Sunday, July 17, 2011

Murder Mysteries and Apocalypse

Preached today at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Newburgh NY.

Genesis 28:10-19a
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I love murder mysteries. Thanks to the public libraries of Ulster County, I’m reading three authors at the moment: The New Zealand/English Ngaio Marsh, who began publishing in the 30's; an English-speaker from Quebec, Louise Penny; and the Scottish writer Ian Rankin. Each writes in a definite genre: Marsh writes classic closed-room stories, set in picturesque British locations. Penny writes what are called “cozies” in the mystery trade – set in a fictitious rural Quebec village; and Rankin writes what are called police procedures, in Edinburgh.

They are all doing the same thing – revealing the identity of the murderer – but each does it differently. Marsh lays out the clues and gives the reader the same challenge, and the same chance, as the detective. Penny’s story evolves as time and the investigation elapses. Rankin’s stories lurch from event to event, and there is always violence before the culprit is unmasked and trapped.

Each mystery writer creates a small universe, like places in the world we live in but also not like them. There is a central character in each who is the agent for justice, and in whose life we become interested, especially if we read the novels in each series sequentially. And each of these little universes exists to embody a story, a narrative, whose ultimate end is to uncover the truth, to reveal reality, so that justice may be done and right may be established in the place of evil.

In other words, murder mysteries are little apocalypses. Just like our scripture lessons today. Like Marsh, Penny and Rankin, these passages from Genesis, Romans and Matthew are each apocalypses, moments of revealing truth, moments of setting things right at the end of the story. Because, in fact, the word apocalypse in Greek means un-covering, and when the truth is uncovered by God, things which were wrong are made right.

The story of Jacob’s dream is one of the most famous in all of scripture. In Genesis the ladder resting on the rock Jacob is using as a pillow is the opening from this world into the next, the uncovering of the entrance to the realm of God, in which the ceaseless movement of angels up and down, up and down, reveals the continual intervention of God’s energy and activity into Jacob’s world and ours. The dream of the ladder assures Jacob that his life will be the point where the divine meets the human in the world, and that his life will lead to the fulfilling of God’s purpose through the prosperity of his descendants. Jesus uses Jacob’s ladder to describe his own identity when he calls Nathanael from the fig tree in the first chapter of John: "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (John 1:51) The cover is lifted, the curtain parts, and the truth is glimpsed for a moment: God’s energy, God’s angels, are always intervening. Our challenge is to find Jacob, to find the Son of Man, so that we may see heaven opened. The apocalyptic message is that there is a point of entry to the realm of God, and it is accessible to us, and if we live into its promise, God’s purpose will be fulfilled.

The eighth chapter of St. Paul is one of the greatest theological meditations on the purpose of God ever written, in any language, in any religion, in any age. His purpose is to uncover for us our real identity as children of God, to reveal God’s ultimate purpose for us individually as sons and daughters of God, but even more, to lift the cover, to part the curtain, and to see as it really is the true movement of what God has made: Creation for Paul is a living being, yearning for its fulfillment. He solves the mystery of existence, of the universe, and our place in it, when he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:18-19) We are not what we thought we were. We are so much more, so very much more, to God than we could ever imagine on our own. The apocalyptic message is that there is a purpose to our life, a purpose to the universe, and it is found in the unity with God which God is preparing for each of us and for all of us, and not just us as human entities, but for the whole created order, eagerly longing for us.

After the excitement of Jacob’s ladder dream and Paul’s lyrical description of the stately progress of God’s purpose bringing all things into harmony, the parable of the wheat and the weeds seems harsh, even violent. If the story of Jacob’s dream is in form a little like Ngaio Marsh, a narrative told plainly and concentrating on the facts; and if Paul’s hymn to the unity of God’s creative purpose from Romans can be compared to Louise Penny’s narratives, which unfold from within the continuities of a much smaller created world; then perhaps the parable of the wheat and tares can be likened to the nasty underworld of Edinburgh, the non-touristy Edinburgh, in Ian Rankin’s work. In his stories evil is so palpable, and the necessity to engage that evil is so clear, that we know that in the end people will be hurt. We pray that it is the people who deserve to be hurt, and even though the just suffer injuries, even casualties along the way, the evil do always find their punishment.

