Archives for July 2011

Bible Study: Proper 14 (A)

July 31, 2011

Jakki Flanagan, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” (Matthew 14:19-20)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Genesis 32:22-31

Forgiveness.

“He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone…”
Despite readings, prayer, and support from others, when we have been wronged, the path to forgiveness often feels like an isolated journey. It is a stripping down to the essence of who we are.

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

Forgiveness is a struggle, a wrestling with ourselves, with understanding, and ultimately, with God. Often we want to forgive, but forgiveness is not an intellectual exercise. The deeper the wound, the more profound the struggle. The thought of Jacob’s wrestling until daybreak could at times seem a blessing – if only a day, rather than a year, a lifetime.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

When finally we have reached a place of forgiveness, we are no longer the same person we were. We have wrestled with questions of Why. We have struggled with our own and others’ humanity. As Christians we profess that God desires the reconciliation of all creation through Christ. Every act of forgiveness is a step towards that ultimate act of reconciliation. Through it we are forever changed. As we walk into the sunlight, though, we do so with a limp, to remind us of what we have overcome.

Psalm 17:1-7, 16

When reading this psalm through the lens of forgiveness, we hear the psalmist pleading to God in desperation for understanding. What is the connection between forgiveness and understanding? This seems to be a never-ending struggle, if only a reason can be found, if only sense can be made of this, then possibly forgiveness and healing will come more easily. It is interesting to consider as well the lines of this psalm that were omitted. Those lines have to do with the perpetrator, the one causing the harm. It is almost as if, in selecting which parts of the psalm to include, an attempt was made to move past blame, to seeking understanding. The last line, a prayer of hope, speaks of “vindication” though the word can also be viewed as a right making, or deliverance. The deliverance from feelings that prevent us from forgiving. That deliverance can bring us closer to God, providing a glimpse of God’s face. In seeing God’s face we are given the mirror opportunity to see God in ourselves.

Romans 9:1-5

In the epistle we hear the voice of a person grappling to understand. Why is this happening? Better to have this happen to me than my loved one. We would give so much to protect those we love from adversity.

How do we make sense of the injustices that befall those we love? Often they have done nothing to bring about the place in which they find themselves. But what about those who have? We still suffer for their struggles and pain. However much we may try to distance ourselves, we still wish and pray that their lives were easier, that this hardship was taken from them. Can we find a ray of hope, a place of forgiveness, to offer ourselves and those we love, while we witness their struggles?

Matthew 14:13-21

“We have nothing here.”

I do not have what it takes, God, to deal with this situation. I have nothing – a few fish, some bread. How can I possibly do what you are asking me to do?

Forgiveness, healing.

Where, in your life, do you struggle with forgiveness? For others, for yourself?

How can you even consider forgiveness for horrible wrongs, atrocities, unspeakable violence? There is no easy answer, no simple fix.

“And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’”

We are human. We ache, we suffer, we hate. When we feel we have nothing, when we feel we are nothing, can we look to God? Seeking God’s face, remembering through Jesus Christ, that yes, we are human, and God loves our humanness deeply, can we remember the depth of that unimaginable love and give our terrible burden to God? Can we give our nothing to God, in the hope that God will do something with it?

Bring it here, Proper 13 (A) – 2011

July 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

[NOTE TO READER: The Greek word “esplahnisthē” in the fifth paragraph is pronounced “Es-plah-NEES-thee.”]

Jesus’ cousin, the one who went before him to open the way, is dead. Both John and Jesus had started their brief ministries as courageous prophets, proclaiming God’s justice, calling people to repentance, inviting them to find their way to God. And now one of them, still young and vigorous, is dead at the hands of an immoral, weak king and his family. After hearing the terrible news brought to him by John’s disciples, Jesus withdraws to be alone, to grieve and to pray. This much we can guess, from the previous story on John’s murder and the beginning of today’s lesson.

Had such a tragedy happened to one of our close friends or cousins, our first emotion, even more powerful than grief at such a time, would be fear. “We’ve been involved in the same kind of ministry,” we would think. “We have called out the sinners and the powerful and the hypocrites, and we know what happens to prophets who tell the truth.” We would be afraid that death was just around the bend for us also.

Through human empathy, we can begin to imagine what Jesus might have felt after the death of John, but when it comes to fear, we have to rethink. We are confronted here by the one who always greeted his friends with, “Do not be afraid.” We can recognize in Jesus emotions that we, ourselves, have experienced; but fear is not one of them. What is probably evident in Jesus after the death of John is a sense of urgency – the realization that the end will come very soon, that when he sets his face toward Jerusalem he sets his face toward his own death.

But not yet.

For when he comes back from his time alone, he is met by crowds of people who have followed him and who are hungry for his words. He sees them, and as the Greek says in one powerful verb, esplahnisthē, he feels pain for them within himself, in his very body. First he makes them whole: he cures those who are sick. And as the other gospels declare when they tell this same story, he gives them the good news of God by teaching them. They are so riveted by him that they forget everything else. Twilight falls and they are still there as they have been all day long, men and women, together with children who are beginning to get restless and hungry.

