Proper 10A: Sowing Lessons

TheSowerOLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 25: 19-34

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Jewish midrash says that “when Rebekah was carrying the twins, Jacob would become very active whenever she would pass by a house of study (of Torah).  On the other hand, Esau would act up whever she walked by a place where idols were worshiped.  It may be important to note that for the rabbis who told these stories Esau was identified with Rome and its emperors, while Jacob was Israel, of course.” (From The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: Volume One (Genesis), by Michael E. Williams, ed., P.131)

The story begins with some interesting parallels.  First, Rebekah is barren, like Sarah—Here, “barrenness” is not really infertility, but childlessness.  But, once again, the promise of God is in danger.  And second, like Abraham, Isaac is old when he becomes a father. The difference, though, is that both Isaac and Rebekah demonstrate the importance of God in their lives.  They both pray.  God answers the prayers by enabling conception, but the reason for the painful pregnancy (twins) can be interpreted as a sign of the future relationship between the descendents.  When the twins are born, there is a uterine struggle to be born first, a struggle that Esau wins, (making him the “firstborn” and in line for the birthright).  The birthright implies a leadership position in the family and establishes a claim regarding inheritance.  Once again, God’s mission is forward by things NOT going the way that they should have gone according to expectations and tradition.

This story is almost cartoon-like on some level.  But somehow the story survived through centuries upon centuries of oral tradition.  It is the story of the beginnings of a family rivalry that eventually escalated into a hatred between two nations—the Israelites and the Edomites.  Esau is almost depicted as a caricature of reality, a cave man of sorts.  But, keep in mind, that history is always written by the winners.  And yet, things can be dysfunctional and awful and ridiculous and God can still move through and in its midst.  God can still accomplish what God has set out to accomplish.  Once again, God does not just choose the A-list winners to make things happen.  God chooses ordinary people to do extraordinary things and live to write the story.

And even in our struggles–even when we do stupid things like giving up our birthright or tricking someone out of theirs, God is always present working toward the reconciliation of all of Creation. (Although I have visions of God daily having cause to look at someone, including me, and ask, “Really?”…”Are you kidding me?”)  (And looking ahead, Esau is not tossed out of the Middle East.  He prospers and is able to provide for his clan.  Then in Genesis 33, the brothers reconcile and together they bury their father.)  The point is not that God gets what God wants.  After all, why would God have WANTED Jacob to trick Esau into giving up leadership in the family?  It’s just what happened.  Families do strange things sometimes.  Sometimes, in fact, we’re pretty awful to each other.  I’m not sure if that is God’s plan at all.  Maybe grace just always makes it all work out.  Maybe THAT’S the birthright that we’re supposed to claim.

All of these Abrahamic family stories that we are reading in this Lectionary year are probably difficult for us because we do not understand the word “blessing”.  Blessing is not about receiving good things or being showered with lots of stuff or being spared from some random catastrophe (while your next door neighbor’s house gets the roof blown off!).  Blessing is not about what we receive; blessing is about becoming who we’re supposed to be.  Blessing is about God’s grace.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. So, which of the twins acted the most reprehensibly?
  3. As with most historical accounts, it is the victor that gets the chance to write history.  This is no different.  How would the story different if it were told from Esau’s perspective?
  4. So what does this passage say to you about God and God’s grace?


NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 8: 1-11

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

The main theme on the surface of Romans 7 and the first part of Romans 8 is the Jewish Law, the Torah and what it really means to live under God’s law.  And for some scholars, the passage that we read lies at the very heart of this section on the Torah.  In fact, Romans 8 is said to have been Paul’s greatest masterpiece, the epitome of his work.  For us, the passage may almost be TOO familiar.  There have been a multitude of prayers that have been created from it and Bach made it the backbone of a whole cantata.

In verse 5, Paul lays out the two ways of living—two mindsets—of the “flesh” and of the “Spirit”.  For Paul, of the “flesh” is not as humans but rather a perversion of who we should be as humans.  But it is the “way of the Spirit” that brings life.  And since, as followers of Christ, the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, we do have life.  If we live in the “way of the Spirit”, the essence of God will be breathed into us and bring us to life.  That is the way to true freedom.  Here, for Paul, living within the “law”, living within the Spirit, is living within the power of love.

