Year A: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 13, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 25:19-34
As mentioned in last week’s commentary, there is not much press given to Isaac’s role as a patriarch of Israel. He always gets “stuck in the middle” between Abraham and Jacob, as if fathering a child was his greatest contribution. Certainly, he gets credit for that; he actually becomes the father of two strong twin boys whose lifelong struggles illustrate ours very plainly.

However, notice that, first, Isaac was a man of prayer. His faith in God is pretty quiet compared to the other dramatic stories that surround his, but when faced with the major obstacle of a childless wife, he does not plan and scheme as did his own father (see Genesis 16 for “The Hagar Affair.”) Instead, v. 21 tells us “Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife….”

Good example for us, eh? How often do we manage to make prayer our FIRST resort, rather than our last?

Psalm 119:105-112
How valuable is the word of God? The gospel lesson for today will be built around the image of “sowing the word” — it is precious seed, indeed. Psalm 119 gives us a couple of illustrations of just how helpful and important the word of God is to us.

“A lamp unto my feet” is about lighting the way in the midst of darkness. Have you ever tried to find something in the middle of the night, without turning the overhead light on? Ever had to traverse a trail outdoors after dark, especially on a moonless night? A “flashlight” ( our equivalent of the ancient torch or lamp) sure comes in handy, doesn’t it? You don’t have to illuminate the entire area…you just need a focused beam to show you the next step. 

There are “many dangers, toils and snares” that await us in life. The word allows us to avoid an awful lot of the latter, according to the psalmist. 

Isaiah 55:10-13
Another real-world image for the importance of the word of God. It is like the rain and/or snow that fall; they serve to water the earth, making ripe the conditions for the wheat (and other crops) to grow. When the wheat is harvested, ground into flour, then baked into bread — we can eat! The rain didn’t directly produce the bread, but it sure played a vital part in the process.

So with the word of God; it enriches our lives and produces the spiritual food that we need. 

Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
God is praised for many reasons in this psalm text, not the least of which is that God answers prayer!

God also forgives our iniquity, which threatens to overwhelm us (sin is a heavy burden, you know.) God waters the earth, provides the people with grain, makes the meadows full of grass, which makes a rich haven for the flocks and their shepherds. These are strikingly mundane details, on the one hand; on the other, do we take time often enough to thank God for such everyday –and sometimes, miraculous — provisions?

Romans 8:1-11
Paul’s anguish, carried over from Romans 7, continues somewhat in Romans 8. However, the struggle of the flesh vs. the spirit is set in the context of the ultimate victory of Christ. (See 7:25 and 8:1.)

We tread carefully along a dualistic path when we preach here; implying that Jesus’ followers are no longer creatures of the flesh is less than realistic. Surrendering futilely to the difficulty involved in living as “spiritual” creations is not a proper option, either. 

Perhaps it is a postmodern reading (though I expect Luther would beg to differ,) but what a grand text for understanding the “both/and” nature of discipleship, as opposed to the “either/or” argument offered by gnostic heresy and spiritual elitists. 

We are both sinner and saint; we are flesh infused with spirit. We live with feet firmly planted in two worlds, at least while this one lasts. Which nature “wins” in the struggle of our daily lives? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Which leader do we choose to follow?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
My good friend and colleague, Dr. Chilton, had a good comment in his previously published sermon on this passage (which you can find here.)  The point of Jesus’ parable is not so much about our technique for “sowing the word” as it is about our constancy –without regard to success or cost — in doing so. 

Arguments are often made about the certitude of our demographic targeting, the success of planting churches in growing neighborhoods, and the conservation of scarce resources in underwriting the church’s “mission.” 

Is there room for the kind of action that Jesus seems to affirm, which Dr. Chilton describes when he writes,  “We are called to sow the seed of the kingdom, indiscriminately, wildly, prolifically, tossing out bouquets of God’s love to everyone around us?”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Yogi Berra once famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road – take it!”  He was encouraging people to act; like my daddy said, “Don’t just sit there, do something.”

