My dear St. Matthias friends, as our time together comes to a close this day, I want to say thank you for the time together we have shared. I am so grateful for you sharing your lives with me and for allowing me to do the same with you. It has been a privilege and an honor to be your priest. Coming to the end of anything in life is always very difficult, but doing so during a pandemic – with all the normal ways of socially marking time – is especially challenging. Although I have spoken to most of you on the phone, to not be able to see you in person to say goodbye, well, it has cast this priest into the grip of sadness, of loss, of an aloneness that isn’t remedied by social contact. It must simply be borne.
And yet, my friends, and yet, that deep sadness, though not a good in itself, tells me something. It tells me what I value: sharing in the Lord’s life and witness, with you. It tells me that this is core to me. And why is that? Augustine puts this so well when he says that we are often unknowingly, but naturally inclined to seek our maker – God our Father, in his Son Jesus Christ, through his Spirit. And even more than that, the reason we seek this one God is because he is, says Augustine, more inward to us than we are to ourselves. In other words, if you want to get modern and psychological about it, if we want to seek our core self, what we’ll find when we do that, is an inner longing to go to, to be with, to rest in God. God in Jesus Christ is the fullness of who we are; so also the one in whom we have all of our distinction from him as created things; so also though, the one who raises us from mere creation to life with the uncreated God who made us, who loves us, who desires us, who holds us, who never leaves us.
Paul puts this in the strongest, most powerful terms when he says in his letter to the struggling little Roman church: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Read those lines over again, slowly, thinking over your whole life: all the good things, all the bad things, all the frightening things, all the lost things, all the hoped for things, all the joy filled things. Not one of these things happens outside the scope of God’s grace, for nothing can exist apart from his grace.
I cannot read these lines, ever, without tears coming to my eyes. Just briefly, but so powerfully, a whole body movement in and by the Holy Spirit, that I am rendered paralyzed for a moment. It is for me, a moment of Transfiguration where I see, breathe, eat, and know – just for a moment – I am in Christ and he is in me. And I am not a person who cries.
Our lives can often become so busy that multiple things become our immanent concern and we do indeed have to attend to them: meetings, appointments, relationships, duties, etc. Even when it comes to ‘church,’ our focus on God is often marred by politics that raise emotional responses of anger, frustration, doubt, even hatred and shock. And the fact that we have to live not just a moment but a whole life in these circumstances, has the tendency to make us forget those moments with God that transcend, that raise us up that is, to see him even for a glimmer of a moment, before we, like the disciples, have to go back down the mountain to do the work of witnessing to God in a world not yet reconciled to him.
God knows this, my friends. He knows that we are often consumed by the questions, concerns and worries in front of us. He knows that although we are naturally inclined to him as our creator, that the things of this world tempt us away from him. His own Son, Jesus, faced just these temptations in the wilderness. This is what makes our relationship to God so incredible. You see, there is talk, in the Scriptures, of a final end when everything will be gathered to God. And in popular culture, this has often been depicted as a ‘place’ to which we go called, ‘heaven.’
Interestingly enough though, that’s not actually a particularly biblical picture of what being reconciled to God means. Reconciliation isn’t a place according to Scripture; that is, the Kingdom of God isn’t a place, but a perfection of relationship between every single person and every single thing that God created. That’s one of the reasons why living now isn’t meaningless; it isn’t just a sort of waiting room where, when we die, we finally go up into the sky to see God. The Kingdom of God is the reconciliation of the here and now to the intended perfection for which God made it. So the here and now matters because it’s what God made and so is ‘working with,’ and it matters because through it, God has already shown us not only what we should expect to see of the reconciled world – but because we get a foreshadowing glimpse of that – so also what we as his people are called to strive for if we want to find him not just at the end of our lives, but in our daily lives.
Of course it is impossible for us limited people to see the fullness of what that Kingdom will look like. So God gives us glimpses of it through the Scriptures, particularly in his parables. Today Jesus gives us 6 glimpses of what a reconciled world should look like. Six times Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” As I read & re-read them I could see how each could be a sermon on its own & I wondered why Jesus chose to run them all together. It then occurred to me that, as I said above, God is well aware of our own anxieties, our fears, our limitations. He doesn’t stand far off from us allowing everything to tick along without him. He knows that we need him. He knows that we need those transfigured moments or glimpses into what the reconciled world should look like so that we can go back into this world now, as it is, and seek to live in a way that fits with where God intends us to go and do.
