Sunday’s Sermon: Worthy of a Welcome?

  • Signs from Murrieta
    • “Return to sender”
    • “Taco Tuesday is cancelled”
    • “Stop rewarding, start deporting”
    • “Send them back with birth control”
    • These are just some of the signs that greeted busloads of mostly unaccompanied undocumented minors in the small town of Murrieta, California just a few weeks ago. The vast majority of these children were traveling alone, and some of them were as young as 6 years old. They had traveled thousands of difficult, dangerous miles. They were fleeing violence fueled by drugs and gangs. They were fleeing poverty like you and I cannot even imagine. They had already survived the natural perils of the desert and the human perils of the coyotes – those opportunistic, ruthless, and often abusive people who traffic desperate men, women, and children across the border. Some came with a plan to meet up with family in America. Some came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some came only with a hope and a prayer.
      • July 4 – bussed from southern Texas where they crossed the border to Murrieta where they were supposed to be processed → met by …
        • Angry crowd blocking the road
        • Shouting slogans
        • Holding signs
          • Both expressing vicious, ugly sentiments (read opening signs again)
        • Now, I realize that there are all sorts of opinions about immigration – what we should or shouldn’t do, policies that should or shouldn’t be in place, etc. I know it’s political. I know it’s a touchy subject right now. I know that there are some people who are angry and frustrated and maybe even afraid about what is happening and what’s been happening along the border.
          • Not here to tell you what you should believe about immigration
          • Not here to sway you politically one way or another
          • This morning, what I’m asking you to do, as human beings, is to think about what it must have felt like for those hundreds of frightened, exhausted, depleted children.
            • Angry faces surrounding buses
            • Angry voices filling your ears
            • Angry eyes glaring in the windows
            • These children had already fled the only homes they’ve ever known. They’d already been torn from their families and everything familiar to them. And one of their first encounters here was one of being despised – being told they weren’t wanted, weren’t good enough to stay.
              • Imagine feeling so undesirable, so unwelcome, so worthless
    • Can you think of a time in your life when no one – maybe even yourself included – could recognize your worth? I’d guess that most (if not all) of us have felt that way at some point. But in our Scripture readings this morning, we see and hear God’s truth spoken into the midst of that pain and isolation – the truth that, no matter what the world thinks of us, God will always see our true worth and welcome us into arms of purest love.
  • Few in Scripture whose worth is more underestimated than Leah
    • Jacob’s first wife … You know, the one he never intended to marry in the first place. – text: Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. … Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” … So Jacob served seven years for Rachel … [And] Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. … When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”[1] → I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but wonder about Leah throughout this whole exchange.
      • Did she even want to marry Jacob?
      • What did she think when her father sent her in to Jacob instead of her sister? Spur of the moment? Planned all along? Did she know?
      • Imagine Jacob’s reaction in the morning – disappointment, anger, disgust? → What about Leah’s reaction to this? – pain, disappointment, maybe even fear of retaliation
        • At this point, no one wants Leah. Her father obviously doesn’t want her. He’s callously and thoughtlessly passed her off to another man, Jacob. And Jacob makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want her either. – anyone would find it hard to find worth in the midst of all that
    • But you know what? God sees Leah’s worth. – just after today’s text: When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”[2] → goes on through conceiving and bearing two more sons, Leah always hoping that giving birth to these male heirs (so coveted, such a source of pride) would earn her husband’s love while continuing to recognize God’s presence and love in the face of it all
  • NT text this morning touches on other e.g.s of times when we feel our value diminished: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.[3] → You see, our society has placed such a huge emphasis on being self-made and self-reliation – on being able to provide for yourself and your family with no help, on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and living the most perfect life possible.
    • But what if you have trouble providing that crucial nutrition or the clothes your family needs?
