Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who's "in" and who's "out"?

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

            I think I could have written three sermons on the scriptures today. Each one is so filled with important messages for us. In our Old Testament reading, we have Jacob fleeing into the wilderness. For those of you not familiar with this story: Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, fought with his older twin brother Esau even in the womb. They were fraternal twins with nothing in common. Isaac loved Esau best because he was a hunter and brought meat into the household. Their mother, Rebecca, knew by prophecy that Jacob, though he was second-born, would inherit and rule over his brothers and receive his father’s blessing. Suffice it to say that in a moment of weakness Esau gave Jacob his birthright. At a later date, Jacob outright lied to their blind father to get Isaac’s blessing and therefore, Esau’s inheritance as firstborn. Esau promises to kill Jacob, and at this point in the scriptures, Jacob is fleeing for his life, out in the wilderness, trying to go to his mother’s brother for sanctuary. He feels as though he has lost everything, and may yet lose his life. Jacob lies down to sleep without even bothering to look for a soft or pleasant place – the sun had set, and he merely moves a stone to use as a pillow, and, exhausted, falls into deep slumber.
            This man is not an upright and moral man. A liar, a thief if you will, and from his family, no less! Yet it is to him that God comes. God isn’t calling to Jacob from heaven, She is standing beside Jacob; repeating the promises made to Abraham and Isaac of owning great amounts of land, having many children and possessions; how Jacob and his family will bless the nations. God says that Jacob will never be alone; God will always be with him.
            In the morning, Jacob realizes that this deserted place is the house of God. He takes the stone he used for a pillow, turns it into an altar, pours oil over it as a blessing, and names it Bethel, literally “house of God”. Throughout history, we have used oil for blessing, anointing and sanctifying, both people and places. Jacob is not worshipping the stone; he is making a sacrament, the physical and outward sign of an inward and spiritual event.
            And this event: the coming of God to Jacob, changed not only the place where it happened, it also changed Jacob. Though it’s not in our reading for today, the next verse shows the dramatic turnaround that occurred in Jacob’s life: he makes a vow, telling God that if he survives the coming ordeal and is eventually allowed back into his father’s lands in peace, he will be God’s devoted servant. This opportunist and liar has become a man of God. God’s message to Jacob about how he will be a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth is surely a blessing to us. It shows us that there is always hope – hope that, with God’s help, we can turn our lives around, from a path of destruction such as Jacob was on, to a path where we will be a blessing to others.
            Paul continues his letter to the Romans in our New Testament reading, and again I remind you that there is a great difference in the way Paul uses the word sarx or “flesh” and soma, which means “body”. Flesh has to do with an unhealthy attitude and focus on the body, whether it is an obsession with making your body perfect, or being obsessed in a sexual way. It has to do with power, over yourself or other people. The body (soma) has no negative connotation, it is neither good or bad, it is simply the body. In this passage, Paul is telling the people that because they have accepted Christ, they, and we, are God’s children, that we are heirs of God’s kingdom, brothers and sisters of Jesus.
            The Roman Christians were experiencing persecution; enduring great difficulties in their lives. Paul reminds them not to fall back into fear: that as servants of God, we have no reason to fear. This world is not as it should be – it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Suffering is part of all of life; we all experience great pain at some point – whether it is physical or emotional, it just is, because the world is not as God wants it to be. Paul’s point is not that anyone (including Christ) earns glory by suffering; rather, as he seeks to describe what it means to be a joint heir with Christ: he notes that the joint heir's life is characterized by the same pattern that shaped Christ's life. To be connected to Christ is to know humiliation, and exaltation. To be an heir with Christ is to share in Christ's suffering and resurrection. 

            Paul is not saying hope for heaven, in the sky, by and by. That freedom of which he writes is not freedom from the material world, but freedom within a restored creation. It is the freedom of an embodied life that reflects the image and glory of God. Paul points to that freedom and describes what it is like to hope for such a thing here and now. He uses the words for "son" and "child" to refer not to Jesus, but to his siblings, we who are led by the Spirit. As "flesh" referred to a power that enslaves us and keeps us from participating in God's glory, the Spirit is the power that frees and enlivens us for a new identity as children of God. 

