Season after Pentecost (Proper 11 [16]): The Gospel Passage – Good wheat, and bad weeds

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.” (Matthew 13:24-26)

This is a little bit “edgier” a parable. False doctrines have somehow gotten intermingled with the good news, and now there is mixed in the good crop weeds that are not good for anything.

“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?’ “ (Verses 27 – 28)

I have sometimes seen/heard/read evidence of the thinking that I feel is not quite right; not out and out wrong, but off somehow and results in unfortunate outcomes. Perhaps you have too, beloved reader. I have at times tried to correct it but with little or no success. Other times I have remained silent; either because I did not feel it was my task to apply a corrective. Or because I felt it would cause more harm than good. Or, I did not feel I should pass judgment at all.

“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.'” (Verses 29 – 30)

The reason I find this to be an “edgy” parable is because it implies that authentic Christian thinking and actions are carried out along side the cockeyed and imperfect. It also implies that maybe we should not try to judge between the pure and good, and the imperfect and inaccurate. How’s that for a chilling prospect? Maybe no one except the Divine should try to discern between the “good wheat” and the “weeds”. Furthermore, what turns out to be “weeds” is destined for destruction. It could be the very judgmental attitude that some have which may turn out to be “weeds”. And THAT makes me nervous!

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!” (Verses 36 – 43)

The Jesus in this parable in Matthew is very edgy. But I suppose you already knew that beloved reader. It makes even me pause and think. I know I not infallible in my scriptural, faith, and spiritual knowledge; I know I make mistakes and errors. I try to discern rightly, and not proclaim absolutely. I only write what I am as certain as I can be. Perhaps this sort of teaching from Jesus is why Paul has such strict requirements for preachers and teachers. And yet . . . . Paul was very bold and outspoken in his preaching and teaching. I am not judging Paul according to the merits of this parable. I simply mean that it is okay to speak and teach boldly in the Lord. Just make sure you are standing in the midst of “good wheat” beloved reader! Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 9 [14]) : The Epistle Passage – Paul leads us through an obstacle course of theology

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

What Paul, the writer of Romans, wants to do is follow God’s will. What he says he ends up doing is the opposite of God’s will and that is human willfulness. Now to be clear, we have free will and can do whatever we please – as long as it is within human capability. And it is clear enough that humans can do God’s will; it is a choice, just as following human will is a choice.

“Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” (Verse 16)

If you feel a little confused, beloved reader, do not feel bad. I am a little confused too. I am familiar with the “not doing what I should; and doing what I should not” discussion, but this seems a little bit different. So I am going to carefully work my way through the verses until it becomes clear in my mind. I owe any clarity to Albert Barnes’ careful work on this passage.

When I referenced various translations, it seem that Paul is saying rules and laws are a good thing because they function to keep him in line. And God’s rules and laws tell Paul exactly what he should not do, and teach him what he should do.

“But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Verse 17)

Paul states that he considers himself saved and redeemed, but within his human nature, and every human nature, is the impulse to sin.

“For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Verse 18)

It is here that Paul puts forth his theory that humankind is sinful, and it is only because of the intervention and teaching of Christ that he (or anyone else) does good.

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Verse 19)

Now here is the clearer statement that I am more familiar with. It would seem that the verses that came before are a build up (in my perspective) to the clearer statement that is in my memory.

“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” (Verses 20 – 21)

Here again, Paul sets forth the idea that the law (that is, strict rules and regulations) are more apt to tell us what we did wrong, and entice the imagination to do wrong!

“For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Verses 22 – 23)

It is unfortunate that in our English language the word “law” does not have the nuances Paul gives the word in Greek. Or maybe Paul is inserting his own nuanced meanings when he uses it in different contexts. “Law of God”, “law at war”, “law of my [Paul’s] mind”, and “law of sin”; for Paul these seems to have different shadings and meanings. Yes, actually, we know what he means. Paul loves the guidance and instruction of the Divine, but his baser impulses gravitate to human weakness and tendency toward sin which means the strict laws of forbidding certain actions are more apt to rule his thinking than God’s grace and mercy.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Verses 24 – 25a)

Paul does seem to have placed himself in a muddle, and we as readers battle to find understanding, and then battle to find our way through it. But you know, beloved reader, there is an easier way. Just follow the example of Christ, and take your guidance from the Lord God. And depend on the mercy and grace that is ours. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 8 [13]) : The Old Testament Passages – In faith I say, “The Lord will Provide”

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:1)

Trust me, beloved reader, when the Lord calls your name, you may as well answer. But do not doubt that answering the Lord will lead to things you never imagined!

“He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”(Verses 2 – 5)

Now we know this story well enough to know what happened in the short term and in the long term. So let us glean other aspects of this story as Abraham and Isaac make their way to the mountain where they do not know what will happen.

