Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pile Driver

Genesis 32:22-32

So, he was worthy, in the end.

Jacob is coming home, but he is very nervous about it. The circumstances of his departure, when he stole the blessing of his father Isaac from his brother Esau, was in the past. Jacob has been to Laban and back, married two wives, Rachel and Leah. At least Seven years have passed, and Jacob has become rich, although he has done so at his father in law and clansman’s expense—all this is in the previous chapters, beginning at Chapter 27.

The night before the meeting or reunion with his brother, whom he has not seen in years and when he did last see him, he had defrauded him from the customary older son’s blessing. He has sent ahead of him a huge gift of some 500 head of livestock, but he has also split his camp into two parts, so that Esau will not destroy everything if that is his intention.

Jacob is coming home, and he is very nervous about it. He has set Rachel and Leah, their two maids, and their 11 children and sent them back across the river. So, the night before he meets his brother, full or fear and probably finally regret for what he has done, he is in his camp alone.

And the scripture says a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. No greeting, the scripture doesn’t say who it is, just that “a man wrestled with him.”

It’s apparently an epic wrestling match, one that lasts all night, there next to the river.

In the end, Jacob at least wrestles the man to a draw, or might even, after all those hours, be winning, so that, as the sun comes up, the man, who doesn’t want to be seen in daylight, touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it. Jacob still has him in his grip, though, so he asks Jacob to release him, and Jacob says that he won’t unless the man blesses him, because Jacob has figured out that this man is no ordinary guy perhaps looking to pilfer the camp. There’s something supernatural about this man. Something divine. Nobody just touches a hip and dislocates it. So Jacob, showing again his quick mind and disregard for proper boundaries, asks for a blessing.

And, boy, what a blessing. Ever since Abraham, God has been promising that the descendants of this family will one day be a great nation. Abraham received the promise, as did Sarah. Isaac received it, as did Rebekah. And now Jacob has received it, but after three generations, the nation has been named. Jacob is no longer Jacob, but Israel. In Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah called The First Five Books Of Moses, it becomes plain; “Not as Yaakov/Heel Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather as Yisrael/God Fighter.”

Jacob, as is his character, asks the man his name, but the man refuses, and says goodbye.

And as the sun comes up, Jacob/ Israel is walking by this amazing site in the desert, changed and perhaps a little less nervous. When he sees Esau coming to meet him, he puts his children with each of their mothers, and walks ahead of them. One would think that he might hide behind them before. So there has been a change.

At some point in all our lives, there is a wrestling match with God. Circumstances conspire to take away all of our support systems, and we are alone, and it is then that we have our moment to wrestle. If you can’t think of the moment when it has happened to you, perhaps by a diagnosis of cancer for you or a loved one, or a divorce, or the death of a child or spouse, or the loss of a job, it hasn’t happened yet. It is coming. We all wrestle with the divine. Sometimes, we can name multiple times we have met the man in the desert, alone. And have been changed by the contact.

At least one hopes we are changed, because if you are able to wrestle with God, be in contact with God in that way, full contact-knock-down drag-out-pile-driving-half-nelson, it is the most honest time of your life. We ask why this event has happened, and that is the first grapple. And off we go.

We want to know why. We want to know why us. We want to take God and, not even using the rules of polite wrestling, like Olympic wrestling, we want to throw chairs, stand up on a corner stanchion and fly into God with our elbows in God’s stomach, swing God into the ropes and clothesline him as he bounces off.

And he lets us.

And then, when we are worn out with all our exertions, and we realize we’re really wrestling with someone who has submitted to us willingly, who has had the power to bend us like a pretzel and chosen not to, we begin to realize the grace that has been shown. And if we’re smart, like Jacob, we start asking for blessings. God has let us beat up on him all night long, but we are right back where we started. And we are graced by it. A limping Jacob is a different man the next morning. He is now Israel. It is his children who will make up the twelve tribes. The long time blessing promised to his forefathers is starting to take shape, in him. He puts himself at the head of his family facing his brother, rather than behind the wives and children, as if to say “ don’t kill me, look at all these beautiful children and these wives, these maids, who will all be penniless and bereft if I’m dead.” He stands ahead of them.

So, in the end, he was worthy. He was made worthy by wrestling with the divine, and allowing himself to be changed by that contact.

Opening ourselves to be honest with God is scary, and may even feel improper, somehow. Certainly not respectful. But without it, we cannot grow in relationship with God. We may not no the answers when we’ve finished, but we will be changed, better than we were. If we choose to accept that blessing.