    • What if you end up in a strange place where no one knows your name let alone whether or not you can be trusted?
    • What if you find yourself ill and in need of care or in trouble and in need of love and support?
      • Dominant thought in society: needing help affects your worth
      • Dominant thought in God’s heart: needing help makes you my own → scholar: [Theologian and Princeton professor] Elaine Pagels says Jesus’ words are the basis for a radical new social structure based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being.[4]
        • Hear this in Jesus’ words this morning: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.[5] → “When you looked into the eyes and heart of those whose worth was in question,” Jesus says, “I was there.”
          • Scholar: Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.[6]
    • World is full, FULL of people who need to hear this message right now
      • Those immigrant children in the busses chased out of Murrieta and the 52,000 other unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border in the last 9 mos.
      • Elderly men and women who have been forgotten by their families, left to languish in nursing homes
      • Thousands of LGBT teens who have been thrown out of their homes by families after coming out
        • 10% of general population (teens) is LGBT but 20% of homeless teens are LGBT
        • Higher risk for assault than straight homeless teens
        • Twice as likely to commit suicide
  • Last week, we talked about how it’s not our job to judge who is the good wheat and the evil weeds. That’s a job for God alone. Today’s question runs alongside that theme: Who are we to tell someone (with our words or our actions) that they are unworthy – unworthy of happiness, unworthy of love, unworthy of faith, unworthy of life itself? Who do we deem unworthy simply by overlooking them as we go about our days? Who do we actively try not to see?
    • Homeless person holding a sign at the intersection?
    • Parent at the grocery store holding up the line because there’s something wrong with his/her SNAP card (food assistance – updated version of food stamps)?
    • Man in the hospital bed? Woman behind bars?
    • Teenager struggling with addiction or behavior issues or the law?
    • Friends, it doesn’t matter who crosses our path or whether or not we want them there because we are called to try to see the world through God’s eyes – to see the worth in people that society has already written off, to see the value in those who have long since lost faith in themselves.
      • Syracuse, NY = given us great e.g. of this → In the wake of all the cities like Murrieta that have provided a less-than-warm welcome for these busloads of unaccompanied, undocumented minors, the city of Syracuse has offered to welcome them with open arms.
        • Bishop Robert Cunningham (Syracuse Roman Catholic Diocese): They’re somebody’s children. They’re loved. Parents made a great sacrifice, let them go, sent them here. I think that the parent that sends a child into such a situation like that is hoping that their child will be received warmly and welcomed. Treated hospitably, and shown compassion.[7]
    • Ways that we can embrace this type of attitude
      • Find an organization that speaks to your heart and give of yourself
        • Animals? Children? Substance abuse/other addiction recovery? Elderly? Hospice? Cleaning up green space? The possibilities are endless!
        • E.g. – Service Learning opportunities at UWEC
          • Could give finances
          • Could give time
          • Could give attention/awareness (spreading the word)
      • Speak up when you notice someone’s worth being taken away – workplace, home, [school] → As much as I hate to say it, bullies don’t just exist in the school cafeteria and on the playground. When you see someone being belittled, being marginalized, being shamed, speak up. Stand up for them to let them know that their worth isn’t determined by the mistreatment or ugly remarks of one person.
      • Wider context of society – speak out! → Those causes that tug at your heartstrings … is there legislation surrounding some aspect of that issue? Can you get your local government involved? Can you do something on the [conference/presbytery] level to get involved on the denominational level? Can you make your voice heard with state or national congress people?
        • Write a letter, send an email, make a phone call, join (or even start!) a committee that is working for a change
          • Scholar: Loving those for whom Jesus gave his life, particularly those who are undervalued, is a primary expression of our love for God and of our experience of God’s love for us.[8] → When we have experienced the love and joy and comfort that we find in God – when we have felt our own worth affirmed and reaffirmed in God’s loving embrace – how can we do anything but try to reflect that love and affirmation of worth for the world around us? Amen.