But the problem is, which road we take matters. Really matters. It is not something to be settled by tossing a coin.

Paul, in verse 2 our Romans text, draws a pretty stark line between two laws; “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” and “the law of sin and death.”   These are the two roads in life, and sometimes it’s really hard to tell them apart

C.S. Lewis said that every day of our life we are moving toward our eternal destination; that each step we take, each act we make, is a move toward either heaven or hell. That’s enough to make a person decide to sit down in the road and think about it a while before moving.  After all, one would not want to move in the wrong direction.

Bob Dylan wrote a song that said, “You gotta serve somebody. It might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

Now most of us do not willingly sign up to serve the “devil,” but we have to admit that, even when we have the best of intentions, the things we do often end up helping making things worse instead of better.

The key to understanding all this comes in something Paul says in verse 6, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace.” (Common English Bible)

Most of the time, most of us think of selfishness in terms of greedy little children hogging all the candy (even when those “little children” are grownups and the “candy” is both much more expensive and much more dangerous.)  Or perhaps we think of someone who absent-mindedly assumes that the world revolves around him and his wants and his desires.

All of that is certainly true, but Paul is getting at something much more profound and dangerous and widespread.  Paul is talking about the basic orientation of our lives.  He is asking us to look at the question, “What is the center of your life?”  What does your world revolve around?”

And there are only two possible answers.  One is that your world is centered on “life in Christ Jesus,” and the other is, “your life is centered on the self.”  For Paul, those are your choices; that is the fork in the road, here’s the moment you decide which team you are going to play for, what direction you intend to head when you put your foot down.

Augustine of Hippo called sin and selfishness being “bent in on oneself,” incurvatus in se, in Latin.   Martin Luther said  that our nature is so deeply curved in on itself that we  bend, or twist,  the best gifts of God into a shape that serves us rather than serving God. And, we are so bent that we are not even aware that we are doing it.

As Paul points out, life centered on the self, bent in on the self, is a dead end street.  “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death,” There is not future in it, at least not a future with God.

For, when one is bent in, curved in, twisted in, on the self, one can see nothing else and has time for nothing else.

It would be a misunderstanding of Paul to think that what he is telling us in this text is that we should straighten up and fly right and quit being so selfish.  This is not an exhortation to be a sharing, caring good person. Paul is not seeking to give us an “attitude adjustment” through the means of a good, stern talking to.

  1. Paul is reminding us that there is a way for us to get unbent, but it is a way that comes from outside ourselves.  It is not something we can decide to do; we have such a natural inclination toward self-regard and self-involvement that we are incapable of fixing this.

Verse 2 reads: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  “Has set you free” is past tense. It is already done, we are free from the chains of self-regard that have bound us; but unless we know we are free, we stay bent, we remain twisted, we continue to dwell on self and not on the love of God in Christ.

What we all need is to be told and reminded that we are free from this addiction to ourselves.  Thus in verse 9 Paul says, “But, you aren’t self-centered.  Instead you are in the Spirit. . . . ”

There is a beautiful image for this in the “Hymn to Joy”

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.

Flowers drooping, sagging, the petals tightly compacted in the cool and wet of early dawn.  Then the sun comes up and warms up the world and you can see flowers straighten and turn toward the sun; unfolding as the hymn says.

The sun of God, the bright and warm glow of God’s love for us in Christ, unfolds us, straightens us up, turns us toward the light.  It is not something we do, it is something God has done for us.  But because of it, we are no longer turned in but instead we are able to face out to the world; like a flower reflecting the bright love of God into the world and helping God melt hearts and straighten out lives.

Yes, we are not self-centered, we are in the Spirit, we are in Christ, we are in God’s love, we are on the right road, we are serving the Lord, we are moving in the right direction.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 13, 2014)

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