Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God the Heart-Searcher

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Though I won’t spend much time on the adventures of our friend Jacob today, how can I let that first reading go by without making a few observations?

Jacob the deceiver, Jacob the trickster, has been outclassed, outgunned, by his Uncle Laban, the brother of Jacob’s mother Rebekah. Jacob has fallen head-over-sandals for Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob agrees to seven years’ labor (oh, what love will make a fellow do) as a kind of dowry for Rachel. Those years seemed but a few days because of his love for her.

Meanwhile, on a lower plane of life, Laban has spun a web of deceit. First, he gets Jacob drunk at the wedding feast. Add some poor lighting and the strategic use of a veil, and when morning comes and Jacob rolls over in the marriage bed, he finds it was Leah he had married!

When Jacob objects, Laban plays his final hand by claiming that local custom prevents marrying the younger before the older.

“Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Doesn’t it make you want to scream? Imagine Jacob’s outrage… and helplessness. “Completing the week” means staying the course with Leah, making her his wife by honoring the customary bridal week of celebrations. So Jacob agrees, and at the end of that week Laban gave Jacob Rachel in betrothal—in essence Jacob emerges with two wives, though it will cost him a second term of seven years’ service to Uncle Laban.

The story has a preposterous side, doesn’t it? Remember that these Genesis stories have two levels. One is the surface story about the legendary individuals of Israel’s past, a family album of the chosen people. The other level is rather like a survey course: these stories help explain Israel’s becoming a nation. In that larger story, Jacob will be renamed Israel (stay tuned, next Sunday) and will be the progenitor of twelve children, twelve tribes, eventually clustered in two geographical units, a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. Today’s installment can be seen as explaining that two-state division: Jacob had two wives (not to mention their handmaids, who also bore him children… but that’s best left for another day).

What makes us want to scream is how Leah is violated by her father’s elaborate deception. She knows she is not loved by Jacob in the way that he loves her sister, but she is consigned to that loveless future. In the full story, God will hear her lament and, while Rachel remains childless for some time, Leah bears several children, establishing her security and her influence. The point of God’s blessing her with children appears to be that God is also peeved with her male oppressors.

But, as we saw last Sunday, all this deceit and violation is in the raw material, the messy stew, the pottage God gets to work with, and it does not diminish God’s covenant love and faithfulness towards God’s people. Redemption works its way across the years and generations. Jacob, for instance, finally gets a taste of what he dished out to his brother Esau. Now he knows, with a wounded heart.

And God is the heart-seeker. That is how St. Paul describes God in today’s second reading, and that I would like to explore.

There is knowing, and there is knowing. Jacob’s saga teaches us this. He knows what he wants (a wife and family), so he sets out on a journey to get what he wants. That journey requires him to know himself, to know the full complexity of human nature, to know an intimate struggle with God, and, rising out of all these intimate knowings, to return to his alienated brother Esau with a new capacity for knowing him.

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, he teaches that all we need to know about the Church—its God-given nature and mission—is learned by knowing Jesus, the Messiah sent by the love of God to liberate creation from the bondage, corruption, misery, and injustice that were known to characterize the world in that first century. That these traits still describe the world is evident from reading the morning’s news… which tells us that the Messiah’s work is still underway, or, to put that another way, Paul tells us in his letter that in the resurrection life that believers are given in Christ, those who share the glory of the Messiah will have the world entrusted to their care. The Messiah’s work is still underway through God’s people.

To know the Messiah is to know the Church, and the Church is charged with knowing the world. That’s an awful lot of knowing. Refreshing to me is the opening verse from Paul today: We do not know how to pray. We see and feel the suffering of the world and what Paul told us last Sunday is so true: the creation seems subjected to futility and in bondage to decay. Then he said, The creation is groaning, yes--but groaning in labor pains, for God has enfleshed God’s own love in the Messiah Jesus to make him what Paul today calls “the firstborn within a large family” of people who are being conformed to the image and likeness of Jesus.