I’ve talked to so many folks who have been wondering, these days, about the meaning of life and death or if life had purpose. Others wonder why God hasn’t stopped this pandemic, & if there was anything to this faith stuff. Some said they’d never really thought about it deeply before because life just has a way of moving on: we get busy, other things seem more immanently pressing. Crises – whether personal, local, or in our case global – have a way of forcing us to ask of all these things we spend so much time on usually: “Is that all there is?” Is that all there is to life? All of this could be gone in a second? Of what value are these possessions I have? Is there no purpose, could I be wiped out so easily?
And people have begun to ask the same questions asked though time: Once you die, are you just dead? What if there’s something more? How could I prove it? Must I in order to have faith? Is there anything worth living for, something worth dying for? One person said he left the church over a disagreement and has never returned. After all these years he is questioning his decision and wonders why we can’t model the behaviour Jesus demonstrates and how we might overcome the barriers of guilt, hurt feelings, and anger that prevent so many people from even considering the Church a place to seek answers to some of these questions.
But this is precisely the reality of life that Jesus steps into. As he explains the Kingdom of heaven to his disciples, so he speaks directly to us. He tells us ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure in a field, a rare pearl, good fish, or a person’s treasures.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a very small mustard seed that grows like crazy. From something so small it can grow into a huge bush that can be home for all kinds of birds ... including you and me. The kingdom of heaven begins with one man: Jesus Christ, but in him, by the Holy Spirit uniting his followers, it can, like the mustard seed, grow into something large and substantial. It may even be something that we would normally throw away or dread, like listening to my sermon every week, but eventually something can grow out of it.
Nothing is as small and insignificant as a single mustard seed, one man who was executed on a Cross – but it can grow into something significant. And my friends, in that one man, that one seed, you were baptized and raised up so you can share your faith and extend the Kingdom to others. So never doubt your purpose, for you are made in the image of God and made to share it with others in love with hope drawn from the reality that you are held in an eternal relationship with him.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” It only takes a little leaven, or yeast, to make the dough rise. It only takes a small spark of the Holy Spirit to awaken people to their creator, the one who loves them holds, who made them for a purpose. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It only takes a little, a little yeast, a little seed, sometimes hidden where we don’t even know it exists to make a huge transformation. One person, one follower, one person who has found their creator, knows him, knows his love, who shares this with others.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field or a merchant looking for fine pearls.” In both of these parables someone finds something of great value and then they joyfully sell everything they have to get it. Both of these parables sound like horrible business practices. But it challenges us to ask ourselves what you are willing to give up to obtain eternal life. Yes, this might refer to material wealth. It might also refer to power. It often refers to these things because of something else though: giving up the fear that one must have money, power, possessions, control of things and people, control of ideas, control of events, if one is going to survive. But control through any means is always limited, and at the end of your life, that control is gone.
To what end is your life ordered? Control through money and power, control through emotional manipulation, control through demonizing others – all things that can so easily inhibit the humility necessary to receive grace? The kingdom of heaven is worth a treasure so profound, so great, that we are called to repent and choose a new life in Jesus, & be willing to give everything else away to follow him and in our life, to point not to ourselves and our control, but to him and to his love for all. What would your life have to look like to communicate that to others: friends and enemies alike?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net.” Every type of fish is always going to be caught. The kingdom of heaven is like that. A net full of good fish and bad fish. And in the end, the angels will come & separate them, just like they will separate the wheat from the weeds in last week’s gospel reading. We don’t need to be concerned with sorting the fish. That’s God’s work. We need to be concerned with HOW we witness, the care with which we go about our fishing mission.
All of these parables have something in common. They are examples of everyday life. The reality is right in front of us, but sometimes we can’t see it because our view is limited. So Jesus uses examples from everyday life, the hidden, the common, the normal; the stuff that is right around us & within our grasp so we catch a glimpse of God and his ways. For what we are living in now is not useless, it is not a waiting room for the Kingdom to arrive. “The kingdom of God is near.” For the Kingdom is God who came in Jesus Christ, who gives us his Spirit, and in whom we are to actively work right here and now, as part of his mission to reconcile or draw all things to him. This parable reminds us that although God is other than us because he’s not created, and although he will bring about the extraordinary reconciliation of all things, he is fundamentally present in us and with us. So we can seek and find him at work in the most ordinary of things.
