From invasive dirty rotten scoundrels the Kingdom comes.

A sermon for Proper 12

Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45b, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Ever feel like you missed something? I mean last week Jacob was pouring oil on a rock pillar naming the place Bethel / House of God, and this morning he gets married  ~ twice! What happened? Well not much and everything. Jacob continues his journey and comes across some shepherds, who tell him he is in Haran, and introduces him to his cousin Rachel, Laban’s daughter. Jacob falls ~ hard.

It’s interesting that this is the second of the patriarchs to meet a wife at a well, and Moses will meet Zipporah at a well, which make Jesus meeting the woman at the well all the more interesting. Back to Jacob.

Rachel runs and tell her father about Jacob, he runs to meet his nephew greeting him bone of my bone and flash of my flesh an acknowledgement of their kinship.  (Menn) In a scene that seems out of synch, like we don’t know that Jacob has meet Rachel, and assumes we know of some agreement for Jacob to work for Laban we are suddenly at the end of a contract negotiation where Laban asks Jacob what should his wages be for 7 years labor, and Jacob asks for Rachel, and Laban, without hesitation or comment agrees.

In the space between sentences 7 years go by and Jacob asks for his wife. Laban gathers his family for the wedding feast. Only at the appointed time he sends Leah into Jacob’s tent. In the morning, when the great deceiver discovers he has been deceived, he confronts Laban, who simply says: This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the firstborn.

Jacob’s supplanting his older brother has been reversed. After a one sentence negotiation and the customary week long celebration, Laban gives Rachel to Jacob, for an additional seven years.

Some observations about marriages in this story. Having both daughters marry last year, I am glad the celebration time is two or three days, not a week. At this point in biblical time marriage is not a commitment between two consenting people; it is an alliance between two men involving the exchange of women. Also a man having more than one wife is acceptable; though in this case it’s a stretch skirting prohibitions about a man marrying sisters. (Menn)

Dana’e Ashley remarks:

that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed. (Ashley)

She further notes that:

[In that] time, leavening was something that people understood in scripture as unclean or evil. … leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients.  (Ashley)

As I read reach of these, both times I immediately thought of both Jacob and Laban. Both behave as invasive weeds you’d just as soon they go away, and no matter what you do they have a way of hanging around. Both have a rotten dimension to their persons, that effects the people around them.

The mustard seed’s tiny size suggests an unexpected hiddenness, (Hoezee) to the Kingdom’s presence.  The unexpected is also in the leaven parable, kneading dough is woman’s work and in 1st century, that’s not what one would expect God’s Kingdom to be compared to. (Hoezee) That Jacob is the progenitor of God’s chosen people is unexpected, and if we read the story, without knowing the end, divine intent is certainly obscure. And a dirty rotten scoundrel is not the one we’d expect to be the front line of revealing G0d’s presence and being a blessing to all the peoples of the world.

Beyond being a part of biblical history Jacob is a type of a parable about God how God goes about divine work, and what the Kingdom is really about. Remember to this point in the story Jacob has spoken to or about God once and then he hedges his bet. God calls people as they are, he walks with them, and in that journey people are transformed. Twice now Jacob’s plan has been disrupted: God comes to him in a dream, and he wakes up with Leah. The faithful response to both requires risk. (Carter)

This hodgepodge of story connection relates to us because: none of us saw this day, when Blytheville would be half the size it once was, and St Stephen’s less than that. Our plans have been disrupted. Is God in this? Yes! I don’t believe in a causal way, but God is present. Jacob’s story as parable, and this morning’s parables reveal truths about the way forward. Our future may well be hidden, and we will likely stumble across it. A faithful response will be risky. Those involved in revealing our role in bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, may not, I’ll go so far as to say will not be from expected sources. As strange as it sounds “from invasive dirty rotten scoundrels the Kingdom comes” is a gleaning from today’s readings.

I’m not sure what to do with it except, as Ashley says that:

We must trust God.

The God that uses what others think is unusable.
The God that calls us to love others with reckless abandon.
The God that sees in us what others cannot see.
By living this way, we become of what the Kingdom of Heaven is made. (Ashley)

and ~ that nothing: invasive weeds, rotten bread, disruptions or surprises is ever between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 


Works Cited

Ashley, Rev. Dana’e. Sermons that Work. 27 7 2014.

