Year A: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (July 20, 2013)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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?

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

Have you noticed how often people try to divide the world into, well, two kinds of people.

Mark Twain said, “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” Amen to that. 

A man named James Thorpe said – “The world is divided into two types of people: those who love to talk, and those who have to listen.”  Ooh, I wonder which one I am.

I like this from Joy Mills, “There are two kinds of people in the world: the Givers and the Takers. The difference between the two is that the Takers eat well, and the Givers sleep well at night.”  Ouch.

Of course, good old Dear Abby weighed in on this: “There are two kinds of people in the world – those who walk into a room and say, ‘There you are!’ – and those who say, ‘Here I am!’ ”

And finally, we have humorous writer Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.

In today’s gospel lesson, we are dealing with people who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, the righteous and the evil.

And these people who believe in two kinds of people also believe, with all their hearts, that not only are they themselves the wheat, the good people, the righteous ones; they also believe that they know who the weeds, the bad people, the evil ones are.

And what is more, they apparently believe that it is their job, their responsibility, their holy obligation to rid the world of the weeds.  And to all this, God says NO!

First of all, (and I admit I’m going to be real Lutheran about this) there aren’t two kinds of people in the world.  In reality there are two kinds of people in each of us.  Luther’s phrase was simul justus et peccator.  It means we are both justified and sinful, saint and sinner, all the time.

The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it like this in the Gulag Archipelago:    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. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

To separate the wheat from the weeds, the good people from the bad people, the righteous ones from the evil ones; would, as Solzhenitsyn says, require us to destroy a piece of our own hearts. And the Master does not wish for us to do that.  That is God’s job, not ours.

Secondly, sitting around worrying about who’s good and who’s bad, who’s in and who’s out, who’s really righteous and who’s a pawn of the evil one; distracts us from the real work God has called us to, the work of proclaiming and living the Kingdom of God.

Did you notice that the lectionary reading skipped a section?  Usually the committee does that in order to make the reading more clear, to leave out what they considered a rabbit trail, an aside that gets in the way of understanding and appreciating the overall text.  Usually they’re right – this time I think they are wrong.

Listen to verse 31-33:

31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32  It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

  • Verse 24 – the Kingdom of heaven is like – a field with weeds etc.
  • Verse 31 – the Kingdom of heaven is like – a tiny seed that grows quickly and very large.
  • Verse 33 – the Kingdom of heaven is like – yeast – it is tiny, but makes the flour grow big.

The point is: don’t worry about the weeds, just spread the good seed of God’s love.  Like mustard seed and yeast that grow big and spread quickly, so it is with the kingdom.

We as laborers in the kingdom of heaven are not called to the task of separation and judgment. That belongs completely to God and the angels, who are much better suited to the task.  Our calling is to spread the seeds of God’s love in word and deed, trusting God with the outcome

There has recently been some conversation in the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church about how open the table should be.  Can anyone come, or should communion be restricted to the baptized?

I recently read a true story that solidified my opinion that the table must be open to all.  Listen.

Tara Edelschick was raised in a secular household, with no exposure to religion except occasional stories from her parents about growing up Jewish and Lutheran.  She grew up, went to college, got married, got pregnant – all the while having no connection with any faith or faith community,

Then, in a fatal two week period, her husband died from complications during a routine surgery and her baby was delivered stillborn.  She spun out into both depression and a search for meaning.

She went in a lot of directions, most of them all at once.  Psychics, New Age thinkers, meditation classes, prayers to a god whom she didn’t believe existed.

In the midst of this she began reading the Bible, the gospel of John, on the phone, out-loud, with Tony, a friend and the only Christian she knew.  Tony said he was not going to try to persuade her, he would just read the Bible with her and let God do the convincing.

Tony got after her to go to church, so she googled “liberal churches in New Jersey” and went to the closest one. I’ll let her tell the story:

“They practiced ‘open table fellowship.’ I had no idea what that meant, but when everyone else got up to stand around the fancy table, I didn’t want to be left sitting alone in my seat.  By the time I figured out that everyone was up to take communion, I had a choice:  Did I still want to go it alone, trying desperately to keep all the balls in the air?  Or did I want to admit that Jesus had offered himself up so that I didn’t have to be alone?  To admit that I had little control but was infinitely loved?

Having the choice of Communion made it clear to me what I wanted.  After months of trying to find out what I was looking for . . . . I had to admit what I had fought so long to resist: I was hungry for Jesus.

In the end, all my searching for something in which to place my faith didn’t lead to a well-reasoned decision to choose Jesus over other gods.  Instead, God offered me (God’s) self in the form of Jesus.  I didn’t have to find (God) or explain (God) or even make sense of (God); I just had to say yes.”  (Christianity Today, July/August, 2014 p. 95)

God’s arms, God’s community of grace, God’s Kingdom of heaven, are as open to all as the communion table at that so-called “Liberal church in New Jersey.”  And our call is to be like that church– to open our arms without judgment or reserve, ready to welcome any whom God brings to us.

Amen and amen.

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