May our eyes be opened so we can see & experience the kingdom of heaven all around as we learn to mingle the Word of God into life everlasting. Amen
Again this week we are talking about Jesus’s parables. In today’s parable God has sown good seed & during the night Satan has come along & sown some bad weeds amongst the wheat. Our initial inclination, (just like the householder’s servants) is to want to rush out & tear out the weeds. The problem though is very complex, because the weeds look just like the wheat, & the roots of the wheat & the weeds have co-mingled & grown together so that in ripping out the weeds we tear out the wheat as well. What can we learn from this parable? How can it help us understand each other better, our world better, give us a place to reflect on how to minister better to our neighbors, and to discern what our prophetic voice is for our society?
If the past is any indication, we tend to be judgmental & at times want to rid our precious church of those weeds or thoughts that don’t belong (it never fails to astonish me that if this desire were answered, there would be no one left in the Church given how judgmental we tend to be!). Now I know that none of you would ever think think this way. After all, we are enlightened, fair minded & open to new experiences & people. However, we know those people who don’t fit, those who are not like us, who have suspect notions about who & what the church should cater-to, & support. If you doubt that, think of your own inner turmoil when the new BAS superseded our long time precious BCP standard, or your churning emotions about same gender marriages or women being ordained; or reverse that, those damn BCP lovers, those exclusionary conservatives, those women haters.
I suppose our behavior grows out of a sense that changes threaten our survival & wanting our church to be pure & embody everything that was good & positive. We are continuously vigilant about how broadly or how narrowly we should draw the boundaries of the contemporary church. Who we can let in, & who we don’t think should be let in because we think we know who is accepted by God, & why, & who is not accepted by God, & why not? After all how wide should our specifications of welcome be, if we are still to be the Anglican church & not some watered down denomination, like those other people?
In our impatient wisdom, (& I’m as guilty as anyone), we want to bring matters to a head with simple black & white answers to very complex issues. In our scientific way we try to break down these issues to the smallest common denominators. These are very real issues & they are complex & there are no easy solutions. I’m sure some of you have lived that phenomena right here or at your former parishes over the years - sometimes we’ve been right, sometimes we’ve been wrong. Sometimes it’s been subtle. Sometimes it’s been cruel. And about many things, we still have no clarity.
Then along came Covid 19 & all our church concerns dropped to the bottom of the list as everything we thought & fought for has truly been set aside as we seek simply to survive personally, and then as a church with buildings, administrators, and clergy to pay for. Well that what our parable is all about. The inability to separate the wheat’s roots from the weeds’ roots symbolizes the very complex problems we are facing today. We as a human race crave for answers to our Covid Crisis & when answers aren’t forthcoming we fall back into the age old habit of looking for someone to blame.
Again if we look to our parable today, the Master offers this alternate wisdom, “let them grow together [until the harvest], because one cannot always discern the wheat from the weeds until then.” God models for us an infinite patience, that frees us to get on with our lives & the crucial business of proclaiming the gospel; making disciples; & loving or at least living with one another. This picture of a blessed mixture of weeds & wheat growing together until the harvest is a glimpse of how we can survive when we are at a loss for answers & feel powerlessly out of control. It’s also a glimpse into the future judgment at the end of time as we know it. This parable lets us glimpse a time when God will not tolerate endlessly, a world that is a: mixture of good & evil, faith & faithlessness coexisting side by side. We are pointed to a time when God, in his time, acts to judge & redeem the world. How else can Jesus claim that the kingdom is like an enormous tree that grows from a tiny seed? A tree that grows so enormous that all the birds of the air can come & find shelter in its branches, even those strange birds like you & me?
For the disciples both today & those of ancient times who face all kinds of persecution, & daily struggles, this parable comes as a huge comfort. They & we should be overjoyed to learn that flaws were not due to the deficits in Christ’s message, but due to the work of the devil himself. This parable contains an amazing insight that our church & our lives are a mixed bag. It contains both, healthy wheat, & unhealthy weeds, and both of these often manifesting in the same person at different times in one’s life.
As difficult & as strange as this world is right now to live in, we are called not to decide who is within & who is beyond God’s attention. It’s our job, to imagine everyone as belonging to this God, & therefore endeavoring to overcome our own weaknesses to embrace through Jesus Christ, God’s holy & purposeful ambiguity.
Our gospel message highlights the challenge of distinguishing: good from bad; wheat from weeds; loyal opposition from heresy; healthy conflict from destructive antagonism; & an alternate way of living with this evil virus from succumbing to fear, anxiety & giving up.
