Sunday, July 20, 2008

Proper 11A

St. Alban's is a beautiful little brick church in Bovina, MS, home also to a grocery store, a gas station with a Subway, a handful of churches and an exercise studio-turned-bar. It is also home to people whose warmth is as golden as the light that streams through the stained glass at the back of the church. They are in their sesquicentennial year, and so are preparing a written history of the parish, which has served as a church, a Civil War army headquarters, and if I understood correctly, a saloon. This theme continued through lunch at the Walnut House in Vicksburg, where nearly all the Episcopalians at the round table had Tipsy Pudding for dessert.

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

Where is home for you? the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori asked in her first sermon as our presiding bishop. Where is home for you? she asked in a church full of people from all over the world. Where is home? And what makes it home?

Home is, perhaps, the house in which we live now, where our responsibilities and obligations are. Home might be a different house, distant in miles and years, perhaps where we grew up. Or perhaps home is something without walls or windows – it may be a town, or a memory, or a gathering of people, or the smell of meatloaf, or the lines of a song someone used to sing.

Where is home for you? We come from many different homes, of course, but as people of faith, Bishop Katherine suggested, as people of faith, our true home is in God. Salvation history is filled with the stories of women and men who left their homes in order to go to the place where God was leading. Where is home? Home is where God is, which is to say, everywhere – at our houses, on the road, in the field, in our hearts, in our dreams, among the weeds…

Jacob, scripture’s slickest trickster, left his home in a hurry with nothing on his back but the birthright and blessing he had stolen from his brother, Esau. Now Esau hated Jacob, says the storyteller in Genesis, and Esau vowed to take revenge by taking Jacob’s life. Jacob weaseled one final blessing out of his father and then took off through the desert, covering his deceptions with his dust. Years later he would return home, this time fleeing his father-in-law, duped out of his daughters, but that’s another story and another dream…

He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night. Did Jacob know as he dug out a hollow in the dirt and situated a stone for his pillow that he was lying in the same place his father, Isaac, had lain so long ago, brought there by his father, Abraham, to be sacrificed? Legend holds it was the same very same place. Did Jacob even know the story? Had Isaac ever spoken of that terrible and wonderful day when the knife was raised to deliver the blow? An angel of God had stopped Abraham’s hand, and spoken God’s word: I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing…because you have obeyed my voice. Did Jacob, who had only ever obeyed his own voice, recall that story as he drifted into sleep on that pallet of sand beneath those stars of heaven?

He should have lain awake, wracked with guilt, or if he slept at all, he should have tossed and turned riding his nightmares of conscience. Instead, Jacob dreamed the sweetest of dreams, filled with angels and promises. I am with you…I will keep you…I will give you…I will not leave you. In the morning, Jacob named the place Bethel, which means House of God. How awesome is this place! he said. Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it!

It is difficult to say, when we read the rest of Jacob’s story, whether he really heard and understood what God had said to him in his dream. I am with you…and I will not leave you. Despite Jacob’s questionable character, God would dwell not only in the place where Jacob had slept that night, but in every place where Jacob would ever go. God would make a house in him and of him, and his home would be with God. He could flee all he wanted, but God would be right there with him.

The psalmist understood this when he or she wrote the words we read together a moment ago, God, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up;…you trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways. Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.

Do we really hear and understand what God is saying to us, who number among the stars of Abraham’s heaven and the sands of his seashore? Do we really hear and understand what God is saying to us, who number, as Paul writes, among the children of God and the heirs not only of God’s covenant but also of God’s kingdom? How awesome is this place, not just this world or this community of faith or this ground on which we stand, but how awesome is this place, this life and this heart that are in me, that are in you, that are in all of us, where God dwells. Surely God is even in this place, and I did not know it!

Just as our story from Genesis is about Bethel, the house of God, so is our gospel reading about the kingdom of God. It is about our home. The kingdom of God may be compared to, Jesus begins. Now, volumes have been written about the nature and purpose of parables. It turns out that most things we think parables are – metaphors, illustrations, allegories, explanations, riddles – they’re really not. The Greek word for parable means something like to lay beside. In his parables, Jesus laid ordinary images and actions that his listeners would understand beside images and actions of God at work in and through creation in extraordinary ways they couldn’t even begin to imagine. Theologian Walter Wink writes, “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds…that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.” The light that shines through parables challenges us to see in new ways, to move in new directions, to leave what is comfortable and familiar, to discover home where we did not expect it to be.

