and friends loved to come to St. Mark’s for their wedding, and for photographs. Read More

The Dream of the Vineyard – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Isaiah 5: 1 – 7
Psalm 80: 7 – 14
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Matthew 21: 33 – 46

Everything I known about vineyards and growing grapes comes from watching several seasons of Falcon Crest, a Friday night TV soap drama that competed with Dallas and Dynasty. I preferred Falcon Crest over Dallas because there was a priest, Father Bob, who would show up every so often in Falcon Crest, and who wouldn’t love a night time TV drama with a priest in it.

You’ll perhaps remember that the drama of Falcon Crest centered around two branches of a family, living in California’s Napa Valley, one of which had extensive holdings and the other quite a modest operation. Week by week we were offered up a menu of greed, corruption, competition and family dysfunction, with a little sex and murder thrown in for good measure.

What I leaned about vineyards and grape growing from Falcon Crest is that grapes are pretty temperamental. They demand just the right amount of sun and rain and certain soils. But even more important, vineyards are not only big business, and at times a cut throat business, but they are also a long term business. You can’t plant a grapevines in the spring and expect a profitable harvest that same fall. It takes years, and a great deal of hard work before you will see the results of your labours. Read More

It's Not "Us" and "Them" – It's Just "Us" – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like to have seen Jesus in person, but I’m not sure I would have always enjoyed being part of his audience. Read More

Staring Mercy in the Eye – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Luke 16:19-31

When I began studying our gospel lesson for this morning, the first thing I thought of was an event from this past week that made all the major newspapers and has been circulating as a video on social media.  The video is of Senator Elizabeth Warren confronting Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about taking responsibility for fraud committed by his company who then scapegoated lower level employees.[i] Senator Warren’s examination of Mr. Stumpf was scathing and I have to confess I took a slight sadistic pleasure in seeing him wide-eyed and squirming as she fired question after question, admitting damning evidence into public record from what seemed to be this great chasm separating the two.  After seeing the video, I couldn’t help but to think how lucky the rich man in our gospel lesson was to have had his interchange with Father Abraham instead of Senator Warren.  While Abraham’s interaction with the wealthy man is firm, his tone is at least compassionate.  To be honest, I think my curiosity was more the result of my recognition and identification with Mr. Stumpf.  Throughout my life, I have at times made poor choices based on selfish motives.  I too have had to face up to my shortcomings, ask forgiveness, and make reparations for harm caused to those whom I’d hurt.  Perhaps you can relate. Read More

Let Them Grow Together – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Jeremiah 7:1-11
Matthew 13:24-30

This parable of weeds and wheat, a parable unique to Matthew’s gospel, has a long history of interpretation from the pulpit in American religion. Much of it is overtly self-congratulatory, encouraging faith leaders and congregations to uncritically self-identify as faithful stalks of wheat – to say, in the words of Jeremiah, “We are safe!” The course of action in the Christian life then becomes simply to wait for the harvest, but in a way that presumes to know how the story will end. In the meantime, presuming to identify all the weeds in the neighborhood seems to become a common pastime. In this country, it is hard to overestimate the damage such interpretation of the Gospel is causing between Christians and atheists in particular. Indeed, many people my age or younger who identify with no faith tradition and who know little about Christianity are unlikely to take an interest if they perceive Christians to be self-righteously, obsessively concerned with the behavior of others. If you’ve already been identified as a weed – or have close friends who are weeds – is joining the “wheat” really all that appealing? Read More

The Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Soil) – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

Luke 8:4-18

Why does Jesus speak in parables?  And what is the purpose of this parable that we have before us today?  On the one hand, we could say that parables, because they draw on everyday experiences, can be understood by everyone: even children could recognize that seed sown on a hard path or into a patch of weeds would not produce fruit.  But if the meaning of the story is that obvious, why tell it at all?  In fact, the parable is meant to tease the listener into further reflection.  The listener recognizes at once the obvious, literal meaning — but has to ponder more deeply its significance.

Biblical scholar C.H.Dodd offers this definition of a parable: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[i]  So the purpose of a parable is to “tease [the mind] into active thought.”

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Called to Commitment – Br. Keith Nelson

Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:19-24; Matthew 7:31-27

In Hebrew scripture, the authors of the Jewish Wisdom books frequently contrast two Ways – the way of good and the way of evil, or the way of meaning and the way of vanity. A consistent theme ascribed to the way of holiness, integrity, and truth is its weight. This way has substance – it is heavy, solid, and stable. Those who follow this way have roots, as in Psalm 1: “They are like trees, planted by streams of water, with leaves that do not wither.” By contrast, the way of evil or vanity is light, ephemeral and insubstantial. Those who follow it become like chaff which the wind blows away, like dew or clouds that evaporate, like grass which withers in the sun, or like the web of a spider brushed casually aside.

Jesus’ parable of the two house-builders, which concludes the sermon on the mount in Matthew, participates in this tradition of the Two Ways with its stark opposites: the wise man and the foolish man, the immovable house built on rock and the flimsy house built on shifting sand. This is is a sobering reminder that authentic discipleship demands the concentrated weight of commitment expressed in actions. Accepting wise and prudent commitments is a practice that gives our life with God substance. Read More

Weeds Among the Wheat – Br. Curtis Almquist

curtis4Matthew 13:24-30

The thought of an enemy sowing weeds – typically, a particularly strain of weed whose early blossoms looked very much like wheat – into a farmer’s field was so real and so common that its punishment was codified into Roman law in Jesus’ day.  This actually happened, an enemy sowing weeds among the wheat. There are three lessons we can draw from Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat. Read More