The field in Matthew is not picturesque. It is a place of struggle, of hard work, of opposition to the good, where enemies sneak in at night to ruin the crop by sowing weeds. As in the detective story, a premature reaction by the owner of the field or his workers does not help, but can actually destroy the crop altogether. But there will be retribution. There will be a violent reaction. Evil will not win. What must happen first is for the difference between the wheat and the weeds to become evident as the plants grow. In God’s good time all will become clear. And in God’s good time, God will see that it all comes to a proper end, an end described so satisfyingly for those who want to see the evil suffer for what they have done. The catharsis seems as necessary to end this parable as a cathartic ending is for Rankin’s murders.

No doubt the parable of the wheat and the weeds reflects the mixture of good and evil in the Israel of the time of Jesus. It was probably remembered because soon enough the Church discovered that it too harbored different seeds, different plants. The temptation was to identify the evil and cast it out. That temptation is still with us in the Church. But Jesus’ advice then is still true today: God will do his own work. Remember who we are and what we are to do. It is not ours to judge each other. It is ours to grow, to be wheat instead of weeds. The apocalyptic message is that we are the plants which should grow into good wheat, yielding good for God. It is not our job to judge each other, and while there will be serious consequences for the weeds – for those who make themselves subject to evil – God will take care of it.

I don’t want to push the analogy of my three murder mystery writers to Genesis, Romans and Matthew too far. But there is something to it. I think we love murder mysteries because they create universes into which we can imaginatively place ourselves and participate in the double apocalyptic process of the discovery of the truth and setting things right. Today’s scripture lessons offer us the same process, but so much more profoundly. And with this difference: They are true. There really is a person upon whom the energies, the angels, of God ascend and descend. There really is an unfolding process going on which is leading inexorably to the exaltation of ourselves and all creation in God’s own being. There really is a difference between good and evil, and there really will be a time when the good wins.

May we find in our blessed Lord Jesus Christ the angelic ladder opening heaven to us on earth. May we begin to live in the awareness of the great purposes of God for each of us and for all that is. May we grow and thrive, do good in our day, and not be deflected by what is not good, in the confidence that God’s goodness will triumph over all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Parable of the Soils

I preached again at St. Ignatius of Antioch, New York City, today. A nice crowd, and lovely weather.

Proper 10A, July 10, 2011
Matthew 13:1- 9,18-23

The parable of the Sower is perhaps the one parable in the Gospels that seems to require no explanation, because Jesus himself gives us the explanation. It seems like a straightforward call for those who hear the word of God to give fruitful increase. And so it is.

But I want to play a little game with you. As you were listening to the Gospel this morning, or as you read it in the bulletin before the liturgy began, where did you find yourself in the parable? I’ll be willing to bet that some of us, perhaps most of us, identified with the seed being sown, and asked the question, Which of these situations is about my life? How fruitful am I? And, of course, that is exactly the question Jesus wants us to ask about ourselves. The point of the parable is to get us to ask, how can I be more fruitful for the Lord? The problem would seem to be the soil I’m planted in. I could accomplish so much more except for all problems I face. Or I am living in a shallow cultural environment. Or it’s for me hard to put down roots just now. Or there are so many distractions in my life. I’m sure that if I could sort these issues in the background of my life, the real fruitfulness which is surely the potential of my life will come to the fore, bloom, bear fruit, and the increase will be great. If only the circumstances of my life were better, I would be fine. The problem is essentially external to myself. In the prophetic words of Skip Wilson, The devil made me do it.

But let’s look more carefully at the text, and at Jesus’ explanation. In each case, the seed that is sown is the same. It is the soil that the seed is planted in that is different. So perhaps we are not the seed, but the soil. Perhaps this should be called the Parable of the Soils. If this is the case, then perhaps our search for blame for why we re not as fruitful as God wants us to be – assuming that none of us here is quite up to the hundredfold benchmark Jesus sets – perhaps the reason we’re not quite among the hundredfold is that our soil isn’t quite up to hundredfold standards. In other words, if we are the soils in this parable, then we will find within our own lives the reasons why the seed is not yielding as it should. Our own minds and hearts and souls are the soils where the seed of the Word of God is sown. And since Jesus delineates those reasons himself, let’s look at them.

