Sermon, July 23, 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 23, 2017
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From Genesis, “Jacob awoke … and said, ‘Surely, the LORD is in this place - - and I did not know it.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Perhaps, it is my excitement about the restoration work being undertaken at Holy Cross, (It really is incredible!), or perhaps it is connected to the uncharacteristic high humidity that has enfolded our valley, but, for some reason, I had difficulty falling asleep every night this past week. And when I did fall asleep, I had the strangest of dreams.

Now, I know enough psychology to realize that in the midst of a bizarre cast of characters, events, and actions, dreams often mirror what we are experiencing in real life. Well, I am not sure what that means for me, but that was certainly true for Jacob as told in today’s Old Testament reading.

At this moment in Genesis, Jacob has run away from his father and, especially, his brother, Esau, who is out to kill him for taking his birthright. Now, we know that situation was Esau’s own fault, but Jacob is not about to stick around and try explain that to Esau. No. He has run away as fast and as far as he can. It is in the midst of his own personal flurry of running and hiding, that Jacob stops to rest and has a dream filled with a flurry of activity between earth and heaven. Jacob sees a ladder or a ramp, as it is better translated in Hebrew, stretching to the heavens with angels ascending and descending upon it. In deference to the old Spiritual, there is no “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” in this story. The ladder does not give Jacob access to heaven, but rather, God speaks to Jacob right where he is. The ladder affirms that God is already in this place. And where is Jacob? He is in an unknown land. This unknown setting is important to this story because, in ancient Middle Eastern theology, the gods were believed to be territorial beings confined or limited to the borders of their particular nation. So, Jacob supposed that having fled the country of his birth he is beyond his God’s reach. But Genesis proclaims that God is not some disengaged and distant being. The God of Abraham, Isaac and now, Jacob - our God - is ever-present. In the midst of this ordinary, unknown place God speaks and affirms that he has been, and always will be, with Jacob. Jacobs awakens and grasps the grace-filled reality that God is present wherever people of faith live, wherever we go: forever present to transform us and our surroundings right where we are and just as we are.

In this wonderful story, God’s presence alone transforms an ordinary place into something special. In fact, the change was so dramatic that Jacob named that place, “Beth-el” which means, “the house of God,” an affirmation that God is wherever we are. But there is even more going on here: Jacob, whom Genesis, has been very careful to describe as a bad seed, a conniver, a weed who spread strife and division thus far in his life, is also transformed by that same presence of God. So much so, that very soon he will be reconciled not only with his father but, with his brother as well. Jacob will stop running, and he, and his descendants, will become a source of God’s blessing to all the nations of the world, just like God promised.

For as much as I enjoy gardening, I have to admit that I have difficulty discerning flowers from weeds, especially when those weeds actually produce some rather pretty blooms. There are times when I am embarrassed at my lack of knowledge of such things. And I also have to admit that there have been times when I pulled up what I thought was a weed only to realize it was actually a lovely and rare flower.

Jesus, in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, tells the “Parable of the Weeds.” Now, he’s not talking about dandelions here, but rather, a particularly tricky weed. The word Jesus used for the weed planted by an enemy is a real plant called Zizania. Most farmers here in America know it as “Darnel.” And it is an amazing weed because it looks exactly like wheat while it is growing. In fact, it is not until harvest time that it reveals itself for the weed it really is. Ears of wheat ready for harvest are heavy with wholesome grain and will droop or bow while the ears of darnel will stand up straight. Until that moment, it is nearly impossible to know which plant is good and which is evil and that is Jesus’ point. He is very clear that at harvest time, a reference to the Day of Judgment, God alone, will determine which plants are good and which are evil. And that is important to remember: God decides … not us. Weeding is not the mission of Christ’s Church.

Yet, Christians are often notoriously zealous weeders. This is especially true when it comes to the actions, beliefs, or conduct of anyone other than our own selves. Church history is rife with examples of schism over an interpretation of a particular scripture verse, or how the sacraments should be administered, or a mission focus, or matters of social justice and who is welcome or unwelcome, and so on. And each group is determined that they, and they alone, are right, and as for us and everyone else? Well, we’re just weeds going to hell.

Jesus says, “Rubbish” to such kind of thinking. “That is not what I have called you to do; weeding is not how everyone will know you are my disciples.” No, Jesus said that people will know we are his disciples if we love as deeply, and as compassionately and sacrificially as he has loved us.” The truth is, whether judgment is focused within the church or outside it, we do serious harm to mission and ministry when we take it upon ourselves to weed, to judge, and try to dictate whom God should bless and whom God should save.

Perhaps that is why throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus urged religious leaders, as well as his followers, to not waste time judging others. As every gardener knows all too well, because a weed’s roots are often entangled with those of good plants, pulling them up risks destroying everything. No, Jesus says, leave the weeding to God and get on with the mission of the Church - A mission to proclaim and demonstrate the good news of the transforming mercy, grace, love and forgiveness of God offered in Jesus Christ to the entire needy and weedy world. You see, there are no "weedless" people on this earth. We are all dependent upon the mercy and grace of God … and God alone.

That is what St. Paul has been speaking about in the 7th and 8th chapters of his letter to the Romans. Paul says that more often than not, our life-long struggle to be faithful to God in all things is not so much a struggle with an evil enemy out there, but rather, within our own selves. We might remember last week’s reading from this letter where Paul lamented that no matter how hard he tries, he still does the evil he doesn’t want to do (Rom. 7:15-21).

Paul takes this reality even deeper in today’s lesson saying that because of this mixture of good and evil within us all, the wheat and weeds in our own hearts and minds, the Spirit and the flesh are so often at odds that we groan with the depths of labor pains. But, Paul adds, there is hope: glorious hope! God is willing to transform not only our weediness, but our entire garden, our surroundings, our circumstances, and fill them with grace and mercy, humility and forgiveness, for that is what God does. It happened to Jacob, it happened to St. Paul, and it can happen to each us if we so choose to discover God’s presence in the midst of our everyday circumstances and invite God to transform who we are and how we live right now, today.

Our lessons this morning remind us that if, by God’s grace, a fellow like Jacob can be transformed into a patriarch of the Hebrew faith, if God can transform a tyrant and know-it-all like Paul into a patriarch of the Christian Church, imagine what God can do, and is doing, with us. The question is, do we know it? Do we see it?

You know, that has been one of the joys of walking through the restoration work at Holy Cross each day this past week. It has been marvelous to observe the beauty of our original woodwork, stonework, flooring and walls come to life again as years of dust, mildew and everyday kind of stuff is gently removed. Each time I walk through those hallowed walls, like Jacob I find myself thinking, “Surely the LORD is in this place … and I didn’t know it.” I didn’t know it because in the midst of everyday life, it is so easy to see only the weeds: To forget to look for, and then see, God at work in me, in you, in this community of faith, restoring, transforming, and bringing forth in us the beauty and gentleness of God in whose wonderful image we were created.

May God open our eyes, our minds, and especially our hearts to be not only more aware of God’s presence in our own daily lives, but also, to be that presence of God, that “Beth-el” – that house of God to one another, our neighbors and communities. For then, it will be said of each of us, “Surely the LORD is in this place.” And we will know it and see it because our lives – our wheat-filled and yet, still weedy lives – live it. Amen.