Abraham did not want the young men that he brought with him to know what the Lord expected him to do. He had not even told Isaac, which I totally understand. But just what did Abraham think would happen when he came back WITHOUT his son?! What sort of story would he tell the two young men who must have known how much his son meant to him. And what did Abraham think he was going to tell his wife Sarah about what happened to he beloved son that she did not believe would come, and for whom she sent away Hagar and her son? So often we rush to the end of this story, or knowing how it would end, we are loathe to consider what the consequences could have been! And what of Abraham himself, who must have seen how his legacy would soon be at an end!

“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.” (Verse 6)

Abraham must have been fairly old to not be able to carry the wood that was to be used; and Isaac must have been more than just a young tot to carry the wood. And if Abraham was that old, he must have thought that he would never have another child. And if Isaac was hold enough to carry wood, how did Abraham think he would manage if Isaac resisted?

“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Verse 7)

Notice how Isaac calls to his father, and his father answers him – as the Lord called Abraham and he answered in complete faith and trust.

“Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Verses 8 – 10)

So here we are, at the moment. I have read other versions and paraphrases that strongly indicate that Isaac put his complete trust in his father, as much as Abraham put his trust in the Lord. Have we ever held back, beloved reader, because did not put our complete trust in the Lord God? When the Lord God calls us, have we ever held back because we suspected we would be called on to do things we would rather not? It reminds me of when the Lord God called for Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, and they hid because they knew that had done counter to the Lord’s wishes.

“But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Verse 11)

And here, beloved reader, is the payoff for answering the Lord God swiftly and completely.

“He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Verses 12 – 14)

“The Lord will provide.” If it is not a reminder to you, beloved reader, it is certainly a reminder to me. I am still in the midst of a job search, as I write this, and wondering mightily what and how the Lord will provide. Just as Abraham had to trust, so must I. I have not been asked to place anything on an altar to sacrifice . . . . except my hope for the future. Not like sacrificing a child, but still, I am hopeful that something will come soon that will answer my needs.

Until then I journey on, knowing the Lord is with me. May it be so for you too beloved reader. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 7 [12]) : The Psalm Passages – A “Shout Out” to the Lord God

If the Old Testament passages take up the plight of those used and downtrodden, subject to censure and disdain, do not be surprised that the Psalm passages are where they ask for help because of their situation. First is the Psalm passage for Hagar’s plight.

Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God;
be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.” (Psalm 86:1-3)

Now Hagar might not have seen herself under the Lord’s protection. She may have thought believe in an all-seeing monotheistic God was Abraham’s thing and not hers. The Genesis passage does NOT say she lifted up her voice to God but that she lifted up her voice and wept.

Although – thinking about it – she was alone, and she and her son were not seen again in the Old Testament . . . how does the writer of Genesis know what became of them? However, if all these things were done under the eye of God, and the writing of them was inspired by the Divine, then we can and must believe that somehow it was known. And that same belief, beloved reader, can allow us to give to Hagar this plea to the Lord.

“Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” (Verses 4 – 5)

It also occurs to me that this Psalm would work just as well for Abraham and Sarah, at whose hands Hagar and her once-welcomed now disposed of son suffered so much. None of us, beloved reader, live our lives so perfectly that are not in need of the forgiveness of the Lord. That was the alluded to point of what I wrote yesterday. For now though, we are undertaking of Hagar’s cause.

“Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.” Verses 6 – 7)

The Psalms are oft times used for praising the Lord God and giving thanks for what the Divine has done. But there is also a strong tradition of the Psalms being used for supplication and petition. And for many such as Hagar who only have the Lord to appeal to for help and deliverance.

“There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.” (Verses 8 – 10)

Maybe Hagar did left up her voice to the Lord God her master, Abraham served. Maybe she did from him faith in the Divine. It is a lesson to us, beloved reader, in our times of despair to turn to the One who will never abandon us, no matter what our present circumstances or the outcome for our human lives.

“Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.” (Verses 16 – 17)

It is at the end of this passage that the desire is spoken that those who oppress might be made to change their ways. And this desire brings us to the plight and situation of the writer of Jeremiah. As you may remember, Jeremiah was bemoaning his situation in the Old Testament passage of this week.

It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.” (Psalm 69: 7-12)

Now, if we are to go along with accepted interpretation, many of the psalms were authored by King David. And he too suffered for living his life according to the word of God. Also true was that he suffered when he deviated from the word of God. His coming back to God was also fraught with difficulty.

“But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress–make haste to answer me.
Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.” (Verses 13 – 18)

It seems to me that both men and women who follow God’s call and set out to live their lives according to God’s leading are subject to problems and difficulties. It seems obvious that when one is living according to the Word of the Lord that one would call upon that same Lord when difficulties and problems arise. May it be true in our lives, that where God leads, we go; and what God calls us to, we do. And so that in times of trouble we call upon that same God, and God will deliver us. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 7 [12]) : The Old Testament Passages – When hope grows dim

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” (Genesis 21:8-11)

In our modern society a child might be weaned by 1 year old, but it is quite possible that young Isaac was two or three years old. Old enough that he had survived infancy and all the illness and injury that comes with those fragile delicate years. He was eating solid food and was thriving. It indeed was a celebration that he had firmly taken his place in the land of living.