[1] Gen 29: 16, 18, 20, 22-23, 25.

[2] Gen 29:31-33.

[3] Mt 25:35-36.

[4] John M. Buchanan. “Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) – Matthew 25:31-46 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 334.

[5] Mt 25:40.

[6] Buchanan, 334.

[7] Jazz Shaw. “Syracuse, NY Mayor to Obama: Send Those Immigrant Kids Up Here.” http:///www.hotair.com/archives/2014/07/19/syracuse-ny-mayor-to-obama-send-those-immigrant-kids-up-here/. Written July 19, 2014, accessed July 21, 2014.

[8] Lindsay P. Armstrong. “Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) – Matthew 25:31-46 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 337.

Sunday’s Sermon: Pulling Weeds

  • A few weeks ago, we read the story of Moses banishing Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness, and I talked a little bit then about some of the passages from Scripture that are really difficult to deal with – stories that require some serious wrestling. Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is another passage like that.
    • Passage that might make us feel uncomfortable
    • Certainly a passage to struggle with
      • May ask why choose such passages to preach from → Passages like this are the reason I preach from the lectionary so often. Preaching from the lectionary forces me as a pastor and us as a congregation to encounter some of those passages that we wouldn’t normally choose to tackle.
        • Grow as individuals
        • Grow as community of faith
    • So this is our text for this morning … let’s wrestle with it together.
      • [read text]
  • Okay, what are the parts of this text that are a struggle for us?
    • Whole idea of evil – “children of the evil one” = seeds sowed by the devil[1] → certainly don’t like to think about evil, yet can’t deny it exists
      • Basic definition = anything harmful or injurious that causes suffering
      • Philosophical distinctions[2]
        • Moral evil (willful acts of human beings) vs. natural evil (natural disasters)
        • Physical evil (bodily pain/mental anguish) vs. metaphysical evil (imperfection and chance)
        • Basically, whether we call it evil or not, bad things happen in the world, and sometimes these bad things – intentionally or unintentionally – are committed by people.
    • Also, strictly black-and-white nature of Jesus’ interpretation doesn’t sit well with us → wheat = good, weeds = evil, nothing in between
      • This makes us uncomfortable because we know that the world seldom works this way. Things often fall somewhere along a spectrum instead of into one definite box or another, and what we have inside of each of us is no different.
        • Lives of disciples themselves = great e.g. → The people that Jesus explains this parable to are the same ones who fought over which of them was the greatest, who thought their teacher was too important to waste time on children, who wanted to punish those who were doing things in Jesus’ name (healing, casting out demons, etc.) because the disciples didn’t think they “belonged.” And these are also the same devoted friends who dropped everything to follow Jesus, who ate with Jesus in that upper room, who wept at the foot of his cross and rejoiced over his empty tomb.
        • Muddy distinctions abound in the world around us, in ourselves, even in our Scriptures → So how can this parable distill it all down into such a drastically simplistic dichotomy?
    • Related to this = our discomfort with whole idea of judgment – text:“[the angels] will collect out of [God’s] kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[3]
      • When you go pull weeds in a garden, it’s usually a pretty straight forward endeavor. Hopefully, you quickly spot the plants that don’t belong and yank ‘em out. Done and done! It’s exactly this abruptness and finality that (hopefully) makes weeding so easy and also that makes this parable so difficult. We don’t want to think of the world this way. We don’t want to think of people this way. And we certainly don’t feel comfortable being the ones doing the pulling.
        • Don’t want to be the ones differentiating between weeds and wheat, good and bad, “in” and “out”
          • Not the kind of people we want to be
          • Not the kind of church we want to be
        • Absolutely right to feel uncomfortable about this → pulling weeds = more difficult task that we can even see on surface of the text – Jesus is not just talking about any generic weed here
          • Gr. “weed” = darnel (specific type of weed)
          • Scholar: The bearded darnel is a devil of a weed. … Its roots surround the roots of good plants, sucking up precious nutrients and scarce water, making it impossible to root it out without damaging the good crop. Above ground, the darnel looks identical to wheat, until it bears seed. Those seeds can cause everything from hallucinations to death.[4] → These aren’t obvious weeds. And they aren’t harmless weeds. These are weeds that are both camouflaged and deadly. And they’re insidious.
            • Don’t want to even think about trying to figure this out → who are the “good seeds” and who are the weeds
              • Daunting task
              • Intimidating task
              • To us, feel like a disparaging task
  • I have to say, though, I feel like I have some understanding about where the servants in Jesus’ parable are coming from. → walking beans as a kid
    • Dad and Alan’s fields – known for being “clean” → How do you think they got that way?
    • Describe process – spent days targeting the weeds and taking them out one whack of the hoe at a time