Often the idea of the “mind” is set against the idea of the “Spirit”, as if the two are not compatible existing together.  But here Paul admonishes the reader to “set the mind on the Spirit”.  For Paul, the “body” (GR. soma) is inherently neutral.  It is not “bad”, per se, the way we often try to make it.  But without the Spirit, the essence of Life, breathed into it, it remains neutral and ultimately dies.  The two belong together.  God’s Spirit brings breath and life.

We tend to get wrapped up in those things of the “flesh”—our needs, our desires, our fears.  Paul is not saying that we dispense with them as bad.  Paul is making the claim that God’s Spirit, rather than the law, can breathe new life into them.  There is no sense in fighting to sustain our identity apart and away from God.  It will ultimately die.  Paul has more of a “big picture” understanding than we usually let him have.  He’s saying that the flesh in and of itself is not bad but the Spirit brings it to life.  I don’t think he is drawing a dividing line between darkness and light, between mind and Spirit, between death and life; rather, he is claiming that God’s Spirit has the capability of crossing that line, of bringing the two together, infused by the breath of God.  It is a spirituality that we need, one that embraces all of life.  It is one that embraces the Spirit of Life that is incarnate in this world, even this world.  I mean, really, what good would the notion of a disembodied Spirit really do us?  Isn’t the whole point that life is breathed into the ordinary, even the mundane, so that it becomes holy and sacred, so that it becomes life?

Once again, there is no place that God is not.  God’s Spirit moves in the midst of all of life, in everything that is “us”.  Maybe becoming aware of that is what brings blessing into our life.  Maybe it is that grace that brings us closer to God.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What, for you, is the Spirit of God in you?
  3. What does that mean for our lives?
  4. What happens when we separate the “mind” and the “Spirit” in our lives?


GOSPEL:  Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Episcopal priest Robert Capon calls this parable the “touchstone” of all the other parables.  It is found in all three synoptic Gospels as well as the non-canonical Gospel According to Thomas.  To set the stage, this parable was probably told at a time well into Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples and the other followers had come on board excited and rejuvenated by their new-found faith and their wonderful, loving leader.  They joyfully spread his message of hope to those around them.  But things just weren’t turning out the way that they had originally envisioned.  The response had been meager at best and they felt like they were hitting brick wall after brick wall.  They were tired and some had actually considered quitting altogether.  Jesus probably realized the seriousness of this situation.  Because you know how it works.  Once despair and disappointment begins creeping into a society, it is contagious.

So Jesus got up and went outside the house in an effort to address the largest crowd that he could.  He even got in a boat and paddled just far enough out into the water so that the entire crowd could stand around the shoreline and see him. And then he told them a story.  Now this was not the first time that this crowd had heard a story about seeds.  The sowing of seed was a fairly common image in the Bible and in Jewish literature.  It generally referred to God’s interaction with the world.  And here the sowing of the seed becomes a metaphor for the Word, which is wonderfully and extravagantly showered upon the world.

But this image of the seed being precariously thrown about is probably bothersome to us.  After all, what a waste!  But this story is MEANT to shake us up a bit.  Perhaps the sowing of God’s reign SHOULD be done without reservation because isn’t that, after all, what God has offered us?  So perhaps there is not some specific pre-determined way to sow the seeds of the Kingdom.  Perhaps seeds and their harvest come in all shapes and sizes.   It also makes us realize that there are many factors that affect the harvest.  Some seeds will be immediately snatched away as they fall on ears that refuse to even hear them.  Others will be sown on rocky ground, sprouting with a burst of jubilant enthusiasm and then becoming disheartened and discouraged with faith when life does not turn out the way that they would like.  Then there are the seeds that sprout through the thorns, only to be choked out by the cares and pleasures of this earthly life.  To put this one in a modern context, the cares, riches, and pleasures of life may be jobs, professional advancement, houses, luxury vacations, financial investments, expensive leisure, and perhaps even our religions themselves—those things in our life that get in the way of our relationship with God and spoil the harvest that could be.

The three reasons for failure are not necessarily meant to be the point of this parable though.  They are simply illustrations of the frustrations one must face in order to reap a harvest.  It is true that there will be failures.  Some years everything will wither away in drought.  The Spiritual Life is not about success.  Being an instrument of God’s grace does not guarantee easily-attained rewards.  It doesn’t even promise that we will see the results in this lifetime.

