Monday, July 17, 2017

What can we say come July 23? 7th after Pentecost

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My strategy this week will be to have Genesis 28:10-19a and Matthew 13:24-30 read.  I will begin with Genesis, and ponder “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” – which is the story of our lives, isn’t it?  Here is a sermon I preached on this 3 years ago.  Then I will explore one of the ways the Lord is present in ways we do not realize or comprehend – in the church, this field of wheat and tares (more below).  We won’t read Romans 8 at my place, but I will touch on Paul’s image of what it means to call God Abba (more below).

So first, Genesis 28.  Paint the physicality of the scene: Jacob is in a desolate place, sleeping out of doors, a stone for his pillow.  I may allude to St. Francis sleeping on rocks and in caves – which he loved doing, believing it put him closer to God’s most enduring creation, and also in solidarity with Jesus, our ‘rock,’ who slept (or tried to sleep) on that Maundy Thursday night in Caiaphas’s prison.

I don’t think it’s eisegeis to speak of finding yourself in a hard place.  I envy people like Franklin Roosevelt – who, as President during the Depression and then World War II, said he did the best he could all day, then turned in and slept like a baby.  I struggle – and so do many of our people.  Can it be that, during such agonizing, sleepless nights, “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it”?  Psalm 56 says “Lord, you have kept count of my tossings” – in the night, when God seems absent or silent or both. 

Obviously, this text begs the preacher to use “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” as a cadence, a refrain, repeated at the end of each “move.” 

During the night, Jacob sees a – ramp?  This might be a better translation, but “ladder” works, and is familiar (from “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”) – and enjoys the benefit of Thomas Merton’s wisdom when he said We spend our lives climbing the ladder of success, but then when we get to the top, we realize the ladder is propped up against the wrong wall.

I’m tempted to play with an idea that the Church is the ladder, at least for us, the way to God, or the way angels come down to us.  There’s some agitation in that, right, that an angel might show up?  Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.”

Thomas Traherne, in the 17th century, declared that the Cross is our ladder from earth into heaven, from our heart into the heart of God.

Whatever the ladder, the large point here is that “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it.”  I love the way God is there when we aren’t aware, when we aren’t praying or seeking God at all.  I wrote something of a memoir called Struck From Behind: My Memories of God.  It’s not a dull account of my career or life, but a collection of memories, of ways God was there when I didn’t realize it at the time, but only in retrospect, years later (playing on Thoreau's "Truth strikes us from behind, and in the dark").  I love inviting people into this kind of exercise:  think back in the memory of your life.  Where was God when you didn’t seek God or realize at the time God was there?  A preacher could play with this one all day.

If you delve into memory, you find family weirdness – or most of us do.  Notice God doesn’t say to Jacob “I am your God,” but rather “I am the God of your father, and your father’s father…”  A premise of Peter Scazzero’s wonderful Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (which we did as a whole series with videos, books and emails – and I’d commend this to you and your church) is that we are never healed or one with God until we probe our family history and discover who’s there and what therefore we carry around inside:  trace your family tree and you find horse thieves, alcoholics, workaholics, philanderers, depression, strains of cancer or heart disease.  We don’t mind inheriting family money – but inheriting family depression or health or personal issues?  It’s all there – and “surely the Lord was even in that place, although we did not know it.”

If the Lord is in such places, even when we are unaware, then we are invited into the other great prayer Merton offered:  whatever the circumstances, whatever happens, “Lord, let this be my consolation – that wherever I am, You are loved.”

God may as well be loved, for God is our Father, our Abba.  Romans 8: the heart of it is that Jesus’ surprising and alluring habit of addressing God as Abba, Father, is picked up by Paul.  It isn’t that you just decide, Oh, I’ll call God Abba.  It is the Spirit that enables and empowers this “cry” (so it’s a plea for help?).  It’s not the word Abba that carries any magic; it’s the deep sense of the intimate relationship.  We are children of God, no small thing… and then heirs (getting better…) – but then Paul has to add “provided we suffer with him.”  Not “in case, by some remote chance, we suffer.”

But I’m planning, for the second half or third third of my sermon, to think of a way the Lord is present and we do not realize or understand it:  in the life of the church, broken and riddled with lunacy as it may be.  Matthew 13, the wheat & the tares:  I hope that the scholars who say the ‘interpretation’ in 36-43 doesn’t emanate from Jesus but is spin from early church leaders are correct.  Jesus’ lovely, realistic, merciful parable is twisted into something ominous and threatening.  The question in Jesus’ simple, unexplained parable isn’t Am I wheat? Or tares?  You’re both, of course – The story is about the community, the people of God.  The Church is wheat, and tares, both, and we like to think we know who’s who, as if you could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify who’s who.  Tares?  Sit in the back on the left… Wheat?  Up front, on the right…

Robert Farrar Capon points out, "This is no way to run a farm.  Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter... Programs designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do.  Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody."  He suggests that the devil's best strategy is to sucker good people into taking up arms against one another, while he sits back and laughs.

Churches divide – grieving Jesus’ heart, who prayed for unity on the last night of his life (John 17), and still does.  I’d commend my blog on why unity is required of us as United Methodists; all churches tend to want to separate wheat and tares, which Jesus said we keep them together.

Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of evangelicalism, wrote about the way we fail to love within the church: Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.”  We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

Ephraim Radner, in his dense but wonderful A Brutal Unity, speaks of the solidarity to which we are called: “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.” 

I love this scene in Stephen Bransford's novel, Riders of the Long Road.  Silas Will, a circuit rider back in the 18th century, was grilled with hard questions by a young man about God, evil and suffering.  His response? 
"'God sees much more than we see.  He sees the beginning and the end of things and He is doing what is best from all that He sees.  God would never kill a child.  But there is an invisible war that goes on around us while we live here on earth.  God promised to destroy the Devil.'  The young man asked, 'Why won't God finish it now?'  Silas was thoughts for a moment, and then suddenly leaped up, bent over with excitement.  'They asked Christ the same question.  Look here, watch down here.'  He bent over.  'Christ said the Kingdom is like a sower who sowed good seed, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.  See, here are the good grasses' - his hands stroked the grass - 'and this pennyroyal here is like the weed.'  One hand closed upon a large mint-leaves pennyroyal stem.  'Look at it, and look what happens when I pull it out.'  Silas yanked the pennyroyal up by the roots.  It exploded from the ground, showering both of them with dirt from its spreading roots.  'This is what Christ said.  The people urged Him to pluck all the weeds from the wheat field, but He said, no, let them grow together because to pull them out now will destroy much innocent wheat.  See the grasses that have died here because I pulled up the pennyroyal?  We know pennyroyal roots grow under ground, tangled beneath the other grasses.  God knows the roots of evil grown around every sickness since Adam and Eve.  Yes, God can purge the world of sin and death right now, but He doesn't because all have sinned and we are all so tangled with the corruption of sin that He would destroy us and the whole world in that selfsame moment.  What kind of God could do that?'"

  {the image of Jacob's ladder is one of several painted by Marc Chagall}


   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

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