In that first-century world, the fast-growing religion was the Caesar-cult that claimed the emperor’s divinity, winning people to that belief by sending into all communities images of Caesar and building temples to house those images. Bishop N. T. Wright comments on this: “Paul states that God’s purpose is for Christians to be ‘conformed to the image of God’s Son.’ They are to be image-bearers, forming the Temple of the living God, the people through whom in the present as well as in the future it is to be made known that the God of Abraham is the only God, that Jesus, God’s Son, is the world’s true Lord, and that one day the world will be liberated from its present slaveries, as Israel was from Egypt, to be the true Empire in which justice, peace, and freedom will make their home.”

Knowing how to bring all this about might be an emperor’s way to proceed, but God, says Paul, is prepared to work with our not knowing even how to pray for all this to come about. Bishop Wright says, “Paul holds together… the intimate prayer that knows exactly what to call God (Abba, Father—we may wish to add Mama, or its Aramaic equivalent) and the groaning prayer that has no idea what to ask for or even what words to use. Prayer itself is a matter of both knowing and not knowing, of security and insecurity, of ‘having nothing yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:10).”

In Paul’s words, God is the heart-searcher. Out of God’s heart comes that Spirit that unites us to God by working deep within the human heart, and there we learn not so much how to pray, but to love God. Once more, Bishop Wright: “This hints at something deeper than merely praying in the way God wants or approves; God’s own life, love, and energy are involved in the process. The Christian, precisely at the point of weakness and uncertainty, of inability and struggle, becomes the place at which the triune God is revealed in person.”

This knowing, this loving of God, engages us (mind and heart and will and senses) in what Paul calls the working-together for good of all things. Bishop Wright insists that our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible gets it wrong in translating, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” as if this were a law of the universe. The New International Version, he says, has it right: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” I take that to mean that if we are willing to engage with God on terms of love, then we will discover God working with the raw material, the messy stew, the pottage of our lives in ways we could not know apart from God’s covenant love and faithfulness.

Paul asks and answers five questions, starting with, “If God is for us, who is against us?” “No one” is the apostle’s answer to that and to each question. Typical of these questions is the third, “Who is to condemn the people of God?” The answer is again, “No one.” But if the words are not read carefully, they can be misleading: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” Not “It is Christ Jesus who will condemn us,” but “he in particular will not condemn, for he has perfectly embodied the love of God.”

For many years, a very dear and feisty lady, Fran Chaffee, taught Sunday School here. She taught all her children to memorize the closing words of Paul today: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nor shall we be separated from the call of God to embody that love in the world.

Our medical missioners will return from Bolivia in two weeks freshly convinced of that.

Doctors Without Borders and other NGO workers aiding Somalian famine victims in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia embody that love, whether or not they ascribe it to God.

Interfaith volunteers here in the North County do also, as they help people suffering from food insecurity.

And in more ways than we can count, including the intimate orbits of families and friendships, God’s people are privileged to embody that love which is the ongoing work of the Messiah to liberate the creation from its slaveries.

(Bishop N. T. Wright's commentary is found in Volume X of "The New Interpreter's Bible", Abingdon Press, 2002.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

God Counts on that Rat Jacob

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Here’s another parable about seeds. Last week’s was tame. Turn this one into a movie, and call it “Seeds of Wrath”. Give it an R rating for faith-based violence. And we think the Qur’an condones violence?

This exchange is said to have been between Jesus and his disciples who have gathered with him after another of his public appearances before a large crowd. The disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable he used in speaking to the crowds, a parable that does not, on the face of it, sound as violent and raging as the explanation he proceeds to give the twelve. Maybe this is like the coach and team meeting in their locker room at half-time in a high-stakes game where the score is tied, venting together over the tactics of the other team and fanning the flames that will burn that other team right off the field.

Maybe. And we need to hear it… why? It helps us in our spiritual practice… how?

