Sunday, July 23, 2017

What are we waiting for?

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Earlier this week, I was complaining how impenetrable this week's lectionary readings are. At first glance, Genesis is a bridging passage between two important stories (and doesn't tell the whole story of Jacob's encounter with God); who can tell what the hell Paul is talking about except that we're hoping for something we can't see because if we could see it wouldn't be hope -- which is more indicative perhaps of either Paul not being imaginative enough or drunk or a deeper wisdom (hmmm....); and the parable in the Gospel is all about judgement and casting into flames all the evil doers of this world ... or is it?

In last Sunday's Grantchester, Sidney Chambers is asked why God can't simply answer a question and he says "but then it wouldn't be faith". He ends up having a crisis of faith himself. 

So what ARE we waiting for? What is this hope?

Let's start with Genesis. Have you ever had a God experience? Some movement of the Holy Spirit? Or you sensed the presence of God, that let you know that not only is God real, but you belong to God. Perhaps it was an inarticulate covenant, or even a whisper of what lies beyond. If you have, then you have experienced what Jacob did in this passage, with angels ascending and descending and God speaking to him. Paul has clearly also experienced this holy moment but lacks the vocabulary to describe it, as we all do. That "looking through a glass darkly" at God's promise to us.

The thing about God experiences is that they have the potential to transform us, and for us to become part of God's in-breaking of a new earth and a new heaven. Paul's road to Damascus is the most dramatic and obvious example, but Jacob's story is also one of transformation. Gods's promise is "I am always with you" in addition to the promise he gave to his grandfather Abraham of promising him land and becoming a father to the nations.

Jacob's awareness of this promise is transformative, because even as Jacob himself is tricked, and in turn continues his trickery, Jacob grows to trust God and so his yetzer-hara for always getting the best bargain (an admirable Middle Eastern trait) can at last be kept in check for him to pray to God for help in reconciling with his brother Esau. 

In the gospel, the parable of the weeds is Jesus telling us a most loving story, although at first glance it looks nothing like. 

It's not about smoking weed either.

On the face of it, Matthew's explanation of this parable brings to mind good people vs evil people, or chosen vs denied, not to mention hell and damnation. Maybe Jesus did tell this parable but the interpretation was something other than what Matthew chooses.

Maybe this parable is not about the body of Christ (as in those who make up the people of Christianity) or the "true" followers of Jesus, but about our own body in Christ. Is this what Paul is also trying to get at with the Holy Spirit bringing our desires out of evil and into moderation?

For as the last verse into today's beautiful psalm says:
"Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
and lead me in the way that is everlasting."
The entire psalm speaks of God knowing us inside and out, before we were even conceived, of knowing our strengths and our weaknesses. Jesus too, as the Son of God, knows each of us inside and out: the potential for fruitfulness (wheat) and the potential for destruction (weeds).

Breaking a bad habit is difficult, improving ourselves is hard. There can be much wailing and gnashing of teeth before the new habit, the new way of being becomes a part of us.

If God took away all the weeds the minute we received the Holy Spirit, that would also take away our free will that we were created with. If God had taken Jacob's trickster-self away, how would Jacob have ever been able to leave Laban and return home? Further, as the farmer in the parable says, what is good about us would be badly damaged and we'd be unable to fully grow into God's kingdom; and so new life grows alongside old ways of living, transforming us into new beings.

We cannot change on our own. We need the awareness of God with us but not even with the Spirit of God in us can we tame our out-of-control desires, although with God's help, we can get closer to that fruition.

I believe that each time we fall away from God and let the yetzer-hara get out of control again, the crop tended by God doesn't fail but God waits for us to return. 

So this is what we are waiting for: it's not judgement, it's rescue, it's transformation, reconciliation and restoration.

And with receiving the Spirit of God, we have the potential to transform, to become Sowers of God's kingdom. (See last week's blogging the lectionary.)

God longs for us to turn and return to God again and again and each time we do, the good wheat grows a little more and a little bit of the kingdom of heaven peeks into earth.

Maybe, just maybe that is what this parable means and that is what we wait, we hope and long for.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Can we be the Sower?

