Proper 11A: Climbing to the Edge

 

"Jacob's Dream", Adam Elsheimer, 1600
“Jacob’s Dream”, Adam Elsheimer, 1600

OLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 28: 10-19a

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This Old Testament text stands as one of the pillars of the Jacob story.  God transmits to him the ancestral promises, fulfilling the promise made to his father.  This is the first time that Jacob appears by himself, representing a new beginning for the larger story as well as for Jacob himself. Jacob has fled from his troubled family and the wrath of his brother, Esau.  In a way, he is also running away from himself and his own consequences.  And at his most vulnerable, God appears to him, not in judgment, but to confirm Jacob as the one who is chosen to carry on the promise.  He dreams that a ladder, or more than likely a stairway or ramp, extends from earth to heaven.  The Hebrew word is sullam, which is from the same root as “to cast up”, and so a ramp or a stairway probably makes more sense.

This stairway or ramp could be compared with those attached to temple towers throughout the ancient Near East, such as the Mesopotamian ziggurats.  These were land masses formed into temples through which it was believed the earth could touch heaven, the dwelling place of the gods.  Such structures provided an avenue of approach from the human sphere to the divine realm.  Priests or divine beings traversed up and down the stairway, providing communication between the two realms.  What this said was that earth was not merely left to its own devices and that heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods.  The two are intertwined, a part of one another.

But the importance here is not the presence of these divine beings—they serve only to depict the connection between the two realms.  More importantly, Yahweh, the Lord, stands beside Jacob and speaks directly to him.  Upon awakening, Jacob realizes the importance of his dream and he proceeds to interpret its significance.  He recognizes that he has some new idea of who God is.  Jacob takes God’s promises and claims them as part of who he is. He anoints the stone as a pillar, bringing sacredness to that which is holy.

A.W. Tozer said that “the patriarch Jacob…saw a vision of God and cried out in wonder, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.”  Jacob had never been for one small division of a moment outside the circle of that all-pervading Presence.  But he knew it not.  That was his trouble, and it is ours.  [Persons] do not know that God is here.  What a difference it would make if they knew.”

Some of the Jewish midrash suggests that the ladder is intended to represent humanity.  Like the ladder, each of us is firmly planted on earth.  But deep within us is the capability of “reaching upward” (figuratively), doing God’s will, and becoming the one that God created us to be.  This rhythm of ascent and descent, ascent and descent throughout our lives is what allows us to search ourselves and connect with God.

John Wesley made the claim, along the same vein, that Christ is the ladder, with a foot on earth in his human nature and the top in heaven just as Christ was divine.  “A ladder stood on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven.”

It is not that Jacob had no sense of God.  After all, the idea of YHWH, the God of Creation and calling had been drilled into his family from even before his Grandfather Abraham.  God was a part of his life.  But Jacob’s theophany, the full revealing of God to him, had to occur outside and away from what he knew.  And, finally, Jacob embraced God not just as the God of Abraham, but the God of Jacob, the God who rather than having merely a general relationship with Creation, chooses to relate intimately to each and everyone of God’s children.  Jacob’s eyes are opened to a wider vision of God than he possibly could have imagined before.  It was not in this specific place that Jacob encountered God; it was, rather, here that Jacob realized that God had been there all along.  In fact, Jacob doesn’t even have to climb the ladder.  He encounters God without DOING anything.  It was here that he probably realized all that he’d been missing.  Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe there’s nothing that we have to DO except see what we’ve been missing all along. 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What image of God does this story create for you?
  3. What, like Tozer said, keeps us from realizing that all-pervading Presence that is God in our lives?
  4. If we all have the capability of “reaching upward”, as the midrash contends, what keeps us from doing that?
  5. When do we most realize that God has been there all along? 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 8: 12-25

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This section of the epistle to the Romans offers a celebratory declaration of present Christian existence, rooted in God’s past action in Jesus Christ, assured of God’s future action for Christ’s people and for the whole world, and sustained in the present by the Spirit.  It is essentially the conclusion of Paul’s argument for Christian assurance, for the belief that those whom God justified, God also glorified.