If it were easy, we as a human race would not have made all the mistakes we’ve made through the ages. Having the patience called for in this passage however, is not an excuse for inaction or conflict avoidance, for Jesus knows the consequences of a failure to deal with evil because failure allows evil to spread & infest other fields. This leaving the sorting to God on the day of judgment does not preclude our ongoing job within the church, to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth.
Today we need to be on guard. Satan continues in our midst, & works to confuse & hinder our ministries. We have to double up & be in touch with those people God has placed on our hearts to contact, because Satan is working each & every day & night to do the opposite. To make you feel listless, out of control, anxious about the future & worried about where all this is going to end. So God is saying to us, “Live in the present moment, don’t worry about the future, wear your masks, wash your hands, self distance, have patience with yourself & others & by all means work at staying in touch with people you know you are called to reach out to.” There is still work to be done here and now; concrete work; work that is adapted to a changed world as has been the case for all living things for all time.
I know & appreciate that. It’s impossible to maintain absolute outward holiness in all our actions all the time, or that an unholy action by a member does not preclude the possibility of future holiness. In my experience we have mixed motivations, the noble & the base in each of us. Each of us is a mixture of wheat & weed, holy & unholy, potentially fruitful & potentially destructive.
Our challenge then is to learn as much as we can about our enemy and how he manifests in our own thoughts, words and actions about ourselves and about others. And moreover, to find hope to sustain in doing that hard and painful work of opening up and allowing God to whittle away our caving to the enemy within, we need to learn as much as we can about our friend, Jesus. Scripture is a good place to start. We must learn & inwardly digest the differences between the two, & come together (in community) to explore & proclaim what we have discovered about that which, increases the potential for holiness.
No one person has all the answers & it takes patience & perseverance to continue the quest. Unfortunately, sometimes I feel too challenged by all that is going on in my life to focus on these heady aspects of my life. I’m too tired, too worn out, too worried, too sore, too confused, & too unsure to trust my own abilities & talents. I don’t know if you feel this way, but from my experience, I bet there are times when you feel this way too.
It’s at times like this that I remember that Satan may be at work in my life causing these evils to exist, but I also remember that at anytime, I have the option of resting in the arms of Jesus knowing “his yoke is easy & his burden is light” because it’s not all up to me. Isn’t it comforting to know we have fought the good fight (to the best of our ability) & that in the end it’s not all up to us. God will sort out the wheat from the weeds.
Sometimes we need to let go, & make room for Jesus in our existence. Sure, we must make the effort along with our other seekers to know God. Sure, we are called to tend the seeds so they might grow & flourish, but in the end, growth is up to God, & we can take great comfort in the end at harvest time, that God will separate the wheat from the weeds & ease our minds, & take us to himself.
A colleague of mine says that in a world colored as ours is by Covid ambiguity, the only absolute is to be found in the absolution. I think those are powerful words, & supply one of the main reasons I long to be back in church. I want to be able to join with others & acknowledge that life is hard, sometimes really hard, & the choices in front of us are not always clear or easy. But not only do we have the support of the community in making these difficult choices, but no matter how they turn out we can rest in the knowledge & hear again words of absolution, forgiveness, grace, & commissioning as we are sent once again into the world to make difficult choices as we try to be the people God has called us to be.
My Great Aunt Dorothy used to have a favorite saying, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken”. Only now, am I beginning to understand what this simple woman meant. God is still in charge, & he gives us the gift of freedom to participate in witnessing to him on this earth, to experience his joy, & we can take comfort in the knowledge that the one who created us, who sustains us, and who will draw all things to their final end, will be the only one to make the final decision as to “who is in” & “who is out.” This is not up to us. Imagine if you & the people you are reaching out to came to see church as a place where they could confess the confusion & ambiguity of their lives & find counsel, comfort, & hope as they seek to be the people God has called them to be. As Jesus concludes “Let anyone with ears listen.” And in he end, God will sort things out. In the end, there is hope. The weeds do not destroy the wheat. Amen
One of biggest questions I have always had for God is: what are you doing with us now? I don’t just mean, what is God doing with me, or with you as an individual. What I mean is what is he doing with everyone and everything that he has made? You see I don’t believe in what, in ‘theology speak,’ is known as a watchmaker God, or more formally, a Deist God who makes everything and then stands back and lets it unfold. That’s not the God of the Old and New Testaments who is and who promises to be ever present with us. That’s not the God who sends his Son into the world to become one of us, and in whom His Holy Spirit gathers us to our adopted Father. The God who does this is the God who is with us in the most exuberant joy and in the most excruciating, exhausting moments of our life.
