Season after Pentecost (Proper 13 [18]): The Gospel Passage – Being Perfectly Divine and, Not So Much

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” (Matthew 13:13)

In my reading lately I have been presented several times with the concept that Jesus was both Divine and human – subject to fears and longings, emotions and needs just like the rest of us. But even with living with these human things Jesus never sinned; or at least that is the writers’ contentions. I am not saying that Jesus did sin, but having fears and longings, emotions and needs are not what makes us sin. It is the choices we make and the interactions we have with others; that is where we sin, treating and interacting with others in a less than perfect way. The writers I have been reading tell their readers this so that their readers will not feel reticent in coming to Jesus with their human-ness hanging out for all to see. And I appreciate their efforts and intentions. But feeling our human-ness is not what causes us to sin.

Now, you may wonder where I am going with this. My point is this; Jesus had just heard that John had been put to death by Herod. And he was mourning the loss of his cousin and evangelist companion. Many times when we get word of a loss, our instinct is to withdraw and deal with our wounds and pain. Jesus was no different than any other human who has felt loss.

But he was different. And the people sensed that. That is why the crowds followed him. Of course they might have had their own agenda as well. That is part of being human, having an agenda. But the agenda of humanity and Jesus’ agenda can be quite different.

“When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (Verses 14 -16)

Food is a basic human need. The crowd who followed Jesus needed food as much as Jesus did. But Jesus knew more about supply and demand than the crowd . . . . and the disciples did.

“They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.“ (17 – 21)

Several things occur to me:
First, many times something (and/or someone) needs to be “broken” before it can be put to best use.
Second, when it doubt just sit down, rest, and wait on the Lord. I needed to be reminded that of myself lately. I had gotten myself all worked up about my job situation, or actually lack of it, and I needed to be reminded to just “sit down”, rest, and wait on the Lord. So I am waiting patiently on the Lord.
Third, the limitations we think are in place . . . . are not in place for the Divine. All sorts of amazing things can happen when we think they can’t or aren’t expecting them.
Fourth, there is great abundance in the Lord God. And most of the time it cannot be measured or counted.

Now, to where I started – sin. I am also being told in my readings that all of humanity is sinful and it can’t be helped; that is, we can’t help but sinning. Jesus did not, but we do. And that notion peeves me, until I revise my definition of sin. Like needing to be broken and made contrite. Doubting the Lord, and putting forth my agenda instead of waiting on the Lord’s agenda. Placing limits on my faith and trying to direct what the Lord’s action in the world should be according to me. Doubting the Lord’s grace, abundance and just general Divine Providence.

Now if we want to point fingers at conventional sinfulness, we need look no farther than Herod who put John to death. But the disciples not taking action and having faith in feeding the crowds can be seen as “sin” as well. Not a very popular perspective I am sure, and one that causes dis-ease in me as well. But perfection, Divine perfection, is so beyond us. So, actually, are miraculous feedings. And Jesus and the Lord God know this, and love us anyway! Praise be to God! And Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 13 [18]): The Old Testament Passage – Jacob on the road to a new life

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.” (Genesis 32: 22 -23)

Jacob was going home. He had wives and children, livestock and possessions. He had spent 14 years making Laban a wealthy man, but he also made himself wealthy as well. Or maybe it was the Lord who blessed both men. In any case, he was finally going home to the family he left behind. And that was the problem. When he left, he had angered his brother and fooled his father. And he had left his mother alone to deal with it all. His brother’s messengers said his brother wanted to see him. But they also said he has 400 men. And Jacob was scared for his livestock, his possessions, and his wives and children. Scared for himself too. He knew they were safe, so it was his own self that he thought was yet in danger.

Thinking about it, Jacob was pretty brave to face his brother, considering what he thought the reunion of the two would be like. Jacob feared for his life. And, he was alone.

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” (Verses 24 – 27)

One could say that Jacob was wrestling with himself – his demons, his past, and his actions of the past. Maybe he was wrestling with his conscience. But it was a physical wrestle, an opponent with skin and sinew; one that was almost a match for Jacob, and Jacob almost a match for this unnamed stranger. And why did Jacob think this stranger would, could, and should give him a blessing? Maybe Jacob realized that the blessing from his father was never really his to begin with. And the dream he had on his way to Laban was so far in the past, and being on the cusp of facing that past, he wanted some reassurance.

“Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Verse 28)

Striven with God – fulfilling his destiny? Or creating one with his own efforts? Striven with humans – overcoming the trick Laban has pulled? Or besting Laban at raising flocks? Or agreeing to finally confront what his need to his family of origin? In all these things he had prevailed. And because of this the legacy of creating a new people has been manifested in him.

“Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” (Verses 29 – 31)

I recently thought and considered what it would be like to come to faith again. Not anew, as if faith was deepened, but coming to faith as if faith in God had not been there before. That faith was fresh and untarnished. And the discovering of what living in faith would be like. That is the theme of this lectionary year; discovering faith and living in faith as a new being. That is what was given to Jacob, now Israel. A new beginning. A new way of living . . . . . with all the benefits and rewards that had been accumulated in the past life. What is a limp compared to all that?!?!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 12 [17]): The Psalm Passage – Wrestling with the Psalms, of all things!

Do you remember, beloved reader, from back on Tuesday when we talked about how Jacob had treated his brother Esau, and deceived his father? And he, Jacob, was deceived by his uncle, his mother’s brother? And the week before, we talked about Jacob and his dream of the ladder up to heaven, and God giving him the same promise as his grandfather Abraham was given? We also talked about how these men (and women), called children of God, were charged with the creation of a nation of people who would be God’s shining light for/to the rest of the world. Promises were given by God, in exchange for faithfulness. These people – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons – formed the foundation. The Old Testament is the history and story of this called and foundation. We know that the earlier called people of God did not follow the call as faithfully as they might. But then Christians, called by God, also have problems being faithful.

The psalmist tells us what the reward for faithfulness is.

“Happy is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways.
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion. May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.
May you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel!” (Psalm 128)

Now according to Old Testament/Israelite reasoning, this wonderful life is the reward of faithful living. And if this reward is not evident, it is because the living has not been faithful. At least that is a message that comes through from the history of Israel, Judah, and the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews. But we also know that we live in a fallen world where the dictates and direction of the Lord is not followed by many, and the tragedies in the world are the result not just of the recipient of the tragedy but because troubles are also inflicted upon the innocent.

So what should we say and believe? That if our lives are not as the psalmist writes, then we are at fault? Or that the misdeed and evil of others have deprived us of such blissful living? It is a conundrum that believers have wrestled with for generations. And probably one that will be wrestled with for generations more.

As the history of the Israelites continued, the idea of this “blissful living” moved from being an assured reality to a dream of the future. It became “shalom”, peaceful and harmonious living, and was a hope for the life to come. It is one aspect of the hope that Jesus offered to his disciples. And that Paul assures us will be ours in the world to come.

It is helpful to keep in mind this evolution of what the Israelites hoped would be their lives under the Lord. What they felt they were promised, but didn’t always get. It is also helpful to keep in mind when you think about what the Jews of Jesus’ time hoped that the Messiah would bring them. And, beloved reader, it is a dream that is helpful for us to keep in mind as we journey through our present lives. That this reality will not be the only reality that we are destined for. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 12 [17]): The Gospel Passage – The Kingdom of Heaven is . . . .

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31 – 32)

Most of the time when I have read this parable / metaphor I have focused on the largeness of what the mustard seed becomes. But this time I have taken with how small it starts out as, and what implications that has for the Kingdom of Heaven. Many times / many people envision the Kingdom of Heaven as some large well-established place. But in reality it might start our quite small – as small as one person believing in it.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Verse 33)

Again, the Kingdom of Heaven starts out small but has great influence over something larger that is changed, and its nature is changed. The Kingdom of Heaven, very likely beloved reader, is something that may be created in the hearts of each member of humanity who has placed itself under the influence of the Divine.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Verse 44)

Here is another perspective on the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not readily or easily seen. But once found, everything else in life becomes unnecessary. The necessary thing is to make the Kingdom of Heaven and the rewards it has one’s own.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Verses 45 – 46)

What would make a person give up all other things in one’s life just to possess this one item? We who have room after room of items and possessions may find it hard to imagine giving all of that up just for one item. And yet, that is the same sort of instructions Jesus had for following him. It is not surprising therefore that he uses a parable / metaphor that has the same sort of motif.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;
when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Verses 47 – 50)

