Archives for July 2014

Who are the chosen?, 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A) – 2014

August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

In today’s passages we encounter the prickly theme of “choseness.” Does God have favorites? Is there really a chosen nation, a chosen people? If God is the Creator of us all, how can this be? Not easy questions to confront or to answer. Not when we now know what terrible acts have been perpetrated by those who believe that God is on their side – and that includes both Christians and non-Christians.

In the extraordinary New Testament story we read this morning, we encounter a side of Jesus that affronts our modern sensibilities and certainly our political correctness. The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth. What is going on here?

Let’s look at the story and its setting as Matthew describes it. Jesus has been teaching and walking across the country followed by large crowds. He heals the sick, forgives sins and challenges the established thinking on God. To everyone who thinks that God is satisfied with external piety he brings the enormous challenge of his spirit and his personal knowledge: God looks into the heart. God is not pleased with mere observances; God requires a new way of thinking, of praying, of being. And now tired and needing to escape the crowds, Jesus moves north out of Israel into what we know as Lebanon, the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Mark tells us that Jesus entered a home, probably belonging to friends, and asked them to keep his visit secret. In Matthew we see him entering the region, probably followed only by his disciples, and immediately a woman accosts him, not with a polite request, but with shouting.

There are many characteristics of this woman that fill us with admiration: She must have heard about him even before he entered her city because she is ready. What she heard about him, she believed. She is not a Jew, yet she is using language that is familiar only to Jews of the time. She calls him “Son of David.” She is absolutely certain that Jesus is who he says he is. Unlike his own people, who doubt him and try to trip him at every conversation, she takes it as a given that he alone has the power to heal her little daughter. And because she loves her daughter she will beg, ask and shout until his power gives her what she wants: the healing of her child.

In her pleading, her shouting, she asks first for mercy and then for healing. Apparently Jesus keeps on walking, but she follows. She doesn’t give up. Jesus, however, is silent. Even his disciples, embarrassed at her shouts, ask him to respond, to send her away. They, too, are certain that because she is not a Jew she doesn’t have the right to ask him for anything.

Now Jesus says something not to her or to them: It’s obvious that he is examining a question in his own mind: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is his mission as he has known it up to this moment. And he has worked at it every moment of his days – to bring his people back to God.

The woman hears his words, but she is the kind who is not deterred by national and religious differences. She will not let them keep her from seeking help. Now Jesus uses language that separates those who think they are God’s chosen from those whom they consider outside God’s grace. The Israelites are the children, and the outsiders are the dogs. In our age and our culture this is heavy language. We don’t exactly know what it meant at that time and in that context, but we know it was not complimentary. The bread is the essence of life. It must be given to the children.

The mother, however, does not budge. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” This poor outsider understands that God’s mercy is so great that even the tiny bit that escapes from the chosen ones is enough for healing and for doing good.

This is what faith means. She knows who he is and she knows that only Jesus can heal her daughter. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud; she is determined.

And Jesus responds to this faith instantly. In those few minutes, he recognizes that his mission has expanded. A poor woman has shown him this much: He did not come just for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well.”

Thus it is that we all benefit from that woman’s faith. An outcast becomes a catalyst. This is the wonder of the gospel stories. The Good News comes from unexpected places. A woman ignored and considered a nuisance becomes an object of admiration by Jesus himself. Instead of sending her away, he expands his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world. The encounter does not happen within the land of the chosen but outside it, in the pagan realm of Tyre and Sidon. Once again, God brings good out of what has seemed evil. The dogs enter the same realm as the children. They now eat from the table and not just of the crumbs that fall from it. We owe this woman a great deal. And the prophecy of Isaiah concerning foreigners is fulfilled: They, too, can minister to the Lord.

The Incarnation is vivid in this story, as is the theology of kenosis – the ‘self-emptying’ of our will to become receptive to God’s will. Jesus learns something from a humble woman and from a mother’s love. This is a story to be honored, to be proclaimed and to fill us with gratitude. “Lord have mercy on me,” she cries. And the Lord shows mercy to one considered an outcast.

God’s mercy covers all of us.

