Sermon Seeds July 23, 2017

Sermon Seeds July 23, 2017

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 11) color_green.jpg

Lectionary citations
Genesis 28:10-19a with Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or
Isaiah 44:6-8 with Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Worship resources for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Year A, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Genesis 28:10-19a
Additional reflection on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Focus Theme:
Promises

Reflection:
by Kathryn M. Matthews Kate_SS_2017.jpg

Jacob is perhaps the most interesting of the patriarchs, if not the most admirable among them. Of course, every one of them is deeply flawed, and at one point or another in the story, their duplicity and even cowardice dismay us. Think, for example, of both Abraham and Isaac lying about the identity of their wives, Sarah and Rebekah, to protect their own skin. But Jacob's lies are astonishing in their breezy self-interest and greed as he repeatedly reassures his poor, blind--and suspicious--father that he is not Isaac's younger son but his older, favorite son, Esau.

What a shameful way to obtain a blessing! In fact, Jacob strikes me less as "Father Jacob" and more like the charming "Big Brother, Second-Born Jacob," the rogue who repeatedly gets into trouble but still evokes love and devotion from at least one parent and many descendants, as well as lovers of great stories to this day. And that's a good thing for readers of these ancient family stories, for everyone who "struggles with God" (and their families!), and for all of us who are far from perfect ourselves.

On the run from his brother

Out there on his own, Jacob is on the run from his brother's threats after his mother sends him away for "a while." (Who knew it would turn out to be twenty years, and multiple wives and children before he returned?) His mother has invented an excuse to get him out of town, complaining about her foreign daughters-in-law, Esau's Hittite wives (she simply could not bear another one): Jacob was to travel almost four hundred miles to find a wife more acceptable to Mother Rebekah. Sidney Greidanus tell us that Jacob, at this point, has traveled only fifty miles or so (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

Unless we're deep-woods wilderness campers, we've probably never experienced the kind of aloneness Jacob encounters out there, in the dark, on the road back to his father's homeland. Aloneness, and anxiety, too. Gene Tucker writes that Jacob "is at great risk from the known behind him and the unknown before him" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). But it's worse than that, according to Richard Pervo, who calls Jacob "an unperson in an unplace….an immoral and irreligious rogue. No religious seeker, he will have to be run to ground by God, who is not without experience in handling hard cases" (New Proclamation Year A 2011). Have you ever felt like an "unperson"?

Not realizing where he was

Several other scholars also describe Jacob as a somewhat secular figure, in spite of his auspicious lineage as the grandson of Abraham, who had first (and then repeatedly) heard from the God who promised a land, many descendants, and the vocation of being a blessing to all the families of the earth. Greidanus suggests that, whether Jacob realizes it or not, the very spot where he stops to sleep is the place where "his grandfather Abram, upon reaching the Promised Land, had built an altar to the Lord (12:8)" (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts). And Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, observes that Jacob "is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making" ("Dreaming the Truth," Gospel Medicine).

All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep, and the dream of heaven and earth before him in that "unplace." That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in "unexpected places," to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him. Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us. Taylor writes: "Jacob is nowhere, which is where the dream touches down--not where it should be but where he is" (Gospel Medicine).

Interpreting the dream

There is the dream, and there is the interpretation of the dream. Many scholars connect Jacob's vision of heavenly beings, messengers perhaps, going up and down a ladder to heaven, with the Babylonian ziggurats that the biblical authors would have known well. Richard Pervo writes imaginatively of the "Babylonian temples, with a penthouse apartment for the god and a ground-level chamber for formal receptions" (New Proclamation Year A 2011), but--speaking of imagination--Greidanus invites us to picture the response of the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon, when they heard these promises of God's unfailing presence to Jacob (and his descendants, surely), no matter where they go (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts). We remember that, in a little while, Jacob's name will even be changed to "Israel," which surely must have touched the homesick exiles in their deepest hearts.

The God of heaven and earth doesn't actually need all those messengers going up and down the steps in order to deliver the promises once again to Jacob. God stands right there, at Jacob's side, and tells him once again what the future holds. No matter how many times we read or hear those elegant promises, they are utterly beautiful and fill us, at each hearing, with a sure and sustaining hope. (Nevertheless, just for our information, Sibley Towner does count this as "the eighth reiteration of the divine promise of the land to a patriarch and the seventh direct or indirect repetition of the promise of numerous progeny," and God "also makes the fifth and final statement of the overarching theme of blessing to the nations"; Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).

The difference one word makes

In many translations, we miss something important, Holly Hearon writes: "Jacob's dream is punctuated at four points by the word behold (omitted in the English): 'behold, a ladder [more likely, staircase or ramp],' 'behold, angels of God,' 'behold, the Lord stood beside him,' 'behold, know that I am with you'" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). How does adding this one word change the hearing of this story for you?

Dreams often wake us up with a powerful sense of having experienced something important: how would it feel if God were the one to explain our dream for us? Perhaps we have become too analytical, too distanced from our dreams to experience them as a deeper reality, perhaps even as a source of spiritual insight, as they so often were for our ancestors.

Distance and nearness

Two issues of distance and nearness, and of connection between the two, provide material for reflection as we make our way through another text from Genesis. There is the question of family relationships, in the smaller and specific sense, but in the larger one as well, across time, across generations. Remembering how alone Jacob was out there on the road to Haran, we are heartened and inspired to read James Newsome's observation that the "solitary Jacob, a refugee from his own community...is portrayed as being the focus of that community, the interface between his community's past and its future." In fact, the one "who contrived to gain an undeserved birthright and blessing is now described as the one through whom the entire human family will receive blessing!"

Jacob's "ah-ha!" moment is a conversion experience as well, but it extends far beyond his own personal life to his family and indeed, to all humankind. We note that Jacob will continue his crafty ways in the future, but while he "was not an entirely new person," Newsome writes, "neither was he the same old Jacob" (Texts for Preaching Year A). Can't the same thing be said of us, after we feel that our lives have been tranformed by grace?

The distance between God and us

And then there is the question of place, of the distance between humanity and God, and the way God, in a sense, intrudes upon our lives, comes across the divide, and makes a home in our midst. Jacob senses this power of God, this reality of God dwelling among us, when he marks and re-names this holy place of his dream of heaven and earth, and the voice of God reaffirming the promise to his ancestors.

Jacob has sense enough to call this place what it is, "Beth-el," the house of God, the gate of heaven, an awe-some place. We of course have more technical terms for such things, although in this case, a quite lovely one in Holly Hearon's "liminal space where earth and heaven meet" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Or, as Celtic spirituality calls it, a "thin place."

God with Jacob wherever he goes

And yet, we hear in God's promise something more, something new, for God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise. In those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land, but this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time. It must have given Jacob great comfort to hear God promise to be with him always and to bring him back home to the land he had been promised.

Jacob hears these same promises on his way out of the land of promise, just as his grandfather heard them on his way in. In either case, and in our case as well, James Newsome reminds us that God is the one who takes the initiative in these stories, and it's up to us to respond faithfully to "God's compassionate intrusion into our sinful ways." Like us, Jacob only needs "to say yes to the living God" (Texts for Preaching Year A).

Hearing Jacob's response

It would, however, be helpful to read this text beyond the lectionary limit to verse 22, in order to hear all of Jacob's response to God, to hear that "yes to the living God." I sometimes wonder how these text limits get set, and I don't want to think it's because Jacob includes a tithe in his promise to God (in many churches, tithing seems to be a forbidden topic). It would, however, be interesting to hear how folks respond to this account of an almost-irreligious character promising to give God a tenth of all God gives him.

Might this not be a great text for stewardship preaching, in a year-round stewardship ministry? Some may question Jacob's faith, as if he's making a deal with God: is this all too good to be true, and do I need to give God an incentive to keep these extravagant promises? Not so, Richard Pervo writes: "God is stuck with Jacob, and vice versa" (New Proclamation Year A 2011). Terence Fretheim also strikes a note of mutuality in his observation about where things will go from here: "There is a 'must' for God in this text, and a 'must' for Jacob as well" (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).

Experiencing God where we are

There is a tension for people of faith in our love for our places of worship, our sacred spaces. While Holly Hearon claims that "God is not associated, ultimately, with place, but in relationship and promise" (New Proclamation Year A 2008), we embodied creatures do experience God in places that we can feel, places that we can cherish, places that evoke memories, places that we mourn when they are destroyed. I remember a scene in the movie Romero, when the church is destroyed and the people are devastated, and the archbishop walks bravely back in to recover the Eucharist. That is an embodied and sacred experience. In a similar way, so is the sorrow of my friend, whose childhood church and place of her ordination is now for sale.

Terence Fretheim writes beautifully about our need to create places of worship, "because human beings are shaped by place as well as time." Thinking back to Jacob and thousands of other ancestors who wandered, who were led, who were taken in exile, who went on pilgrimage, we find his words inspiring for us, too, their descendants in faith: "The rhythms of the ancestors include the rhythm of journeying and worship; their journeys are punctuated by moments of worship at specific places. Yet the place never becomes a final objective, where one settles in; it provides sustenance for the ongoing journey" (Genesis, The New Interpreter's Bible).

The church as a base camp

One of my favorite images for the church is that of a "base camp," a place of safety where we are fed and rested for the journey (and work) outside its walls, but I must acknowledge that we are prone at times to see ourselves as always at work, or to be constantly reminding ourselves dutifully of the need to work. So we may miss the encounters with God that happen at any time, anywhere, in so many places and times of blessing: at rest and at play, in the quiet, alone, or even in a crowd.

Indeed, we experience God in more places than our church buildings, no matter how beautiful or inspiring they are. We may have a place in nature, or a quiet spot in our home, or maybe we have unexpectedly stumbled upon sacred ground in the most unexpected places, like hospital waiting rooms, or the operating room, or the doctor's office during a diagnosis. (I imagine hospice chaplains having many stories like these.) In good news or bad, in joy and sorrow, we hold fast to the sure knowledge that God is with us always, just as God promised, no matter where we go.

God with us, Emmanuel

Richard Pervo observes, "The claim of continuing presence in verse 15 resonates with Matthew's theme of Emmanuel (1:23; 28:20)" (New Proclamation Year A 2011), and Sidney Greidanus reminds us that "Jesus himself will refer to this Old Testament passage" when he says in John 1:51, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." Greidanus notes that, in this vision, Christians see Jesus as a ladder, "the link between heaven and earth" (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).

I was reminded of the question of sacred space by a devotional from a UCC congregation, the Cathedral of Hope: Dr. Gary G. Kindley, a pastoral counselor, provided a thoughtful meditation on the way we see the site of the World Trade Center since 9/11. Because of the tragedy and heroism that occurred there, and because of the ashes that will always remain, we experience it as holy ground, and I agree.

A changed perspective

Dr. Kindley compares this to Jacob, who "had a profound experience that changed his perception of the place," so that he "consecrated the site, renaming it." I read Dr. Kindley's reflection, on how "the ordinary can become extraordinary," so that "in unexpected and creative ways" we can consecrate work or living spaces as holy ones, in light of this claim by Gene Tucker, that a space's "sacredness must be either discovered or disclosed, and then recognized" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). How do you respond to the tension between our choosing to consecrate a space, and a sense of sacredness that is "discovered or disclosed"?

Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text is quite beautiful, and this long reflection could be extended with excerpts from it, but I recommend reading the entire sermon in Gospel Medicine. Taylor reminds us that we are dreamers, but, raised in a scientific age, we "have also lost confidence in...our dream….of a healed earth full of holy people, where we see no longer in a mirror dimly but face-to-face at last….a dream of reunion, of divine communion...."

Where people meet God

Another source of reflection on this experience of finding God--and the promises of God--in unexpected places, that is, not just in the sanctuaries and altars we have built, is Diana Butler Bass's wonderful book, Grounded: Finding God in the World--A Spiritual Revolution. She speaks so clearly about the reality of the "nones" and the "dones" who feel God's presence with them, wherever they go, and yet are judged so often by church folks.

And she acknowledges her own struggle with the church that has made it difficult to participate in traditional worship: "This has not happened because I am angry at the church or God. Rather, it has happened because I was moving around in the world and began to realize how beautifully God was everywhere: in nature and in my neighborhood, in considering the stars and by seeking my roots. It took me five decades to figure it out, but I finally understood. The church is not the only sacred space; the world is profoundly sacred as well." I trust centuries of mystics would agree with her.

We hunger for the same things

Just before I retired, I had the amazing opportunity to be on a panel discussion about this book with Dr. Bass at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland. Here is something I learned that day, sitting in a room full of "church folks": they, too, as committed church members in a mainline denomination in a (gorgeous) tall steeple church with an extraordinary pastor, nevertheless grasped immediately what Diana Butler Bass was talking about. They, too, shared that profound need to heighten their awareness of God's presence and promises with them, wherever they go, not just in church.

I am also reminded of Taylor's excellent book, An Altar in the World, which leads us on the path of learning the practice of doing less and being more open to those experiences of the sacred which await us here and now, wherever we go. She reminds us in her sermon, after all: "We are the dreamers of the promise, set apart to bless all the families of the earth," here, "where it has pleased God to be with us….where the bright rungs of God's ladder touch down on our own ordinary pieces of the earth" ("Dreaming the Truth" in Gospel Medicine). These two brilliant women theologians echo the simple elegance of Jacob's story, so ancient, so new, a story that calls us to listen for God's promises and watch for God in those most unexpected places of blessing.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Nadia Hashimi, When the Moon is Low, 21st century
"In the darkness, when you cannot see the ground under your feet and when your fingers touch nothing but night, you are not alone. I will stay with you as moonlight stays on water."
and
"We all cross a hundred peaks to get even this far. And there will be more before we each make it to whatever God has fated for us."

C.G. Jung, 20th century
"Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."

John Lewis Gaddis, 21st century
"It is worth starting with visions, though, because they establish hopes and fears. History then determines which prevail."

Pico Iyer, Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of The World, 21st century
"Finding a sanctuary, a place apart from time, is not so different from finding a faith."

J.D. Stroube, Epiphany, 21st century
"As I turned to leave, I looked down. Beside my foot, a sprout of greenery was clawing its way through the pristine nothingness to begin anew. It was later that I realized my haven had sent me a message, and it had shown me that nothing is ever completely lost, unless you cease searching."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"People only see what they are prepared to see."

Rachel Naomi Remen, 21st century
"Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing."

Anne Lamott, 21st century
"My parents, and librarians along the way, taught me about the space between words; about the margins, where so many juicy moments of life and spirit and friendship could be found. In a library, you could find miracles and truth and you might find something that would make you laugh so hard that you get shushed, in the friendliest way. There was sanctuary in a library, there is sanctuary now, from the war, from the storms of our family and our own anxious minds. Libraries are like the mountain, or the meadows behind the goat lady’s house: sacred space."

Additional reflection on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43:

Many of the same questions that trouble us also troubled the earliest Christians, including the community Matthew addresses here, in his Gospel. Matthew often uses language of judgment, decision and division, sometimes producing terrifying scenes of condemnation, as Thomas Long describes it, "stark, uncompromising, unequivocal pictures of good and bad spiced up with plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

In response to our ancestors' struggle with the presence of evil in their midst (not so much why it was there, but what to do about it), Matthew provides pictures and promises to help them endure and persist, even if their little church, and the big world beyond it, seemed infected and flawed by "bad seed," the "weeds" sown by a power at odds with God's vision for the world.

Explaining the parables

Once again, Jesus is teaching the gathered crowd in parables, as good Wisdom teachers did in that day. Later, in private, he "explains" the parable to his closest disciples, evidently leaving the crowd to wrestle on their own with his words, even as we do today. Matthew provides the kind of explanation of the parable that is thought to be more often the voice of the early church seeking "the" meaning of the parable.

Barbara Brown Taylor reads parables not as direct answers to direct questions that we all have and want answered (clearly and specifically). Instead, she says, they deliver "their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious....Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding" ("Learning to Live with Weeds," in The Seeds of Heaven).

Parables are mysterious, and as we said last week, as soon as we "know" what a parable means, we're probably mistaken. But if we're made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we're probably getting a little closer to the heart of its meaning.

Tension and conflict over the seeds

Once again, like last week's lectionary reading, our passage contains a parable with images of sowing seeds. Last week's sower liberally spread seeds on every kind of ground, with mixed results. This week's sower presumably uses good ground, but also gets mixed results because of the actions of an enemy. There's tension and conflict in this week's story, active not passive resistance to the work of God the sower. Perhaps those early Christians had a stronger sense of their own powerlessness, feeling small and vulnerable (but good) in opposition to the powerful but (clearly) wicked forces around them.

In any case, the parable doesn't address the reason for the enemy's actions. Instead, the focus is on the church's response. The parable could be heard on two levels, our local and our wider realities, that is, the church and the world. What to do about less committed, less faithful, perhaps even trouble-making members of the church?

A community of purity

God forbid that we have sinners in our midst! Never mind all those stories of Jesus eating with sinners, or his words about not judging one another: a religious community, after all, should work for perfection and purity. But Fred Craddock says there's a tension between the urge to purge imperfection and the "obligation to accept, forgive, and restore....the task of judging between good and evil belongs not to us but to Christ" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Barbara Brown Taylor describes the frustration of "good" church members who recognize "weeds" in the midst of the church that ought to be a refuge from the tainted world: "If God really is in charge, then why isn't the world a beautiful sea of waving grain? Or...couldn't the church, at least, be a neat field of superior wheat?" Then as now, "however the weeds get there, most of us have got them--not only in our yards but also in our lives: thorny people who were not part of the plan, who are not welcome, sucking up sunlight and water that were meant for good plants, not weeds" ("Why the Boss Said No" in Bread of Angels).

Us against Them

This kind of attitude sets up an either/or, Us and Them situation, where some of us are "wheat" and others are "weeds." But who can tell the difference, and who can presume to pull the weeds without harming the tender wheat? Religious communities, that's who...at least we often presume to do just that, according to Richard Swanson: "Even communities that affirm the radical otherness of God, that claim that God is above and beyond all human distinctions, even such communities assume that, if we must divide Us from Them, God is properly on our side of the dividing line. Carefully developed theologies, balanced and nuanced and properly in awe of the majesty of God, retire to the other room when Us/Them divisions are being made."

Oh, sure, these theologies "will return to the discussion after the dirty work is done," and it will be clear that the "Them" in the story will be at fault for the terrible things that have happened to "Us" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). How often has religion been used to justify violent efforts ("the dirty work") to eliminate perceived "weeds"?

It's not easy being wheat

Kermit the Frog may claim that "It's not easy being green," but Barbara Brown Taylor observes that it's not easy being wheat, either, and having to compete with the weeds for fertile soil. How many people have thought they were doing the right thing, even if they use "hostile means" to rid the church of troublesome weeds, when they're really doing the same thing that the slaves wanted to do? But, Taylor says, "the Boss said no."

Is it possible that the mystery of the parable has something to do with God's timing, and our inability to judge or, for that matter, our unwillingness to trust in God's own judgment? God's judgment, of course, is always better for someone else than it is for us. Still, there is evil and wrongdoing, and surely we're supposed to do something. Taylor, though, says that we should leave the weeds for God to deal with, and "mind our own business, so to speak--our business being the reconciliation of the world through the practice of unshielded love. If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest..." ("Why the Boss Said No" in Bread of Angels).

Thank God God judges us

The mixed field may be the church or it may be the world, but in either case, as my teacher long ago often said, "Thank God God judges us"--that in the end we won't be the ones who judge ourselves or one another. Still, there is another way to look at this mix of good and evil, and that's to look within ourselves, as several writers suggest. Thomas Long writes that we "insiders" need to remember that "we are, ourselves, a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes we are not...."

Jesus' parable speaks of the burning of the weeds, as was customary in that time when weeds provided fuel for the fires. It's Matthew's way to read fiery judgment into the story, terrifying us even centuries later. But we could see that fire, Long writes, as a purifying of all that "deadens humanity or corrupts God's world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank the Lord, be burned up in the fires of God's everlasting love" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). These are strangely, vividly reassuring words, strengthening words, sustaining words for us today just as they were for the very first Christians struggling to survive against the odds.

Looking for help in the parable

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the odds against you? Are there conflicts and divisions within your church, and "elements" that need to be "removed"? Do you wonder what you're supposed to do about the "evildoers" in the world? Does this parable help?

Barbara Brown Taylor illuminates the difference between a parable and its explanation: "A parable washes over you like a wave full of life and light, but an explanation--well, an explanation lets you know where you stand. It gives you something to work with, a tool with which to improve yourself and the condition of the world in general..." ("Learning to Live with Weeds" in The Seeds of Heaven).

But how then do we improve the condition of the world? That "practice of unshielded love" may be the key. It's hard to be a faithful Christian, yet we remember that Jesus told us to love our enemies, Holly Hearon reminds us, and Jesus also observed that "God sends both sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. If God shows such generosity of spirit, can [we] do any less?" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). The question is, can generosity of spirit change the world?

For further reflection:

Jerome, 4th century bishop
"The words the Lord spoke--'Lest gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them'--leave room for repentance. We are advised not to be quick in cutting off a fellow believer....'"

Thomas Long, 21st century
"The simple fact that the church always has its share of hypocrites does not make the gospel hypocritical, nor does it destroy the integrity of God."

Georgia Harkness, 20th century
"The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world."
 
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"If you judge people, you have no time to love them."

Blaise Pascal, 17th century
"There are only two kinds of [people]: the righteous who believe they are sinners, the sinners who believe they are righteous."


Lectionary texts

Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

with

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

O God, you have searched me
   and known me.
You know when I sit down
   and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts
   from far away.

You search out my path
   and my lying down,
and are acquainted
   with all my ways.

Even before a word
   is on my tongue,
O God, you know it
   completely.

You hem me in,
   behind and before,
and lay your hand
   upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful
   for me;
it is so high
   that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go
   from your spirit?
Or where can I flee
   from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven,
   you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol,
   you are there.

If I take the wings
   of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits
   of the sea,

even there your hand
   shall lead me,
and your right hand
   shall hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the shadows
   shall cover me,
and the light around me
   become night,"

even the night is not without light
   to you;
the night is as bright
   as the day,
for night is as light
   to you.

Search me, O God,
   and know my heart;
test me and know
   my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way
   in me,
and lead me in the way
   everlasting.

or

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

For neither is there any god besides you,
   whose care is for all people,
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
   and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.

For you show your strength when people doubt
   the completeness of your power,
and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.

Although you are sovereign in strength,
   you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us;
   for you have power to act whenever you choose.

Through such works you have taught your people
   that the righteous must be kind,
and you have filled your children with good hope,
   because you give repentance for sins.

or

Isaiah 44:6-8

Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

with

Psalm 86:11-17

Teach me your way, O God,
   that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart
   to revere your name.

I give thanks to you,
   O God my God,
with all my heart,
   and I will glorify your name
forever.

For great is your steadfast love
   toward me;
you have delivered my soul
   from the depths of Sheol.

O God, the insolent rise up
   against me;
a band of ruffians
   seeks my life,
and they do not set you
   before them.

But you, O God,
   are merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
   and abounding
in steadfast love
   and faithfulness.

Turn to me and be gracious
   to me;
give your strength
   to your servant;
save the child
   of your servant.

Show me a sign
   of your favor,
so that those who hate me
   may see it
and be put to shame,
   because you, O God,
have helped me
   and comforted me.

Romans 8:12-25

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: "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; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!