The gospel writers disagree on who first noticed the failing light and the need for food – Jesus or his disciples – but notice they did. The disciples wanted Jesus to make an announcement, something like this: “Now, good people, you must go to the nearby villages to find food. We have no food here, so go in peace and take care of your own.” But as usual, Jesus surprised them. He said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Not the general imperative, “Give them something to eat,” but the specific “You give them something to eat.”

We can hear their protestations: “But we don’t have any food, Lord. The baskets are empty; the food pantry is empty. We can’t feed so many people. Don’t you see? It’s physically impossible. Look, all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, and there are nearly five thousand people here.”

We recognize the panic. We have been there. There is too much need in our world. Too many people unemployed, too many people hungry, too many people hurting. “We can’t do it all, Lord.”

But the Lord accepts no excuses. “Bring me what you have,” he says, and when the meager resources are brought to him, he does what they have seen him do again and again: he blesses the food.

Now, the temptation is great – and thousands have succumbed to it – to try to explain away what happened that day, on a deserted stretch of land near the Sea of Galilee. Interpreters have tried to rationalize the resulting abundance of food. The reaction is understandable: It is frightening to stand in the real presence of the creative energy of God! In order not to be afraid, we try to explain it according to the laws of nature. But we cannot. When the eternal enters the temporal with such force, our finite minds either close up or become arrogant. So it doesn’t help to argue about the word “miracle” when we are confronted with this story. What matters here is that they were all fed.

God in Christ takes what we have, blesses it, and works his goodwill through this blessing. God wants us to be fed, wants us to be whole, wants us to be nurtured. Jesus sets an example for his church in this act of feeding the five thousand. The living Christ wants us to take what we have and offer it to God, no matter how little it is, no matter how meager our resources are. When it comes to the needs of his people, God will not take no for an answer. God will bless, but the rest is up to us. We bring the resources, and we do the work. It was the disciples who were asked to organize the people and who served the food that continued to increase because it was blessed by the loving energy of the Creator. How can the church do less?

First we bring our weakness to the altar, saying: “We can’t do it, Lord. The needs are too many.”

Then we answer his question, How much do you actually have? “Well, very little, five loaves and two fish.”

“Bring it here,” he says. “It is enough.” And he blesses it. Then, wonder of wonders, we discover that, yes, it is enough.

“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

It is enough and more than enough, the gospel tells us. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Light to the Darkness” (Morehouse Publishing, 2008) among other books. She lives and writes in Boone, N.C. 

Bible Study: Proper 12 (A)

July 24, 2011

Eric Gregory,  Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’” (Matthew 13:52)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

1 Kings 3:5-12

Desire is important. Not the sort of desire we might have for cars or money or sex or fame, but the deepest desires and longings of our hearts. Our inmost desires can clue us into what God truly desires for us. Desires can help us understand who we are becoming and what we are supposed to do with our lives – what we want, more than anything, to be.

Solomon’s vocation was pretty clear (he may have even, as the son of the David, desired it). But what else did he desire? Who was he? What sort of king did he want to be? Today’s reading shows us a person who was able to understand himself and his own desires well enough to know that he wanted to wield his authority with a concern for equity and justice. And he did not hesitate to ask God for that ability.

Do we know what we most deeply desire? Are we able, like Solomon, to hear God’s voice encouraging us to ask for this?

Psalm 119:129-136

Notions of complete obedience to laws and regulations – even the statutes of God – can be daunting, especially when we do not have the psalmist’s experience of “panting” for them.

This psalm can cause conflict for many modern-day Christians, with our vast amounts of scientific and historical knowledge. As soon as the Psalmist says, “When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple,” we want to remind him of the importance of modern education to bring understanding, the moral issues with calling parts of the Bible “the Word of God,” or the dangers of accepting everything that someone might say about what God wants or wills.

The challenge for us today is to hold these well-founded concerns in tension with the revelation and tradition that has been delivered to us through the Church and the Scriptures.

“Rescue me from those who oppress me, and I will keep your commandments.”

Bargaining with God. Conditional obedience and love. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.

What do sentiments like this tell us about God’s relationship to God’s children? Is the Psalmist suggesting that she won’t keep God’s commandments if she isn’t rescued (or simply that she won’t be alive to be able to keep God’s commandments)? Are we to think, based on this passage as well as similar stories in the Bible (ex: Gen. 18:23-33, Ex. 32:7-14), that bartering is an acceptable (or even effective) practice when interacting with God?

Romans 8:26-39

Intercession is a powerful form of prayer. When our loved ones ask us to pray for them, we engage in a conversation with God about them. In doing so, we ask God to listen to our compassionate hearts for these persons.

St. Paul reminds us that, in the very same way, the Spirit intercedes before God on our behalf. When we are overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, bored, or in some other way weak, the Advocate speaks to God, asking God to consider God’s own compassionate heart for us. In the mystery of the communion of the Trinity, God speaks to Godself, remembering anew God’s heart for us.

When we follow the Spirit’s example of intercessory prayer, we participate even more fully in the communal life of the Triune God.

When we pray for others, are we able to envision our petition as a conversation with God about someone who is mutually cherished? How might this affect our prayers? Are we able to remind ourselves that our prayers for others are interwoven with the Spirit’s own intercessions for them? How might this affect our prayers?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Familiarity can breed contempt.

For many Christians who have grown up in church, the parables of Jesus are some of the most recognizable texts from the Bible. The mustard seed, the lost sheep, the prodigal son – these are all very well-known, and all of the gospels have many of these in common. Because of this familiarity, we may believe, like the disciples in today’s reading, that we “get it” – we understand what Jesus is saying.

But do we?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Do we recognize that the death and transformation of the seed is necessary for the growth of the tree? Or that the ground must be cracked and broken to allow the tree to well up from within?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Do we know that this fungal microorganism reproduces asexually, expanding uncontrollably? Or that it is a central ingredient in not only bread, but also alcohol (bringing to mind the Elements of the Eucharist)?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. Do we know who hid the treasure? Or appreciate the strength, effort and toil that digging up that treasure requires?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of pearls.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net, catching good and bad fish alike. “Have you understood all this?” Can our answer, as was the disciples, be “Yes”?

Abundantly present, Proper 12 (A) – 2011

July 24, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today let’s picture the world as an ungainly, promising mass of dough. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The comedian comes out on stage, and starts his routine. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up jokes. His timing is masterful, and the one-liners burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but laugh.

Jesus comes out in front of the crowds and starts his teaching. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up parables. His timing is masterful, and these word-pictures burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but see.

Here there’s a similarity between Jesus and a stand-up comic. The comedian makes you laugh; Jesus makes you see. And what you see is something of the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.

The routine Jesus offers in today’s gospel is a bonanza: five short parables in a row. All of them are gems. Parables about a mustard seed, treasure buried in a field, a pricey pearl, a fishing net. Then there’s the one we might focus on this morning: the parable about yeast in the flour.

It’s a one-liner. You might have missed it if you sneezed when the gospel was read. It goes like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Three measures of flour. Do you know how much that is? About eighty pounds! This woman is not Martha Stewart whipping up a couple delicate, exquisite little biscuits that together weigh less than a canary. No, no. This woman is a baker!

She’s emptying sixteen five-pound bags of flour into the biggest mixing bowl you’ve ever seen. She’s pouring in forty-two cups of water. She’s got a mass of dough on her hands that weighs over a hundred pounds. Kneading this lump of dough, shaping it, pounding it. It looks like some scene at the end of a professional wrestling match. Here we have a no-nonsense operation. Sports fans, this is baking at its best. A woman, with her apron dusted with flour, her ten fingers deep into the dough – she’s a combination of Julia Child and Hulk Hogan.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus tosses out this parable, this one-liner, and he does so for a purpose. Just as the stand-up comic wants us to laugh, Jesus wants us to glimpse the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.

Take another look at that huge mass of dough. It’s not just flour any more. The yeast is in the dough, invisible, but permeating the mass, and having its effect. A mystery is bubbling away inside, with much more happening than meets the eye.

As this process continues, the hidden will become manifest. There’s no way to stop it! The movement from mystery to manifestation: Jesus presents this to us as the pulse of the kingdom of heaven. Here is how God’s sovereignty becomes apparent: it resembles the strange transformation that turns flour into dough.

We get to watch the baker woman at work. We’re invited to look at this process and see it for what it’s worth. But if we’re to get a glimpse of the kingdom, if we’re to look down to the center of this parable, then two things are asked of us: we must be patient, and we must exercise discernment.

Yeast takes a while to work, and its working is mysterious. So we have to be patient as the dough rises and comes to life. This dough is not a dead lump, a hopeless, shapeless pile, but instead a universe where opportunities become real. The baker woman is at work with our life, our circumstances, and the people around us. Nothing is outside this lump of dough.

We need to be patient and to exercise discernment if a lump of dough is ever to be bread for the world. And we must exercise this same patience and discernment about the universe. Life is something other than a pile of flour and a bit of yeast. Life is an ungainly, promising mass of dough, on its way to becoming abundant bread. Just as yeast permeates the entire lump, so the kingdom is present everywhere, and everywhere it becomes manifest for those with eyes to see.

If we look around us and within us, we can recognize the presence of the kingdom. That kingdom is at work, just as yeast is active in the dough. And as yeast is invisible and known by its effects, so the kingdom is hidden, concealed, buried deep in ordinary circumstances, yet known by its effects.

Look at your life in the light of grace. Something is there for you to find – whether you feel happy or sad, whether your life seems successful or disastrous, whether you call yourself a winner or a loser. That something is the activity of the kingdom, yeast bubbling away in your corner of the lump.

And when you find the kingdom among the realities of your life, nothing prevents you from finding this same kingdom present as well in the circumstances around you, in the lives of other people, and everywhere you choose to look.

There’s one caution to keep in mind. The kingdom does not come with brass bands. It is not the subject of headline news and public-relations efforts. We are talking here about yeast working invisibly in the dough, a hidden yet potent activity.

As it takes faith to believe that bread will rise, so too faith is necessary to see the kingdom manifest in the everyday and the ordinary. We must exercise patience and discernment wherever God places us. Then we will see that what seems like a dead lump is in fact bubbling with divine life.

So may each of us go forth this week, and encounter places and people and circumstances, and look there for the kingdom: not as distant, but near at hand; not as obvious, but hidden; not as static, but alive and becoming manifest; a kingdom making room for all of us.

When we look for the kingdom, then we find it present, abundantly present. And when we do, then we have more reasons to give thanks than we ever expected.

We discover it’s true, that one-liner Jesus tells us. All the world is a lump of dough, flour with yeast mixed in, and SURPRISE! God’s a baker woman making bread.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

Bible Study: Proper 11 (A)

July 17, 2011

Jessica Abell, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.” (Matthew 13:40)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23 or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 (Track 2: Isaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17); Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“Let anyone with ears listen!” This week’s gospel reminds us of the powerful message that God’s righteousness will prevail. We must trust this for indeed, trying to act as God will cause harm.

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob has left home. He has recently bribed the ancestral birthright from his twin brother Esau and he must surely be somewhat anxious as he embarks on his journey. The dream of Jacob is what is needed for such a worried mind and troubled heart. The stream of rising and falling angels connects Jacob to God. God speaks to Jacob and makes another covenant of abundance and presence between God and God’s chosen. God will be with Jacob on his travels and throughout his life. God is always with us and may indeed feel especially close in those times when we run away or when we journey. How are we connected to God and how is this manifest in our lives? How will we mark the odd places where God finds us along the way?

Isaiah 44:6-8

This declaration of the eminence of God is a powerful statement. Hebrew scripture does assert that the Lord God is the only “god” around, for divinities of all kinds were abundant in the Ancient Near East. But here, the Lord God of the Hebrews claims to the very beginning and the end of all things, the God who has always been and who has always known what is to come. How do we witness to this in our experiences?

Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

Psalm 139 uses incredibly intimate images of God’s relationship with humankind.

I have relied on Psalm 139 in my hospital chaplaincy work continually. These words of comfort and promises of being known are familiar to people of faith and were even effective with those who had long ago left any faith system. Psalm 139 stares directly into the infinity of the divine and speaks to the all encompassing presence of God, before and behind, in speech and thought. We each are part of God’s beloved creation that the psalmist tells us is marvelously made, woven in the depths of the earth and known to our inmost parts. No matter where we go or flee, we cannot evade God.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

We rarely see the Wisdom of Solomon in our lectionary cycles, indeed the “wisdom teachings” in general are not emphasized. But within them can be found some of the most beautiful and accessible passages of scripture. This passage discusses the righteousness of God and the gifts borne. The reign of God is not like the reign of humanity; it is one of both strength and mercy, of both hope and repentance. What are the gifts that give you hope? What things open up for you when you contemplate of a “completeness of power” might look like?

Psalm 86:11-17

The psalms often tell us a story of persecution, of being set upon or misunderstood. Consolation and comfort stem from an intimate relationship with God, one of teacher and student, of parent and child, of weaver and loom. What might it mean to have our hearts knit to God?

Romans 8:12-25

There is one guarantee with Holy Spirit work, one result that will happen when we live in, through and with the Holy Spirit: you will be changed. You will be transformed. This Romans passage uses the metaphor of fertility and birth to relay this. The Message translates a portion of verses 23 and 24: The Spirit does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. She knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.

I like that image of the pains of the world being the pains of a divine birth, of god’s will being made manifest in the world, and that when we are distracted by this pain of transformation, The Spirit upholds us. When you engage in co-creation with God, when you say yes to this cosmic dance of the Spirit, you will be transformed. When you allow the Holy Spirit to be your inner guide, you will be brought to places you could never have imagined into God’s new creation.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I am living in California while in seminary. One of the fascinating things about being here is the abundant food one sees while just walking down the street. Lemon and orange trees serve as municipal foliage, rosemary and lavender as landscaping accents. What may not be not so obvious are the remaining edibles. There is an urban scavenger movement that promotes dandelion leaf salad and fiddlehead fern seed bread, healthy edible foodstuffs found in the weeds.

Over and over Jesus tells us that the work of judgment is not ours. We should not pull the weeds but rather let it all be sorted by God. Jesus is very clear that we will uproot good wheat when we think we are pulling unwanted weeds in God’s garden. We will be doing the work of the enemy ourselves.

What are those things we are quite sure are weeds? Could these things be food instead?