But it is not just we believers who need to be discerning in what we prize and what we give up. The Kingdom of Heaven will also decide and discern who and what will be worthy of entry. And that is a definite change from the earlier parables. That many will chose and price the Kingdom of Heaven, but the Kingdom will also chose amongst those who inhabit this world. It is not just that we must decide in favor of the Kingdom of Heaven above and apart from all other things. We must also live our lives according the the guidance and direction that the Kingdom gives.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Verses 51 – 52)

If we understand these teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven, it incumbent on us to teach them to others, and to practice it in our own lives. We must search for the Kingdom of Heaven where it exists and who it exists with, We must give up those things that stand between us and the Kingdom of Heaven, clinging not to unimportant things but giving what we must in order to gain the Kingdom of Heaven. And once we have down that, live according to the guidance and direction of the One who called the Kingdom of Heaven into existence. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 12 [17]): The Epistles Passage – It can be a hard life, beloved reader

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Paul has just got done exhorting us to hope, just as I have commended to hope even though you cannot see what you have hoped for. Then both Paul and I say “likewise” the Spirit helps us. Yes, I think I am on the other side of a passage from Paul that I struggle with. But that does not mean it is easy coasting from here on out.

“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Verses 27 – 28)

I want to let you in on a little secret beloved reader (that you may already know); the Spirit and God are . . sorta One. What I mean is that God “knows what is the mind of the Spirit” because God is the Mind of the Spirit. At least that is true in Triune theology. Less easy to prove is that “all things work together for good for those who love God . . .” That’s not to say that it is not true; but when you are in the middle of “less than good” things, it is hard to know that it is all going to work out for “good.” Or maybe you can embrace the idea that whatever happens God will use it to work out good purpose.

Now, that would be a theological mouth-fill if it were not spoken by Paul. Paul who had been Saul, who had been imprisoned and tortured, who had to flee for his life, who had to endure much grief and distress and pain. The man knows suffering, and knows that thus far in his life the bad has worked out to positive outcomes.

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Verses 29 – 30)

In other words, if you feel picked on, used, and abused – you probably were. But for a reason. What you are going through will have an outcome that will bring about glory to God. Okay, you sort of have to want that to happen in order to withstand the tough times. But think about this; if you do have tough times, it may just be that the toughness will result in something awesome. That is not to say that God allows us to be whipped around, or that the Divine whips us around. What it is saying is that God is going to work things out in ways we could never image!

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Verse 31)

God is mightier than anything that comes up against us. We may not mightier or stronger than anything we might encounter. Situations and circumstances may be more than we can handle, and we may get ground into dust. But we will be God’s dust! And that, beloved reader, is better than being just plain dust!

“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Verses 32 – 35)

You see, that is Paul’s litmus test. Not that we will have an easy life, but whatever happens in our life will not necessarily prevent us from rejoicing glory and reward from the Lord God. If you look at life from Paul’s mindset, being ground into dust for the Lord God is a privilege! Yeah, I have one or two things I would like to say to Paul about that too. But he has a point. This world & the favors and ease that it offers is not something we should regard as important.

“As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Verses 36 – 39)

Hard times, rough conditions, stress and turmoil, suffering and death – they are all apart of this world. We either endure . . . . . well actually there is not much other choice. We endure until we can no longer endure. But once endurance is done, and our lives are over, there is something beyond that. It all comes back to hope. And the Spirit who is there for us, groaning in ways that we could never groan ourselves. And praying, in ways so deep that it goes beyond words. Whatever hardship comes our way, we are not alone. Maybe helpless, but not alone. And, beloved reader, that Presence may make all the difference! Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 12 [17]): The Old Testament Passage – Lessons to be learned and legacies to be established

We pick up the story of Jacob when he had reached the ancestral home of his grandfather and his mother. His uncle Laban, now married himself and and with daughters, has agreed to employ Jacob to tend his flocks. But wants Jacob to earn more than just his room and board. Jacob has an idea of how he would like to be paid though.

“Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.” (Genesis 29:15 – 17)

Now you will have to believe me that Leah and Rachel were not that much different, and maybe not that much far apart in age and looks. The reason why I believe this strongly will become apparent. Remember too that Jacob is his mother’s son, and Laban is her brother. Family resemblance and traits are important here, so remember what Jacob is like also.

“Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”(Verses 18 – 21)

So Jacob is an eager young bridegroom who has been waiting for the woman of his dreams. Seven years, enough time for a young girl to grow into a woman.

“So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)” (Verses 22 – 24)

Well . . . . what do you know? Uncle Laban is a bit of a trickster himself! And Jacob has been as smoothly outsmarted as Esau was back home!

“When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” (Verse 25)

Ah yes, beloved reader. Only in the light of morning does Jacob realize what he has longed for those seven years is not what he got. Perhaps it would help your incredulity to know that most probably Jacob had not seen much of Leah or Rachel – that is, they were wearing concealing clothing. Remember Leah had beautiful eyes, and Rachel was graceful and of lovely form. Jacob would not have spent much time alone with her, nor might have he known how exactly she changed over the seven years. Laban pulled off a smooth transfer to be sure.

“Laban said, “This is not done in our country–giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.” (Verses 26 – 28)

Jacob subbed himself in for Esau with his father getting the family blessing, as well as fooling Esau into giving away something very valuable for a meager return. Laban subbed in Leah for Rachel as well as fooling Jacob into working for him a total of fourteen years. Jacob went along with taking Leah as his wife, since he got Rachel. Seems to me that no one is exactly operating on the up and up. And what of Leah and Rachel? How might have they felt being traded around by their father, and ending up with the same husband? Seems to me, beloved reader, there are some legacies being established. Think too of grandpa Abraham who used Hagar to get a son, and yet was okay with tossing them out of the camp when Isaac was born. Abraham also did some other fancy maneuvering with the truth when it suited his purpose. I have a feeling, beloved reader, we are not done seeing the shenanigans in this family!

Yet, these are people of God. People who are charged with carrying out God’s establishing of a new nation, and a people called by God. One of the points of the Old Testament is that the people of God were far from perfect, and God called them to task on it. Yet the Lord God was faithful in establishing a nation from these people, these men and women who looked out from themselves almost more than they looked out for following the Lord’s guidance.

So do not despair, beloved reader, if you have fallen short in anyway. The Lord God is bound to use you for a Divine purpose – whether you cooperate or not! Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 11 [16]): The Psalm Passage – Far away, and close to home . . . the Lord is there

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.” (Psalm 139:1)

As you may have figure out, beloved reader, this Psalm passage is meant to match up with the other scripture readings this week, and by consequence, match the Old Testament passage concerning Jacob. But I think every person in the Old Testament who had been called by God could say that they have they have been searched and known.

“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 LORD, you know it completely.” (Verses 2 – 4)

And not just Old Testament figures, but New Testament and Epistle writers also. They were known and inspired by God and Jesus Christ. In fact Jesus himself was inspired by God – that is, the aspect that was Jesus was fueled by the aspect that is the Lord. Triune theology can get complicated and wordy at times.

“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.” (Verses 5 – 6)

We too, beloved reader, are known by the Divine. Known and thoroughly known. All that was, is, will be is known by the Divine. Just sit with that for a moment. While we do not know the future, or can only make guesses from our human knowledge and abilities, the Divine knows what the future holds for all of us. Good, bad, and in-between. Why, we ask, does the Lord God not prevent the bad? Why does the Lord God not make only the good things? It is because humanity does not exist in a vacuum. What one person does intersects with what another person does. If every single person on the planet lived every single second of their life in perfect harmony with the guidance of the Lord, it would all be “good.” But humanity has been given free will and choice. One poor or unwise choice collides with another, and before too long the shalom that the Divine wills has been upset. The only good thing that can be relied on is that we are not alone in the world.

“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 darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Verses 7 – 12)

Abraham traveled far from his home and family to establish a new way of life. The Lord was there. Isaac established a place for himself and his family. The Lord was there. Jacob returned to his grandfather’s ancestral home, and the Lord was there to work out the events that would establish Jacob. Joseph was taken to Egypt, and the Lord was there. The Hebrews were in Egypt for many generations, and the Lord was with them. Then Moses lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, and the Lord traveled with them to the land that would be theirs. The Lord God follows those that set out in the Divine’s name. And is there at each one of their destinations.

The psalmist speaks for all of us when he wrote these words. Let these words be your request also . . . .

“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.” (Verses 23 – 24)

Selah!