            One cause of suffering for those who have received the Spirit of adoption, is that the Spirit has given us reason to hope for more than we can see. Paul’s meaning of suffering includes anything that threatens to separate us from God's love. For now, the suffering Paul speaks of is suffering that comes from knowing what the world could be, even as we live in the world as it is. Then he writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Let us be patient, my friends: for the joy engendered in our relationship with our Creator through Christ Jesus is worth the wait.
            Our Gospel is a wonderful teaching for us, though to simply read the scripture without digging deeper might only bring us confusion, and lead us in the wrong direction. We have wheat and weeds, comingled together, and the servants are anxious to pull up the weeds, to root out the “evil” in the field so that a bountiful harvest would grow, undeterred by evil weeds within the wheat field. I doubt that there is anyone here who hasn’t questioned why God allows evil to exist. Haven’t we all at some time wanted to take matters into our own hands and get rid of the evil we see? The master stops the slaves from doing anything of the sort. For one thing, it is not so easy to tell the weeds from the wheat, and for another, their roots are intertwined below the ground. Rooting out the weeds would uproot the wheat as well; doing more damage to the crop than leaving the weeds to grow until harvest.
            It sounds as though Jesus is saying that there are two groups of people in the world -- children of the kingdom and children of the evil one, wheat and weeds -- and that their destinies are fixed from the beginning. Jesus says that at the end of the age, the angels will "collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin (skandala) and all evildoers, and will throw them into the furnace of fire”. Elsewhere Jesus warns those who put a stumbling block (skandalon) before any of the "little ones" that it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their neck and to be drowned in the sea. Similarly he warns that if your hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo), it is better to cut it off or pluck it out and enter life blind or maimed, than to be thrown into the "hell of fire" with body intact. All of these phrases are hyperbole of course, exaggerated speech meant to jar us into recognizing the seriousness of anything that leads us, or others into sin. It seems to suggest that skandalon may be something within a person rather than the whole person.
            We know that it is not really our hand, foot, or eye that causes us to sin. Sin comes from the human heart: kardia, which in Greek refers to the inner self, the mind and will. No human is able to pluck out the inner self. Perhaps when Jesus says that the angels will collect all skandala to burn in the fire, he means that everything within us that causes sin will be burned away.
            It doesn't quite fit the logic of the parable, which seems to be talking about two groups of people and speaks of throwing all evildoers into the furnace of fire. Yet it fits with other texts in Matthew about stumbling blocks. 
Remember where Jesus tells Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." In spite of these strong words and Peter's repeated failings, Jesus does not give up on Peter; rather, he entrusts the future of his mission to him and the rest of his disciples, who more often than not don’t understand what he’s trying to teach them. 
So perhaps we shouldn’t take the parable too literally. In the world we know, weeds do not become wheat. Yet Matthew's story holds out hope even for those who stumble -- yes, even for the one whom Jesus calls a stumbling block!
            Perhaps there were some overzealous "weeders" in Matthew's congregation who wanted to purify the community by rooting out the bad seed. This seems to be a temptation for followers of Jesus in every age. Many Christians carry on a weeding frenzy, certain that they know the difference between weeds and wheat, and that they know how to deal with the weeds! Jesus' parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds will only do more damage to the crop. This has happened far too many times in congregations and denominations, with some determined to root out anyone who does not agree with the "right" interpretation of Scripture, liturgical practice, or stand on a particular issue, or way of life. There are many who pronounce judgment on people outside the church: on people of other faiths, for instance: declaring them to be destined for eternal damnation. Whether judgment is focused within the church or without, it does serious damage to the church and its mission.
            Jesus makes clear that we are not the judge of who is "in" or who is "out." In fact, in scripture we are told that God's judgment about these matters will take many by surprise: that many will be “in” that we don’t expect, and many will be “out” that we never thought would be. The Bible tells us that God is love, and Jesus tells us to be a neighbor and friend to all. We can leave the weeding to the angels, and get on with the work Jesus has called us to do: loving all those we meet and caring for those in need. Amen.

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