Sunday, July 27, 2014

27 July 2014 -- Proper 12

Proper 12 / 7 Pentecost  — 27 July 2014
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

RCL1:  Genesis 29:15-28  |  Psalm 128  |  Romans 8:26-39  |  Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

(I love that line in the first reading, “When morning came, it was Leah!”  I wrote  a sermon about that that I kind of like!  Unfortunately, I have already preached it to you three years ago!)

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…like yeast…like treasure…like a merchant…like a net…”

When you hear the phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” what pops up in your mind?  Or “the kingdom of God”?  (The phrases have the same meaning.)

In recent years I think we’ve gotten a little more aware of what Jesus means, and doesn’t mean, when he talks about the kingdom of God (which he does all the time – that, after all, is his mission from the beginning:  to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God).  But I think there still lingers some baggage on the word “kingdom,” and on the phrase “kingdom of God,” that we acquired somewhere along the way and need to be aware of, so that it doesn’t distort our understanding of what Jesus is talking about.

First of all, for us a “kingdom” often is first of all a political entity, a geographical area, typically a nation-state, like “The United Kingdom.”  But in the ancient world, and in the world of the Bible, that’s not really what is meant by the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or Latin words that we translate “kingdom.”  A perhaps subtle but important distinction:  they carry the idea that we would call “kingship,” “reign,” “rule.”  Yes, it involves geographical extension, but it’s really about personal dominion. The kingdom of God is not a place, but a life in which God rules.  It is God’s kingship.

Well, what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  We all grew up with all sorts of pictures, many of which continue to appear in cartoons in the New Yorker,  where they are usually pretty funny.  Clouds, and angels playing harps, and streets paved with gold (well, that’s from the Revelation of St. John, who didn’t mean that any more literally than any of the other bizarre apocalyptic imagery he uses).  But in sum, I think we tend to think of the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, as a very religious place.  (Which may explain why lots of folks really aren’t particularly interested in going there!) 

Well, anyway, Jesus tells little stories about what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is really like.  One of the things we notice, I hope, is that these are not particularly religious stories.  I think we need to remind ourselves, paying attention to what the Gospels actually say, that Jesus was not in fact very religious.  (The scribes and Pharisees were very religious.  Jesus gave them a hard time about it.  They gave him a hard time because he wasn’t.)  Occasionally there are religious figures in Jesus’ stories, but they are not usually the good guys.  The priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side.  The Pharisee in the Temple who reminds God about how religious he is.  The little stories that we hear in the Gospel today are very ordinary, day-to-day life, stories.  They tend to be a bit extravagant, as we’ll see, but they’re not particularly religious.  And my own suspicion, because of their extravagances, is that if we could actually hear them as Aramaic speakers we would realize that they are jokes.  Not that they’re not serious, but they’re amusing.  People hearing them probably laughed.  Maybe a little nervously, especially as they began to “get” them and to realize how much they actually challenge us and how we think about things.  Jesus was not a standup comedian, but I think he was a little like Mark Twain.

Today Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”  The smallest of all seeds, he says; well, not really; lots of seeds, especially flower seeds, are smaller; but compared with wheat seed, or barley seed, or olive pits, or acorns, or other agricultural seeds, they are pretty small.  But a mustard plant gets to be pretty good size, although “tree” is something of an exaggeration.  But this parable is not a lecture in botany.  The tree in which the birds come and nest is an image of a great kingdom that protects all its people.  [Ps 104; Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:12,21]  That’s how God’s kingdom is.  Unexpectedly extravagant.

Again:  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”  Another extravagant tale:  three “measures” of flour is not three measuring cups, the Greek word means about ten gallons!  That’s a lot of bread!  And the text says the woman “hid” the yeast in the dough.  And in the morning she uncovers her (very large!) mixing bowl, and poof!  The kingdom of God works like that.  Undercover, unexpected, extravagant!

Again:  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…”  Does anyone notice that the guy in this episode is dishonest; at least in Roman law this would have been illegal?  After all, this treasure is not the finder’s to recover, it belongs to the field’s owner, and to buy it without telling the owner why you want it is a little crooked.  (In our modern world no investor or real-estate speculator would ever pull off something like that!  Oh, surely not!)  But that’s not the point.  The kingdom of God is worth giving up everything else in order to gain.  Unexpectedly extravagant.

And so also with the jewel merchant who finds the pearl of great price.  More extravagance!

And then Jesus shifts the tone a little.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”  The kingdom gathers in everyone, with extravagantly open arms, and sorts them out only later.  Kind of like the Wheat and the Weeds.  And then there is added another instance of what a lot of us think is a later addition by the early Christians “explaining” with the bit about the angels what the parable means.  We saw the same kind of thing with the parables of the Sower and of the Wheat and Weeds in the last two weeks.  Like I said last Sunday, I don’t think Jesus ever “explains” his parables.  We either “get” them or we don’t.  The early Christians, compiling the Gospels from the original Jesus traditions, felt guilty because so often they didn’t get them at first, so they felt they had to explain them!  Not to say that this explanation is wrong, but I think Jesus himself left it up to us.