Jesus gives three reasons why the soils are not productive: in the first, the seed is sown along a trodden path, so hard that it cannot germinate, the evil one snatches the seed away, and it never has a chance to grow; in the second, there are so many rocks that there isn’t enough soil for proper roots to grow; and in the third, worldly cares and the desire for wealth choke out an initially good growth.

We are not a culture that is comfortable, on the whole, with the idea of an evil one prowling around, snatching what he can. But I’m not entirely convinced that our skepticism is completely justified. I have seen young people and friends turn almost overnight from loving, helpful, curious and pointed to the future to being destructively self-absorbed, wanting thrills that can only be had from drugs or actions that bring harm. I have watched people become so obsessed or angry that their relationships dissolve and their work or their studies go down the tubes, or more subtly, make living and working with them so difficult that their lives and the lives of those around them wither. They grow hard, like a path that is continually pounded. How can the Word of God penetrate such a shell? It is snatched away before it is even heard. It’s enough to make you wonder, Just what is the power that causes such grief? The path needs to be turned back into soil. It needs to be plowed up, for something to break through and change it.

There are people who have a lot of rocks in their lives. It isn’t their fault, exactly, but they do. The genetic inheritance we’re born with may have problems. The family we’re born into may have problems. The community we are reared in may have problems. The world has problems. Lord knows how many troubles each of us has. And they just seem to grow as our life unfolds. I like pictures of beautiful New England – or upstate New York – fields. How do you think they got to be so beautiful? They started out rocky. How can you make a field like that good for growing something in? You can leave the rocks there and be disappointed in the yield. Or you can remove them patiently, one by one, until the plow can make it through without being deflected or broken. And every spring, more rocks come to the surface. You don’t know why. They just do. So the farmer’s job at that season of the year is to bend over patiently yet again and remove them. Is there anything more beautiful than a carefully cultivated field, with the rocks moved to the side to build a boundary wall, or used to build the farmer’s fieldstone house? But the truth is, if you have a rocky field, you have to work patiently and continually to make space for the crops to grow. And if you do, they will. And fields like that are often heart-stoppingly beautiful. As are people who patiently work at their stony lives, never giving up, season after season moving the rocky parts out of the way, making use of them as best they can, not letting them limit their fruitfulness. But those who do not patiently work at it do not have much capacity to let the Word grow in them.

And the third sort? Their soil is deep and rich and unobstructed. They are the golden boys and girls, born beautiful, their families focused as they should be, their communities supportive. In the world of high school, they are the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader, the homecoming king and queen. They are the ones who got a new car when they turned 16. They don’t know what they have. And not knowing, the cares of life overwhelm them, in part because they don’t have the practice of clearing their life field of rocks, in part because they have been sheltered from the real evils of life by the wise and responsible people in their lives. And so, when care comes, and it always does come, they aren’t ready to meet it. Having always had more than they need, they find it hard to limit their desire, and so they follow it, the false god of always wanting more. Their golden promise turns into something else. The Word is taken up with joy, as are so many new things, but nothing comes of it.

How can we become good soil? The answers are pretty clear: Face the evil that comes to us with courage, break through the hard surface it creates and give the good a chance. Address the problems of life with realism and determination and the knowledge that it is a lifelong struggle, but worth it, so worth it! Come to understand that our blessings are not ours by nature or by right, but are a foundation given to us to build what is better, for ourselves and for others.

There is one more image I would like to lift out of our parable today. The sower is indiscriminate. The seed is sown on soil of every type. The sower is not discouraged by thorns and thistles, by rocks and stones, not even by beaten paths. The sower does not consult the Good Soils Manual and then decide where his best likely profit lies and exclude the rest. He spreads the seed without regard to the probability of its growth. He is not prudent. He is prodigal. Like the father in that other parable about prudence and prodigality, he does not count the cost.

