Weekly Preaching: July 23, 2017

July 19th, 2017

My strategy this week will be to have Genesis 28:10-19a and Matthew 13:24-30 read. I will begin with Genesis, and ponder “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” — which is the story of our lives, isn’t it? (Here is a sermon I preached on this 3 years ago.) I will explore one of the ways the Lord is present in ways we do not realize or comprehend. We won’t read Romans 8 at my place, but I will touch on Paul’s image of what it means to call God "Abba."

* * *
So first, Genesis 28. Paint the physicality of the scene: Jacob is in a desolate place, sleeping outdoors, a stone for his pillow. I may allude to St. Francis sleeping on rocks and in caves — which he loved doing, believing it put him closer to God’s most enduring creation and also in solidarity with Jesus, our ‘rock,’ who slept (or tried to sleep) on that Maundy Thursday night in Caiaphas’s prison.
I don’t think it’s eisegesis to speak of finding yourself in a hard place. I envy people like Franklin Roosevelt who, as President during the Depression and then World War II, said he did the best he could all day, then turned in and slept like a baby. I struggle; so do many of our people. Can it be that, during such agonizing, sleepless nights, “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it”? Psalm 56 says “Lord, you have kept count of my tossings” in the night, when God seems absent or silent or both. 
Obviously, this text begs the preacher to use “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it” as a cadence, a refrain, repeated at the end of each “move.”

"Jacob's Ladder" by Marc Chagall. Image by Aaron Beppu via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
During the night, Jacob sees a... ramp? This might be a better translation, but “ladder” works, and is familiar (from “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”). It also enjoys the benefit of Thomas Merton’s wisdom: "People may spend their whole life climbing the ladder of success,only to find out that when they get to the top, their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall."
I’m tempted to play with an idea that the Church is the ladder, at least for us... the way to God or the way angels come down to us. Thomas Traherne, in the 17th century, declared that the Cross is our ladder from earth into heaven, from our heart into the heart of God. There’s some agitation in that, right? That an angel might show up? Elie Wiesel famously said “Whenever an angel says 'Be not afraid!' you'd better start worrying. A big assignment is on the way.”
Whatever the ladder, the large point here is that “the Lord was in this place, but I did not know it.” I love the way God is there when we aren’t aware, when we aren’t praying or seeking God at all. I wrote something of a memoir called Struck From Behind: My Memories of God. It’s not a dull account of my career or life, but a collection of memories, of ways God was there when I didn’t realize it at the time but only in retrospect, years later. I love inviting people into this kind of exercise: think back in the memory of your life. Where was God when you didn’t seek God or realize at the time God was there? A preacher could play with this one all day.
If you delve into memory, you find family weirdness — or most of us do. Notice God doesn’t say to Jacob “I am your God,” but rather “I am the God of your father, and your father’s father…” A premise of Peter Scazzero’s wonderful Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (which we did as a whole series with videos, books and emails – and I’d commend this to you and your church) is that we are never healed or one with God until we probe our family history and discover who’s there and what, therefore, we carry around inside: trace your family tree and you find horse thieves, alcoholics, workaholics, philanderers, depression, strains of cancer or heart disease. We don’t mind inheriting family money — but inheriting family depression or health or personal issues? It’s all there, and “surely the Lord was even in that place, although we did not know it.”
* * * 

Romans 8: the heart of it is that Jesus’ surprising and alluring habit of addressing God as Abba, Father, is picked up by Paul. It isn’t that you just decide, "Oh, I’ll call God Abba." It is the Spirit that enables and empowers this “cry” (so it’s a plea for help?). It’s not the word 'Abba' that carries any magic; it’s the deep sense of the intimate relationship. We are children of God (no small thing)... and then heirs (getting better) — but then Paul has to add “provided we suffer with him.” Not “in case, by some remote chance, we suffer.”

But I’m planning, for the second half or last third of my sermon, to think of a way the Lord is present and we do not realize or understand it: in the life of the church, broken and riddled with lunacy as it may be. Matthew 13, the wheat & the tares... I hope that the scholars who say the ‘interpretation’ in 36-43 doesn’t emanate from Jesus but is spin from early church leaders are correct.  
Jesus’ lovely, realistic, merciful parable is twisted into something ominous and threatening. The question in Jesus’ simple, unexplained parable isn’t "Am I wheat? Or tares?" You’re both, of course. The story is about the community, the people of God. The Church is wheat and tares both, and we like to think we know who’s who, as if you could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify them. Tares? Sit in the back on the left. Wheat? Up front, on the right…

Robert Farrar Capon points out,
"This is no way to run a farm. Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter... Programs designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do. Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody."
He suggests that the devil's best strategy is to sucker good people into taking up arms against one another, while he sits back and laughs.
Churches divide, grieving Jesus’ heart; he prayed for unity on the last night of his life (John 17), and still does. I’d commend my blog on why unity is required of us as United Methodists; all churches tend to want to separate wheat and tares, yet Jesus said we keep them together.
* * *
Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of evangelicalism, wrote about the way we fail to love within the church: Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.” We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations — the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”
Ephraim Radner, in his dense but wonderful A Brutal Unity, speaks of the solidarity to which we are called: “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of the one from whom we are separated.” 
In Stephen Bransford's novel, Riders of the Long Road, Silas Will, a circuit rider back in the 18th century, was grilled with hard questions by a young man about God, evil and suffering. His response?  

"'This is what Christ said. The people urged Him to pluck all the weeds from the wheat field, but He said, no, let them grow together because to pull them out now will destroy much innocent wheat. Yes, God can purge the world of sin and death right now, but He doesn't because all have sinned and we are all so tangled with the corruption of sin that He would destroy us and the whole world in that selfsame moment. What kind of God could do that?'"

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
comments powered by Disqus