So that in the end, we may be worthy, after all. As God sees us.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Kingdom of God is Like . . .

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

We continue this week in our tour through the parables of Jesus as found in Matthew. Verses 34 to 43, the bits we skipped, are partly Jesus’ explanation of the use of parables, which is from Psalm 78, and the rest is part o last weeks’ reading, Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the weeds and wheat.

Today, we have no less than five parables thrown at us. Now, it might be wise in some years to take each parable one by one, and each Sunday talk about mustard seeds, and yeast, and treasure, and pearls, or fish.

But it seemed to me that there might be some value in looking at all five parables together, and seeing what, together, each parable tells us about the character of God through Jesus Christ.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. . . “

Yesterday, I planted that box that last week was full of weeds- or as I preferred to say last week, plants in undesirable locations. I generally planted petunias, because they’re bright and can live in full sun. but I also scattered some California Poppy seeds that had been given to my mom by a friend of hers in one of the boxes, the one facing the house, so that mom can see them when she’s sitting at the couch, looking out the window. California Poppy seeds are tiny, about like a mustard seed , and it never fails to impress me how something so small becomes so different and so much larger. And these seeds just become wildflowers. If you left a mustard shoot to grow from a seed not much bigger than those poppy seeds for a few years, the resulting bush, just as Jesus describes it, becomes a large bush or small tree, (depending on your perspective, kind of like the difference between a stream and a creek). Internet pictures of mustard bushes that I saw when looking for bulletin cover art were sometimes taller than a person, and wider than a car. All from a little tiny seed.

I believe that this parable teaches us about the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. . . “

In reading this parable, of course I want to know how much a Measure of flour is. There’s a similar parable to this in Luke, in which the woman works the dough until the yeast is worked all through. That seems reasonable, since you want the dough to rise evenly. But when I looked up how much a measure was, it told me it roughly was only a cup. So if you add yeast to three measures of flour, it is roughly the amount needed for a loaf of bread. Again we have a symbol of something very small affecting a much larger body around it, similar to the mustard seed, so it could be abundance, but I hear another attribute of the Kingdom of God, here-power. Something as small as a wee beastie like yeast, who are kind of animals, after all, can take three cups of flour and some water and transform it from a paste into a large loaf of bread, given enough time.

I believe that this parable teaches is that the Kingdom of God has the power to transform and the power to change, and the power to make that which seems useless into something useful.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure . . . “

This is sometimes hard to understand this one, because the story of the love of God, Christ’s choosing to die for us, is a story that needs to be told in as many ways as our creativity permits. Why would you go hide it? And then why would you go and doubly own it; not just being the person who knows where it’s hidden, but being the guy who owns the land where it is hidden? That doesn’t sound like sharing to me. But I don’t think keeping it secret is Jesus’ point, here. I think he is trying to communicate that the feeling that a person has about something valuable, that they want to keep it safe, how highly they value that object, is how highly we should value the Kingdom. Take care with it. Tell the story accurately, with all the love and respect you can muster. Don’t fall prey to easy explanations, don’t just parrot what you’ve been taught, retelling the story without your own connection to it.

I believe that this parable teaches us to take care with the great value of the story of the Kingdom.

“The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant . . . “ Not like a pearl. Like a merchant. The Kingdom of god is an active place, a place that is willing to sell all it has to claim one great pearl. And that attitude, the valuing of something above all else, is how I think the Kingdom sees us. We are that one great pearl, and the Kingdom of God is willing to expend all it has to make sure we are included.

I believe this parable teaches us that the Kingdom of God Values us far more than we can understand and believe.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net. . . “

Jesus tells a parable about the end of the world here, and how there will be a process of separating the good from the bad. I don’t really hear this as a prophecy of the end times, in anyway that we hear it in Cultural Christianity today. The Psalms are full of separations, separating the people of God from their enemies, individually and collectively as the nation of Israel. For a people who are oppressed, the language of good and evil is clear—we will be redeemed, by God’s hand. They will be punished for doing this to us, by God’s hand. It is not so clear to us, in a first world country, the most powerful nation on earth, how we can think we are oppressed, because in the main, we are not. There are individual oppressions; women abused by husbands, children abused by their parents-there are economic oppressions, when people must work under duress and for less than a fair wage; but as a whole, we are not oppressed. We are not occupied by a foreign power, we are not being invaded, most outrage that we see these days is based not in justice, but in selfishness. To the people listening to Jesus, it is clear that the bad fish that they are caught up in the net with are Romans and the people who have cast their lot with them. There is nothing here about the saved and the unsaved.