And so this morning’s parable is not really about farming. It’s not about seeds. It’s not about fields. Truth is, everyone listening to Jesus in his day would have known that the farmer in his story was a fool. A real farmer would pull the weeds as soon as he saw them, so as not to rob the wheat of the soil’s nutrients or risk the weeds going to seed and so threatening next year’s crop as well. Granted, the Greek word for weeds that Jesus chooses specifically identifies them as a type that closely resembles wheat, so that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart until they have both born their fruit. An attempt to pull the weeds might pull up wheat as well. And so the farmer says to his servants, Let both of them grow together until the harvest.

Turning a parable’s words, like turning a diamond, allows light to dance through its many facets, and so with the help of the Reverend Robert Farrar Capon, we turn again to the Greek text of the story. He notes that the word in Greek for let that we hear in Let them grow together is also translated in scripture as permit, allow, or suffer, all of which are similar enough in meaning. Permit them to grow, allow them, suffer both of them, the wheat and the weeds, to grow together until the harvest. But when used in conjunction with the presence of evil, or sin – or perhaps with the word enemy, such as the enemy who has sown the weeds – the same word we hear today as let is often translated in scripture as forgive. Here indeed, then, is a ray of something ultimate. Listen: Let both of them grow together. Permit them, allow them, suffer them to grow side by side until the harvest. Forgive them…

I think it is what God would have said to anyone who challenged the choice of Jacob as a covenant-bearer. Others could not see in Jacob what God saw. They took him for a weed, but God wanted to see him grow. Let him carry my promise. Permit him, allow him, suffer him to grow. Forgive him…

On this side of the cross, with Resurrection light not just glinting at our lives but illuminating all of who we are, we know that forgiveness is not just restorative but transformative, making it possible for that which was in darkness to shine, for that which was dead to live, for that which was uninvited to be welcomed home, for that which was barren to bear fruit. Let both of them grow together...

In the fields that are our world, our communities, our families, our church, our lives, in our own hearts, there is good seed and there are weeds. There is joy and there is pain, there is wonder and there is cruelty, there is generosity and there is pettiness. Sometimes it is easy to identify those things that steal our nutrients, that sap our strength, that compete with our striving to grow. Sometimes it is easy (or so we amateur farmers think) to tell the weeds from the wheat. Sometimes the weeds look better, bigger, more colorful, more hearty. Sometimes the weeds and wheat look so much the same that we do not know whether we are choosing something that will bear fruit. The thing is, when we try to judge who or what is worthy and who or what is not, we risk uprooting that which is good along with that which is evil. Indeed, when we try to judge how anything is growing, we risk uprooting ourselves, for our fields, too, are mixed.

Remember, though, that this parable is not about farming, it is not about wheat, and it is least of all about us. It is about the kingdom of God, our home, and here is another glint of something we might not have imagined. God’s kingdom, sown throughout the entire world, is not a climate-controlled greenhouse growing prize-winning orchids. Instead it is a field filled with wheat and with weeds, sown side by side. Of the farmer in the parable, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It seems [that he] is more interested in things that grow than he is in a pure or clean or uniformly tidy field.” So it is with God. It is not our task (though the church has throughout its history tried to make it so) to discern the wheat from the weeds. Our task is simply to grow. To bear fruit, which is to say, to practice unshielded, unconditional love, to be reconcilers of all things, to live as faithfully and obediently as possible, patiently accepting those who are growing with us and all around us, without regard for their "wheatiness" or their "weediness", to hope for what we cannot see.

For we cannot see what God sees, how abundant the harvest will be when that time comes around. The one who turned water into wine, the one who turned Jacob into a dreamer, may very well be able to love a weed into bearing fruit. Thank goodness – thank Goodness – that isn’t up to us. Among God’s promises in this parable is the promise that in the end, that which is good will be gathered to God, and that which is evil will be burned by fire. Whether the fire is designed to punish or purify, though…thank Goodness that isn’t up to us.

But we do not stand idly by. We grow. We love. We hope. We dream. And like Jacob before us, in whom mingled a weed and flower, a sinner and a saint, we find ourselves at home in the world because God is there and because God is in us, is with us, and keeps us wherever we go. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the kingdom of God, the field that God is willing to wait patiently for, watching to see what grows. Amen.

Artwork: "Jacob's Dream", by Alan Falk; "Wheatfield", by Vincent Van Gogh