Put very simply, Paul is contrasting two ways of living—the way that we are tempted to live in this world and the way that God calls us to live.  He plays with notions of slavery and freedom—slavery to the perils of this world or freedom in God through Christ.  Slavery meant fear.  Slavery meant having no rights of inheritance, no birthright.  Slavery means no hope.  Freedom, then, means to belong to a family and to have the rights to an inheritance.  We have been adopted by Christ and will share in the inheritance that God provides.

When we believe in God, we realize that we are children of God.  But this also means that we suffer with Christ.  But this, too, is part of God’s promise of the renewal of all of Creation.  It is a hope that we cannot see on our own but are rather empowered to see through the Spirit of God.  Here, there’s more to being a Christian than just knowing the right stuff and doing the right things.  To be Christian, you must open yourself up and invite God’s Spirit to enter your life.  It is not enough to be “spiritual and not religious” no matter how in vogue it may be today.  Inviting God’s spirit to enter one’s life, becoming heirs of God’s Spirit, inheriting this Spirit of Pentecost, if you will, is the way that you will be glorified through Christ in God.  It’s that simple.

In an excerpt from a sermon entitled “Are You Saved”, Amy Miracle (how cool would that be to be Reverend Miracle?) says:

Frederick Buechner put it this way: “No matter who you are and what you’ve done, God wants you on his side. There is nothing you have to do or be. It’s on the house. It goes with the territory.”

That is the claim of scripture and the claim of the Christian tradition but we never seem to believe it. Surely there must be a catch, some book I need to read, some technique of prayer you need to master. There must be some minimum standard. How could salvation be available to absolutely everyone?

In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes, “when I was six or seven years old … I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find… For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street…. Then I would take a piece of chalk and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passerby who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.”

Salvation is like that. And the death and resurrection of Jesus is the arrow that points the way to this free gift. The very fact that salvation is free might be a problem. (From “Are You Saved?, by Rev. Amy Miracle, available at http://covenantnetwork.org/sermon&papers/miracle-04.html, accessed 11 July, 2011)

As the passage says, the “whole of Creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”  Boy, you’re not kidding!  War, hunger, homelessness, elitism, sexism, racism…pick your “ism”…and an American Congress that thinks it’s more patriotic to insist on one’s own way than to do what would be best for most of the American people and a good part of the world.  But change can be painful.  That’s what Paul was trying to say.  We try to hold on to what we know, to what we can control, to what makes us comfortable.  But God has a different vision for us.  Change is hard.  But remember what happens when the pain subsides?  New life…You just have to let go of whatever it is that you are holding onto.  And be patient…when the time is right, it will happen.  When the time is right, we will finally realize that that for which we had hoped was there all along.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does the “adoption” language mean to you?

3)      What images of God does this bring about for you?

4)      What image of salvation does that bring about for you?

5)      What vision of hope does this give you?

6)      What difficulty do we have with patience when it comes to our faith?

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The first parable in this reading is then followed by an allegorical interpretation of it in later verses.  Between these two sections are two other parables that we do not read as part of today’s lectionary.

The Parable of the Weeds probably comes from Matthew’s own experience within the church.  Essentially, it admits that the world, our family, and even our church is not always a trustworthy place.  When the master in the parable forbids the servants to go and weed out the field, this is not to be interpreted as a call to passivity in the face of evil.  It is not a divine command to ignore injustice in the world, violence in society, or wrong in the church.  It is a realistic reminder that the servants do not have the ability to get rid of all the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good.  But the parable contains the promise that, in the wisdom of God, the weeds will ultimately be destroyed.  Evil is temporary.  The good endures.  The parable, so, leads to a place of joy and hope.

The word here for the “weeds” is the Greek, zizania, which refers to wild grasses, such as darnel or cockle, that closely resembled wheat—so close, in fact, that it was difficult to tell it apart from the fruitful wheat until it reached full maturity and just didn’t produce or act like wheat.

Keep in mind that the parables were not intended to be about the church or individuals but, rather about the Kingdom of God.  The parables speak of the final victory of the kingdom despite all appearances, and they challenge the church to respond to their message rather than find in them its guarantee of its own success.