    • Even though the servants of the landowner already know that they’re dealing with this horrible, insidious weed, they are still prepared to go in and root these evil things out. They worked hard to plant that field, and they don’t want to see it go to heck because of these bearded darnel.
  • Ahh, but you see, here’s the interesting this about this parable. According to our Scripture reading this morning, that daunting task of pulling weeds isn’t actually our job. Through this parable, Jesus isn’t telling us to sharpen our vision and our pruning shears so we can go out and do battle with those insidious and evil weeds. We are not called to determine who’s a weed and who’s a stalk of wheat.
    • Text: The [servants] of the householder came and said to him, “Master … where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The [servants] said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No.”[5] → The servants said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No.” No. It’s not your task … it’s not your responsibility … it’s not your burden to go and pull the weeds.
      • Whose job is it then? – text again: The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers[6] → “The Son of Man will send his angels” … that’s not us. So as we continue to wrestle with this text this morning, let us first lay that aside. Yes, this Scripture talks about judgment, but friends, it is not a judgment that is ours to parcel out as we see fit. It is a judgment for a God far greater, far stronger, and far more compassionate than we could ever hope to be.
        • Perspective from Lindsey: When God’s judgment comes into the world to mend what is broken and reconcile us to a way we cannot begin to conceive, there will be plenty of weedy chaff in all of us that needs burning away.
  • So then what is our job? What task is Jesus laying out for us in this parable? → scholar: On such a journey as this, it is … our job to imagine everyone as belonging to this God, and therefore, with all that we can muster, to endeavor to embrace, through Jesus Christ our Lord, God’s holy and purposeful ambiguity.[7]
    • We are called to continue to grow as a plant of the field and to let God be God.
      • Remember the response of the landowner in the text: The [servants] said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather [the weeds]?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”[8] → Let. Them. Both. Grow. Focus on the strength. Focus on nurturing and supporting and growth. It’s not for us to make the decision who’s in or out. It’s not for us to try to root out the bad weeds. It’s our job to continue to grow in the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ.
        • Find hope among the weeds here → Scholar: At this level, the text points us to a God who does not merely tolerate endlessly a world that is a mixture of good and evil, faith and faithlessness, triumph and tragedy, but who finally, in God’s own good time, acts both to judge and to redeem the world. … [God’s] realm is thriving in us, around us, and even, miraculously, sometimes through us; and God is pleased to let all of it “grow together until the harvest.”[9]
          • Sort of reminds me of Jesus’ mandate to Peter in John’s gospel: Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”[10]
            • Doesn’t say evaluate my lambs
            • Doesn’t say separate my flock
            • Feed my lambs – care for them, nurture them, help them grow
    • Also reminded that we are not alone
      • Parable – wheat grows together in the field, servants tend to it
      • Walking beans – always more bearable (even fun!) when it was me and my cousins
        • Worst day of walking beans – having to tackle thick, stubborn patches of weeds all alone
  • And make no mistake, my friends, just because we are not called to detect and pull the weeds ourselves doesn’t mean that this is a passive call. As the wheat in the parable grew among the menace of the weeds, we live among injustices every single day – evils that are being played out in the lives of our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our fellow human beings.
    • Scholar captures it: What are the weeds that threaten a harvest of abundant life in our world? Systematic evils such as racism, sexism, and prejudices of all kinds are weeds that entangle the roots of every human institution.[11] → We are still called to grow and to flourish in the face of the evil but also to act – do what we can to make sure that in the end, the wheat is stronger than the weeds, that there is more good in this world than evil. It may not be our job to pull the weeds, but we also cannot let the weeds overwhelm the field.
      • Beautiful e.g. from “On the Road” with Steve Hartman (CBS Evening News segment)[12]
        • Elderly woman in Oklahoma grieving her husband (recently deceased) → mugged as she was leaving the cemetery after visiting grave → man caught, mug shot broadcast on TV → man’s semi-estranged son recognized mug shot → contacted widow to …
          • Apologize for his dad’s actions: “It needed to be done. She needed an apology from somebody. If I didn’t apologize, who would?”
          • Give her some money his father had given him in attempt to make restitution … money she promptly gave back to help pay for his band trip
  • Through this difficult parable, Jesus is reminding us that it is our job, not to be the judge and jury, not to ferret out who we think God has deemed worthy or unworthy, but instead to grow in love and grace. Amen.