It has been a while since I blogged the lectionary. When I decided this past week that it was the time to get back to it, I discovered that I'd started doing this in Year A in 2014. And we're back in Year A again.

Today's lectionary readings:

This could be subtitled, "Wherein I get caught up in Paul but thankfully remember what it's all about. (Hint: God's love.)

In Judaism, there is no original sin. God created humanity in God's likeness, with free will, and so as Rabbinic Judaism describes it, humans have yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, and yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, the latter being "a drive toward pleasure, property or security, which left unlimited, can lead to evil" (per However, this is not all that humanity is made of, so this is not a simplistic dualism. There is also the mind, the heart (equivalent to the gut in the ancient world, for example, a gut feeling), and the soul.  The two yetzers are what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the flesh and the spirit. Remember yetzer ha-tov (good) and yetzer ha-ra (evil, sort of). We'll get to Paul and today's gospel parable in a sec.

Let's start at the first of today's readings. Both Esau and Jacob exhibit these two natures. Esau has both good (we know because Isaac, who was consecrated to God, loves him) and evil: his desire for food is so great, he gives up his birthright. Same for Jacob, the yetzer ha-tov of living simply and wrestling toward God (as we'll see later) versus the yetzer ha-ra of coveting his brother's birthright -- and giving into that desire. Nobody in the Bible is perfect.

This idea of two natures or inclinations dates to rabbinic Judaism, which yes is after Paul, but Augustine's concept of original sin is also after Paul and has been read back into it. When Paul speaks of flesh it is yetzer ha-ra, spirit is yetzer ha-tov. Capital-S Spirit is the Spirit of God. Note also, that Paul uses different Greek words for flesh (sarx) versus body (soma). It's not Augustine's neo-Platonism of flesh/body vs. spirit/soul (or shadow vs reality). But two different parts out of many of being human.

It turns out I am not the only person who was thought of this: both W.D. Davies and his student E.P. Sanders say that Paul's word choices are consistent with a developing theology that led to (and was further expounded upon) by rabbis after the Second Temple's destruction.

Try re-reading Paul in this way: "But you are not in yetzer ha-ra; you are in yetzer ha-tov, since the Spirit of God dwells in you." (Romans 8:9)

Yet even with the gift of God's Spirit, we are still mortal and we still struggle between these two inclinations. Paul ranted about this in last week's lectionary passage: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:19) And he's one who has the Spirit of God with him! You've probably thought to yourself by now, what does it really mean to be in Christ Jesus if we still struggle with yetzer ha-ra? The things we shouldn't do, but do? Remember Jacob and how he wasn't perfect either? We are none of us expected to achieve perfection. It is God's mercy and loving-kindness that sees us through the mess of human life.

But wait, there's more.

This is also where today's gospel parable comes in. Because receiving the Spirit of God isn't a passive act. It's a get-up-and-go active response. "Let anyone with ears, listen!" (Matthew 13:9) Listening is not a passive reception but active. We need to want to hear the word of the kingdom first. How and why we don't listen are the reasons behind the lack of fruitfulness of the first three soils, various yetzer ha-ra motivations. If we can hear and understand, then we become fruitful in the sense of becoming a sower ourselves, bringing in a new creation, "pursuing what is right for everyone" (Jewish Annotated New Testament, my emphasis). 

The important thing is the Sower doesn't give up. The sower can be God, Jesus, the disciples, or those who have the Spirit of God through Christ Jesus as Paul does, that is, us, our active response. Again and again, the word of the kingdom is sown, the Holy Spirit is sent, without discrimination, without judgement, without despair because a seed fails.

All types of ground, all types of people, are are loved enough by God for the Beloved to sow the word of the kingdom. And God does not give up on us and will sow the word again and again, hoping, always hoping, that this time there is understanding, that this time a heart will be open, and the word will take root.

Commentary on the Torah by Richard E. Friedman
"Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra" by Mark Wauck on his blog meaning in history which quotes W. D. Davies' Paul and Rabbinic Judaism
The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV), Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Butler, editors
Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors
Sermon Brainwave podcast by The Working Preacher "SB549 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 15)"