Sunday, July 31, 2011

Homily: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [July 31, 2011] All Saints, Pasadena

When I opened Saints Alive! last month and saw that four senior preachers, George Regas, Leonard Beerman, Scott Richardson and I, were being billed here at All Saints as “The Boys of Summer”, I actually laughed out loud. I’ll bet that only a few of you here this morning remember Don Henley’s 1984 song by that title, and perhaps only Scott, I, and George Regas are old enough to remember where Henley got that phrase: from Roger Kahn’s 1972 baseball memoir, The Boys of Summer, about growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Calling us “the boys of summer” is certainly flattering, but not exactly accurate.

A week ago, my wife Kathy and I returned from a weeklong backpacking trip in the John Muir Wilderness of the Eastern Sierras. Seven nights without news was a real withdrawal for me, and as I got closer to the end of the trail out I actually hallucinated that the first headline I might see could feature the outlines the Debt Ceiling deal arranged by President Obama and Speaker Boehner. You can imagine how surprised I was to see this mid summer government reality show still to be ongoing. Unlike the Real Housewives of New York or Orange County or Jersey Shore, though, this spectacle is entertaining without being amusing. It’s not even unintentionally amusing. It’s actually kind of scary.

I don’t want to get All Saints in any more trouble with the IRS, so I will refrain from sharing my thoughts about the various personalities playing out this strange governmental mixture of Project Runway and The Gong Show. But I will use it as a shameless, preacherly segue into what’s going on in our reading from Genesis this morning. For weeks, we all have been living with both dread and expectation—dread that something terrible will happen if there is no deal, expectation that our two political parties might actually be able to work together to solve a problem. This expectant, dreadful, tension that we’ve lived with for weeks is very much like the trauma that our hero Jacob has lived under his whole life.

If you remember the Jacob story, he is the second son of Isaac and Rebecca. He has an older brother, Esau, with whom he struggled in the womb. In his ongoing tussle with his older brother, Jacob manages over time to trick Esau both out of his birthright and his blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob is a kind of a wily trickster, and as the second son he manages, through his maneuverings, always to come out on top. But when he and Esau separate, they do so with enmity. Jacob goes his way and Esau his. But Jacob lives his subsequent years always looking over his shoulder, constantly worried about what will happen when the two brothers meet again. He knows he has defrauded Esau, and he has reason to believe that Esau will exact revenge.

In today’s portion of the Jacob story, we hear about Jacob wrestling with God. We only really understand this text when we hear it in the context of Jacob’s anxiety. Jacob wrestles with God on the night before he expects to meet up with his long estranged brother Esau. He knows that tomorrow he will see again, for the first time in years, the brother he has cheated of both birthright and blessing. He has been living for at least a decade under the constant tension of the knowledge that he has bettered himself at someone else’s expense. And he has projected all his fear and guilt onto the coming meeting with someone who has a real reason to wish him ill. It’s in all this dramatic and emotional mix that Jacob spends the night wrestling with God.

In the course of this encounter, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel—the one who struggles with God and prevails. By making that change, God appears to hold Jacob up as an example of what it means to be a person in relationship with God. One of the reasons for the Hebrew Bible’s persistent spiritual relevance for us is that it is brutally honest about what it means to know and follow God. You and I live in a culture that is sentimental about everything, that pictures God as a big, gooey, greeting card illustration, a collage of roses, clouds, puppies, and fudge. As a priest colleague of mine at Christ Church Cranbrook says, in the church we routinely mistake warmth for depth. When we talk about prayer in our culture, we say things like, “Jesus is my best friend.” I went to a retreat once where the leader said, “Imagine walking on the beach with Jesus.”

It’s not exactly wrong to think about Jesus or God as your best friend. It’s incomplete. God may be my best friend, but, as the Jews knew, God is also my adversary. Jacob wrestles with God, and that wrestling gets at the inherent inequality in the terms on which we encounter each other. God has resources that I don’t have. I’m finite and limited. God is, well, God! In today’s story, God strikes Jacob in the hip socket, putting his leg entirely out of joint. In other words, God hits Jacob below the belt. God does not play fair.

The reason it’s important to see God not only as your friend but also as your adversary is that it helps to acknowledge that God sometimes has different priorities than you do. God loves you and cares for you. But we experience the distance between our vision and God’s as pain. God sees the big picture; you and I see things more partially. I want what I want for myself, my friends, my family, my world. What I want and what God intends may not be the same thing. My wants and hopes sometimes come into conflict with God’s plans. Even though God has my best interests at heart, God’s processes may run me over in the short term. So in a real sense, I experience God as someone who is sometimes working against me. When God and I come into conflict, it’s important that I be willing to go to the mat with God.