 

[1] Mt 13:38b-39a.

[2] Philip A. Pecorino. “The Nature of Evil” in Philosophy of Religion: Online Textbook. http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/socialSciences/ppecorino/PHIL_of_RELIGION_TEXT/CHAPTER_6_PROBLEM_of_EVIL/Nature_of_Evil.htm. © 2001, accessed 19 July 2014.

[3] Mt 13:41-21.

[4] Talitha J. Arnold. “Proper 11 (Sunday between July 17 and July 23 inclusive) – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 260.

[5] Mt 13:27-29.

[6] Mt 13:41.

[7] Theodore J. Wardlaw. “Proper 11 (Sunday between July 17 and July 23 inclusive) – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43: Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 265.

[8] Mt 13:28-30.

[9] Wardlaw, 263, 265.

[10] Jn 21:15.

[11] Joni S. Sancken. “Proper 11 – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary – Year A. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 330.

[12] Steve Hartman. “Okla. Teen acts to right his father’s wrong.” CBS Evening News, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/okla-teen-acts-to-right-his-fathers-wrong/. Aired 4 Oct. 2013, accessed 19 July 2014.

Sunday’s Sermon: Cultivating the Soil of Our Lives

  • Let me ask you something this morning. When was the last time you paused to think about dirt? Really think about it?
    • Complex make up[1]
      • Decomposing leaves
      • Particles of rock
      • Other various organic matter
    • And while soil may not be technically alive, anyone who works with it – professionally or as a hobby – can tell you what a changing and changeable substance soil truly is. → change it by …
      • Adjust the pH (the acidity level) to grow different kinds of plants
      • Our gardens – work in compost to enrich soil to help our vegetables grow healthier
      • Soil = booming business!
        • Farmers spend thousands and thousands of dollars every year preparing their soil for spring planting
        • Lawn care industry in the U.S. is a multi-BILLION (yup … that’s with a “B,” billion) dollar industry
    • Soil is definitely a changeable substance. It can be cultivated. It can be enriched. It can be fortified for the sake of whatever’s growing in it. And like soil, we ourselves are changeable as well. We can be cultivated. We can we enriched. We can be fortified by our faith and by God’s Word.
  • In today’s NT Scripture, the way the seeds grow = affected by the soil on which they fall – text: Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered quickly. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.[2]
    • Some of those seeds got lucky – landed in the good soil, got to grow up like the happy little plants they’re supposed to be 
    • But most of the seeds in this story weren’t so lucky. They fell on less-than-perfect soil.
      • May say, “What kind of a helter skelter, crazy way is that to plant?”  historical explanation – scholar: Unlike a modern American farmer, who carefully prepares the soil with just the right pH balance and then injects the seed into the ground, farmers in Jesus’ time cast the seed and then plow the land.[3]
      • Results of this type of planting:
        • Path = no soil/no growth at all!
        • Rocky ground = too shallow to establish roots/burned up!
        • Thorns and weeds = too crowded to grow/choked out!
    • That’s all pretty clear. And while the first half of the parable describes the seeds’ fates, in the second half of the parable, Jesus makes it clear that indeed, we are the soil that he’s talking about. – seed = Word of God
      • Seeds that fell on the path = those who hear God’s Word but don’t absorb because they don’t understand
      • Seeds that fell on rocky ground = those who hear God’s Word with joy but let that joy be quickly stolen by the trials of life
      • Seeds that fell among the thorns = those who hear God’s Word but let the naysayers and enticements of the world choke it out
  • Now, I realize that you may have heard any number of different sermons dealing with Jesus’ words here. [A couple of you may have even preached any number of different sermons on Jesus’ words here.] But this morning, instead of once again hearing Jesus’ familiar words and phrases here, I’m going to ask you to listen to what Jesus isn’t saying in this parable.
    • Do you hear Jesus saying that the soil must remain as it is? Do you hear him saying that soil must remain unchanged? That it in fact cannot be changed? I don’t. And that’s my point this morning. In America, we spend all this time, all this money, all this energy changing the soil in our lawns, our gardens, and our fields. And in this parable, Jesus is saying that we are the soil. So it stands to reason that we, in fact, can also be changed as well.
      • Some days may feel like “rocky ground” days – days when you feel your faith growing and taking root but growth is stunted by worries, conflict, many distractions of life  before we know it, we’re burned out
      • Some days may feel like “weedy” days – feel the joy of God at first but joy is quickly choked off by struggles at work or in our personal relationships, all those little and not-so-little things that get us down  before we know it, we can’t even see the sun
      • Some days feel like “path” days – just sort of blah, nothing grabbing you, nothing inspiring you, not much going on at all  before we know it, apathy has whitewashed our whole days/spirits