But being alive and healthy, as was Hagar’s son, might that he would most probably grow to adulthood and be the inheritor of all that God promised. And Sarah, being a possessive mother, did want that shared with the usurper son of Hagar.

I have to say, I dismayed that there was not a camaraderie between the two women. As we know from other biblical characters, a man having more than one wife was not unusual. Often biblical studies among women studies and considers the life of Hagar as much a worthy topic as the life of Sarah and other wives to men of God. I think that is very good.

“But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.” (Verses 12 – 14)

One of the things I hope studies of Hagar show is that everyone is a part of God’s plan and under God’s blessing. Especially those who do not think they are.

“When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (Verses 15 – 18)

I have read that Hagar did her son a mercy, sheltering him under a brush, away from the heat of the son. We can assume she hoped she would die first, so she would not have to see his agony. But also hoped, I am sure, that under the brush he would not see her perish. And that might have been the end of the story. But the God of the Old Testament was not done, had not closed the chapter on Hagar and her son.

“Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” (Verses 19 – 21)

When I sat down to consider the two Old Testament passages this week, I could not decide which one to use. And as I looked at them both, I realized there are many similar themes in these two passages. Maybe the constructors of the Revised Common Lectionary thought the same thing.

O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” (Jeremiah 20:7-8)

Just as Hagar cried out in her distress, the writer of the book of Jeremiah cries out in distress also. Both are called to a difficult life, and struggle in what seems to be their fate.

“If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” (Verses 9 – 10)

I am sure Hagar felt used and abused, forced into motherhood not because of a relationship that promised support and respect but used to fulfill the hopes and dreams of an old man. And then when she had done what was required of her, she was set aside and driven off in favor of another. And as I compare these two passages, Hagar’s pleas and Jeremiah’s pleas came together in my mind. Jeremiah was called to prophesy, and as he laments, prophesies that was not well received. While he follows his calling from the Lord, he is punished by those around him. But if he determines not to speak, he is tormented inside. Where can he turn? Where could Hagar turn?

“But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.” (Verses 11)

It would be simple, and simplistic, of me to say, “See, call upon the Lord and your problems will be gone!” It is not that simple, and I do an injustice to both Hagar and Jeremiah if I gloss over and erase their distress. When one cries out to the Lord, one does not know what the answer will be or even if there will be a favorable answer.

“O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (Verses 12 – 13)

It is only . . . only on the other side of our troubles that we can see and say where I deliverance was. And it is only those who are delivered that are able to speak of it. Tragedy and disaster happen every day, and the victims of it multiply over the generations. I give you not false promise and insubstantial hope. I tell you (or rather the RCL) tells you these stories so that you know you are not the only one that has been set against. We who have lost hope in the desert, and feel torn between two opposing sides, have our own stories to tell. And tell them we will. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 6 [11]) : The Psalms Passage – Psalm 100 Embedded in Nature

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.”

Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.”

Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.”

For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100)

Season after Pentecost (Proper 6 [11]) : Epistle Passage – The Beginning of Faith

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)

Boasting – it is not something that you would expect a believer in God to do. We are exhorted to be humble, not bragging about our accomplishments according to worldly measures but claiming only that which we need for belief. But we stake a claim in having salvation from God based on Jesus Christ’s actions for us and our belief in that. So yes, we can confidently state that God is our side because we have stated we are on God’s side. But the writer of Romans does not stop there.

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Verses 3 – 5)

It is not that the writer of Romans (okay, Paul) is wrong, nor that he does not have correct the progression of suffering to hope. But who amongst us can claim the type of suffering that Paul went through. For that matter, it is a select group who can claim suffering because of their faith in the Lord. Not suffering because of worldly events, but suffering because we hold firm against oppression and persecution as a result of our faith.

But should we wish suffering upon ourselves? Should we invite suffering to prove the depth of our convictions? Should we twist the events that life brings up and mold them into suffering so we can claim allegiance with those who have suffered for their faith? And just how much “general” suffering do we have to go through before it is enough to gain us admittance to the group of those who have suffered while professing faith in God. Because this blog reaches nations other than the US I cannot know for sure that there are readers who have not suffered for their faith. If so, they are among the select group I mentioned above. And I honor them.

But just as I think we have not part or claim to what Paul is talking about, I read the next verses.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Verses 6 – 8)

And suddenly we are part of the group that Paul is talking about! Yet it does not really make us feel much better, does it? Be grouped together with “sinners” who have so completely drenched themselves in sin that it is only because of Jesus Christ’s grace, benevolence, and mercy that we have any hope of forgiveness.

Paul’s writings can be bitter pills to swallow. Fortunately we do have the grace of God to help us accept forthright writings from Paul. And Paul is not the only person who speaks about following the Lord God and Jesus Christ. Where Paul invokes stern faith and expectations, others give compassion and unconditional acceptance. And finally, beloved reader, let me reiterate where Paul started out, that it is the unconditional love and acceptance of the Divine that anchors our hope. Selah!