In our summer education series, Sundays @ 9, we’ve started identifying a few edgy questions relating to our spiritual practice, and we hope to share with one another what we’re learning on those raw edges. For example, I named a question today that I struggle with: How to read the morning paper with an open heart, not shutting down in horror as my eyes move from the dismemberment of a child to the murder of a family by a step-son, to the discovery of fresh mass graves in South Sudan, to the latest installment of the saga of budget politics in Washington. How do I pray through a reading of the news of the day?

Or do I react to what I cannot control, and lapse into an old narrow range of emotions, retreating from a world evidently divided sharply between bad people and good people? Is my experience of the morning news preparing me to be the publican in the temple (Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men…) or to find common ground with the troubles of others? Am I secretly finding solace of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-variety, or can I find a way to pray the news as I read it, recognizing how grace is needed, is already at work, and may call me to care, not retreat?

I’m not proposing to talk more about that today. Come to Sundays @ 9 if that question interests you, but notice how the question itself may relate to today’s Gospel. Reacting to current events can bring a person to see the world in black and white terms, sharply cast between good people and evil people, and evidently can tempt even the religious to imagine horrific final solutions.

Sometimes we can understand why. Christians were being brutally persecuted near the end of the first century, when Matthew wrote. Hungering for justice, the early Christians were powerless to achieve it. But they could take a grim comfort in the conviction that God would have the final word, some day. In the meantime, their words were laced with fire and brimstone in the language of apocalypse and Armageddon.

By contrast to that black and white view comes today’s portion of the Jacob saga in the Book of Genesis. This is what I would like to talk about, because in Jacob we see how it simply doesn ‘t work to divide the human race into categories of good and bad. As we saw last Sunday, Jacob is a rat, a deceiver, a trickster—and yet there he is in the Mount Rushmore of Hebrew patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His twin brother, Esau, you will not find so remembered and celebrated. Yet it was by cutting in line, taking advantage of the gullibility of his brother and the vulnerability of his aging father, that Jacob gained his prominence.

It was also by being his mother’s favorite, which may tell us how matriarchal a society these forebears actually had. She favored Jacob because of her two sons he was the refined one, the reflective one, the man who would maintain home and family, the thinker, the creative one, the artist. Her husband Isaac favored their son Esau, a skillful hunter, the son who could lead by the strength of his arm and be in charge of homeland security.

Remember that these great Genesis stories are allegedly about individuals, but certainly about the nation Israel. By the time we are done with Jacob’s saga this summer, we will see that he is renamed Israel, showing that all the struggles we see him pass through constitute what it means to be Israel, the nation. But that’s yet to be revealed. Stay tuned.

Today’s installment sets Jacob on a long journey. It will last twenty years. What prompts it? Dread of his brother, Esau; recognition that Esau’s strong arm will come down on him if he stays in town. But also Jacob knows it’s time to do the patriarchal thing and find a wife and raise a family. By the time we complete his saga, he will have had tricks played on him resulting in his having two wives, and a correspondingly large number of children, but again I’m fast-forwarding…

Now, running away from much, so much that he is truly a divided man, and one who frankly doesn’t call much upon God but tends to create his own solutions (as we have seen), now Jacob stops in a certain place to camp for the night. There was something about this place that suggested a good campsite, but there was nothing noticeable to suggest it might be holy ground, no stone pillars erected as was done in those days, no sign advertising divine worship at 8:00 am and 10:00 am.

Or pm, as in this case. God comes to Jacob in a dream. Elie Wiesel, writing about this story, poses the question, Why is it that often the Bible tells stories in which God appears to a person, often a man, in his dreams? Because that is when a person is completely alone. And if that person has a Type A personality, it is in the liminal state of sleep that God might have a fighting chance to be noticed.

That Jacob’s dream is so rich and full may witness to what his mother Rebekah knew, that he was a reflective person, receptive not just to things seen and touched, but to their inner spiritual meaning.