Most of the parables that we read in Scripture have been given sort of arbitrary title that is not Scriptural or even canonical.  They’re just named because that was the title that was in our childhood Bibles above the story.  But this one Jesus actually names.  In verse 18, Jesus, says, “Hear the parable of the sower.”  I think I always read this assuming that Jesus was the sower throwing out the seeds of faith and discipleship.  But Jesus doesn’t say, “Hear the parable of my work” or “Hear the parable of my life”.  God is the sower.  God has sown the seed, the Incarnate Word, the Logos, Jesus Christ, into the very depth of Creation.  With totally reckless abandon and unimaginable grace, God has sown the seed absolutely everywhere—in all conditions of life.  The Word made Flesh, as the writer of the Gospel According to John says it, has been sown into good soil and bad, among rocks and thorns, and it is present in every breeze that we feel.  The entire Creation has been sown.  It has already been done without any participation on our part at all.

The truth is that it’s not about us.  It’s not about our making ourselves “good soil”.  The four types of soil do not depict four types of hearers; rather, they depict the human condition.  Sometimes life includes pain and grief. Sometimes we have to endure rocks and feel like we are not rooted.  Sometimes we live in such a way that we do have things that choke out our joy and our peace, things that cloud our image of who God is and what we are called to be.  And sometimes in the midst of a long and deep drought, we effectively wither and die.

If you read this parable in its context, “bearing fruit” does not mean getting everyone on your side or getting everyone to agree with you.  This is not a call to converting the world.  “Bearing fruit” means living out the Kingdom of God.  It means following the way of Christ, who is present in all aspects of life. “Bearing fruit” means realizing that it’s not about us or the way we think it should be.  God has already sown seeds in each and every one of us.  “Bearing fruit” simply means letting them grow into what God envisions them to be.

The truth is that I don’t think this is a story about our faith.  I think it is the story of God’s faith in us.  It is the story of grace—undeserved, unfettered, unending grace.  It is everywhere that we can imagine and everywhere that we cannot, thrown throughout Creation with reckless abandon and extravagant generosity.  Let anyone with ears listen!  Anyone!  (Not just the “good soil” people as we see them, but ANYONE!) It is this grace that has conquered sin and death and all the perils of life that we may encounter.  It is this grace that has made us all drought-resistant.  We will all wither and die and then when the seasons change, we will bloom forever.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What changes about this parable when you look at the soil types as facets of the human condition rather than as separate types of people or separate types of hearers?
  3. What image of God does this hold for you?
  4. So what does it mean for you to “bear fruit”?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

I just want to do God’s will.  And [God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.  And I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing [anyone].  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)


Faith isn’t faith until it’s all you’re holding onto.  (Unknown)


It’s when we learn faith that happiness comes—real happiness, that underlying descant of the soul that tells us over and over again that what is, in some strange, unexplainable way, is good.  Most of all, faith tells us that what is, is more than good.  It is becoming always better.  In ways we never thought possible.  And how can that be?  Because God’s ways are not our ways.  It is in the depths of darkness that we learn faith; it is in retrospect that we come to recognize love in darkness. (Joan Chittister, “Called to Question”, 213)




In the name of the God who creates, sees, and calls each one good;

In the name of the God who knows the dangers of weeds and thorns;

In the name of the God who carries us safely to good soil, now and forever;

In the name of the God who sends us to go forth from this place to blossom and bear fruit. Amen.

Katherine Hawker, 1999, Evangelical UCC, available at, accessed 6 July 2011.


Easter 6A: Imagining an Unknown God

Unknown GodOLD TESTAMENT:  Acts 17:22-31

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

This passage is known as Paul’s “Aeropagus Speech”.  The Aeropagus is a hill of rock northwest of the Acropolis in the city of Athens.  It was essentially a sort of city-state within Athens that in the 5th century before the common era functioned as the place of the council of elders, essentially the Roman senate.  It later acquired the function of the investigation of corruption, even though the conviction powers remained with the ancient city of Athens itself.  It was the center of logic, reality, and belief.  It was the center of what was known and even what was unknown.  It continued to function during these Roman times in which Paul lived and it was from this site that Paul is supposed to have delivered his famous speech.

The writer of the Book of Acts cues the speech as if he or she were writing a play:  “Then Paul stood in front of the Aeropagus and addressed his audience by name—Athenians.”  He addresses them as a religious audience and notes an altar inscription that he had found near the Aeropagus:  “To an unknown God.”  Well, of course, he is being sarcastic.  He is claiming that these so-called well-learned, poetry-reading, literature-versed, theater-loving, religious people worship gods they do not even know!  Conversely, Paul proclaims, his God is “the God”, not dependent on anything else, transcendent, and all-encompassing.  Paul explains that, essentially, this God that IS God is the source of all there is and cannot be domesticated or limited by any creature.  In other words, God is not contained in shrines or offerings.  God is creator of all and the source of all being.  And then he goes on…not only is God the creator of all but God has created us such that we desire to search for God.  In effect, God has created us so that we are not either compelled or satisfied worshipping an unknown God.

