Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon for Pentecost 6


Proper 12, Pentecost 6, July 24, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Reverend Lois Keen

I love this story about Jacob and Laban. Jacob, the sneak, Jacob, the manipulator, the trickster, is out-tricked by Laban!

All through this part of Genesis Jacob and Laban trade trick for trick. And Jacob the Trickster is the one to whom the people of Israel, the Jews, look back on as the father of them all.

In fact, most of the heroes of scripture are at the same time deeply flawed. Yet God loves them and upholds them and works salvation through them.

It says something about a people, in this case the Jews, that they don’t try to clean up their heroes but let the warts show for all the world to see, to the glory of God.

Yes, you heard me. Our flaws, your flaws, give glory to God. The flaws of Jacob and Rahab and Tamar and David and Bathsheba and Solomon and Jonah and the prophets, all their flaws glorify God. For it is God’s love for them, warts and all, that proves to us that God alone saves, God alone reigns, God alone decides the value of a person. And if God wants to value a harlot or a trickster or an adulterer or a cranky, rebellious, disobedient prophet, then God will do so.

And God does do it! Over and over again. It is from within this flawed, sinful, life that God chooses to send the Messiah, the redeemer, the savior of the world.

Look at the parable of the dragnet, at the end of today’s Gospel. There is a tradition reading of this parable, the plain reading, that says that good and bad people will live together until the end of time when they will be sorted out and the bad people will be burned up in eternal fire.

There is a less traditional, but in some places popular reading, that says the good and bad in us will live side by side until we are judged, at which time the dross, the bad, will be burned out of us, we will be refined, and only the good God sees in us will endure.

I see in this parable that the dragnet is the lives of each of us, as well as the life of all of us together, and in that dragnet God takes us, individually and together, as we are, and uses whatever we are to advance the ultimate reign of God. For God alone judges truly. God alone knows the human heart, and the life that has gone into shaping the human soul.

See how much God loves and values each soul. Even the smallest, cramped, shriveled soul can, like a tiny seed of mustard, contribute to the reign of God, and only God knows how. We are left to take it on faith.

Together, even the smallest of souls can, in God’s economy, if God chooses, leaven enough flour to make a loaf of bread the size of this planet.

The tradition reading of the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price is that we are to see the reign of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, as so great a treasure that we will give our all to obtain it, to be part of it. We are to pray and work for the kingdom, give ourselves away in order to possess it. God’s kingdom is to be prized beyond anything we can possess or imagine. This is one true reading.

The much less traditional reading, which is mine, is that God loves and values us and all creation so much that God has given up and sold everything to possess us just as we are. All of us.

We are so valuable, that, if necessary, God would steal us and hide us until God could purchase us. We are so valuable that God searches all creation until each of us is found and bought. And the price was God’s most precious possession: The only begotten Child of God, the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, born of a human woman, into a human family, in a specific place and time, to be given away for the sake of us all, and raised from death as the seal on the covenant, the promise that not only this one life, but all life is too precious to be lost in the end.

It is tempting to think that the merchant, searching for fine pearls, is God seeking only those souls fine enough and good enough to buy. That puts us back in the place of judge. We are not qualified to make that judgment. And we will continue to make those judgments because we are not God, we are human, with all sorts of good and not so good and even bad things mixed up in us, even the best of us, until God sorts it all out.

This is why, in our Prayer Book, in the rite of reconciliation of a penitent, sometimes called confession, the priest always acknowledges to the penitent one her own sinfulness and asks the penitent to pray for her.

There are, of course, huge holes in my reading an din my reasoning. I know it. None of this explains away the evil in the world, and the evil that humans do to one another and to all that God created.

I preach this morning against the backdrop of my own continual evolution of trying to know God, to understand God’s absence, God’s apparent failure to fix things that are wrong; against the backdrop of people I know losing their jobs and still jobless. Against the backdrop of six senior staff people being laid off at Diocesan House in Hartford, people I know and for whom I grieve and fear. I speak today against the backdrop of my own anxiety for Grace and Betania churches and the people I serve, and for myself. I preach profoundly from the depths of grief for the terrible murders in Norway, the land of my grandfather. I preach having fallen asleep Wednesday night saying to God, “Who are you, really, God? What are you? What are you really about?”

There is no explanation, in God’s love, for a whole lot of things. Occasionally you hear of the survivor of some horrible crime forgiving, truly forgiving, the perpetrator. That is rare. The normal response is anger, hatred, desire for revenge, even depression. These responses can come up even in picky things, like being cut off by a driver on the highway. In those times, it is almost impossible to imagine that the person who has wronged us is equal to us in God’s eyes.

I could not in safety speak these things, these contradictions, out loud without the assurance of the story of Jacob the Trickster, the assurance of Jesus’s parable of the pearl of great price, and of the verses from today’s reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Paul writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” while I pray – dear God, strike my enemy dead – “…but that very Spirit” Paul says, “intercedes with signs too deep for words…” – dear God, says the Spirit, your servant is in trouble. Help. – “And God, who searches the heart…” – Lois is really angry! – “…knows what is the mind of the Spirit…” – She needs my love, and some perspective – “…because the Spirit intercedes for [all people] according to the will of God” and God’s will is only, always, love.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, not 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.”

And that goes for everyone who is, and ever was, and ever will be, in the name of Jesus Christ.

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