And is there a hint that Jacob, on the lam, needs to be alert even in sleep, perhaps explaining why he’d lay his head on a stone?

But on to the dream: a ladder is set up on the earth, reaching to heaven. A stairway, a ramp, would be better translations, says a commentator. A dramatic message is given: we on earth can count on the resources of heaven. And they flow to us not because we earn them or even know enough to ask for them. They come because God wants them to come. They come as gift.

Gift and grace are therefore the foundation of the covenant love binding humanity to God and binding God to the human race. And that whole historic monumental relationship depends, at this juncture, on God’s trusting a deceptive and tricky man, Jacob. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you,” says God to Jacob.

Jacob may not expect it to take twenty years for that return. He thinks he’s going to Haran, his grandfather’s homeland, to find a wife from among the extended family. Nothing about this will be simple, as we shall hear next Sunday and the Sunday after. And it will all contribute to the birthing of the nation Israel, called by God (according to the Genesis story) to settle in the land of Canaan that has been gradually claimed by the generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, one settlement at a time.

Arab peoples have a very different narrative to tell, one that explains their claim to the land. The current events we agonize over, thousands of years later, still swirl around the collision of these stories.

Whether it may be Palestinians and Israelis facing their future, or Democrats and Republicans negotiating fiscal responsibility, it does not work to vilify opponents and paint the world black and white. God counts on Jacob. Jacob must face Esau. It is in face of the full complexity of human nature that our baptismal vows require us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving each as we love ourselves, respecting the dignity and worth of each person. We do not get to consign people to hell for their treachery, because we answer to a God who can utilize even treachery to achieve evolution towards a high global purpose.

We don’t have to like that, but it is part of the biblical message.

It is the revelation of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, and Jacob’s God: that right where we are, the raging waters of current events eddying around us and the day’s news being what it is, right there (not just right here) is holy ground where God is to be recognized, known, loved, and obeyed. And our calling is, like Jacob’s, to take each stone on which we fitfully sleep and set it up as a monument to grace and pardon, a reminder that God is in the place with us and calls us to a miracle: the turning of stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Who Will Lead?

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In reading the Gospels, context is everything. Matthew sets his familiar parable of the sower and the seed in the context of a sharp question: Who will lead the people of God in the next generation?

Jesus is surrounded by great crowds. He is a celebrity, admired by many, fascinating to many, magnetic in appeal. His parable takes a needle and pops that bubble, revealing that flashy popularity has little bearing on his question. Many will turn out to hear him and have their hearts warmed. Many will flock to him to experience the thrill of a movement, an event, something happening. But who will understand? Who will bear fruit? Who will last? Who will lead?

Our Lord’s short public ministry heightens the drama of this question. He’s on the radar screen of Israel just a short three years at most: it’s a brief run because of all the toes and clay feet he stepped on in that career of his. The Gospels dwell on the question What will happen when the religious hierarchy sets him up and imperial Rome snuffs him out?

You can say that this critical question is the Church’s question. Matthew’s Gospel dates from the period 90-110 in the Common Era, let’s say 60 years after the events it narrates. Some three generations separate today’s seaside sermon and its passing through pen and ink onto the parchment of Matthew’s Gospel. Still a burning question is Who will lead the Church into its future? The early Church attracted sizeable numbers to its community, both Jews and pagan souls of one stripe or another who found something admirable, something appealing, in the message and mission of Jesus Christ, his sacramental presence in the believing community, and his spiritual presence in believers.

But it takes many Christians to change the light bulb of leadership, to pass the torch to the next generation, to lead a movement that depends not just on the waters of baptism and prevenient amazing grace but also on blood, sweat, and tears for inspiring and overseeing the hard work of being the church in the world.

And let’s update this profile. Ask the nominating committee of this (and any) parish, and you’ll find the same critical question being asked, nearly two millennia later: Who will our leaders be?