 

— Katerina Whitley, a retreat leader, is the author of “Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women” (Morehouse, 1998) and “Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus” (Morehouse, 2002). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

 

 

Our faith inside the boat, 9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A) – 2014

August 10, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28and Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (or 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13)Romans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Jesus calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and sidetracked from keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. And if we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. If you do an Internet search on “walk on water,” you’ll get links to business consulting firms, fashion companies, science projects – all of them proponents of going the extra mile (another biblical phrase that’s gone mainstream). It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box,” “The early bird catches the worm,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.

But is that really what Jesus really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.

So I wonder if when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the church. And no wonder. Think of a ship, a vessel large enough that it takes a number of people doing diverse things to get it to move. A ship is a great symbol for the church. Moving through the waters on a gorgeous day can be simply glorious. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbor. Christians have long treasured this image of the church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.

In today’s lesson, Jesus makes the disciples, those who would follow him, get into a boat, and head out across the sea. The gospel says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.

But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Jesus doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their scriptures. Psalm 77 says, “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. … Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” In Job 9:8, God overcomes the powers of chaos, pictured as a stormy sea. It says, “God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”

If.

There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, beautiful, real Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”

If.

Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.

That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives them a promise – all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Jesus has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.

There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

 

Who is Jesus to us?, The Transfiguration (A,B,C) – 2014

August 6, 2014

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Each year, we hear the story of the Transfiguration twice – once on the Last Sunday After Epiphany and again on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is a narrative common to all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Moses and Elijah, long-deceased prophets of Israel, appear on a mountain with Jesus, whose appearance has radically changed. All in front of the disciples, who don’t seem to know quite what to make of all this, with a voice that comes from a cloud proclaiming Jesus as the Beloved Son and a command to listen to him. Admittedly, it is a strange story – especially to our modern, enlightened, scientific culture. Rather than seek a rational understanding of the spectacular details in this story, it might be more helpful to consider why it is told rather than what is said.

The Transfiguration in Luke follows on the heels of four vignettes that frame the repeated question of Jesus’ identity. First, Jesus sends out the 12 disciples and gave them “power and authority” over all demons and to cure diseases. As Christians who know the rest of the story, we might never stop to think about the audacity of this act. Who does Jesus think he is to grant mere mortals the power and authority over demons and to cure disease? Luke’s original audience might have asked this question at this point in the story. Who does Jesus think he is? He tells them to take nothing for their journey – in other words, rely on God alone for the provision of your needs. The disciples do as Jesus commands them, and we hear they bring the good news throughout the villages and cure diseases everywhere.

The second vignette cuts to Herod the Tetrarch hearing about “all that had taken place,” and we hear he is perplexed about the identity of Jesus. The buzz in the street is that Elijah had appeared or one of the prophets of old had been raised from the dead. Herod knows this cannot be John the Baptist – he ordered John beheaded. Luke tells us Herod tried to see Jesus, but there is no indication he was ever able to arrange the meeting.

This perplexity of Herod and the introduction of the idea that Jesus might be Elijah returned sets the stage for the third vignette: the feeding of the 5,000. Here we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the meager offering of five loaves of bread and two fish. This feeding miracle is not directly linked to Elijah, but to his successor prophet Elisha, who, as recorded in the Second Book of Kings, fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread. This feeding miracle, preceded by the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain in Luke 7, is linking Jesus to these great prophets of ancient Israel. Could Jesus be one of these great prophets?

Now Jesus puts the question clearly to the disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

Who the crowds say that Jesus is has been set up by Luke’s narrative – he’s John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets arisen. But it is Peter who speaks the deeper reality: “You are the Christ of God.” While Peter says this, it is not clear that he or the disciples understand the full ramifications of what it means. Jesus continues on and tells them the Christ of God, the anointed one, must suffer and die at the hands of the very religious experts who claim to speak for God! This teaching just doesn’t make any sense to a first-century Jew – surely it perplexed the disciples.