And that’s where Jacob’s willingness to wrestle with God shows up our polite, sentimental, greeting cards ideas about prayer. I’m not always walking on the beach with Jesus—sometimes I’m playing a game where God holds all the cards, where the deck appears to be stacked, where the odds are clearly in favor of the house. Sentimental piety would say that we should just give up and reconcile ourselves to the way things are—“not my will but thy will”, and so forth. Job’s three pious friends tell him there’s something wrong with his faith. When people pray for things and don’t get them, I’ve heard their pious friends tell them that their faith simply isn’t deep enough. The Bible knows these pious responses to be bogus. Even though the cards are marked, the deck is stacked, the dice are loaded, Jacob still goes into the encounter, ready to play. He wrestles with God. And even though God wounds him illegally, Jacob still will not let him go until he gets the blessing. He not only gets that blessing; he gets a new name and a new identity. He is now the one who has wrestled with God and prevailed. He has seen God face to face, and he’s still walking around to talk about it, albeit with a limp.

I have long felt that Jacob is the Bible’s most accessible and exemplary hero for all of us who live our lives in what W.H. Auden called “the Age of Anxiety”. Just as you and I still don’t know how the Debt Ceiling Standoff will end, Jacob lived his life constantly under the anxious pressure of the contingent and unresolved. Will he get the blessing or not? Will his estranged brother kill him or not? Jacob’s life was not unlike life in contemporary America. He’s like a person on the Los Angeles freeway at rush hour, always wondering whether he will get there in time. His life is one big projected Carmageddon.

As George Regas would say, “I know that man!” And here are two things I now know that I take away from the story and example of Jacob, things that I believe will help us all live joyous, free, abundant lives even under and in the midst of real tension and anxiety.

Thing one: Jacob’s willingness to go to the mat with God gives hope to you and me when we are similarly up against it. Prayer is a dialogical relationship, not a one-way Maoist re-education program. There’s a reason that over half of the Psalms are what we call Laments, complaints to God about the way things are. Real prayer starts where we are, not where we think we ought to be. What God wants from you is not dressed up, falsely cheerful obedience. What God wants from you is the full reality of who you are. And, if you’re like me, who you are is probably most of the time someone with a grievance or a grudge or a loss or a complaint. Thing one tells us this: come to God as you are, where you are, with what you actually have. Do not be afraid to address God from the depths of your anger, outrage, and pain. Be ready to receive some divine blowback. In the tussling you may get wounded in the hip, but like Jacob you will limp away into the sunrise with the blessing and the promise.

That’s thing one. Here’s thing two. Jacob does, in fact, limp away, and it’s into the sunrise. After his encounter with God, Jacob faces a new day. It’s the dawn of the feared meeting with his estranged brother. In his night with God, Jacob has engaged all his own fears and guilts and hopes and longings. God has brought Jacob to some kind of account, and even though Jacob is wounded, he is now newly ready to go forward.

Jacob arises and goes to meet Esau. He makes provision for the safety of his family. And then the brothers meet, and the meeting is, of course, nothing like what Jacob had expected or feared. In the words of Genesis [33.4}, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Thing two tells us this: the things we fear are usually the projections of our own inner life, grotesque fantasies not grounded in reality. Jacob had built up an image of his brother’s anger that was nothing more than his own internalized guilt projected outward. When he finally came face to face with the reality of who his brother Esau was, what he found instead of revenge was reconciliation, instead of blows a kiss, instead of anger, tears. And together they could live into a new way of being with each other, forging a new community (again in the words of Auden) based on trust instead of threats. Remember: Carmageddon work out as we all feared it might.