It’s a question that can be asked in anxiety or in faith.

Matthew and Mark and Luke, three out of the four Gospel writers, make it clear that this question has been urgent and central to Christianity from the start, and answering it in faith essential. As any nominating committee labors over its task, let them hear this Gospel and recognize what powerful company they’re in! He too confronted the leadership question, revealed it to be central to, not antithetical to, the spiritual life, and did so by telling a parable, The Sower and the Seed.

We’ve essentially heard it twice today, once on its own and a second time by explanation. The same seed (the Good News of the reign of God on earth) fell on four different patches of earth. Some fell on a path, and if human feet didn’t crush it, birds came and ate it. Some fell on rocky ground (this must have been in New England) and while this seed sprouted quickly, that rocky ground dried out fast when the sun rose and, roots being shallow, these seedlings withered. Some seed fell among thorns, and you can picture what happened there: choked. Other seeds fell on good soil—and in a basically desert climate, good soil couldn’t have been easy to come by, must have required work and sacrifice to irrigate and cultivate—and behold, payday: these seeds brought forth grain (“…first the blade, and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear; grant, O harvest Lord, that we, wholesome grain and pure may be…”), in varying degrees of bounty.

We observed at “Sundays @ 9” this morning that while the poor soils get described by a long list of words or phrases (rocky, thorny, no depth, shallow roots), just two words apply uniquely to the good soil: understanding and bearing.

I hadn’t noticed that before. Nor that the parable throws us a few surprises. Seed sown on the path in the parable is sown, according to the explanation, “in the heart.” Seed sown on rocky ground is when the hearer receives the message joyfully. Come again? Don’t those sound like successful landings?

But no. The heart is apparently such an open place that birds of the air can swoop down and snatch what the heart holds (paradoxically, perhaps especially what the heart tries to hold onto too tightly).

And that rocky ground can resound with joy (aren’t we told somewhere that if we forget our Savior’s praise, the stones themselves will sing?), but even joy doesn’t cut the mustard, doesn’t sink our roots into the nourishing depth of understanding and bearing—and doesn’t weather the storms of trouble and persecution that have uncanny ability to disillusion people of faith and make us anxious skeptics.

This parable rises out of an urgent question. What critical question might the parable, in turn, inspire you to ask regarding your own spiritual practice?

I hope it’s how do you cultivate a receptive place within yourself to accept the seed, the message, the knowing of God, the transformative opportunities God presents. Without openness to God in the present moment, the seed does not sprout and mature to understanding and bearing.

You may want a more practical answer to that question, now in this sermon. But while I’m going to disappoint you on that score, I can suggest you come to “Sundays @ 9” this summer, where we’ll be considering just that kind of question: how to cultivate within our lives receptive places for the seed.

And until you arrive at your own answer to that question, I recommend treasuring the insight of St. Paul, shared with us today in his Letter to the Romans: “To let your mind be preoccupied with the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” He reminds us that, despite all the media messaging that barrages us, we who are baptized into Christ are not only in the flesh; we are also in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us.

There is the rich deep ground of our being that we may cultivate, work, turn over, sink roots into, depend on, and rest upon.

And there is our baptismal birthright, not to be traded away for anything.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pulling Together

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

It’s good to see young Isaac in a much better place in life than he was last week. Amazing, really, what the passing of a week will do. Or, in the Book of Genesis, the passing of a few patriarchal chapters. Last Sunday, he was bound and strapped to a crude altar on a mountaintop in the land of Moriah, and his father, Abraham, was poised with a dagger ready to offer his son’s life in sacrifice to God. From young Isaac’s victimized viewpoint, this was not going to be one of those mountaintop experiences you get to narrate in your spiritual autobiography. However one tells last Sunday’s Isaac story, it’s Abraham who gains the insight (namely, that the chosen people he will lead must not let their values be shaped by the old prevailing cultures around them, but will listen to and obey the mind and will of God)—but as important as that sounds, Isaac must nonetheless have been traumatized on that mountain.