It is after all of this that Luke tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus’ appearance was “transfigured” or, in Greek, “metamorphosed.” Instead, he says the appearance of Jesus’ face “changed,” which in Greek reads “became other.” Jesus’ face became different, and his clothing became dazzling white. This change in the appearance of Jesus’ face is reminiscent of the change in appearance of Moses’ face as he came down from Sinai, which continues the theme of Jesus being one of these ancient prophets. It is at this point our idea that Jesus is either Moses or Elijah is shattered when both of these ancient prophets appear with Jesus and begin to speak of Jesus’ departure – or, in Greek, “exodus” – which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. All three appear in glory as they speak of another exodus – an exodus through the suffering of the cross. Suddenly, the meaning of what it is to be the Christ of God is revealed as the veil is lifted for the disciples to see.

As Moses and Elijah depart, Peter, not really knowing what he was saying, blurts out his offer to build three booths: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. While Peter’s thinking was lacking clarity – cloudy, if you will – a cloud descends on the disciples and they enter the cloud filled with terror. They hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice interrupts Peter’s babblings about booths and brings clarity to all of the disciples: Jesus is no ordinary prophet. He is not just another great teacher. Jesus is the Son of God, the Chosen one, and this is why we are to listen to him.

The story of the Transfiguration is one that grounds the identity of Jesus as Son of God, but through the experience of suffering, death and resurrection. Luke’s narrative hints at the glory of the empty tomb, but only after Jesus says it will come through the darkness of suffering and death. The earthly trappings of glory – power, riches and fame – are not the same as the glory of God brought to us through the cross.

The Transfiguration is a story that calls us to face our understanding of Jesus’ identity: “Who is Jesus to me?” and “Who is Jesus to us?” And although we hear this story over and over, we still have trouble accepting a Christ of God whose glory comes through suffering and death.

After 2,000 years, we still resist this message! Our cultural trappings around Christianity have distorted his glory as being grounded in something other than his suffering, death and resurrection. We are tempted to wrap Jesus in all kinds of false messages, because glory through suffering still makes no sense. We see evidence of this when we hear Jesus wrapped in nationalism by those who claim we are a “Christian nation” and attempt to enshrine biblical interpretation in secular law. We see it in the claims of prosperity from theologians who claim that all God wants to do is to bless you with more wealth and privilege, and imply that if you do not receive these blessings, it is because you are not “right with the Lord.” All of these false messages of glory through something other than the cross are false teachings. But they are persistent because God’s glory revealed through death and resurrection just does not make rational sense.

But just because something is not rational does not mean it is not real.

We may, like the disciples, see only brief glimpses of God’s glory in this life, while other worldly claims seem more prevalent. But our call as Christians is to see through false claims of earthly glory. We are to face the cross, its suffering and death, trusting that a resurrected life in God lies beyond.

Who do we say Jesus is? He is the crucified one with whom we are joined in baptism in a life where suffering and death happen, but are not the last word.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

The power of interruptions, 8 Pentecost, Proper 13 (A) – 2014

August 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 16 (or Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22)Romans 9:1-5Matthew 14:13-21

Have you ever noticed that wherever food is present, Jesus is there?

As often as he was praying, he was sharing food.

Late in his ministry, he even identified himself with bread and wine – staples in the Mediterranean diet, then as now.

Food: It nourishes, brings pleasure and comfort, fills us up – sometimes makes us too full.

Without food, we are cranky, confused. We might lose our way, become disoriented, lose balance.

Food: It’s basic, necessary, essential.

When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they were given manna for food: nothing fancy, just filling. The people became so bored eating manna day after day that they complained to God; and yet, they were fed.

Today’s gospel tells another story of food – lots of food. There is so much food, that they have some left over!

This isn’t a banquet like the wedding of Cana story in John’s gospel, but food to tide one over, food for a journey, simple food: bread and fish. This isn’t even a meal, really. It is food to just get by. The food of our gospel story is basic fill-the-hole-in-your-stomach food, something to take the edge off, something for survival.

The people on that hillside long ago were not friends and family gathered for an occasion, so much as people who wandered away from home, seeking Jesus.

We know the story as “The Feeding of the 5,000,” one of the miracles of Jesus. Those of us either enlightened or listening closely know that it was actually many more than 5,000: the count was taken of men, “besides women and children.” How many would that be altogether, do you think?

So: Did it really happen as Matthew records? Where did the food come from? What did they do with the 12 baskets of leftovers?

Questions like these are so often the focus of discussion of this story. But is this even what the story is about?

