The Adventurous Lectionary – Pentecost 6 – July 12, 2020
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-12; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Can God work in and through less than optimal situations and ambiguous personalities? Does God’s light guide the uncertain as well as the certain and can even the smallest of beginnings – humblest of initiatives – give birth to great possibilities? Is God at work in our profoundly troubled and ambiguous time, when leaders refuse to lead and the majority of the population believe the nation has lost its bearings? Is God working for good in this time of protest and pandemic? These are some of the themes from this week’s lectionary readings.
Once again, the lectionary readings confront us with family dysfunctionality. Infertility, a painful pregnancy, and then the dishonesty in acquiring the family fortune. This could be the theme of a mini-series or political intrigue. Surely nothing good will come from such ethically and spiritually challenged persons. Yet, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to forget Sarah and Rebekah, are the parents of the Hebraic people. None is more flawed than Jacob, the trickster, whose first major impropriety involves cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright and family fortune. Somehow, despite his dishonesty and stealth, God works to bring something good from Jacob’s life. There is no redemptive value to Jacob’s larceny: at first glance, this passage seems spiritually and morally unhelpful, and hardly a model for Christian behavior. It serves to illuminate the realities of graft, dishonesty and disregard of the common good among political and spiritual leaders, then and now, who call themselves Christian. It points out the reality that our gains are often bought at another’s loss – whether in terms of money, privilege, and power.
Christian leaders are not immune to the lure of quick profit, “wealth care,” and power politics in our time. In fact, those leaders who closely align God and country or who deem a national leader as God’s chosen are most likely to sacrifice morality and compassion for political gain. While we aspire for wholeness, the story of Jacob and Esau is a reminder that we are all “standin’ in the need of prayer,” and that our righteousness is as “filthy rags,” unworthy of boasting, exceptionalism, or smug differentiation between saved and lost.
The story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that God can still bring something good out of challenging situations and flawed persons. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes God’s vison for each moment – and surely each situation and lifespan – as the best for the impasse. God’s vision in the concreteness of our lives uses the wreckage of our lives in quest for something beautiful. There is hope, despite our own and our leaders’ fallenness, and this hope can shape our vision and actions. We can oppose the behaviors and policies of our national leaders and still pray that God might bring something good from them as leaders. We can prayer for a conversion of heart or lacking that, a cessation of evil doing.
God has not abandoned those whom we mistrust and dislike. We may still watch our wallets, condemn their prevarications, suspect their motivations, or pledge their political defeat, even as we look for God’s activity in their lives. The ever-present God moves quietly – and sometimes dramatically – in everyone’s lives. We need to train our eyes on the divine in the lowest and the highest, the sinner and the sin, the rich and famous and the nuisance and nobody. The adventurous preacher may invite her or his congregation to explore where and in whom they least expect to experience God and how this sense of divine absence shapes their behavior?
I have found it helpful spiritually to pray as I watch the news or ponder our nation’s leaders, so that I might see a connection between my lives and their, and give a blessing, despite my doubts about their wisdom or maturity.
The Psalmist affirms that God’s word is a lamp unto his feet and a light upon his path. God’s wisdom is always on the way, and available when we awaken to it and then follow God’s vision for our lives. Help is always on the way; wisdom is always available; and solutions are embedded in every challenge. Surely in this time of protest and pandemic we need down to earth wisdom to deliver us from self-interest, inspire us to sacrifice for the common good, and challenge wisely the systemic evils we face.
Paul affirms the freedom of the Spirit to transform our lives. He cites two ways of life – life in the flesh, life turned away from God, and life in the Spirit, turned toward God. Spirit and flesh are two life orientations. “Flesh” does not mean “body.” Paul is not counseling bodily mortification or the dualism of spirit and flesh. Our embodiment can be inspired. In contrast, our minds and spirits can be turned toward the flesh. Here “flesh” concerns all that is deathful, divisive, and dangerous to our own and our community’s wellbeing. “Flesh” is the impact of the ego, of self-interest, on personal behavior and public policy which privileges our wellbeing at the expense of the common good.
Spirit-centered living enhances our freedom and leads us away from behaviors that hurt us and others.
All creation, as Paul says later in Romans 8, yearns for God and our commitments to follow the ways of the Spirit support God’s goal of healing the world.
Jesus’ parable of the sower joins surprise and spiritual transformation. God’s providential insights are broadcast generously throughout creation. Every moment the seed of divine wisdom and insight is sown in our lives and neighborhoods. We are always touched by God, even when we turn away from divine guidance. God wants us to grow and for their to be a harvest of righteousness in our personal and political lives. As we focus on spiritual disciplines, we nurture the growth of divine possibilities in our lives. This is both an individual and corporate commitment. Communities of spiritual nurture grow fruitful and attentive Christians.
No one knows the outcome of the farmer’s endeavors. The future is wide open, and not predestined. Any growth we perceive in ourselves and others is a blessing in our precarious and uncertain world. But, when growth occurs we give thanks and share our bounty with those around us. God is at work in the world, in small and large, faithful and unfaithful, friend and enemy, to bring forth abundant life. Will we have the perception and wisdom to respond to our ambiguity and the ambiguities of life with grace, insight, and healing?
In these days of protest and pandemic, we need to trust the Sower’s bountiful planting. We need to train our eyes for possibilities of growth in our desperate time. We need to live hopefully nurturing the seeds within us and around us. The harvest is uncertain: will we reap incivility, division, hate and alienation? Will we reap death and destruction? Or will we reap a harvest sufficient to all and bringing forth the seeds of grace wherever they are hidden?
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books including HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, and A CENTER IN A CYCLONE: 21ST CENTURY CLERGY SELFCARE.