Then Jesus wraps up this set of stories:  “So do you get it?”  They answered, “Yes.”  Actually, at the time, probably not!  And Jesus concludes with a final parable:  If you do get it, you’re like somebody who lives not only by the tradition but also is open to radically new insights, because that’s what the kingdom is like.  The kingdom is not “up there.”  The kingdom is not off in the sweet by-and-by.  the kingdom is not “here!” or “there!” (as Jesus points out elsewhere [Luke 17.20-21]).  The kingdom is among us, within us, in our midst, suddenly, extravagantly, right when we least expect it, beginning here, beginning now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

20 July 2014 -- Proper 11

6th after Pentecost / Proper 11 — 20 July 2014
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

RCL1:  Gen 28:10-19a  |  Ps 139:1-12,23-24  |  Rom 8:12-25  |  Matt 13:24-30,26-43

Let both of them grow together until the harvest. [Matt 24:30]
The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. [Romans 8:22]

I have never really been much of a gardener.  Oh, at various times I’ve grown some vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn when I had room for it.  But it hasn’t really been “my thing.”  And in our present house, the shade trees in the back yard have made growing tomatoes virtually impossible.  Wendy is a bit more of a flower gardener, which she does very well.  Especially hostas, which love all the shade!  But I have found that, after many years of living in rectories, and then in rental housing, since we have ad our own houses I have a somewhat different attitude toward lawn and garden issues.  This ground is now mine!  And I take the presence of weeds as a personal insult.

Some weeds are pretty obvious.  In the lawn, for instance, dandelions show up pretty readily, and are relatively easily controlled, and so far I have been generally victorious in this battle.  Crabgrass is also fairly obvious but less easily controlled, and by the end of the summer the war is something of a stalemate.  Creeping charlie is always kind of a tossup, though I have made some progress.

Garden weeds are something else, especially in the spring if you are planting from seed.  It takes a while before you can be sure whether these little green sprouts are what you planted, or what The Enemy planted!  And so you have to exercise a bit of care.

What you don’t do, whether you’re growing flowers, or vegetables, or a field crop like wheat or corn, is let the weeds grow up with the crop until the harvest.  One, it makes the flowerbed look all ratty, and although aesthetics is not exactly the point of farming, there is something really lovely about an absolutely clean field of soybeans, and something tacky about a beanfield full of scraggly volunteer cornstalks and pigweed.  Two, and more important, weeds draw away moisture and nutrients that should be going to the crop.  (I see that herbicide-resistance is now bringing back the annual summer teenage task of walking beans!)

All of this was just as much true in the first century as it is today, and a Galilean farmer hearing Jesus tell this story that we call the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (or the Wheat and the Tares, though most of us wouldn’t recognize a tare if it grew in the middle of our geranium pot.  Actually, “tares” are probably darnel, a weed that looks a lot like young wheat) — a Galilean farmer hearing this story would have said, “Whattayou crazy?  You're a carpenter, obviously not a farmer!”  I think this is one of those stories that Jesus tells that we have “scripturalized” and tamed so that it no longer occurs to us how much it really runs counter to common sense.  Even the earliest Christians had trouble with this — if the consensus of New Testament scholars is right, and in this instance I think it is, the second half of today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus is depicted as “explaining” the parable, is actually an addition by the church a generation or so later, who felt a need to come up with some plausible religious interpretation of what is actually a very difficult and troubling story.  (A lot of us think that Jesus never “explained” his parables.  Either we get them, or not.  Often not.)

And so we read this story as an allegory of the last judgment.  Well, I don’t think that’s wrong — part of the point of parables is to suggest a variety of interpretations — but I think that what the story is really about is (what we call) the problem of evil.  And what it says is not really what we want to hear.

We naturally and understandably assume that God is a God who fixes things for us.  (And there is a sense in which that’s true, though what God fixes is not so much “things” but us, if we will let God’s grace work in us.)  But I think that Jesus is suggesting to us in this story that God is not a “fix-it” kind of God.  At least not always right now.  Ultimately, all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well (as the Lady Julian says).  But in the meantime God lets the weeds grow.  And furthermore, God has to let the weeds grow for our sake.  Pulling the weeds up now would destroy us too.  But I’ll come back to that in a minute.

(When I say God has to do something, of course I don’t mean that there are any external constraints that can compel God to do a thing or prevent God from doing another thing.  God is, after all, God!  But God is who God is, as God told Moses at the burning bush, and in that sense God cannot contravene God’s own nature.  God must be true to God’s own self.  And in relation to us, God’s creation, God must act consistently with the purpose and destiny of the creation.  I’ll come back and pick this up again too the next time around.)

We need to approach this issue with some care.  There are a lot of people out there, and maybe some of you in here, who have been hurt very badly in one way or another — themselves, or people they love — and they asked God to fix it, and God didn’t fix it, at least not the way they wanted, and so they are dealing with pain, or anger, or despair, or all three, and that’s all very real.  And it simply won’t do for us to say, “Well, that’s how the world is, that’s how God is, suck it up.”

Because that’s not what God says to us.  God says, “My grace is sufficient for you [2 Cor 12:9], if you will receive it and let it change you, let it change your life, and thus change your world.  I cannot just pull up the weeds for you.  But I can do this — I will do this — I have done this:  I will come and be with you, and I will bear on myself all that the world’s weeds can do, and I will live, and in the end I will gather you to me at harvest-home.”  And that is how we in God’s Name must be with those who hurt.  Not everything can be fixed, but we can be there to share the hurt.

Here’s the hard truth:  the necessary condition of the possibility of freedom is the possibility of evil.  In order for love to be possible, hatred must be permitted.  God could have created a universe of robots in which everything is precisely programmed.  And maybe in some alternate universe God did so.  But that’s not the universe we have been given to live in.  God created us in the divine image and likeness, to share in the work of building the world, to share with one another the love of God for us and to freely return in that love to God.  God does not make us grow, God lets us grow.

And the corollary is that God has to let the weeds grow too, else we would no longer be free, we could not be what God created us to be.  If God pulls the weeds, it destroys us as well.  So the weeds have to be allowed to grow too. 

But only for a time.  Not forever.