Paul’s speech exposed the shortcomings of a religion that places value solely in inanimate objects themselves—in rocks or shrines.  Paul’s proclamation was that God was a living God, fully engaged in human life and so entrenched that God would bring about the recreation of all of Creation.  The point, for Paul, was that, when it is all said and done, there is no need for an Aeropagus.  In essence, Paul is proclaiming God’s “knowability” even in the face of what is sometimes human ignorance, even in the face of our missing what God has shown us, even when we fall short of imagining this unknown God.   Paul is not pitting his God against their God.  He is not claiming to be on the winning team.  He is claiming that we are all the same—just trying to make our way toward a God who cannot be fully known.  God cannot be proven.  God is God; we are not.

Now don’t take Paul’s berating of the rock so literally that you become willing to throw away centuries of icons and articles of worship, including many of our own churches and everything they contains. D. Stephenson Bond reminds us that, “one minute it was a rock and the next a talisman, a charm, a fetish, a relic.  It then became a stone made sacred by human imagination.”  In other words, a rock is just a rock until one imagines it to be something else, until one imagines it to be a threshold from which one can connect with God.  We, of course, do not worship the rock; we worship God.  But, with our imagination, the rock can help guide our way.

It has to do with a sort of “sacred imagination”.  We cannot fully know God.  I think Paul probably believed that.  It is not that Paul thought that we could fully know God; the point is that God desires to be known by us.  Where we fall short is cultivating our “sacred imaginations.”  Einstein once said that “your imagination is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

I asked the earth and it answered, “I am not he”, and everything in it said the same. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things and they answered, “We are not your God: Look higher”. I asked the moving air, and the air and everything in it answered, “Anaximenes was wrong. I am not God”. I asked the heavens, the sun and moon and stars, and they said, “We are not the God you are looking for either”. Then I said to all the things that pressed upon my senses, “You have told me that you are not my God. Tell me something about him”. And they cried out with a great voice, “He made us”. I had questioned them with my thoughts and they answered with their beauty (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10).

Ossip Gabrilowitsch was a Russian-born American pianist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century.  He was one of the first pianists to record music via a reproducing piano and, as an aside, was married to Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens. Walter Russell once sculpted a bust of Gabrilowitsch.  He claimed that when he began, Gabrilowitsch looked no more like a musician than a colonel in the army, or a lawyer.  After half an hour of work, [Russell] said to him, “I want to see you as a musician.  I want to see music in your eyes.  I want to see the very soul of music in you because that is what you are.  I do not want to do a bust of you just as an ordinary human being.” “What shall I do? [Gabrilowitsch] asked.  Russell told him to “Go to the piano and play.” “I cannot play for an audience of one, he responded.  I could play for an audience of a thousand, but not for one.”  “Yes, you can,” Russell told him, “you just play and forget me and I will take care of my part.”  Gabrilowitsch played for an hour or two at a time for sixteen hours.  Russell said that it was only then that he was able to interpret him as a musician. He claimed that the sculpture was one of his best works, because it portrays a man actually inspired by thinking music.

Imagine what we would be like if we thought God (not LIKE God, but God).  Envision what you would be if you truly lived and moved and had your being in God.  I don’t really think that Jesus walked this earth and taught what he taught to give us a book of doctrine or a list of what we should be doing as Christians.  I also don’t think we were ever intended to be handed a full and complete picture of who God is. What we were given in Jesus’ life was something much more profound, something much more valuable.  We were given the gift of having our imaginations opened enough for God to fill them.  Jesus did just enough to peak our imaginations about God so that we would continue to imagine God on our own.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does God’s “knowability” mean for you?
  3. How much does sacred imagination have to do with our faith?
  4. Do you really want a God that is fully revealed?  What would that leave for you to discover?
  5. What does that mean to you to “imagine God”?


 NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Peter 3:13-22

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage’s theme of Christ’s victory over suffering and evil makes it very appropriate for this season of Eastertide.  Here, in the light of Christ’s triumph, Christians can stand fast in the face of opposition or adversity.  (This also fits in with the Acts passage that we read.)  The writer tells the reader to always be ready to defend his or her beliefs and, in essence, not worry about what others are doing.  Just do right.  Just be who you are.  Verse 18 (For Christ suffered…) presents the underlying grounding for the blessedness of Christian suffering.

