The Adventurous Lectionary – The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 23, 2017
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Today’s readings proclaim that he world is chock full of divinity. You can encounter the holy in the most unlikely places. Thin places, joining heaven and earth, abound for those for whom the doors of perception have opened. Life is messy, but it can be spiritually full in all its complexity when we open our senses to divinity within and beyond us. God is in all things, and all things are in God! God can come to us in a dream, in the depths of our experiences, even negative ones, and in the ambiguous mixing of good and evil, and positive and negative.
I feel a bit like Jacob every summer morning when I walk the Craigville Beach on Cape Cod. Along my path, one of the summer resident’s car sports a bumper sticker that shouts, “Keep awesome alive.” I don’t know his or her intent, but my inner response is “Amen. Let me stay awake to the beauty of my home of sea and sky, pond and marsh.”
“Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place.” So proclaims the surprising mystic Jacob the Trickster. Jacob finds himself in a thin place where heaven and earth are joined and angels ascend and descend on a ladder to the heavens. It is interesting to note that the angels “ascend” to heaven. Earth is filled with divinity. Earth has its own angels. God is not far off or trapped in a far off heaven. Divinity is on earth as it is in heaven. You don’t need to go to heaven to find God; heaven is in this place!
Jacob is morally unqualified for such a mystic encounter. Yet, God presents inspiration to all, regardless of preparation. The whole earth is filled with God’s glory, as Isaiah discovers, and even a dishonest businessman or bloviating politician can be surprised by divinity! God’s glory can even come to us.
Psalm 139 is one of the most majestic pieces of spiritual literature. The Psalmist discovers God everywhere. No place is without God’s presence. Even when we run away from God, we run into God’s hands. In the heights, God is there; in the depths, God is also present. God knows each of us fully, but God’s knowledge of us is liberating, not judging. Even when we run away from God or fall into deep depression, God’s light still surrounds us and we are in God’s care. Psalm 139 is a hymn to divine omnipresence, and the only condition of divine omnipresence is the recognition that God is everywhere and in all things.
Jacob’s encounter with holiness comes by pure grace. Did the Psalmist need to cultivate the experience of divine presence through spiritual practices? There are times grace simply happens. But, Damascus Road experiences also emerge – and are grounded for the long haul – through opening to God by prayer, meditation, hospitality, service, worship, and study. The Psalmist’s self-awareness – the Psalmist’s awareness that God searches and knows him – may be the catalyst for his own mindful awareness of God moving in his cells and his soul.
There is a clear affirmation of creation theology and nature mysticism within the words of Romans 8. This is surely God’s world – and all things declare divinity – but only those with eyes to see and ears to hear can discern the holiness embedded in the non-human world. Yes, we can find God in nature, at the seashore and on starry nights, and this is good. But, a life of prayer makes such moments of holiness the norm rather than exceptional in our lives. (For more on creation spirituality, see Bruce Epperly, “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Transformation,” River Lane Press; “Process Theology: A Guide for a Perplexed,” T&T Clark; “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” Energion)
Romans 8 presents the vision of an unfinished world. The non-human world has been marred by human greed and faithlessness. Our “sin” has rendered the world a garbage dump, as Pope Francis avers. There is hope and longing for healing, but this healing must come through us – through our spiritual transformation embodied in acts of kindness toward the non-human world – as well as divine activity.
Still, as Jesus’ parable notes, growth is ambiguous, whether personal, communal, or global. The wheat and the tares are mixed: this is not just a matter of righteous and unrighteous persons – the latter being the “evil ones” – but our own personal righteousness and unrighteousness. Life is ambiguous and so are we. We are holy, but also wholly ambivalent and ambiguous at times. We are saints who also are sinners. Spiritual stature comes from recognizing the interdependence of life, and seeking to embrace the whole of our lives in light of God’s grace. If we destroy the tares, the weeds, the wheat will eventually die. Our power and wisdom comes from embracing the whole, not denying the parts. In the spirit of Psalm 139, darkness has a light of its own, for our darkness also can be a vehicle of creative transformation. God works within ambiguous persons, like Jacob; ambiguous institutions, like the church; and ambiguous powers, like our democracy to bring about healing, if we are attentive to the angels – the messengers of healing and wholeness in our midst.
God is in this place. God is in the mixture of wheat and tares; flowers and weeds. God comes to us on the darkest night, when we like Jacob recognize our brokenness. God cries out in wounded nature. Wherever we are, God is present; and wherever we are, it is Beth-el, the house of God. This is awesome, and gives us grounds for hope that we can be transformed, that we can change our behaviors, and begin anew.