In our Old Testament reading from Genesis we hear this: “These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” Recall God’s words to Isaac’s father, Abraham, “your descendants shall be more than the stars in the sky, many will be blessed through you.”
We hear God telling us what he is doing with those whom he created. He chooses this people Israel, beginning with Abraham and stretching out across generations with a sure promise: I will give you offspring for the purpose of going out and spreading across the world so that other people may receive me; so that they can be restored to relationship with me; as our reading puts it, so that they can be blessed: coming to know me, their maker so that they can find their purpose and place. But of course our reading leads us into foreboding territory: Jacob and Esau, twin boys struggle so much in Rebekah’s womb that she cries to the Lord, ‘why do I live?’ God’s answer is not simply about the pain and discomfort of pregnancy but speaks to the deeper truth of human pain and anguish: of separation from God and the ensuing envy and jealousy that often erupts into familial, social, cultural, and racial violence; a violence grounded in knowing oneself to be naked like Adam and Eve; that is: exposed, consumed by the fear of not being loved, of not mattering, of being left out, or shortchanged, of another taking your spot, your place, your birthright, which is nothing except relationship to God. Sin filled human I am, who will save me from this endless cycle of human anguish – whether ignorant or not – at being separated from God?
Then we hear Jesus – who can trace his adopted lineage back through Isaac and Abraham – retelling this story of how he will gather his people to him through Abraham, fulfilling his promise to his followers:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;” this retells God’s words to Abraham we see being fulfilled, even through generations who have turned from him. God is the planter or sower. God will tell one of the new born twins, Jacob, that his offspring are like the dust, or like seeds that are carried in the dust by wind; they’ll spread out from where he plants them to all the ends of the earth and not only Jacob’s offspring, but many others will be blessed through him. Jesus recapitulates those words in his parable saying: the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom. These are to be like Jacob’s offspring, the means through which God can bless those outside the Israelite nation.
But of course we know what happens with first with Esau and Jacob and then, as God foresaw, with Jacob’s offspring: so many of them go astray from relationship with God. We hear of wars, violence, betrayal, rape, murder, idol worship, fear, anxiety, loss, disease, all making it so hard to hear and see the fruit of God’s people; a reality that we see over and over through the centuries of human history. And Jesus says of this: the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the children whom God made are turning from him and living into the figure of Adam, into the flesh of Adam as Paul calls it.
Paul following Jesus challenges everyone who has been adopted into Jesus Christ through baptism: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." Now this is interesting. Let us pause here for a moment: In chapters 7 and 8 of Romans Paul is essentially pressing one point: my friends, you have been set free from death by Jesus Christ who suffered your rightful death for you. So don’t live into death anymore. One of the things that Paul identifies as living into death is covetousness – precisely what occurs with Esau and Jacob – a covetousness that suggests that one doesn’t really believe that they have a relationship with God, that they are loved, that they have a place and purpose; so instead they turn to the things of the world and the measures the world provides, to give them the feeling of being loved and desirable. This, says Paul, is living into death; of living into fear instead of living by faith. And living into fear tears you and those around you down; not just your personal life, but your families, your work relationships, people who aren’t like you, and potentially your entire culture.
I think we remain rather deaf and blind to the reality of how fear warps our perceptions of the world, even our faith. You see I think we spend a good deal of time, and I think this is particularly true for men who have traditionally not been allowed to express fear, covering up that fear with anger, or withdrawal, or at an even more complex level, being judgmental and condemnatory of others; especially those ‘not like us.’ There are so many ways this plays out in various relationships: at a social level this fear can result in racism and socially stigmatizing people who don’t ‘fit’ into however we expect them to fit; at the personal level, fear can drive us to withdraw from our children, grandchildren, partners, and even from not pursuing relationships with others, or alternatively, to judge our friends and family, our co-workers and neighbors as lesser than us; at a social level it can lead to murder, genocide and war.