Carter, Warren. Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. 27 7 2014.

Hoezee, Scott. This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching. 27 7 2014.

Menn, Ester M. Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28. 27 7 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in the gap(s)

A sermon for Proper 11, 6th Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

So, Jacob is one the run, he’s left the land promised Abraham and is headed back to Haran where Abraham lived after leaving Ur until his father died, and then continues his journey. In covenant terms,

Jacob is going backward. Why? Well, the answer lies in the gap (Seddon) between last week’s tale about lentil stew exchanged for a birth-right. Lots happened (pardon the pun). Esau marries a couple of Hittite wives and life in Isaac’s family gets even tenser. When Isaac gets older, and his eye sight begins to fail, he calls Esau and give him instructions on how to prepare to receive his blessing. Rebekah calls Jacob, tells him of Isaac’s plan to bless Esau, instructs him what to do so he can fool his father, and steal his brother’s blessings. He does as Rebekah says and steals the blessing that rightly belongs to the oldest son, Esau. This time Esau doesn’t cool down, he plans to kill Jacob. Again Rebekah scheming saves the day; she complains to Isaac about the Hittites wives expresses concern Jacob will marry a Hittite woman and ask Isaac to send Jacob to her father’s home,  Harran, to get a wife. Isaac does as Rebekah asks, and Jacob’s escape begins, which is where we pick up the story.

An interesting aside; Esau notices Rebekah’s displeasure with his Hittites wives and goes to Ishmael, remember him? and marries one of his daughters. But back to today’s story.

Jacob travels for the day, at evening using a rock for a pillow settles in for a recuperative sleep. He has a dream he sees a ladder, it’s like one of the ziggurats tall pyramid structures with outside stairs reaching to the sky, think tower of Babble. (Menn Genesis) It’s surprising; angles are going up and down the steps from heaven to earth, and from earth to heaven. Suddenly God is standing beside him.

 I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, …

It’s the same promise God made to Abraham [i] Now, having duped your brother out of his birthright and just stolen his blessing God is not the first person you’d want to see. (Menn Genesis) But notice, God does not judge Jacob. God will keep working with Jacob just he did with Abraham and Isaac and company after they took things into their own hands. And even though this is the first time Jacob speaks to God or honestly invokes God its likely his world view is shaken up. All those bed time stories he father tells may be true. Heaven may be much closer to earth and God much closer to people to him. (Hoezee , Genesis) It appears as if Jacob is converted, setting up the pillar naming the place Bethel, house of God.

 The next few verses, that we don’t read, tones that down a bit, as Jacob inserts some conditional ‘if’’ language; (Hoezee Genesis) however it may just indicate Jacob’s cautious discernment, (Menn Genesis) and I can vouch that most folks are cautious about discerning a divine call; I was. Moreover, the ‘if’ reveals that Jacob is living in the gap: between where he is and where he is going, where God is leading him; between now and the keeping of the covenant promise that will bring blessings to all the families of the earth.

 Now, I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time living in the gap. If I understand the schedule I work with it, but here the promise is, either nearly 2,000 years old, as we await Jesus’ return in glory, or something like 6,000 years old since God made the covenant promise to Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations/families/people of the earth. I believe Jesus knows this. More importantly for us this morning,

I believe Jesus knew this, and he’s trying to teach the disciples how go to about living in the gap.

 You know weeds, surreptitiously planted, are growing among the wheat. You may not know the weeds are darnel, and if not separated will totally ruin harvested wheat when milled. (Hoezee Matthew) The standard practice of the day is to pull it all up. Jesus/God says “Not now, the hired hands will take care of it at the harvest.” One more instance of how divine thoughts are not our thoughts. And notice we ~ are not the hired hands; so even if it were time, that sorting is not our responsibility, it’s an angelic responsibility.

 So what’s Jesus teaching? Scott Hoezee writes: “At bottom line this parable is about patience.” (Hoezee Matthew) Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit is around to help us with this patience thing. It’s harder than we realize.

