Proper 12A/Ordinary 17A/Pentecost +6What are we asking for?
July 24, 2011
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In between two really great Jacob stories -- the ladder last week and wrestling with the angel next week -- we have the purchasing of Leah and Rachel.
Not really my favorite story, even leaving aside the women’s total lack of agency. Jacob loves Rachel, agrees to work for SEVEN YEARS to marry her -- that’s like a doctoral degree (provided you’re not Scott, who got his in 2 years) -- and then gets bait-and-switched into marrying the older daughter. He still gets to marry the younger daughter, TOO, don’t worry. And yeah, I could say a lot about Biblical models of marriage here, but I won’t.
The triumph of the younger is a big theme in the Bible -- subverting the status quo, the triumph of the underdog. Jacob himself is a younger sibling -- who’s already used trickery to subvert the status quo. At least in today’s story, Jacob is more sinned against than sinning -- unlike in some of the Jacob stories.
Two weeks ago, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, a friend told me about her pastor’s sermon on the story of Jacob buying Esau’s birthright. The sermon was basically, “This is one of the stories of our faith, so you should know this story. Also, what does this story tell us about God?” I said, “It tells us that God is a dick.” Because Jacob, who is kind of a heel, is the one who triumphs, is the one who becomes the father of the people Israel. Yes, we are an Abrahamic people, but it is Jacob who is renamed “Israel” -- struggling with God. At least in that story Jacob is upfront with Esau about what he’s doing -- the lectionary skips the story where Jacob uses outright trickery to steal the paternal blessing intended for Esau. But the point still stands that Jacob is not exactly someone I would be proud to say, “Yes, that is where I come from.”
I’m uncomfortable making grand pronouncements about the Good News this story tells us about God -- even though that’s my default response to Scripture, to wrestle good news out of it.
Perhaps it is the influence of Rachel Barenblat’s Torah poems. I have an unfinished sermon about the akedah (the binding of Isaac, second Sunday after Pentecost) which is heavily informed by her poems.
In the last of her 10-poem cycle on the akedah -- a "sermon in poetry" on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah last year -- Barenblat writes:
In this season of turning and returningThis story isn’t about God. It’s about us. It’s about us, about where and who we come from. Yes, these stories tell us about God, because everything tells us about God. But the main point of these stories isn’t necessarily to tell us about God.
we long for heroes we want to be able to say
I take after my parents with uncomplicated pride
But that’s not how it goes our forebears had
marriages & children relationships & arguments
sometimes they missed even the widest of marks
All we can do is tell their stories
around our campfire around our festival table
with the polished kiddush cup and challah round as the moon
all we can do is pray for a year as sweet
as mother’s milk, a year when we don’t make
the same mistakes for the millionth time
or, when we do, resolve not to wait
until next Rosh Hashanah to seek forgiveness
All we can do is remember
But in rereading today’s Genesis passage on Tuesday, I was struck by this portion:
Jacob finishes his term of labor and asks for his agreed-upon reward.
29:22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast.Maybe it’s just because I finally read Rob Bell’s Love Wins recently (my Sunday morning church is doing a sermon series), but I thought of the wedding feast and then the, “But I worked so hard! Why am I not getting what I thought was coming to me?” Rob Bell talks about the prodigal son’s older brother -- about the party that is right there and the free will we have to keep ourselves away. Bell says:
29:23 But in the evening Laban took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob [... 29:25b] And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?"
Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive ecstatic announcement of the gospel.Now, I don’t want to say that Laban is a stand-in for God here, that being tricked into marrying someone is what the Kindom of God is like. Laban in fact directly represents a counter to God’s plan of lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty -- Laban says, "This is not done in our country--giving the younger before the firstborn,“ but in God’s country this happens all the time.
So are your goodness, your righteousness, your church attendance, and all of the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and actions you have taken.
(p. 187, “The Good News Is Better Than That”)
But I do think this disruptive moment is interesting.
Rest and re/New, my Wednesday evening church, is this month doing a series on “Winning, Losing, and Things in Between.” Our text this Wednesday was the story of the people freed from slavery in Egypt, complaining that they don’t have anything to eat and it would have been better if they’d just stayed in Egypt. Keith commented that sometimes after we get what we ask for, we’re not so sure it’s what we want after all.
What is it that we’re asking for?
Today’s complementary Old Testament reading is from 1 Kings, in which God asks Solomon, “What shall I give you?” and is pleased that Solomon asks, “Give me the skills to be a good leader of your people,” rather than, “I would like to live forever, have my enemies dead, and be really wealthy,” which suggests that one of the themes for today is asking for the right things -- aligning our will with God’s will. After all, the Gospel passage talks about the angels coming at the end of the age to separate the evil from the righteous.
So what is that we are asking for? Today’s Psalm reminds us that God will not forget God’s promises to us, and specifically invokes God’s promise to Abraham and Jacob -- "To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance."