At the heart of this fear, I think, is the fear of rejection. I’ve said before that God has written on our hearts and minds a pathway, a knowledge, an inclination and a deep desire for his love alone. It’s an all consuming sort of love, a perfect love, which as Hebrews says, casts out fear. We live in a world though, where our relationships are fragile, imperfect, and easily distorted by a fear that has not yet been perfectly cast out. We still live in a world where our relationship with God is not yet realized. So we live, as Paul says, as a part of creation that is still groaning in labor pains, we ourselves, who even in Christ, having received the Spirit groan inwardly, while we await the fruits of our adoption in Christ, to be truly manifest in the world. We await that is, the perfect love of God. We long so deeply, Paul says, that we groan inwardly. Augustine, a great Western theologian says that God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves. So we know deep within that we were made by and for God; made to, with Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob and the Israelites, go out into the world to show not ourselves, but God to the world. To become like a catalyst, through whom God himself might be seen.
And yet when, like seed, we are put out on the path, or spread out like the dust on the field, sent to all corners of the earth, or even to the corners of our neighborhoods, the corners of our families, of our changing towns and cities and countries, we often look out with fear because we do not see a world brought to fulfillment by God. We see a world, we see relationships with our friends and families and new people moving in and older people moving on, children failing to live up to potential or frustrating us in their unwillingness to do this or that, with a virus that has touched every corner of the world and brought economic and social shock, we see it with fear as if this is all there is; as if God does not rule over all these things.
We see our struggles and they become the focal point of our lives and we shout to God: where are you? You have planted me and left me to wither amongst these weeds. And perhaps in fear we lash out in anger or frustration or even withdrawal and dismissal and in so doing, shrivel ourselves from fruitful plants into weeds, or as Paul puts it, fall back into slavery to sin.
One of the things that we are tempted to do when fear is at the root, is to protect ourselves like Adam and Eve who, after breaking their relationship with God hide themselves and their nakedness, their obvious shame, guilt and fear. We do this in physical ways and in emotional ways. Often out of fear, we act as if we are the superior fruit or the very bad fruit. Either we are superior and can judge others, or we are inferior and unworthy and so we can withdraw ourselves from the lives of others. Both are mistakes, Jesus and Paul tells us. We were set free from the bondage of sin – from living as if our interpretation of events and of other people and our control over them, is all there really is.
We were in fact, given the Spirit to help us bear witness to God as his adopted children. And what this means is that we cannot succumb to our fears when we come before Christ and open ourselves to him. For he makes of us what we are; he makes us into the harvest. This is why Jesus tells his disciples in parable that they should not go and collect the weeds to burn them: for not one of us knows whether we or anyone else are wheat or weed just now. Not one of us knows what God is doing with us or has done with us, or will do with us as our lives unfold. So too, we don’t know this about anyone else’s life. We know it is God who made all of us, planted us, tends to us in Christ by his Spirit, growing, pruning, testing, pressing us out of fear and into his grace by faith. Testing us. Yes. This is true for all of us. But testing is not condemnation; it is sanctification; it is being pruned of those fearful forays into broken ways of living with God and one another so that we might grow into visible fruits along God’s vine. We are tested by other wheat and by the weeds alike; with this testing, however, facing our fear by facing into grace with hope and perseverance, then we shall receive the promise of adoption given to Abraham; Isaac and Jacob, and we might be made in this testing, a blessing to others as we go out into the world God has planted. AMEN.
Our passage from Romans this morning is probably one of the most famous passages that deals with the struggle of the Christian life: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” My first encounter with this passage actually came through a book called “The Confessions” written by a famous and very faithful Christian living in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine.
The Confessions recounts Augustine’s life through reflection on his own process of conversion to Christianity. When examined through the lens of faith informed by and in the process of being made more and more like Jesus Christ, the events of Augustine’s life were given new perspective. They were seen - not simply in the scope of the everyday, the visible or the known and immediate future - but rather in the scope of God’s providence. Or in other words, these events were seen from the perspective of God’s mission of drawing or gathering all of history and bringing it to completion in himself in and through Jesus Christ.
For Augustine, as for Paul here in Romans, human beings naturally long to "rest" in God, to be drawn to God, to know God and to harmonize their wills with His will: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, I can will what is right ….” But, complains Paul “I cannot do it … I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Augustine shares Paul’s dilemma, offering that because they are weak and sinful, humans can never hope to harmonize their wills with God’s without God's assistance. This particular story is Augustine's alone, but as he presents it, it can also express the story of all humanity, painfully separated from God and always struggling to return.