So it’s good today to hear about Isaac welcoming Rebekah into his life, thanks to social networking of an ancient type. A trusted servant had been sent back to the ancestral homeland to find a wife for Isaac. This servant returned with Rebekah, a relative of Isaac, and it was clear that she was everyone’s idea of a perfect choice. The portion we heard today, part of a longer spinning of the story, is meant to witness to the fact that when the key players listen to and obey the mind and will of God, great choices get made: the choosing God does is implemented by the choosing that the key players do.

These Genesis stories are telling the story of the founding of a nation, Israel, and of its being chosen out of the many nations to be a light to all nations, its covenant relationship with God having formed and shaped the nation’s heart and mind and will to listen to and obey God. That was the vision.

The reality, as Matthew reminds us, is that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. The Hebrew Bible presents an archive or scrapbook of the many times Israel’s actions modeled her high calling, and the many times when she failed.

A son of Israel, the apostle Paul, commenting on his own failures to demonstrate faithful covenant love, said that he could delight in the law of God in his inmost self, but simultaneously see in his makeup, in his own little constellation of human contradictions, another law at war with the law of his mind, making him captive to the law of sin, and therefore a wretched man.

I can’t read his words on this Independence Day weekend without hearing them offer a wrenching description of what may happen to a nation, as well as to an individual. St. Paul’s fearless self-exposure was meant, I expect, to suggest that this law of internal contradiction can land a nation in the same pickle that he found himself in: stuck, caught in the quicksand of willing what is right but not doing it.

That’s an apt description of what’s befalling our own nation. Our two-party system is paralyzed. We can will what is right but we cannot do it. We can elect leaders whose will we agree with, but we then watch them sink in the quicksand of that partisan war in our members that runs concertina wire down the center aisle of Congress.

Our Gospel portion today ends with words meant to be heard by the fed-up and the burned-out.

“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.”

For me, that’s the Christian Gospel in a paragraph. It conveys wisdom hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants, and I take that to mean that we should consider sending our elected leaders to kindergarten for revelation of what they most need to know. Like why that center aisle in Congress is the most important spot in the house, the frontier of the promised land, the negotiating space where we need there to be a rush from both sides to tear down that wall… and stay there, in the aisle, not returning to those seats of power until the real work is done.

“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.” The yoke is an invention that harnessed one easily-defeatable ox to another ox, creating the collaborative strength needed for carrying heavy burdens. That yoke is what is symbolized by the stole wrapped around the neck and shoulders of clergy, a constant reminder that it takes teamwork to pull-together for the good of the Church and for the good of the world.

And where the good news dwells in that metaphor of the yoke is in the identity of the one to whom you are yoked: Jesus Christ himself is the burden-bearer right next to you, alongside you, closer to you than breath itself. Even if it’s ox-breath.

Weary leaders, weary voters, all who are weary need to learn the lesson that our yokemate is gentle and humble in heart. To truly work in tandem with Christ, in tandem with Lady Wisdom if you prefer to see it, our pace and manner and style will require new discipline, new ways of acting, and new ways of resting.

As much as I love this Gospel text, I stumble on its final promises, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I sometimes recite this Gospel when I administer communion in a crisis, like in a hospital CCU or some other tough setting where I’m traveling light. How can I dare to speak of an easy yoke or a light burden when life itself may be in the balance? The person in that bed may be facing a long rehab period and many demanding changes…

Just the right moment to hear that the burden-bearer in the other half of the yoke is going to do the heavy lifting that will lighten the burden, and to hear the Christ claim the whole of the relationship by calling it “my yoke.”

May the grace that we can hear in a pastoral application of this great Gospel text become clear to all who could benefit from its political potential: the good news that cooperation across the most surprising lines and divides may bring exponential easing of burdens, even what St. Paul yearns for: rescue from this body of death, freeing the body for new life.