The understanding of the meaning of baptism in 1 Peter is that the waters have symbolic or sacramental power.  But that power is confirmed through the conscience or intention of the believer.  It does not work superficially, like washing your hands, but it works to bring the whole person into a lasting relationship with God.

I don’t like the idea of suffering being the “purpose” of faith, as if we all live to be martyrs in a world of partyers.  Maybe suffering for us means something other than being persecuted (which few of us really are.)  Maybe suffering means taking on the injustices of the world—immigration, medical care, sexism, economic disparity—you know, all those things that are “hot-button topics”, all those things that get you accused of being unrealistic or unpatriotic or un-something else.  Maybe today’s Christian is called to suffer the realism of standing up against a world that has settled into the naïve oblivion that God is going to fix it if we will only trust in God.  After all, doesn’t our baptism call us to be something more?


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “suffering for what is right” mean for you in your life?
  3. Do we do that?
  4. What would change if we did?


GOSPEL:  John 14: 15-21

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

These verses describe two dimensions of the believer’s relationship with Jesus:  (1) The inseparability of one’s love of Jesus and the keeping of his commandments and (2) The abiding and the indwelling of the presence of God for those who love him.  The words also point to the ways in which the disciple’s love and obedience to Jesus determine their relationship with God.

This is the first time that the Spirit (parakletos) appears in The Gospel According to John.  The noun form here can mean “the one who exhorts” or “the one who comforts” or “the one who helps”.  The NRSV translates it as “Advocate”, but it is really a broader meaning than that.  The promise of Jesus’ return is invoked and the phrase “in a little while” sort of kicks off the interim period before the time of eschatological fulfillment. (or “on that day”)

All of Jesus’ words address the shape of the community’s life after the events of Jesus’ hour and farewell.  It needs to be understood in the context of the “farewell situation” Essentially, can the disciples still love him when he is gone?  And even more, can the next generation love him, without having had a personal relationship with him? So the question begs, can WE love him, really, really love him in the depth of our being?  These verses present love as the sign of fidelity to Jesus and the way to communion with God.

At the very end of this chapter, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” You can almost see him getting up from the table, then realizing that he forgot to say something. “I am the vine,” he says, sitting down again, “and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you.” But how can we abide in Jesus? He has told the disciples over and over, repeating himself at the table: You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.

Years ago I read something rather odd: “The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home.” Whoever said that was playing with us a bit, for we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there’s another piece of truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” The life of faith can be like that-doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy. Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them we’re tied together like branches on the vine-or like climbers tied to the rope-tied together by the Spirit, to trust in one who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd. “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.” (From “I Will Not Leave You Orphaned”, by Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, available at, accessed 25 May, 2011.)

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What impact does the question of whether or not we can have a relationship with Jesus without knowing him have on you?
  3. What, for you assures that relationship?
  4. What gets in the way of it?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 I shut my eyes in order to see. (Paul Gauguin)

Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be so busy with world affairs.  He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives…He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities…Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change in contacts, or even a change of pace.  He speaks about a change of heart. (Henri Nouwen) 

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman) 




Let us pray:  What truth does our worship reveal? (time of silence)

Living God, forgive us when our worship reveals other than the centrality of Jesus Christ in whom we meet you.  Retrieve our wandering minds and fix them on the wonder and holiness of the divine clothed in human flesh. Holy God, inspire and renew our worship with the Spirit of truth.

What truth do our lives reveal? (time of silence)

Eternal God, forgive us when we worship idols of our own making – gods fashioned for our own selfish ends. Merciful God, bless and renew our lives with the Spirit of truth.

What truths do our communities reveal? (time of silence)

Loving God, forgive us when we ignore the pain and hopelessness of so many people – young and old – in our communities and so deny Christ’s commandment to love one another in suffering, self-giving ways. Compassionate God, inflame and renew our love with the Spirit of truth.

What truths does our world reveal?   (time of silence)

Creator God, forgive us when our desire to maintain our standard of living contributes to the poverty of life experienced by countless people and to the  growing environmental problems throughout this world. God of all righteousness, restore and renew our sense of justice with the Spirit of truth.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen. 

( From “Liturgies Online”, by Rev. Moira Laidlaw, Uniting Church of Australia , available at, accessed 25 May, 2011.)