I believe that this parable teaches us that the Kingdom of God is for the people who act justly, with compassion and humility, and sensitivity to situations in the world.

So, the Kingdom of God is described 5 ways here; abundant like a mustard seed; powerful like yeast; valuable to us like a treasure; places great value on us like a pearl merchant with a pearl, and discerning with who it includes.

There is much to think about here. And perhaps a lot to decide about how we fit into that Kingdom.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Scattering the Seeds

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

I heard on the radio a few weeks ago about a project sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. In the forest somewhere in Western Maryland, a fence was put up about 30 years ago. That fence encloses about 30 or 40 acres, and it’s called an “exclosure”. The purpose of it is to keep out the white-tailed deer of the area, in an effort to understand what the land would look like if they weren’t present.

Inside the fence, there is a wonderful abundance of foliage, some 20 different types of trees, in all stages of growth, and a wide variety of grasses and flowers.

Outside the fence, there is a mono-culture of one or two kinds of grass, and the only trees are adult and elderly.

I would love to take this story as a full metaphor, and name each element of the story as a part of the modern church, but that is not for today.

What I’d like to concentrate on is this-several times, we used the metaphor Thursday night at Administrative Council of scattering seeds that we hope to grow. The seeds that we scattered were in the hearts of the children we recently were host to for a week, and the field we were working in is our own neighborhood. The remark was made that what Vacation Bible school did was spread many good seeds among young children, so that they will know God’s love, and that we do expect that God will do God’s best work with them. But what was also true is that between the children served in vacation Bible school and at least most of the people sitting around the table Thursday night, there is a great gulf of years-the same gulf between the adult and elderly trees and the tender, new shoots of new trees that have not yet been found by the deer.

The thing about parables is that they are pliable, useful for making illustrations, but only up to a point. I do not want us to think that we are responsible for making sure that every heart of every age person in Center Moreland (or Dymond Hollow) is healthy and ready for seed-we know that that is impossible. I also do not think that the parable tells us that we should only scatter the seeds of the story of Jesus only among those whom we know, and those whom we like, in a sense, spreading the seeds only in good soil. The farmer has apparently spread his seeds over all types of soil-his job seems to be not judging who gets the seed, only that it is spread. The end of the parable is the most important part for us, as people responsible for the spreading of the story of God’s love through the life of Jesus. Jesus ends his explanation of the parable by saying this- that some yield one hundred to one, some sixty to one, some thirty to one.

May I suggest that that is for us the point we should be taking away?

I think what we’re being given permission to believe here is that the yield is not the point. Things like Vacation Bible School are a success because 70 children and teenagers heard the stories of God’s love. If one of them becomes a mature, reasonable, compassionate and gracious Christian, then God’s harvest has been fruitful.

Our job, as Christians, is to spread the love of God through Jesus to all, without judgment of how healthy the soil of the hearts who hear it may be.

So then, what’s next? What shall we do now to share that story? What shall we do now to share God’s love? Do we wait until next year, for another VBS summer?

Or are there things we can do before then? Are there events we can invite others to? Is there an attitude we can prayerfully cultivate within ourselves that strengthens our faith enough to open up to friends about what gives us Joy in Christ?

In September, at Center Moreland’s Admin. Council, we are going to try something. We will get the work done of the church early, and then we are going to talk about what gives us joy in Christ, and in being a Christian. We are going to talk about what we do well. We are going to listen to each other, and get a sense of who we are as the body of Christ. We do invite you to join us then! I would like to do the same at Dymond Hollow, sometime this fall.

One thing that occurs to me in that talk is that we should begin to understand what it is that makes us different from other churches in the area. I do not want us to be in competition with the other churches. But in our rush to not be controversial by not highlighting differences, we do lose the opportunity to speak about what it is that makes our way, our particular “method” of following Christ, so special. Our “special sauce”, if you will. It isn’t as simple a message as some other believers in our area may have, and for many, that’s fine. But there are many people out there who know that a relationship with God isn’t simple, and there is no place for them around. I would like to be that place.

The word of God, the love of God, is a seed that can take root early and can take root late, can take root after several tries. All we are really responsible for is the scattering of the seeds by our words, and actions. We do not choose the soil, we just, like the legends of Johnny Appleseed (and I was reminded of this by the lunch grace at Center Morelands’ Sunday School picnic yesterday), are called to scatter the seeds wherever we go.