Yeah, that’s kind of problematic, huh? How much blood continues to be shed as people fight over land they insist was promised to them?
While I’m not well-versed enough in the Torah to speak to the question of whether those people Moses led out of Egypt asked for a land of their own, per se, but the Exodus story is certainly full of, “Is that really what you wanted?”
The promise God made, however, was not just about land. Last week we heard:
the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. (Genesis 28:13c-28:14)All the peoples of the earth will be blessed in you and in your descendants. “A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” we might say -- as Simeon does in Luke 2:32.
The land of Canaan, mentioned in today’s Psalm, frequently makes me think of the Indigo Girls song:
I'm not your promised landDo we go looking for our promised land in all the wrong places? Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, do we seek new bondage that is just as unhealthy -- not trusting God’s plans for us, or perhaps confusing the Will of others (ourselves included) for the Will of God?
I'm not your promised one
I'm not the land of Canaan
When Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Light, and no one comes to the Divine Parent except through me,” I think one of the things Jesus might have meant is that while God works all things toward the good, as we heard in today’s Psalm, the way to God is through Love Incarnate. And also that in order to fully access God, one is going to have to give up false dichotomies -- like Divine vs. human, like mine vs. yours.
So back to the Promised Land. The biblical land of Canaan already had people living in it when our spiritual ancestors showed up to claim it. That’s not necessarily the model I want for a land God has promised to me and to my family.
Where do we find our Promised Land?
Today’s reading from Romans is pretty awesome. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That love is a place we can find a home -- now and always.
Again, might not be what we had in mind when we asked -- Paul is aware that, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered" -- but we are assured that there is no one who can bring any charges against us, who can condemn us, who can separate us from the love of God.
And this isn’t just about some post-death absolution. Paul tells us that, “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Paul was very familiar with the conflict between what we say we want and what we act as if we want. In the previous chapter of this letter to the Romans, Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [...] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:15, 19)
But the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent after the Ascension -- the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Helper -- this Sophia Wisdom and Love is always with us, always drawing us into closer relationship with God.
Now, speaking of relationship with God, I want to wrap with talking about the Kindom of God.
The Gospel tells a lot of parables about what the Kindom of God is like. Near the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks the disciples, "Have you understood all this?" and they answer, "Yes," at which I can only laugh, because, REALLY?
Rev. Russell at TheHardestQuestion.org suggested that the disciples had sort of tuned out during this litany of parables -- “Have you understood all this?” / “Yeah, totally, of course I get it.” [mime: “Totally didn’t get it. Did you get it?”]
My biggest problem is that Jesus does not seem troubled by unclear antecedents. Anyway. Let’s recap.
We start out well. "The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in their field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." Great. The kindom of God is something that starts out so tiny and small but grows into the greatest of things and many creatures make their home in it.
Next: "The realm of heaven is like yeast that someone took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." Great. The kindom of God is something that mixes in with our lives, lifts us up, grows us.
Third: "The realm of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in hir joy ze goes and sells all that ze has and buys that field.” Okay, a hidden treasure, which one is willing to sell all one has in order to obtain. We’re likely familiar with that imagery. Though in reading one bloogger’s sermon notes for today, I noticed that all we are told this person wants is the treasure, and yet the person buys the whole field. God is incredibly wasteful and extravagant in Hir love for us. This isn’t a marketplace transaction where the buyer tries to get the goods for the lowest possible price, this is God saying, “I want you and all that contains you, all that surrounds you.”
I’m reminded of Lee Harrington’s keynote at the Transcending Boundaries Conference last November. Harrington talked about the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma -- which I must admit I haven’t read. Harrintgon shared the story of Joel Salatin -- who raises cows and chickens but who describes himself as a grass farmer -- explaining that all 550 acres of land he has are important, refusing to let Michael Pollan privilege the 100 acres that happen to be “active farmland.”
We do not exist in isolation. Our relationship with God does not exist in isolation. Harrington says, “I live in a complex ecosystem of the heart."
The fourth parable sounds similar: "The realm of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, ze went and sold all that ze had and bought it.” Usually when we tell this story, the kindom of God is the pearl -- something that we are to sacrifice everything for -- but Jesus actually says the kindom of God is like the merchant. Does that make us the pearl of great value, whom God sells all that He has in order to ransom? Each and every one of us is a fine specimen, is of great value, is dearly beloved by God.
Fifth and last: “The realm of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.” This gets followed up with the angels at the end of the age, coming and and separating the evil from the righteous. But Jesus doesn’t say the reign of God is like the fishers or even like the angels; Jesus says the reign of God is like the net. Which was thrown into the sea and caught fish of EVERY kind.
God always desires to be in relationship with us -- regardless of what we ask for or of what we think we want, God is still seeking us. And we can trust that at the end of the age, all wickedness will be purged and we and the whole of Creation will be restored.