There are many ideas about this story, many theories about this, from the conviction that it was an outright miracle of Jesus producing multiple and more-than-sufficient fishes and loaves, to the idea that the people produced the food from their satchels when prodded to share.

There is really no way to know. But this may not be the point of the story. And however it happened, is this really a story about food?

Consider again the story we have of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel: “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a lonely place apart.” What we’re not told in reading just today’s portion is that he was in a boat, withdrawing, because he had just learned of John’s death. John, his cousin, John who had baptized him.

It wasn’t the best of times for Jesus. He was trying to get a moment of peace.

And according to the gospel, when the crowds heard that he was near, that he was drawing apart, “they followed him on foot from the towns.”

So he fed the crowds, and after he dismissed the people, he again went off by himself.

He set out to do one thing: to get some space and some time away. This proved to be difficult for him, as we read in today’s story.

Is this familiar to you?

Rest, time apart, a few minutes alone, a break, some space – it’s something that we all seek at the end of a busy day, at the close of a tiring week.

Jesus was interrupted and responded, and then went on with what he was doing.

Parents recognize this dynamic, and so do clergy. People with demanding jobs, family obligations, social responsibilities – this dynamic is likely familiar to all of us. We get involved in what we’re doing, and we don’t want to be interrupted or distracted, and so we ignore what is nudging us for attention.

Several years back there was a series of television commercials sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. There was one in particular which showed different scenes of children wanting attention: “Look what I made in school today!” and “I brought you flowers!” There was another one of a dog wanting attention from family members, and people wanting attention and to spend time with others. In each case, people were distracted, busy, un-interruptable. In each instance, the one seeking attention and time was “filled with joy and wonder in all God’s works,” what we pray for as a gift for the newly baptized.

In each case, the one seeking attention is ignored, put off.

In each case, it is an opportunity for ministry, for witness to the loving grace of God, missed.

This is, perhaps, one of the most challenging aspects of life: the constant interruptions and inconvenience of answering a call and still trying to get anything done.

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “I didn’t get anything done today”? Think, though: Didn’t you see some people, make some phone calls, run an errand, send an email?

Even within the interruptions there can be interruptions: You’re in a hurry to get out of the house, and you can’t find your keys; you find your keys, lock the door, and the telephone rings; as you’re rushing to your meeting, you realize that the car is out of gas, and then you remember that you have no money because you forgot to stop by the bank. And so it goes. Have you ever had an experience like that?

Such moments leave us vulnerable to a breaking-in of the Holy Spirit. Each point is a chance to find something lost, to greet a stranger, to learn something new.

In short, it is an opportunity for grace, a chance to bear witness to the Christ in our midst, with all that that means.

Jesus withdrew and was constantly interrupted by people clamoring for attention: Teach us! Heal us! Give us food! Prove yourself!

Lest you be tempted to think of ministry as limited to ordained ministry, those on the altar guild know there is always someone wanting something, right? Parents with children are used to being asked for attention, yes? You might be driving somewhere and stop to loan jumper cables, or walking down the aisle at the grocery store you pick up a dropped box of cereal, return lost coupons or a shopping list. A stranger might ask you for directions as you’re headed back to your office, or the passenger next to you on an airplane is nervous about flying when you had hoped to settle in for a nap.

These are the kinds of experiences common to all of us. A compassionate response, a helpful effort, ministry, happens in the interruptions.

You may like it, you may not – you probably experience a bit of each – but be on the lookout for such interruptions, because there may be something important happening.

We tend to think of interruptions as limited opportunities, small moments, but like the tiny mustard seed of last week’s gospel, such interruptions can grow into something we never imagined.

The gospel parables of last week – the mustard seed, the pearl of great price, and so on – all these are stories of God’s abundance. So also is this story of feeding many.

Jesus sought time apart, time for himself, quiet time. He was interrupted. And his response? With grace and care, he healed the sick, and he somehow found food for the hungry. However it happened, all were fed. Five thousand men – not counting women and children, of course!

The faithful response to interruption models Jesus in a plentitude of grace.

Yes, the story is about food. Consider, though: It is also about interruption, about blessing, about goodwill, about possibility.

Jesus fed not only their bodies, but their spirits.

This is the message of our gospel story: Allow for interruptions as opportunities to show Christ in the world.