      • But there are also some days when we feel like good soil. There are some days when our faith flourishes in us, nurturing ourselves and the people around us, enriching our lives and fortifying our spirits.
        • Recent e.g. – Peace Camp, watching youth of our two congregations working together to teach and learn and play and have faith together  good soil!
  • OT passage this morning gives great e.g. for someone changing soil of life  Jacob
    • You see, Jacob is an interesting biblical character.
      • There’s a lot that rides on Jacob’s shoulders.
        • 12 tribes of Israel stem from Jacob’s sons
        • That promise God made Abraham – “great nation shall come from you” – descends through Jacob (Isaac’s son)
      • Feel kinda bad for Jacob later on in narrative
        • Falls madly in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel after seeing her from afar  works 7 years for right to marry Rachel  Laban tricks Jacob on his wedding night and gives him other daughter, Leah, instead  poor Jacob has to work another 7 years to marry Rachel
    • That being said, let’s face it – in today’s Scripture reading, Jacob’s kind of a jerk.
      • Not entirely Jacob’s fault/own doing – Isaac and Rebekah set stage for serious sibling rivalry: When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.[4]  Dad loved one twin more, and Mom loved the other twin more. Yikes. Okay, Peter and I may be far from experts, but even we’ve already figured out that this is not the way to raise twins … or any kids, for that matter!
        • Certainly paves the way for antagonism between Jacob and Esau
      • Jacob’s not-so-shining moment today: Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” … Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”[5]
        • Scholar puts it pretty succinctly: Jacob takes egregious advantage of another person in need.[6]  Like I said, Jacob’s kind of a jerk!
        • Not Jacob’s only less-than-stellar moment[7]
          • (With his mother’s help), out-and-out steals firstborn blessing from Esau when Isaac’s on his deathbed – dressed up in lambs’ wool to impersonate Esau’s hairiness and took advantage of Isaac’s blindness  Esau was so enraged that Jacob fled
          • Doesn’t treat Leah well after finds out he’s married to her instead of Rachel
          • Strained relationship with his father-in-law that basically ends up bankrupting him (again, not entirely Jacob’s fault but also not wholly innocent in the matter)  leads to Jacob having to flee Syria with his wives, his children, and all he owns
    • Suffice to say Jacob was less-than-perfect. But that didn’t mean that God gave up on him.
      • As he’s fleeing Laban and returning to his homeland – Jacob has an encounter in which he finds himself literally wrestling with God[8]
        • Result – Jacob is a changed man
          • Name changed from Jacob (“deceiver”) to Israel (connotations of striving with God)
          • Changed in demeanor – returns to Esau penitent and humble  brothers are reconciled (at least for a little while)
        • This is another reason why Jacob is such a great example for us this morning as we talk about changing the soil of our lives. First, Jacob made the change. But it’s also important to note that that change wasn’t instantaneous. It wasn’t casual. And it certainly wasn’t easy. It was a hard-fought contest in which he literally wrestled with God. This change was hard! Jacob had to get down and dirty with himself and with God in order to work through this change.
          • Not so different when we’re working with real soil
            • E.g. – kids working with Countryside Lawn and Landscaping the other day
            • Working with soil is a dirty business. It’s labor-intensive. It’s exhausting. And the results aren’t instantaneous. And sometimes, the process has to be repeated again and again.
              • E.g. – farmers apply fertilizer year after year because some plants leech nitrogen out of the soil  constant cycle of enriching and needing to be enriched, of nourishing and needing to be nourished
    • So how do we go about working through our own change?
      • Spending time in Scripture – wrestling with God, wrestling with the difficult and confusing and muddy passages
      • Spending time in prayer – again, wrestling with God, wrestling with the ups and downs of life, the questions and the doubt and the fears
      • Spending time talking and learning about our faith with other people (Christians and non-Christians alike) – wrestling with the uncomfortable questions, wrestling with the brokenness and the blessing that we find all around us
  • Along our journeys of faith, some hours, some weeks, some days are better than others … and that’s okay! Sometimes we end up wrestling with God … and that’s okay! Sometimes faith is a messy thing … and that’s okay! But as we go about this cultivation process, we do so with the knowledge and the reassurance that like Jacob and like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, God will not give up on us. The seeds of faith and hope and love continue to be sown throughout our lives – by God, by our interaction with Scripture, by other people that we encounter – and every day, we have a fresh opportunity to turn over the soil, to start a new row, to cultivate a faith that is strong and vibrant and sustaining. Amen.

 

[1] “What is soil made of?” The Open Door Web Site. http://www.saburchill.com/chapters/chap0058.html. Accessed 10 July 2014.

[2] Mt 13:4-8.

[3] Talitha J. Arnold. “Proper 10 (Sunday between July 10 and July 16 inclusive): Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 236.

[4] Gen 25:27-28.

[5] Gen 25:29-33a.

[6] Terence E. Fretheim. “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 523.

[7] Gen 29-31.

[8] Gen 32:22-32.

Sunday’s Sermon: Christians Say the Darndest Things

  • In 1995, beloved comedian Bill Cosby hosted a TV special that simultaneously tickled the funny bones and touched the hearts of so many Americans that it became a full-season show 3 years later and ran from 1998-2000.
    • “Kids Say the Darndest Things”
      • Ask question → sometimes innocuous, sometimes a little more leading
        • Harmless: What’s the best way to eat a hotdog?
        • More leading: Should a man be with an older or a younger woman?
      • One thing you could count on with this show – the answers were always a little absurd → what made it so funny
        • But on the flipside, what made these answers so heartwarming is that often buried in all those absurdly unexpected answers were nuggets of truth.
          • Questions may be absurd
          • Answers may be absurd
          • But that absurdity doesn’t negate the truth being spoken. The Bible, history, and certainly our own lives are filled with God’s messengers who could only be described as absurd. But the absurdity of God’s many messengers also emphasizes the unifying nature of God’s message – the universal truth of God’s love and grace.
  • See absurdity of God’s messengers in today’s texts
    • I have to admit that what initially caught my attention and sparked this sermon idea was Isaiah’s description of the seraphim. – text: Seraphim were in attendance above [the Lord]; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.” [1]
      • Absurd creatures that capture the imagination
      • And yet from the midst of this absurdity, we hear words of adoration and glory: Holy, holy, holy … the whole earth is full of God’s glory!
        • Words that we continue to use in worship
          • Often part of the communion liturgy
          • Familiar hymn: “Holy, holy, holy, God the Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee” [2]
        • Unifying message that has brought worshipers together down through the ages – declaring God’s sacred otherness and lifting our voices together in devotion and praise
    • But the seraphim aren’t the only absurd messengers in our Old Testament reading this morning. Isaiah declares himself to be an imperfect mouthpiece for God – an absurd choice for the role of “prophet.” – text: And I said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” [3]
      • Scripture = full of people like this
        • Jonah – the reluctant, runaway prophet
        • Hosea – prophet from a thoroughly broken home
        • Matthew – hated and probably corrupt tax collector turned disciple
        • Paul – malicious persecutor and religious hard-nose turned evangelist
        • All absurd choices for messengers from God … and yet God worked and spoke through them.
    • Absurdity of messengers throughout church’s history
      • John Calvin – extreme introvert who would’ve just as happily spent his entire life in a scholastic ivory tower but was forced to lead a new religious community in Geneva
        • Battled interior demons – far from what we’d call a “people person”
        • Battled physical demons – serious, extremely uncomfortable digestive issues his whole life
        • And yet God continues to speak through John Calvin – through his theological works and through the many churches that stemmed from the Reformed faith which he fathered.
      • Hildegard of Bingen – 11th cent. mystic, began seeing visions at age 3 [4] → had everything stacked against her