Indeed, we are always struggling to return to the place we have rest: to God that is. We do seek him in various ways. Yet all of us at some point succumb to the temptation of being drawn back to what Paul calls, ‘our old life’, a life in slavery to sin. This struggle is certainly not an unfamiliar tale, as we know from the Scriptures. There is Peter’s story of denying his fellowship with Jesus three after Jesus is arrested. There is Thomas’ demand to touch the resurrected Jesus’ wounds. There is Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise of a son. There is Israel’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf made by Aaron to satisfy a people hungry and thirsty, wandering in the wilderness and contemplating a return to Egypt from which God had freed them. There is even Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene: “Father, if you would take this cup from me ….” Scripture is not short of accounts that detail the struggles God’s people have in following him!
What lies at the root of this struggle? I would suggest, that it is fear. Fear of stepping out from what we know, what we can see, touch, understand, and control. Surely this is a frightening thing.
I have a friend, who I shall call Dave. Dave is a student at Wycliffe but prior to this he and his family were living in BC. Dave was the CEO of a small business he had started up with his wife. His family was well integrated into the community with close ties, financial stability, modest assets, and extended family around them. Business was booming and he was beginning to be able to delegate work out to his employees. This gave him more time to get involved with his church. After some discernment, Dave and his family found themselves considering the possibility of Dave entering into ministry full-time. This would involve returning to school to train as an Anglican minister; leaving behind the ties to family, friends and employees; entering into a period of financial insecurity and doing so not as a young teenager heading off to school, but rather as a middle aged man with a wife and children. Should we do this he asked? Will we have enough money to last us three years? What if I don’t find a job at the end of my time? What if no diocese and no bishop accepts me? How will we provide for the family while I’m in school? What about moving away from all our family? What about moving the kids? What if they hate us for doing it? And two and a half years later, with the assets sold off, the bank account nearly drained, the children uprooted, and not a job in sight, Dave tells me that he sometimes questions his choice to come. Was this right? Should I have stayed back in BC with the work and the ministry I was doing? In his fear, the comforts of what was tempt him; they create doubt and uncertainty, and he admits, sometimes falling back into old patterns of acting and responding to situations. Indeed I think Dave is right when he says: “I think it is fear that often makes us succumb to the temptation to see our actions only within the scope of what we can see and control and therefore away from God; it is fear that causes us to turn back to our old ways.”
Our lesson from Genesis this morning provides us with a Scriptural account of just these struggles and of our place before God as we live with them. Just prior to the section of Genesis we read this morning, we are told that Abraham commissions a servant to find his son Isaac a wife from his own kinsfolk. It is not simply that it is the servant’s duty to find Isaac a wife; rather in fact, Abraham outright refuses to allow Isaac to make this trip into the land of the Cannanites (where his kinsfolk live) on his own: by no means should Isaac return to the land and family that Abraham had left behind.
Abraham’s command conveys an important truth: Abraham is worried about sending Isaac back to the Israelites and with good cause. For remember that when faced with a fearful future – one that involved wandering, homelessness, concern for food, water and shelter, for protection and for relationship – the Israelites wanted to return to the the real but familiar liabilities of life – even a life of slavery – in Egypt. In other words, in order to quell their fears, the Israelites were prone to turn to worldly powers rather than to God.
But just here, Abraham’s command that Isaac not return to his kinfolk marks a departure from ‘returning to one’s old life.’ You see, Isaac carries the promised seed of the future: Christ Jesus (see the geneology at the beginning of Mt’s gospel). Rather than be tied to the past – to his kinsfolk – Isaac serves to show us how he, and so as God’s creatures, we too, participate in a larger story: a story with greater scope; one that tells of Christ’s mission to gather all the people and all the events of history to himself as the fulfillment of this history. By his not returning to Abraham’s kinsmen, Isaac serves to draw us into and shows to us, and to all who read the Scriptures, the broader scope of God’s work in the world. We are, in a sense, compelled to test out the role that Isaac plays; to see how we compare; to see where we fit within the narrative of God’s unfolding mission. And so here we find Isaac in the particular circumstances of his life: a man wandering alone, facing the death of his mother and isolation from his kinsfolk, a son awaiting marriage and children (critical for people of the time), a son asked by a father not to turn back, but to face into a future that is God’s. An uncertain and frightening prospect indeed … if in fact one cannot see or control how all the pieces of one’s life might fit together. The fear and temptation to turn back is surely real and grips all of us at some point. Yet here Isaac obeys his father and awaits the events that follow by which he will, with his wife, partake in God’s mission by bearing the future seed of God’s promise.