I can feel them in there fighting, Proper 11 (A) – 2011

July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17); Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In a classic strip of the famed “Peanuts” newspaper cartoon, Lucy explains to her little brother Linus about the existence of good and evil. She tells him that he, like others, have inside these two forces. Linus looks at his stomach with a distressed look on his face and declares, “I can feel them in there fighting.” Humorous, but true.

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus telling a parable that uses a similar image – good wheat and evil weeds, fighting it out in a farmer’s field. It’s also the same story in whatever newspaper any of us read this morning – good and evil fighting it out in the world. There is a force at every level of existence that works against what is good and what is God. There is a force that seeks to destroy the loving nature of creation. There is a force that exerts every effort to suck the lifeblood out of everything that promotes prosperity and health and hope and peace and joy. Throughout the ages, the faithful have personified this sinister force by many names: Satan, the devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer, or “the evil one.” By whatever designation we choose, its intent, its nature, is to un-make what God has created and to deface, distort, and destroy whatever good it may latch onto, as it eats away at it with parasitic intensity.

Through today’s parable, Jesus gives us an illustration of the power of the evil force that can invade every aspect of life. He makes this clear by painting a picture of weeds growing alongside wheat, imitating the good grain and intertwining its roots and growth with what was planted by the farmer, who stands for Christ. And how did the weeds get into the field? Jesus says simply that the weeds came from an enemy, the devil, the evil one.

“An enemy of God” is as good an answer as we will ever find for the source of that which works against God. In the service of Holy Baptism, we know this enemy as “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” or as “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” or as the source of all that draws us from the love of God. We recognize at the very beginning of our life in Christ that we are constantly invaded by the “weeds.”

And though we renounce the evil that the weeds represent, we also recognize something else in our baptismal vows. We see that our lives, like the field in the parable, grow with evil intertwined among the grace, love, and godly obedience that we promise to trust and employ in our Christian living. And we know from experience that no matter how intent we are to follow our vows, none of us will ever totally avoid the corrupting influences and tempting thoughts that lead us to go against the values of God.

Maybe that’s what makes so many of us anxious to do something, anything, about perceived forms of evil in our close communities and in the wider world. In today’s parable, Jesus has the slaves ask almost immediately whether they should destroy the weeds. That sounds like a natural reaction, doesn’t it? What farmer would not seek to destroy weeds that suck vital nutrients from a well-planted crop? Wasn’t that our first reaction when we experienced the evil of the 9/11 attacks? When human beings think they know the source and reality of evil, they almost always want to pinpoint it and do away with it as swiftly and certainly as possible. Seeing with what we assume is a crystal-clear view of what is good and what is evil, we move ahead, absolutely certain that we are right and just in eradiating what seems obviously ungodly.

But history shows how often this is folly. Any number of “witch hunts” reveal that they were more about making the hunters feel secure than actually doing something about evil. Still, we often have a strong urge, when threatened and fearful, to find something to cut out, weed out, push down, crush, or otherwise stop and destroy. Should we not admit that this kind of behavior often simply functions as an escape from a more complex reality? That’s the argument Jesus seems to be laying out in his response to the slaves who would dig out the weeds. Wait, he has the farmer insist, until time for the harvest, because the process of ripping out the weeds will certainly destroy the wheat in the process. Doesn’t this ring true in the depths of our confessions? Don’t we really know this truth – that the evil is strongest when it disguises itself as good and manages to incapacitate the creatures of God with the resulting confusion?

This truth is hard to accept, as we find Jesus telling us something we really don’t want to hear – to leave the judging until later, to recognize that throwing the weeds into the fire is God’s job, not ours. When we encounter what we see as evil, we want to find the source and destroy it. We often are impelled by the false wisdom of, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” But as he so often does, Jesus uses this parable to make us rethink our human reactions, and he turns us in an opposite direction by having the owner say, in effect, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Wait to let the nature of the godly prosper and prevail in due course. Profoundly, Jesus is leading us to cease chasing after the bad, and rather concentrate on the good.

The farmer could tolerate the actions of his enemy because he knew he would make it all right in the harvest, reaping the good and destroying the bad. Jesus is saying to us that we can relax in knowing that we don’t have to be in the judging business or in the business of destroying that which would work against God, because the owner of the farm, God himself, will make it all come out right in the end.

So we are left, finally, with a teaching that we would do best by paying less attention to the weeds – the evil in life – and simply staying away from it. Better for us to spend more time tending the wheat – the good in life – fostering its growth and putting it to use as Jesus would have us do, following the values of God’s Kingdom.

Like Linus of the Peanuts cartoon, we certainly recognize in ourselves and in the complex workings of the world in which we live the conflict that Linus experienced as a fist fight in his gut. Yet in the unlikely teaching of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus leaves us with a counterintuitive approach to dealing with this anxiety. What it means to respond in this way to any evil – ranging from the horrors of terrorism to the selfishness of not caring for a neighbor in need – leaves us fighting against the very nature of our worldly humanity, fighting against nearly every instinct we feel, and against nearly every example we learn from history. To even suggest such an approach is bound to lead to harsh and bitter disagreement, if not utter disbelief, on the other side of the debate. In the conventional wisdom of the world, the teaching of this parable seems crazy and impossible.

