Year A — The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)

Commentary for July 17, 2011

Click here for today’s texts

Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob — the trick-playing, blessing-stealing exile — gets his first taste of God while camping out under the stars. The famous “Jacob’s Ladder” dream, replete with angelic beings and a personal appearance by Yahweh, causes him to wake up to the presence of God all around him. “Wow…the LORD is in this place — and I didn’t even know it!”

How many times are we, like Jacob, surprised that God might be up to something that we’re not in on, or that we didn’t personally design or approve?

This passage always causes Led Zeppelin to hum through my brain. Stairway to Heaven wasn’t written for this text, certainly, but there are a couple of nifty lines that make you wonder about Jacob’s journey:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder. 

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him…
Ooh, it makes me wonder!     (words by Richard Plant, 1971)

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
The Psalmist’s words could have been custom-written for Jacob, couldn’t they? But, then again, they describe us all pretty well. There’s material here for multiple sermons, and inspiration for most of life’s toughest situations. I like praying verses 23-24 on those days when I feel a little “off,” but can’t quite figure out why. So often, there’s something that lies just outside the periphery of my own self-examination — something that could use a little dusting up with regard to my attitudes or actions.

For those of you who might be looking for a nice contemporary expression of the text, check out “Highest Place” by the group Desperation Band. You can hear a pretty decent recording here.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Verse 17 is perhaps the key in keeping with the theme of today’s readings: “For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power, and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.”

Jacob certainly had an inside straight on insolence; as we walk the path with him for the next couple of weeks, encountering those powers greater than himself (a crafty father-in-law and an arm-wrestling stranger in the night) — we, too, will experience what it means to understand the strength of God, even when we have our doubts!

Isaiah 44:6-8
A fairly direct challenge from God, spoken through the words of the prophet in v. 7: “Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.”

Any takers?

Psalm 86:11-17
One of the consistent themes of scripture is the call to serve God with our “whole hearts.” Jesus put it plainly in the Sermon on the Mount: “You can’t really serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)

The psalmist gives a beautiful account of what the whole heart is like, replete with words suitable for song or prayer: ” Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

Romans 8:12-25
I love the language here of labor, childbirth and what it means to be children of God.

I suppose my maleness makes me suspect to read too much into the whole labor thing…there certainly is groaning and pain in the process. But, on the other side of the birth trauma, we generally acknowledge the joy of a new life brought into the world. Baby time is happy time!

It strikes me how fundamental is the joy of realizing our relationship to God through the life of Christ. Like babies, we are happy to babble at the One who has birthed not only us, but all of creation. The Aramaic word Paul uses here to name God, Abba, is said to come from the sound an infant makes when responding to his/her earthly daddy: “babababababa.” (Babies are so cool.)

It’s just fun to make the sounds, isn’t it? Go ahead…give it a try. Lallate to your heart’s content!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Burning the weeds to separate them from the wheat.

Not our favorite images for preaching, are they? What does it mean that some among us may be sown from the good seed, and others from the bad? Nobody really wants to be considered a child of the devil, do they?

Dr. Chilton deals with the text provocatively and thoughtfully in the sermon below. We certainly need to remember that patience is required in this process of winnowing the wheat, and that the separating is not really our task. We are sowers of the word and reapers of the harvest. It is the Lord of the harvest who will draw any separating lines that need to be drawn.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My late Father-in-law used to like to tell the story of a man who owned a parrot. Every day at 5:00 the man took the parrot and walked down the street to the corner bar where he had a few drinks and talked with his friends. He had taught the parrot to order for him, yelling out, “gimme a beer, gimme a beer” every time he came in the room.

Every Sunday the man and his wife went to church, locking the bird in its cage before they left the house. One Sunday the door on the cage did not latch well and the bird got out. It flew out an open window and found its way to the church. It flew in and lit on its master’s shoulder, crying out at the top of its lungs, “gimme a beer, gimme a beer.” The man was embarrassed and told the bird to hush, “Shut up. This ain’t the bar; it’s the church.” The bird looked around and said, “AWWK! Same old crowd, same old crowd.”

Today’s Gospel lesson deals with the difficulty in telling the difference between the good seed and the bad seed, the wheat and the weeds, the saints and the sinners. Always and forever, near as we can tell, it looks like the same old crowd. Many times in the history of the church, the good people have tried very hard to separate themselves from the bad people.

In Jesus’ story the master tells the workers to wait and not try to “weed out” the bad. This story is not so much about farming as it is about realizing that only God can judge and that we are called upon to withhold judgment and treat one another with respect.

Because, and this is the really important point, there is no such thing as separating the good from the bad in this life. As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator; in English, “we are all Saint and Sinner at the same time.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know this is true. We know that most of us, most of the time, are decent people, but we’re not really saintly, we don’t really live up to the ideals and standards we set for ourselves. We all slip, we all fall, we all sin.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Yes, indeed. The line separating good and evil, wheat and weeds, good seed and bad seed, saints and sinners; does not go between us; it goes right through us.

This is why Jesus counseled patience in dealing with others. All of us are, we hope, growing and maturing in our faith. And none of us is a finished product yet.

So, between NOW (which is today) and THEN, (then being the Second Coming and the Final Judgment); what is it that we, the church, are called to do?
Well, it seems to me that we are called to be sowers of good seed.

We, the church, as the followers of Christ, are called to announce to the world that God has set up the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it is a Kingdom of Grace, not of Judgment; it is a Kingdom of Love, not of Hate; it is a Kingdom of Mercy, not of Law.

We are called to let the world know that God has sent a remedy into this world to deal with our sinfulness, and that remedy is Jesus the Christ. God knew that we, all of us, each of us, were sinners.

And God knew that we could not fix ourselves, that we could not NOT SIN. As the Confession says, “We are in bondage to Sin and CANNOT free ourselves.”

So Jesus came and lived and died and rose again SO THAT our sins could be forgiven and we could live each day as forgiven sinners and supposed saints.

And the great sign and symbol of that great Kingdom of Salvation where all are welcome and none are excluded is the meal we are about to receive, the Holy Communion.

I love going to family reunions; mine, my wife’s, anybody’s. I love to see the strange collection of people who gather together to visit, to catch up, to care about one another, to eat together because they are connected by blood and marriage.

I love to see the good and the bad, the wheat and the weeds, the good seed and the bad seed all together, all accepted and all welcome at the table. Everybody comes and we’re glad to see them.

It’s not by accident that the church is the “bride of Christ,” and the heavenly banquet is the “marriage feast of the lamb.” We in the church are those who gather together because we are connected by blood and marriage.
When we gather around the church’s table, it is a family reunion,
a reconnection, a re-membering, of the people of God, everybody’s welcome and we’re glad to see them.

That’s what the Kingdom of God is like, everybody’s welcome and we’re glad to see them.

You know; one of these days, we’re going to get to heaven and we’ll look around and start laughing when we see who’s there that we weren’t expecting to make it. “Good Lord, what are you doing here!”

And they’ll be laughing when they see us.

And somewhere in the distance we’ll hear a loud voice call out, “Awwk! Same Old Crowd. Same Old Crowd!

Amen and Amen

4 thoughts on “Year A — The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)

  1. I love the parrot story and might just have to use it this week! But I'm also toying with the images from Romans 8 and being children of God, so thanks for the thoughts on that passage too.

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