Sunday, July 13, 2008

Who's after Isaac?

Proper 10 A; 7/13/2008

St. Paul’s

Genesis 25:919-34; Psalm 119: 105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

When you go to get ordained in the Episcopal Church, you have to write your spiritual autobiography. You talk about your teenage years, your schools, your jobs, your addictions and obsessions, where you met the love of your life, what church you wandered into one day and decided to stay. The way the questions are framed, you are encouraged to see every scintilla of your life as planned by God to lead you straight to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, no detours, no sidetracks, no multiple choice options. Your life is a pattern that led you to this moment. Such a way to think about “vocation” almost implies that you – or God – had no choice at all.

Today’s lessons present a challenge to such a fixed world view, because today’s lessons are all about choice. Paul seems to put it rather starkly. On the one hand: … the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free … from, on the other hand … the law of sin and of death. Paul continues, … To set the mind on the flesh is death; BUT, he says, … to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

In the story of Esau and Jacob, we have the story of a choice, the consequences of which will last for centuries. Esau seems to be throwing away his birthright, his inheritance, his fortune, his future – for a bowl of lentil stew. Jacob seems to be a trickster, pulling a fast one on his slightly older twin brother.

And in the parable of the sower, Jesus seems to distract us with all this talk about seeds falling on different kinds of ground, but the real point of the parable is between those who hear the Word of God and those who don’t. Life for the first; death for the second.

Over the years, we have read these stories as though God only intended one thing by them, like those spiritual autobiographies we construct to make our case that we have always been destined to be Episcopal priests. What if we saw that in our lives there were many choices to make, many doors to open? Maybe even God saw that there were several paths to take, several choices to make, along even the divine way?

For example, Jewish tradition has it that Esau was bad – that he chose the superficial and material – a good meal after a hard day’s work – over the spiritual and God-given. But look at the text: God tells their mother, Rebekah, that her sons will be the fathers of two nations, two peoples, and yes, the one of Jacob, the younger twin, becomes Israel. Esau’s offspring become the Edomites. Later Jewish tradition emphasizes the bad side of Esau; his offspring become Israel’s enemies. Jacob, the revered patriarch, may be a trickster, but Esau became the enemy of Israel for all time. That’s not quite so in the text: God does not curse Esau for his choice; Esau later marries, prospers, and forgives his scoundrel brother Jacob for tricking him out of his inheritance. Is the choice of “conventional” interpretation of this story the only choice that tells us something about what God had in mind?

In the gospel, we have the choice of three bad kinds of gardens, and one good. The “conventional” reading of this text is to say that if we do what God wants us to do, we will be blessed. We’ll get more stuff – we individuals will prosper. There are lots of Christians who ascribe to this theology that says that if they are rich, they have done the right things, and God has blessed them. The rest of us are just that old, rocky dried-up ground and it’s our own fault that we’re poor.

But what did Jesus mean by the “word of the kingdom” which we must hear and understand? “Kingdom” in Greek is basileia; but it does not imply a kingdom in a worldly, top-down, dictatorial kind of power-hungry sense. This basileia is a heavenly ideal, yet one rooted in this world, in the hope that God has intended this kingdom, this world, to be for the common good. It is a world of abundance, a world in which God’s will is done, God’s purposes are fulfilled. It is the world of the prayer Jesus taught us: your basileia come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. In this kingdom of God, no one person gets rich as a sign of God’s blessing; we all do. God doesn’t save us one at a time by ourselves; God saves all of us. In this basileia we live on earth – here, now – the way God would have us live in heaven.

I think that’s what Paul means when he says to choose the Spirit over the flesh: not that our bodies are bad, but that the choices we make for them should move us toward the basileia, the way God would have us live. And there is not just one choice, forever made, forever casting us out of God’s love, forever condemning us to rocky, dried-up ground. We’re not stuck in our addiction, trapped in poverty or doomed to unhappiness. The descendents of Esau do not have to be enemies forever with the descendents of Jacob. “If we blow one choice,” we’re not out of the game. “We get another choice, and another …” *and another. It’s not just about one fatal decision, one determining moment, one false move, or one missed opportunity. It’s about continually making choices, listening for the Word of that kingdom, of that great, big, fat basileia, where there is room for all and lots to go around.