Perhaps there were some sort of overzealous weeders in the writer Matthew’s community that prompted the inclusion of this parable.  And by trying to rid the community of the perceived “evil”, they were also destroying the good.  But we can’t help here but ask the usual question:  “Why does this all-good and all-gracious God allow evil to survive?”  Essentially, Jesus is saying, “don’t worry about it.”  It is not humanity that is chosen to discern and pluck away the evil from the good.  God will handle it; it is part of that vision that God holds.  After all, wasn’t God’s vision to redeem ALL of Creation?  And when we humans become over-zealous, how are we so sure that what we are “plucking” IS actually the weeds?  What if we are plucking good, honest, but not-yet-matured wheat?  (Which is why it is probably not meant to be up to us to discern what is “evil” and what is not.)

So instead of trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world and fixing it, our job is to get on with the mission that Jesus gave us—proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is coming into its fullness and all of Creation with it.  And, similar to the way we read last week’s parable, what if, rather than the wheat, we view our lives as the “field”.  We try to clean up our lives, to live as good, righteous people.  But, sure enough, those pesky weeds keep popping up unexpectedly.  Maybe the whole point is not to rid ourselves of the weeds, but to look to God when we get drowned out by them.  Maybe God is actually working on them to transform them into what they are supposed to be.

Here’s an excerpt from Richard Rohr, in the book, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (p. 42, 51-52):

 

…When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation.  We avoid God who works in the darkness—where we are not in control!  Maybe that is the secret…

Jesus pushes it back to the edge.  Can you even see the image of Christ in the least of the brothers and sisters?  He uses that as his only description of the final judgment.  Nothing about commandments, nothing about church attendance, nothing about papal infallibility:  simply a matter of our ability to see.  Can we see Christ in the least of the brothers and sisters?  Can we see Christ in the people, the nobodies who can’t play our game of success?  They smell.  They’re a nuisance.  They’re on welfare.  They are a drain on our tax money.  If we can, then we are really seeing.

He pushes it even further than that.  He says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies.  He teaches what they thought a religious leader could never demand of his followers:  love of the enemy.  Logically that makes no sense.  Soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing.  Either we see the divine image in all created things or we don’t see it at all.  Once we see it, we’re trapped.  We see it once and the circle keeps moving out.  If we still try to exclude some:  sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays (or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there.  We don’t understand.  If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred, too.  The ability to respect the outsider is probably the litmus test of true seeing.  It doesn’t even stop with human beings and enemies and the least of the brothers and sisters.  It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds.  Everything becomes enchanting.  One God, one world, one truth, one suffering, and one love.  All we can do is participate.  

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why is it so difficult for us to just let those things that we perceive as “evil” exist?  Why is it so difficult for us to accept that they exist at all in the midst of God’s Creation?
  3. How do you relate to the notion of your life being the “field”?
  4. What do you think of Rohr’s notion that everything becomes enchanting when we really see the way we’re supposed to see?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty…this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. (Albert Einstein, 1879-1955)

 

Tell us, Poet, what do you do?

I praise.  But the deadly and the monstrous things, how can you bear them?

I praise.  But what is nameless, what is anonymous, how can you call upon it?

I praise.  What right have you to be true in every disguise, behind every mask?

I praise.  How is it that the calm and the violent things like star and storm know you for their own?

Because I praise.  (Raine Maria Rilke, 1875-1926)

 

We must not try to reduce evil to good by seeking compensations or justifications for evil.  We must love God through the evil that occurs, solely because everything that actually occurs is real and behind all reality stands God.  Some realities are more or less transparent; others are completely opaque; but God is behind all of them, without distinction.  It is for us simply to keep our eyes turned toward the point where [God] is, whether we can see [God] or not. (Simone Weil, 1909-1943) 

 

Closing

For neither is there any god besides you,    whose care is for all people, For your strength is the source of righteousness,    and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all. For you show your strength when people doubt    the completeness of your power,    and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it. Although you are sovereign in strength,    you judge with mildness,    and with great forbearance you govern us;    for you have power to act whenever you choose. Through such works you have taught your people    that the righteous must be kind,    and you have filled your children with good hope,    because you give repentance for sins.  Amen.

Wisdom of Solomon 12: 13, 16-19

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s