 Warren Carter writes:

The field where Jesus sows is identified as “the world,” the realm of everyday political, economic, social, and religious life dominated by Roman imperial power. Jesus’ activity invades this sphere of empire to sow “good seed” … [Jesus] forms a distinct community. This community comprises “the children of the empire” who live lives shaped by God’s empire and committed to doing the will of God. (Carter Matthew)

 Rome was the dominate: political, military, and economic power of her day. Through the centuries in this part of the world that role has past to and from, many powers primarily European. Today, we fill that role, we are empire. And it affects us and others in ways we cannot see, because our world view is empire.

These last two weeks I was in Memphis for my fist D.Min. class. Our professor is a biblical scholar who was born and raised in Africa. He shared a story he learned from his father and grandfather passed down by their ancestors:

When the colonist arrived we had the land they had the bible. When they left, we had the bible, they had the land. (Niang)

 

The effects of empire are generational, and that includes here, today where the generational effects of slavery continues to impact peoples’ lives.

 This does not make us anything other than what we are: children of God’s kingdom, living in empire, just as the early Christian were. What it does do, is to teach us to learn patience, to teach us not to rush to judgment, because all people are created bearing the image of God. (Carter Matthew)

 [pause]

 So, ~ what does it all mean about living in the gap? For me and my ten thousand foot world view, it means naming empire; it means offering teaching moments for those who wish to adjust their lens so they can see the generational effects of empire, allowing them to make different kinds of decisions; it means constantly, prayerfully seeking divine guidance for my own vision. For my and others ground level world view, it means taking the risk of exploring how you see the word; it means beginning the process of adjusting your world view lenses; (and yes this is another gap) it means beginning to discern how our behaviors, especially towards the least of these needs to change; it means to seek the wisdom to withhold judgment, even as we speak the truth; it means being earnest and patience, with ourselves, with each other, and with those who have not yet been lead to clearer world view. It means ~ trusting God will answer our prayer to

Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; … (BCP 216)

 Amen


 

[i] Genesis 13:16


Carter, Warren. “Commentary on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.” 20 7 2014. Working Preacher.

Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 28: 10-19a.” 20 7 2014. Working Preacher.

—. “The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.” 20 7 2014. Center for Excellence in Preaching.

Menn, Esther. “Working Preacher.” 20 7 2014. Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a.

Niang, Aliou Cisse. “Faith, and Public Health: A Framework.” Memphis Theological Seminary DM 100001. Memphis, n.d. notes.

Seddon, Rev. Matt. “6 Pentecost, Proper 11 (A) – 2014; Groaning: The soundtrack of creation.” 20 7 2014. Sermons that Work.

The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

 

Widely, Wildly Sown Divine Grace

A sermon for Proper 10, the 5th after Pentecost

Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Every now and again you’ve got to wonder why God bothers; you might even wonder about divine choices. I mean look at Abraham: yes, he follows God’s call to leave Ur, then he and Sarah lie about their relationship out of fear; twice! Sarah guffaws when God promises them an heir, later Abraham agrees with Sarah to use a surrogate to produce an heir, it doesn’t seem as if God is any hurry and time is running out; then throws his oldest son and his mother out of his camp twice! is there a pattern here? When he and Sarah finally have a son he agrees to sacrifice him, and no I haven’t forgotten what I said a couple of week ago. We almost never hear of Abraham’s sons by Keturah, who he marries after Sarah dies and Isaac marries Rebekah. (Bible Hub) Last week we heard of Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah. Today we hear about Isaac and Rebekah efforts to continue to promise of the covenant.

She is also barren; Isaac prays for her, she conceives, and while God’s timing is better it is a difficult pregnancy. She is unsure of it, perhaps afraid of it – the mortality of pregnancy in ancient days is very high – but then God reveals to her she is carrying twins, both of whom will be fathers of great nations. She gives birth, to healthy and in no way identical twin boys. The very next story is of Esau selling his birth right to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup! a bowl of soup! Is this any way to build up a people beyond counting? Why does God stick with a family of such miserable failures?