Yet we know that it is possible from studying the leadership of those like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who chose not to tear at the weeds, but to nurture the wheat. They learned what they practiced from our Christ. Jesus reminds us, too, that those who choose to use the sword ultimately die by the sword. Indeed, at the decisive moment of his ministry, Jesus left the ultimate exclamation point on the meaning of today’s parable. Dying on the cross, he did not seek to destroy his enemies who sowed the lethal seeds that choked out his life. Rather, he forgave them. He looked to God to sort it out in the end. And we can – in the best moments of living out the vows of our baptisms and as we faithfully look at the end of the passion story – discover that the power of the Resurrection proves the truth of the parable of the wheat and weeds. In so doing, we will recommit ourselves to leaving the weeds to God. In so doing, we will, in ourselves and in the world around us, turn all our hearts and souls to nurturing the wheat that God has given us.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Bible Study: Proper 10 (A)

July 10, 2011

Amy Spagna, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Genesis 25:19-34

The layers of meaning in this passage go far beyond its being a simple tale of sibling rivalry. Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger in order to get the birthright, or blessing, that rightly belongs to Esau. It says something about the human condition that Esau is willing to give it all up just for a bowl of red lentil stew and a piece of bread. We will pay nearly any price to feel good, without necessarily giving a second thought to what the immediate consequences are.

It also says much that Esau regrets what he’s done. He despises his birthright, though the writers of Genesis don’t tell us exactly why. It could be that he’s upset with himself for giving up his rightful inheritance to his two-timing younger brother. It could also be that he fears he’s lost God’s blessing as well as his father’s. Even in the midst of his physical hunger, Esau begins to realize God’s favor – and the land which is the material sign thereof – is the one thing which can reliably sustain him. That special blessing doesn’t seem to be a fair price to pay just for lunch.

Psalm 119:105-112

How does righteousness, both God’s and the psalmist’s own, manifest itself? Is there a difference between them, and if so, what is it and why might it exist in the first place?

Do you think Esau might be able to make the same claims as the psalmist does in this passage, especially as one who has had a trap set for him? Why or why not

Romans 8:1-11

What point is Paul trying to make by drawing flesh (sarx) and spirit (pneuma) as polar opposites in verses 1-8?

Does “being in the Spirit” have practical implications about how we are to live, beyond what Paul suggests in verses 10-11?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Does Jesus really expect people to understand his teaching? What’s his point, anyway?

Jesus’ expectations seem to depend on his audience. While he makes sure the disciples understand what he means, the same isn’t necessarily true of the crowd. The ones who, like the disciples, are truly capable of hearing and receiving the seeds of Jesus’ preaching, are the ones who will flourish. Unlike the “temporary” believer (proskairos), they will not give up their faith or fall into sin (skandalizetai) when difficulty arises.

Part of Jesus’ point in telling this story is that sharing the gospel is not always about the sheer number of people who are genuinely converted to a new life of faith. The sower does not seem to be all that interested in getting the highest yield out of his bag of seeds. Otherwise he might restrict his planting to areas he is certain are fertile. What he is interested in, however, is the possibility contained within each seed he drops. Those seeds could take root anywhere, despite the presence of things which might impede their growth. He sows them anyway, with the hope that at least some of them will bear fruit and yield.

Let anyone with ears listen!, Proper 10 (A) – 2011

July 10, 2011

Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112 [or Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14]Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Southern California is a maze of concrete freeways: two lanes, four lanes, eight lanes, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, special-use lanes, bus lanes, peak-hour reversible-direction lanes, and more. A literal maze of concrete interconnecting over 8,000 square miles.

Southern California drivers fear the radio announcement that a sig alert has been issued on their route. A “sig alert” is when there’s a traffic incident that will tie up two or more lanes of a freeway for a couple of hours or longer. At these times, traffic comes to a complete standstill. There’s great irony in being stopped on the freeway beneath a sign warning of a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour; during a sig alert, 65 inches per hour is more likely.

During a sig alert, some drivers become impatient. They honk, pound their fists on the dashboard, or even get out of their cars to try to see what’s going on. However, more patient drivers, knowing that they are powerless to change the situation, might take note of their surroundings. And if they do so, they’ll see that through the feet of concrete and rebar that make up the freeways, there are tiny cracks. And through those cracks, weeds and small flowers have somehow managed to take root and grow. Talk about hostile ground!

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is the familiar parable about the sower. The sower who indiscriminately sows seed in different types of ground, and the relative success, or lack thereof, of that seed to take root, grow, and flourish based on the soil type on which it falls.

This is the first parable that appears in the Gospel of Matthew. The New Interpreter’s Bible explains that the Greek word for “parable” is parabole, which simply means “something cast beside,” something to explain or clarify. But it isn’t quite that simple. In Jesus’ parables, something from everyday life is “cast beside” something else, often in new and unexpected ways, to open the listeners’ hearts to new truths that may have different meanings in different situations. As Biblical scholar and professor David Mosely noted in a recent lecture, parables are not Aesop’s Fables that we can distill down to a one-line teaching that is applicable to all situations. The meanings are polyvalent, having more than one strain, and are often difficult to discern.