A joyous and generous response to a bothersome interruption is one of the great challenges – and opportunities – of the Christian life.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

 

Finding value in what others overlook, 7 Pentecost, Proper 12 (A) – 2014

July 27, 2014

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 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In the Finger Lakes region of central New York, you can find a delicious and unique treat: concord grape pie. Like many other places in the United States, there are a variety of bakeries and shops in the small towns nestled among the winding roads. They sell all sorts of pies, but grape pie is a specialty. It makes sense, especially given all the vineyards in the Finger Lakes region. So why not make wine and pie?

Vineyards are everywhere. Rows and rows of grape vines next to rows and rows of corn and other crops. So neat and orderly looking – quite pretty. Quite predictable, except for the weeds, of course. You never know where or when they’re going to show up. Just like we can never predict how the Kingdom of God will show up.

Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. What we may not know today, but what the early listeners would have most likely understood, is that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed. Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that will constantly and inevitably keep growing and spreading. Have you ever seen ivy on an old house, taking it over completely? Now there’s a visual. That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

But that’s the endgame. Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny. The Kingdom of God starts small and unnoticeable. But when the Kingdom comes into its own, it is everywhere, and you can’t miss it. We are part of that growth, part of that kingdom, whether anyone recognizes us for what we are or not. The most important thing is that God knows.

Jesus does not stop there in our gospel lesson today. He gives even more parables – more stories of ordinary things that possibly have extraordinary meanings. Parables like these should be wrestled with.

In his book “The Parables of the Kingdom,” C.H. Dodd wrote:

“At its simplest, a parable is a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or the common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

So, what else do our parables tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven? It says in the gospel that it is like yeast that a woman mixes with flour to make huge amounts of dough – enough for an entire wedding feast. In Jesus’ time, leavening was something that people understood in scripture as unclean or evil. Unlike the convenient packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients. The Kingdom of Heaven is being modeled after something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life. And yet, God makes it good.

The Kingdom of Heaven is also like a treasure hidden in a field that makes a person sell all they have in order to buy the field that the treasure is in. It is like a pearl of great price that makes the merchant sell all he had in order to have just that one pearl. How valuable is the Kingdom of Heaven? What would you give up everything to possess? Would possession be worth the sacrifice?

The Kingdom of Heaven in your part of God’s vineyard is like … . You fill in the blank.

What is valuable in God’s Kingdom, others may see as junk. How often do we buy into the attitude that on Sundays we carry Jesus in our pocket and take him out for a while, only to put him back in as soon as we leave the parking lot? We get settled in our daily lives the rest of the week and forget whom it is we follow. We might think, “Oh I’m just part of a little church. We can’t do much, so why bother?”

As Lou F. McNeil in his essay on Christianity in Appalachia puts it, “When one’s thinking begins with the parish and its members, rather than the gospel itself, it is likely that ministry and planning will not get beyond the parish and its membership.”

Why bother indeed? Except that God bothers. Then God asks us to bother more than we want.

Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom starts out small like a mustard seed and grows into a tree that shelters and nurtures life around it. When that small mustard seed starts growing, it has an advantage, because it can grow in and around the landscape, sheltering those beneath it and giving a place to perch for those above it. This, too, is how the gospel is spread in neighborhoods where churches discern which leaf to unfurl in their present landscape. A little branch here, a little branch there, and suddenly the place is alive with people in the neighborhood being nurtured by the spread of the gospel.

God’s gifts are unexpected, but they are so vast that they require a response. Do we give up our self-centered attitudes and everything else for the Good News of the gospel? That’s a question that will take a lifetime to answer and is easier said than done.

Sometimes we don’t know what to do with the section of God’s Kingdom that we’ve been given. Even right now, we are in flux – we don’t know what the future holds for the church. But even in that unknowing, we have an advocate – the Holy Spirit – that helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. As Paul says in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It might not look like what we think it should look like, but God knows better.

We must trust God. The God that uses what others think is unusable. The God that calls us to love others with reckless abandon. The God that sees in us what others cannot see. By living this way, we become of what the Kingdom of Heaven is made.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is an Episcopal priest serving in the Diocese of Olympia. She is also becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist.