Sermon Seeds: Place of Blessing/Searched, Known, Named

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 11

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

Sermon Seeds

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

You’re welcome to share your thoughts and reflections for preaching this Sunday on our Facebook page.

Weekly Theme:
Place of Blessing/Searched, Known, Named

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

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 good 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.

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).

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” (the theme of the 2015 UCC General Synod, by the way), 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).

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). After all, 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 didn’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 with a sure 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). 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? Have we become too analytical, too distanced from our dreams to experience them as a deeper reality, perhaps even as a source of spiritual insight?

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 not only described in communal terms, but 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, even after we feel that our lives have been tranformed by grace?

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. He has sense enough to call this place what it is, “Beth-el,” the house of God, the gate of heaven, an awesome 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.”

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 the “initiative lies with God, our faithfulness…being a response occasioned by 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).

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).

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). One of my favorite images for the church is that of a “base camp,” where we are fed and rested for the journey outside its walls, but I must acknowledge that we are prone at times to see ourselves always at work, or to be constantly reminding ourselves dutifully of the need to work, and we miss the encounters with God that may happen at any time, anywhere, in so many places of blessing.

And so we experience God in more places than 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. 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.” Christians see, in this vision, that “Jesus himself is the ladder. He is the link between heaven and earth” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).

On the question of sacred space, we might have a long and fruitful conversation on our Sermon Seeds Facebook page, and you’re invited to share your reflections there. I’m intrigued by the July 11, 2011 devotional provided by a UCC congregation, the Cathedral of Hope: Dr. Gary G. Kindley, a pastoral counselor, provides 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. Dr. Kindley compares this to Jacob, who “had a profound experience that changed his perception of the place,” and he “consecrated the site, renaming it.” I read Dr. Kindley’s reflection, about a “changed perspective where the ordinary can become extraordinary,” so that “in unexpected and creative ways” we can consecrate work or living spaces, and set “aside holy space,” in light of these words from Gene Tucker: “One does not simply choose a place and make it holy, for example, by building a sanctuary or an altar. Its 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, as usual, 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….” I am reminded of her 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, in the most unexpected places of blessing. 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….It comes when all our conniving has blown up in our faces and our luck has run out.” This is “where the dream touches down, reminding us that we sleep at the gate of heaven, 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).

For further reflection:

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.”

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, 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.” 

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.

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.

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? 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). Doesn’t this kind of attitude set up an either/or, Us and Them situation, where some of us are “wheat” and others are “weeds”? 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”?

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 says, “Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to 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).

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, “It is easy for Christians to look through the church windows at the world and to think of ourselves as God’s special insiders, the ones who will ‘shine like the sun’ in the end. We can relish with smug self-satisfaction the thought of worldly types being rounded up at the great finale, collected like weeds and burned up in the everlasting fire. However, 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.

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 he 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.

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,