I don’t know what will happen with the debt ceiling drama, but I do know that it is possible for a divided nation to find a new way to live just as a broken family can. Jacob and Esau might be models for us as citizens. Ancient Israel saw itself in Jacob: a people constantly living under tension, engaged in complicated dealing with an inscrutable God, going forward to face adversaries who often turned out to be allies. And so it is for you and me: whatever burden you carry, whatever fear, whatever sorrow or guilt, whatever pain felt by someone else you care about: the way forward is neither to bury your feelings nor to demonize your adversary. The way forward is, as Jacob did, to get real, to face into your anxiety and dread and empathy, and to carry them straight to God as you are who you are where you are. Go forward into the sunrise, even if it means you do it in a newly wounded way. And then be ready for what God will give you as you greet that new day. As it was for Jacob, so it will be for you. “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [July 10, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrrok

When I worked at All Saints Pasadena in the 1990s I was fortunate to have shared some of my time there with a retired priest I admired very much, Larry Carter. Larry had been the longtime rector of St. John’s Church in downtown Los Angeles, and he was one of my heroes. His ministry at St. John’s had been an expansive peace and justice ministry. He was known to be a fearless advocate for minorities and the poor.

My image of Larry was of a fierce prophet. So imagine my surprise, once, in a Bible study when he said that the opening of today’s Gospel was his favorite passage in the New Testament: “Jesus got in a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” [Matthew 13.2] Something about that picture of Jesus teaching from a boat while people listened from the shore touched Larry deeply, and because it touched him it touched me. We 21st century people read the Bible sometimes so fervently in search of big, deep truths that we don’t pause to savor the simple details. Here is Jesus, teaching the crowds by sitting peacefully in a boat that rocks and sways to the gentle movement of the water. You can almost hear the wavelets plashing against the boat as it bobs. Apart from the content of anything Jesus might have to say in his parables, the image itself of him in the boat teaches us something about what it means to live a centered life, grounded and at home in God’s creation. Hold that thought.

Today’s Gospel is the familiar parable of the sower. Whenever I hear this parable I see two images in my mind’s eye: with Larry Carter’s help I see Jesus teaching from the boat; with the aid of my memory of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Sower, I see a man striding through the fields, casting seed in every direction. You and I live so much in the modern urban mental world that we have to exercise some imagination to get what sowing and seeds meant to pre-modern people. A seed, after all, is a tiny mysterious miracle. In this compact package lies a hidden something that can not only produce life itself but can do so abundantly. We put these things in the ground and, amazingly, plants and trees and shrubs come up as if by magic. It’s not surprising that Jesus would use the seed as a symbol of God’s creative, mysterious abundance. Something big lies within something small, and the way it works is entirely hidden from our view. According to Jesus, God is like that: miraculous, abundant, mysterious.

Today’s Gospel is very familiar: a sower goes out to sow, and he scatters the seed in every direction. Some seeds fall on the path, and the birds eat them up. Other seeds fall on rocky ground, and they sprout quickly but then die because they have no root. Still other seeds fall among thorns, which grow up and choke them. Only some of the remaining seeds fall on good soil and produce grain, thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was planted. If you have ears to hear, listen!

Right after the parable itself Matthew gives us an explanation of the parable. Many biblical scholars think that the explanation comes from someone other than Jesus, and I tend to agree with them. There is nothing wrong with the explanation, which likens the types of soil to types of recipients of Jesus’s preaching. It’s OK as far as it goes, but there are two things that make me doubt its authenticity: first, Jesus elsewhere refuses to explain his parables. Like the sower in the story, he throws out these weird stories and asks his hearers to grapple with them where and as they are. Why would Jesus suddenly offer us a first century Cliffs Notes? Second, the explanation of the parable is frankly so flat-footed that it closes off a myriad of other meanings. And if I’ve learned one thing after years of hearing the parables of Jesus, it’s that these stories open up and reveal themselves in multiple, almost infinite, ways.

So let’s listen to the story and pretend, for a moment, that we’ve never heard the explanation. A sower goes out to sow, and he scatters the seed in every direction. Some seeds fall on the path, and the birds eat them up. Other seeds fall on rocky ground, and they sprout quickly but then die because they have no root. Still other seeds fall among thorns, which grow up and choke them. Only some of the remaining seeds fall on good soil and produce grain, thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was planted. If you have ears to hear, listen!