        • Female
        • Low in the birth order in large family
        • Sickly her whole childhood
        • Given to the church by her parents
        • And yet despite all of these things that counted against her during her lifetime, God continues to speak through Hildegard’s theological treatises and through the hymns she wrote that we continue to use today.
          • E.g. – “O, Holy Spirit, Root of Life,” #57 (NCH)
    • Absurdity of contemporary prophets – Nadia Bolz-Weber and Jay Bakker
      • Heavily tattooed
      • Lots of piercings
      • Overcame parental legacies
        • Bolz-Weber grew up in fundamentalist faith tradition that doesn’t ordain women
        • Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker – televangelists whose very public fall from grace included fraud and jail time (in Rochester!)
      • And yet God is speaking loudly and boldly through these pastors on the front lines of the church today.
        • Making message of the gospel accessible to those who feel left out or left behind by the mainline church
        • Being super real about grace – what they’ve experienced
  • That’s a lot of absurdity – a lot of people who the world might say are too imperfect to relay God’s message. But then we encounter Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians this morning: God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. [5]
    • Let this speak to you this morning! You see, we tend to think that because we aren’t perfect … because we have flaws … because we don’t think our hearts or our spirits or our faith is strong enough. We think we’re absurd choices for messengers.
    • Found a great contemporary example as I was prepping this week → You know I like to listen to music as I’m working on my sermons during the week. Well, one of the songs that I was listening to this week was so appropriate that I decided to play it for you this morning. So you can follow along, I’ve included the lyrics in your bulletin this morning.
    • Popular saying: God doesn’t call those who are equipped, God equips those who are called.
      • Reiterated by Scripture: Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. [6] → This sounds to me like the tobyMac song. The scenarios he presents are absurd, foolish – packing bags when he should stay, chasing whims like the breezes that blow by. Toby knows that without God, it’s just absurdity, but with God, anything is possible.
        • God can make foolishness wisdom
        • God can make weakness strength
        • God can make those whom are called perfect for the job
        • Doesn’t mean that everything we say as Christians is golden → Like the kids on “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” some of the things we say are crazy. Some are inaccurate. Some are absurd. Our perceptions, our understandings, our take on things can be skewed. But God works through our words, often in ways we don’t even hear or understand.
    • But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. – scholar: Our prophetic response to contemporary issues should come out of our deep experiences of holy mystery. And our encounter with the Triune God leads us to our responsibility in the world: To enact the love and justice of [God] and to spread God’s peace to the world [7] → To enact the love and justice of God and to spread God’s peace to the world. A nugget of truth in the midst of the world’s absurdity. What more can we be called to do? Amen.

[1]  Is 6:2-3.

[2]  “Holy, Holy, Holy,” New Century Hymnal, #277.

[3] Is 6:5.

[4]  “Hildegard of Bingen.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen. Accessed 3 July 2014.

[5]  1 Cor 1:21.

[6] 1 Cor 1:26-29.

[7]  Kee Boem So. “First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday): Isaiah 6:1-8” in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 263.