Centuries upon centuries later Jesus gives us a clue. I’ve told you before about the photograph of Happy, taken by a photographer tied to the front of the crop duster, the grizzled faced pilot, the swirls of whatever it is trailing behind, and the snap line straight rows of the orchard below. Imagine for a moment the orchard is one of the industrial complexes by the river and then downtown Blytheville, and then the Sports complex, and then the golf course, and finally a freshly plowed field. Imagine for a moment the swirling clouds are cotton seeds. You’d think the farmer has lost his ever lovin mind! We are use to geo-satellite positioned tractors using detailed digital maps with specific soil conditions planting seed at varying depth applying fertilizer spraying insecticides to assure maximum crop yield. This is the modern way of doing things; we use all the resources we have to produce the highest possible yield, or return on investment in the shortest possible time.

Note the title of this parable, it comes from Jesus’ first words a sower went out to sow. We’ve heard all sorts of analogies about soil. But soil cannot change what it is. (Pankey) We’ve heard how we are sowers and are to choose soil carefully. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is on about. My colleague Stave Pankey blogged this week:

… Parable of the Sower is about the prodigality of God. … God spreads his love with reckless abandon in hearts that are at once all four different types of soil. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of the disciples, who, as Elisabeth Johnson points out, Jesus invests in over and over and over again despite their hard hearts, stiff necks, and dim minds. He continues to work at them, helping them to understand just what God is up to. He scatters the seed of the Gospel with reckless abandon, and even when it is clear that they just don’t get it, when they turn him over to the authorities, abandon him in his hour of need, and deny even knowing him; he continues to pour out his love on them, inviting them to back into the fold after his resurrection.

 

God is downright foolish with his love for us, scattering seed indiscriminately and tending to soil that should have been abandoned long ago. …  (Pankey)

Hold on to the ideal of God abundantly, wildly, widely sowing Grace for just a bit, and let’s revisit Esau, Jacob and the lentil stew.

Amy Willis writes

American Christians have been taught to correlate piety with traditional personal virtues like selflessness and guilelessness. Moreover, we tend to view our personal successes as rewards for our piety and virtues. (Willis)

She believes many bible stories challenge our world view of fairness, hard work, self-reliance and so on.

Willis also notes Esau is not starving to death, he does have a modern like preference for short term or immediate satisfaction. He is hungry ~ famished, that is all that matters. A birthright isn’t going to satisfy his hunger, lentil soup will. Willis continues with the observation that Jacob not only realizes the value of birthright, he is willing to look at the long term, and as we will see in the weeks to come, it will be many years, decades, before he brings to culmination the investment he made in this morning’s story. (Willis)

We do live in a culture with a very short vision, we always expect immediate results. We tend to read scripture through the same lens which may cause us to miss some of what scripture is trying to reveal. God doesn’t seem to have the same sense of timing. We know how that effects Abraham and Sarah’s decisions. We also know Abraham never sees the fullness of the covenant promise. Yes, he sees Isaac, but never the uncountable people, and never how they are a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Indeed that portion of the covenant may not have come to fruition yet.

And think about the New Testament promise of the future, Jesus returning in Glory. How long has it been? 2000 years; well almost. People of the Gospel era, expected Jesus’ immediate return. That’s why Paul did not favor marriage. And if you read his 7 letters in chronological order, (which are Paul’s and which are someone else’s is a subject for a Sunday school class) we see him realizing Jesus not returning when he thought, and struggle with the implications, and change his positions.

It has been nearly two thousand years. I don’t know about you but I’ve wondered when Jesus will return; I’ve wondered how Jesus will return, or is returning.

Today’s story of Jacob and Esau understood through the lens of the parable of the sower, helps us to refocus our vision scripture is not all about glory, it is, and from the beginning has been all about grace. Abundant grace wildly and widely sown in inconceivable distribution:

not to the 1%
or the 10%
or the 25%
or the 50%
or the 75%

grace is wildly sowed over everyone, everywhere. It’s sown over you, all of us.