But in today’s gospel reading, we are fortunate that Jesus actually provides an interpretation. This parable is one of the few times when Jesus explains what he means. From his explanation we can ask ourselves, “What type of ground do we provide for God’s seed?”

Is your heart like the path in today’s parable, impenetrable to God’s word? Are you like the hard, concrete patch of freeway, impenetrable to the seed of God’s love to break your surface and transform your grey, exhaust-stained surface? Maybe you remember a time on your own spiritual journey when you were closed to the Christian message. Or maybe you came here today as a favor to a friend or family member, but you didn’t expect anything in your life to change. You’re not really receptive to the Word to break open your life and change you forever. If not, that’s OK. For everything there is a season, and from today’s parable we learn that God is an indiscriminate sower, always there with an infinite supply of seed should the smallest crack appear in the surface of your heart.

Or maybe your heart is rocky ground. Maybe the Word of God took root in your life at some time in the past, but then hard times came along and the ground became hostile for your faith growth.

A young Episcopal widower tells a story about how, after the death of his spouse, a group of Christians from another worshipping community came to him. They assumed he was angry with God, blaming God, and ready to close off his heart. He remembers being a bit perplexed; his experience was that God was there, grieving deeply, and sustaining, supporting, and holding him in the palm of God’s hand. This man’s seeds of faith had been properly watered and nourished, and had grown into a faith that sustained him during a very hard time.

Maybe in your life you’ve come to a point where you’ve been angry at God, pointing a finger in blame. It’s easy to do. Most of us don’t navigate the freeway of life without hitting a major pothole or even coming across a bridge that has been washed out. But if we have been open to the Word of God and have nourished that Word in a worshipping community that proclaims a compassionate God of love, hard times become a greater opening for God’s love to flourish and grow rather than faith-destroying obstacles.

Maybe your heart is surrounded by thorns. Maybe you’ve heard the Word of God, but the lure of all that the secular world offers has diverted your spiritual journey. Much like coming across a “road closed” or “detour” sign on the freeway, you were on the right path, but earthly cares diverted you. There are the obvious diversions, including wealth, power, addiction, and lust. But there are the not-so-obvious ones as well, such as complacency or self-pity, or even a preoccupation with good things, like work and volunteer activities. To avoid diversion on our road of faith, we must make sure that all we do in this life branches from the stalk of God’s Word growing in our hearts.

And finally, there are the lucky ones. Those followers of Christ who are open to the Word of God, understand, and yield a great crop. Comparatively, it is like being stuck on the freeway during a sig alert next to a beautiful and lush park. You look from your vantage point at the poor flowers who have struggled to grow in the hostile environment of a crack in the cement and compare their experience to the experience of the trees, flowers, lush grasses, and shrubs growing on the adjacent ground. Those trees and shrubs never struggled; never felt the rush of a semi-truck over their surface. They were never choked by exhaust. For them, growth has been seamless. If your spiritual journey has been like that of a tree in the park, give thanks. You are fortunate. Pray for the flowers trying to grow through the freeway below, be patient, and help to nourish those other flowers in whatever way you can.

This parable ends with Jesus saying, “Let anyone with ears listen!” Yes, from this parable we can extrapolate that 75 percent of the seed will fall on ground that ultimately will not yield fruit. But we also learn that God is an indiscriminate sower. That God continues to cast seed, regardless of the type of ground. And that ultimately, against the odds, God’s seed bears fruit and yields. And that is the Good News. Let anyone with ears listen.
— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson currently serves as priest-in-charge at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in San Diego. Prior to moving to San Diego she served at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, Calif. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Independence Day (A,B,C) – 2011

July 4, 2011

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

As our nation celebrates its 235th anniversary, reflection on our liberty, freedom, and relationship with God, the giver of all liberty, is a good exercise.

We learn from the passage chosen from Deuteronomy that the foundation of our liberty is conceived in justice, that our “great God … is not partial and takes no bribe … executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers, providing them food and clothing.” What might we find were we to lay this standard up against our political realities?

The writer of Deuteronomy also exhorts the hearer to love the stranger and fear the Lord. In our time, that is not a popular standard. Rather, the reverse seems to be what we hear: people talk of loving God but fearing the stranger. Of course, we all know we got this way by straying from the fundamentals of liberty and justice for all. Yet people keep trying desperately to come to America for those very things: the justice of a paying job, the liberty to be free from corruption and sinister dictatorships.

In the passage from Hebrews, we look at the faith of Abraham and Sarah, who see themselves as strangers and foreigners on earth who seek a homeland, people who desire a better country. That is the desire that still dominates much of our civil discourse and should be the standard of our Christian community. A better country means, in the terms described in Deuteronomy, a just country for everyone, including the stranger – for all of us are in some way strangers seeking a better country.