But our story does not end with Isaac, for both Abraham’s servant and Rebekah have a role to play – as we all do – in God’s mission. Like the servant who returns to Abraham’s kinsfolk to find Isaac his wife, we must live in the world to provide for the present and the future: to tend to family and friends, to jobs, to illnesses, to responsibilities, to day-to-day chores. But in so doing we should no more return our faith and hope to the limited powers of the world to appease our fears than should the servant take Isaac back to Abraham’s kinsfolk. We are called to live in the world – the servant shows us this – and this is part of who we are and must be; but we are also called to see our work in the world within the Scope of God’s mission as we find it given to us in the Scriptures. This we are shown by Isaac’s story.
Finally, we have the role of Rebekah herself; the one who will join with Isaac in marriage – another sermon itself – to bring forth and carry on the future seed who will give new life to the world. In the passage we read, Abraham’s servant asks Rebekah’s brother for permission to take her back to Isaac. The brother does not simply give Rebekah away to the servant but rather asks her: “will you go with this man?” There is no force used here. Rather, she replies: “I will.” Freely, of her own accord she replies, I will.
The meaning of that response goes deeper than just Rebecca’s pending marriage to Isaac, however. And this is so because in her response of “I will” to the servant who asks at the behest of Abraham and of God, we are pointed to Christ’s response of “I will” to God. But it is important we get the order of these responses right: it is Christ’s willing response of “I will” to his Father that gives meaning to Rebekah’s response. And in Rebekah’s response, we are pointed to and thus we see how her particular story is taken up, redeemed, and placed within God’s mission to the world.
And of course this is a response – a response given by unique individuals in unique circumstances – that we see repeated elsewhere with Abraham, Moses, Josiah, Peter, and with Paul. Rebekah, is asked to leave her homeland and the safety of family and the bonds of affection therein, the duties to which she had to attend, and the places that she new, for the sake of marriage to an unknown man on the word of Abraham’s servant who prays to God for help. And she replies: “I will.” Lord, despite my fears and my doubts, I will rest in you, I will. Her response – for us given purpose and meaning in and through Jesus’s own giving up of himself, his “I will” – demonstrates the wider scope of God’s work in the world.
Here in this brief passage, is one particular event by which we might see God’s mission of drawing things to a rest in himself. Indeed, as Augustine, I think rightly assessed, all people, and all things seek to find their rest in God. Rebekah, and so too Isaac and the servant, provide particular figures that conform, in their own unique ways, to Christ’s own: a giving up of oneself for the sake of the other: in Rebekah’s case, Isaac; in Christ’s, humanity. It is here – in the giving up of oneself to God in relationship with others, that one finds rest in Christ Jesus and the means of turning toward God and away from our fears.
These three figures point both to the need to deal with our own particular circumstances, but to hold these up to the Scriptures in order to determine how we might respond to our various situations and what purpose our situations might serve in God’s kingdom. What, for example, is the purpose of our relationships with one another? We find the measure of that purpose not in our culture and particularly not in our feelings alone; although comfortable and assuring since these are known standards by which to measure. For finding our answers in these things fails to acknowledge our dependence upon God and our particular place before him.
So yes, we are called to examine our lives and hold them up to the Scriptures to see where we fit into God’s unfolding mission; that is to find out who we really are. And yes it is here that we can find our place and the way we can respond in love, and so faithfully to God. But our redemption and our transformation as Christians is not accomplished by us. Note that I have said we participate in God’s mission. That is, we participate in what God has already accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is Christ who fulfilled all of history and so God’s promise by willingly giving himself up for our sakes on the Cross. It is Christ who gives meaning to all of the Scriptures and so too to all of our lives. And it is to Christ that each person, that each event, somehow points. Our participation then, is a response – I repeat, our participation is a response – to what God has already accomplished. It involves our finding our place in and of our coming to know God through the narrative given to us in the Scriptures. For this is where we might receive what has already been given: rest and redemption. By giving up ourselves to this continual search for God enfigured and revealed in his Scriptures and in his Church, we can come to know the sure promise and hope of life eternal won for us on the Cross. And in this way, our fears and our struggles are brought into the light in order that they might be seen through the lens of God’s redemption of our lives. This will certainly not erase our fear and the desire to turn back to what is comfortable for us. But it will pull away the scales that blind us to God’s presence with us more and more, so that we might see the irresistible gathering to which he is bringing us. And this will indeed begin to reorient our thinking and our actions as we are conformed to Christ’s own self through God’s love for us: for his love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things: Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death? “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest … in me you will find rest for your souls.” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.