I spent a good part of my adult life studying and teaching American literature, especially the Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They too were alive to the power of the seed as an image not only of fertility and abundance but of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Emerson and Thoreau lived and wrote during the nineteenth century, the age of the rise of science, specifically the time of Charles Darwin. They were alert to the complexity of the processes of natural selection at work in the dispersion of seeds. But they lived in an America that was still mostly rural and agricultural. So they saw seeds scientifically, but that awareness did not stop their seeing seeds in a more nuanced way, as part of the farming life of planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and so as metaphors for life and its processes. Emerson said that the seed was “God manifest in the mind,” “of which the Beauty of the world is the flower and Goodness the fruit” [quoted in Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, “Introduction”, p. 16]. Toward the end of his life, Thoreau became preoccupied with the way plants propagate themselves, and he increasingly saw seeds and their dispersal as a powerful metaphor of life, death, and rebirth. As one critic puts it, for Thoreau “Every plant can be born again in every seed. Every day is a day of creation and at the same time a day of rebirth” {Robert D. Richardson, “Introduction”, Faith in a Seed, p.16]. At the end of the “The Dispersion of Seeds”, Thoreau exclaimed, “The very earth itself is a granary and a seminary, so that to some minds its surface is regarded as the cuticle of one great living creature” [Faith in a Seed, p. 151]. The little miraculous package that makes this holistic vision of life possible is, of course, the seed.

You don’t have to have lived before Darwin to see the way seeds work as miraculous. Even a modern scientific observer can have faith in a seed. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he made the seed and its dispersal the subject of today’s parable. Our whole life is bound up in reliance on the tiny packages of mystery. When Jesus talks about seeds, he is relying on the near awe with which his hearers would have regarded them. They tell us a truth about God and God’s processes. If you have ears to hear, listen!

So my question for everyone here this morning goes like this: what, right now, might this story mean for you? What might it mean for you to think of God as someone who is scattering seeds all over the place? What might it mean for you to think of yourself in relation to these seeds? Are you the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, or the good soil? Or might you be all of them at once? What do these seeds represent? How might we let the truth on offer in this story germinate and sprout within us, bringing forth fruit 30, 60, 100 fold?

I won’t, like Matthew, try to give you an authoritative interpretation. But I will tell you how I hear the story this morning. Instead of thinking of the types of soil as types of people, I hear the story asking me to think of the types of soil as aspects of myself, perhaps as periods in my life. There are times when I seem open to what God is up to in the world and ready to respond to and participate with God in God’s creative, redemptive, healing work in the world around me. Those are the good soil times. Then there are times when I am more closed to God’s promptings and resist seeing myself and others as God sees us. Those are the path, the rock, the thorn times. The point of this story has less to do with characterizing different kinds of Christians than it does simply with seeing ourselves as always involved in the process of life, death, and rebirth. There are times when I am alive and open. There are times when I am closed and as good as dead. That cyclical, rhythmic process of life, death, and rebirth goes on all through the course of our lives. And if I’m hearing this story right, that means that the Christian experience is more like a cycle or a process or a journey than it is like having a once-for-all born again moment. Some days I’m good soil. Some days I’m thorny rocky ground. I know myself to be born again almost daily, and that’s because I can be thorny rocky ground almost daily, too. But over time we move with God in the right direction. Over time those seeds do take root, and we become the people God created us to be.

The good news this morning is that God is like the sower as Jesus describes him in today’s parable. God goes out to sow, and God scatters the seed—the miraculous package of mysterious life—God scatters the seed indiscriminately, with almost reckless abundance. God does not select certain types of people who are privileged to “get it”. God does not select certain moments in your life when you are going to “get it”. God knows that you and I will get it for a while, then not get it, then get it again. God does what God does: God sows the seed indiscriminately, abundantly, generously. God is always coming toward us, opening up the possibility for us that God’s love and hope and blessing will take root and blossom and bring forth fruit in our lives.

And that takes me back to the thought I asked you to hold earlier on. The thought was about the opening picture of Jesus, sitting in a boat, teaching his disciples in parables, the image my friend Larry Carter thought the most beautiful picture in the New Testament. Jesus was at home in that boat because he was at home in the world. He lived a centered life, grounded and at home in God’s creation. You can live that life, too. Summer is the time when we have the possibility of slowing down, going to a different rhythm, a time when we can, if only for scattered moments, rest and relax and open ourselves just enough to let some of those divine seeds come into us and do their transforming work in us.

As you go about your life this summer, I invite you to picture Jesus teaching his disciples from the boat. And then I invite you to picture God sowing those seeds in your direction. If Jesus could relax, so can you. Let God’s loving, embracing, accepting purpose wash over you as waves lap against a boat. In so doing, you’ll find yourself becoming open to God’s promise and call to you in ways you maybe hadn’t before. If God’s purpose can take root in rocky ground, it can take root in you. The abundance of God’s blessings will germinate, sprout, blossom, and bear fruit in your life and in the life of the world. Amen.