So, can we see it and allow it to transform our lives? Can we share this most improbable story with others? those who are nothing like us? so as John says: They may come to believe …and through believing have life …

 

A spurious drop of ink and the wooing of Rebekah

A Sermon for Proper 9 – A, 4th after Pentecost

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 45: 11-18, Romans 7:15-25a,
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The wooing of Rebekah (Fretheim) seems to be a story about signs, Abraham’s servant is always looking for one sign or another. That’s not always a good idea.
There was a person who wanted to know God’s will and so he flipped open the Bible, blindly jabbed his finger at the text, and then read the verse, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Since that didn’t seem to provide quite the direction he was looking for, he tried again, this time plunking down on the verse, “Go and do likewise”! (Hozee)

And while there is plenty to be learned about preparing for, praying for and waiting (Schifferdecker) for divine guidance, it’s the interplay of hesed (kindness)and ʾemet (faithfulness) (Strong’s) where we will begin our journey this morning.

The unnamed servant makes a very intimate pledge to Abraham to get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s home country. The servant goes to Abrahams’ home town, and settles in by the well. There he asks God to show hesed, steadfast love, for Abraham, describes the sign he will look for, and waits. Rebekah shows up and offers him and his camels water. That’s the sign. The servant immediately gives thanks God has shown hesed. As the servant recounts his mission from Abraham, to Rebekah’s family he mentions God’s hesed again.
He is always giving The Lord credit. We have also developed a habit of giving God all the credit in bible stories, such as this.

And while the author of this tale makes it clear that without God’s steadfast love there would be no success (Fretheim), the ’emet faithfulness of the servant also plays an important role. Although success may well depend on God, the activity of human beings may bring about the failure or success of God’s intention. Fretheim) The servant’s faithfulness is apparent in two ways: one – his insistence on offering prayers for guidance and thanksgiving; and that he does not take the easy out Abraham’s gives him, if he cannot find a willing bride among his people. (Genesis 24:8) Without divine hesed Abraham’s vision is thwarted. Without the servant’s ʾemet Abraham’s vision is thwarted. It’s the interaction between the two by which Rebekah follow Abraham and leaves her family for unknown lands that bears fruit, ensuring the covenant continues for future generations. So when we set about mission and ministry let’s prepare for, pray for and wait for divine guidance, a form of hesed; and be prepared to act or not as we perceive a sign, or not.

All of this has curiously relevant timing. Friday we celebrated July 4th, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We all know the phrase:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

There are many who fear for these rights. So, it may be coincidence or divine guidance that Thursday’s New York Times ran an article about the question of a period. (Schuessler) Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. believes there is an error in the typical punctuation, of the Declaration, caused by an errant ink spot, that’s been interpreted as a period.
Allen, cites many sources that do not include the period. Unfortunately the original Document is so faded to make an exact determination isn’t possible. (Schifferdecker) What’s the big deal? The phrase that follows is:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

Allen says:
The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights … You lose that connection when the period gets added. (Schuessler)

At this point the ancient wisdom of Genesis sheds light on the implementation of the divine insight given our fore fathers in the Declaration of Independence. Yes, we have been endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among [them] … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (no period) … However, we also have a divine sign to secure these rights by governments [that] are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, … Just as it took hesed and ʾemet for Abraham’s vision to bear fruit; it takes unalienable Rights and Governments … instituted among Men for the vision of The Declaration of Independence to bear fruit. Without both hesed and ʾemet we cannot glean the fullness of divine revelation in the story Rebekah’s wooing. Without both unalienable rights and governments we cannot glean the fullness of independence revealed in our Declaration.

I fully recognize the difficulty of holding both unalienable rights and governments in dynamic tension. That is one reason I pray for all our elected leaders, by name in my daily prayers. I fervently believe if those elected and charged with the responsibility of governance begin every day with prayer, not for their position to win out but for:
thy Kingdom come,
thy will [to be] done
on earth as it is in heaven.
and waiting for hesed and ʾemet, then relationships among them will change and governance of the people for the people will be a vision fulfilled.
The results is the same as in the story of Rebekah’s wooing the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for generations to come will be secured.
Amen


Works Cited
Fretheim, Terence. The New Interpreters’ Bible. Vol. Volume 1 General Articles on the Bible; General Articles on the Old Testament; Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus. Abingdon, 1995. 12 vols. CD.
Hozee, Scott. Genesis 24:34-67. 6 July 2014. .
Schifferdecker, Kathryn. Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67. 6 7 2012. .
Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Period Is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence.” New York Times 3 7 2014. web. .
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. n.d.