It is common to talk of disillusionment and be discouraged about the future of our nation, our culture, and our society. Christians are called to be un-common in the way we talk about these things. We maintain a critical and sometimes prophetic stance about injustice and the treatment of the poor and oppressed, so we cannot join the chorus of those who are only negative. We see in our own failures the need for us to place ourselves under God’s gracious leadership. Without that, we have nothing to offer that is Good News. As it says in today’s reading from Matthew, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”

So, what is the Good News in a time of economic uncertainty and national disillusionment? The Good News is that we find in those very strangers who come among us, in those who would perhaps be our enemy, the future of peace through just relationships with all of our neighbors.

Recently the Dalai Lama spoke to several university communities while visiting America. He said he loves America because of its passion for energy, new ideas, and continuing exploration and change. He also said he is grateful for our leadership, but questions our motives in some of our political decisions. His message of peace echoes the gospel reading for today, that loving our enemies and persecutors is the only way forward.

Christians are called to be advocates of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That is how we celebrate our freedom, and that is how we proclaim our liberty. Taking on that Good News means we have to change our values to those of Christ. We cannot ignore the stranger among us, nor can we write off our enemies. But we do just that all the time. Jesus calls us to a higher standard, one that includes struggle, misunderstanding at times, and the possibility of failure.

What we have done as a church in the last few decades, learning how to speak civilly about our differences, attempting to reconcile with those who differ from us, taking up the cause of justice for those who are treated unjustly, has thinned our ranks, but it has also perfected our faith. That is something to celebrate in a nation where it is still possible to proclaim and expect liberty and justice for all.

In the Mid-South there is a group of people from the Marshall Islands who have come to live and work under the Compact of Free Association, an agreement entered into between our government and nations in the South Pacific. These are people who have left extreme poverty to come and work, mainly in meat-processing plants. They, along with Latinos from Mexico and Central America, form the backbone of a work force that provides our food, adds to our tax base, serves in our military, and generally leads law-abiding lives. Engaging with these “strangers” is a rewarding challenge.

One new Episcopal church plant has embraced these strangers and finds itself growing from their ranks. As they join the church, a whole new culture of Christian growth of liberty and freedom emerges. That is the vision of Deuteronomy, the faith described in the passage from Hebrews that desires a better country, and the Good News that moves from greeting only those who are like us to embracing the stranger and finding in that embrace the God of liberty and justice for us all.
— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.

Bible Study: 3 Pentecost, Proper 9 (A) – 2011

July 3, 2011

Emilie Finn, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

When the lectionary skips verses in a reading, it is often helpful to check in with the Bible and see what got left out. In this week’s reading, Abraham’s servant asks Laban and Bethuel a question in Genesis 24:49, and then the reading skips to verse 58, where they call Rebekah and ask her if she will go with Abraham’s servant. It seems that leaving is Rebekah’s own choice. But now look at Genesis 24:50-57. Laban and Bethuel actually answer for Rebekah: “This thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go…” Rebekah has no choice about leaving her family and venturing into the unknown to be the wife of a man she has not met. The only choice she is given is whether she will leave immediately, or wait a few days longer. She chooses to go right away.

Have you been in a situation in which you were not given a choice about where you would go or what role you would fill? What was that experience like? Did you go along, or did you fight against it? Where was God in that experience?

Psalm 45: 11-18

Psalm 45 is a royal psalm, one of those that celebrates the Davidic kingship and glorifies the king almost to the level of God himself. The inscription at the beginning of Psalm 45 describes it as “a love song,” composed, perhaps, on the occasion of a royal wedding.

Romans 7:15-25a

In this reading, Paul describes the difficulty of living under an abstract code of conduct. Intellectually, we may know and even want what the law tells us is right, but our bodies are not abstract, and do not always conform to our ideals. Some theologians interpret this passage as Paul’s description of life before a convert has experienced the saving grace of Christ. Others see it as a description of the constant challenge of the Christian life.

Whichever way it is interpreted, in this passage, it is our inability to obey the law that shows us that we are trapped in sin and need the new life in the Spirit that Jesus offers us.

Paul says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Have you experienced this in your own life? When in your life has Christ freed you from this law and given you the ability to live a new life in the Spirit?

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is a note of frustration in the words of Jesus at the beginning of this week’s Gospel reading. The Son of God and a major prophet are right under the people’s noses, but no one sees them for who they are. Preconceived ideas can often prevent us from seeing something for what it really is. The more we learn, the more preconceived ideas we develop, and we need that knowledge to survive. But God almost never comes to us when or in the way we expect, so sometimes it is necessary to put down the heavy burden of everything we know and look at the world as if we have never seen it before. If we do, we just might recognize God in a place we never would have thought to look.

For the next few days, make a practice of noticing ordinary, everyday people, tasks, and events in your life. Pay special attention to things you know well, take for granted, or do by rote. Can you hear God’s flute? Or God’s wailing?