* From Jeanyne B. Slettom, Process and Faith Lectionary Commentary, July 13, 2008; Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 10;

Proper 9-A; 7/6/2008

St. Paul’s

Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

St. Augustine, the 4th century African saint, spent a lot of time reading St. Paul, and perhaps especially St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. St. Augustine was notorious for his living large – that is, until he turned his life around as a Christian and a theologian.

Augustine is famous for his Confessions, in some ways similar to this section of the Epistle to the Romans which we read this morning: “I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate.” What a common human cry of despair! How often have any of us said such a thing? Augustine knew that in his life he had sown some pretty wild oats, and in his Confessions he can be detailed about them. Like Paul, he beats his breast about the sin and evil which seems to have taken over his life. He knows what he should do but evil lies close at hand. Paul is eloquent: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Paul talks about the law as taskmaster, but perhaps he is yearning for the law as rest, as Sabbath rest. The law mandates that all faithful people rest on the day God rested after the creation of the world. Yet Paul seems so consumed by the evil he has done, and cannot help doing, that he has forgotten that rest is part of the law.

St. Augustine, no stranger as I said, to bewailing his manifold sins and wickedness, wrote these words, among the most beautiful in sacred literature:

"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."*

Augustine reminds us that we are part of the creation in which God delights, and that no matter how much we do what God would have us NOT do, God has created us with a homing device, as it were: the true rest we seek we find at home, and our home, our hearts’ home, is with God. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Our Old Testament and Gospel lessons would seem, on the face of it, to have nothing to do with each other. Matthew gives us some sayings of Jesus; Genesis tells us the story of how Isaac, son of the patriarch Abraham, and patriarch-to-be, got himself a wife.

These lessons do have something in common: they talk about rest, Sabbath rest, rest that leads to salvation.

In the desert lands of the Near East, where one finds water one finds salvation.

A river flows through the garden of Eden, and later splits into four rivers, which flowed to the corners of the earth. For the inhabitants of the arid ancient near east, water is a restoration of Eden. … In the Bible, if you’ve found abundant water, you’ve found your way back to paradise. If you find water, you’ve entered sabbath.**

Isaac, the one God promised to be the father of many nations, is looking for a wife, a worthy partner with whom to fulfill this promise. And where does he (or the servant he sent) find her? At a well. This is not just a story about an ancient version of This is a story of God fulfilling God’s promises with the abundance of flowing water, an oasis in the desert, the living water that leads to eternal life.

And what is Jesus saying? Don’t miss that well in the desert. Don’t miss the signs that point to it. Don’t miss out on your chance for the abundant life! What will it take for us to recognize Jesus for who he is? He points to the contrast between John the Baptist, the forerunner – the ascetic, desert-hardened one who first brought the Good News of this new world. “You called him demon-possessed!” Jesus says. And then he goes on, “And then here I am! I eat and drink, I hang out with sinners and unsavory people. I bring the same message as John, and yet you pay no attention to me, either! You think you are so wise? Hah!” Listen to how another Biblical scholar interpreted what Jesus said:

… sit out the dance in your pseudo-wisdom if you want to, but the blind are seeing, the deaf are hearing, the lepers are made new, the dead are raised, and the poor have finally heard some music they can kick up their heels to – and that is the essence of wisdom...***

We can lay down our burdens, Jesus says, at the wellspring in the desert, and there we will find rest. We will find eternal life. We will find a terrific party – a feast to end all feasts. There at the well, we can put things in proper perspective. We can leave behind our tortured lives, doing what we know we should not. We can let our troubles just dry out there on the hot sand. We can forget our tension and anger, and take on the gentleness and humility that Jesus offers. We can meet the love of our lives, the one in whom God’s promises for our lives – for life itself – can be fulfilled. We can cast off all our restlessness, for here, at this well of refreshment, of easy burdens and light duties, our hearts can finally find their rest.

*The Confessions of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo:

** Peter J. Leithart, from Blogging Toward Sunday, July 6 (6/30/2008) in Theolog, the blog of The Christian Century:

***From “Sacred Rest” by Kate Huey, from Weekly Seeds, the Bible study blog of the United Church of Christ: Kate Huey quotes Thomas Long’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew from the Westminster Bible Companion Series