The Word of God is sown everywhere, all the time, with reckless abandon. It does not really matter to God that on the face of it we are unlikely to be fruitful, whether we are beset by problems so great they can prove the existence of evil to a doubting world, or whether our lives require continual work to clear the ground for the good, or whether we have had every blessing and messed up mightily. God plants the Word in our hearts over and over and over again, in the hope that much good will grow. So let us open the stony-paths of our hearts. Let us get on with the lifelong work of dealing with our problems. Let us wake up to the reality of our blessings and clear our lives of distraction and greed. Let our lives be good soil for the Word of God.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Travailing

Here's the text of the sermon I preached at St. Ignatius of Antioch, New York City, today.

Pentecost 3, Proper 9A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

One of my earliest church memories is of the reredos of St. James Church in Pullman, Washington. My father was vicar there in the 1950s. It was wood, vaguely gothic, painted in red, blue and gold, and running across the top were the words “Come unto me all ye that travail”. In 1957 the reredos was moved from the older church and set up in the new contemporary building. That was perhaps my first introduction to the wonderful Anglican way of holding on to an Older Way. My father, of course, explained that travail meant work. Clearly, though, travail wasn’t just any kind of work. I always wondered what sort of work would qualify as travail, so that the Lord might refresh me. I sometimes still do.

That wonderful, encouraging passage comes at the end of a string of sayings that seem deceptively simple . The cute chorus of village urchins taunting passersby. The saying about John the Baptist. Then, after some town cursings, mercifully omitted from our Gospel reading today, another evocation of children, this time as the bearers of revelation, then an involved christological statement, and finally the word of comfort for the weary worker. The sequence seems random, and a common theme hard at first to discern.

And so it would be taken out of context. But, our passage today is actually an answer to the question John the Baptist asks from prison at the beginning of the chapter: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" In other words, Who is Jesus?

Jesus begins the answer by pointing to the works his ministry are accomplishing: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the prophetic description of the inbreaking messianic kingdom, and by indirection Jesus is saying, I am the Messiah. John, says Jesus, is the prophet Elijah returned to Israel, in all his desert asperity. And this is the lead in to the taunting urchin chorus: "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'” The question, Who is Jesus entails a second question: Who are we? Are we the people who so disappointed the children of the street? If Jesus is the Messiah, are we prepared to welcome him, or will we be put off by our expectations?

If the answer to the question, Who is Jesus, is answered first by applying the prophetic description of the Messiah, the second part of the answer, our Gospel today, contains a more developed answer. John came fasting, and they said he had a demon. Jesus comes feasting, and they say, he keeps company with the wrong people. “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." This short saying, dropped into the middle of this discourse as a sort of aphorism, is in fact the key to the question, Who is he?

What are the deeds of wisdom here? The deeds referenced in this section may refer to the ministry styles of John and Jesus, but more likely they refer to the salvation brought to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor. In other words, the works of Jesus are the works of wisdom, the works by which she is justified in the face of those who doubt or deny her. In other words, Jesus is wisdom. Jesus is the wisdom of God.

And what is that wisdom? And to whom is it given? It is to children to whom God’s secrets are revealed, even to street urchins, who in their playful rudeness discern the truth. It is to the simple, the little ones, the least, that God opens his infinite heart and discloses his mysterious purposes. The wisdom of God is not bound by human wisdom. The wisdom of God is in fact that Word come into the world, so long expected by the students and scribes and sages of Israel, so movingly described in the wisdom tradition of Scripture. And it is precisely to those who are undervalued by the power of the world that the secret of God’s real power is disclosed: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” And it is precisely to these little ones that God reveals his true being: ”and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” God’s Word and Wisdom are disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. But this disclosure requires humility if it is to be grasped and understood. One must become as a little child to enter the Kingdom of God. And even more radically, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

If Jesus is disclosed as the wisdom of God, then who are we? Are we seekers after God, disciples of John the Baptist, come here today to find the one we have been looking for? Or are we perhaps the ones who can’t see what is before our eyes, like those who rejected both John and Jesus because they did not fit our preconceptions, our expectations or our pretensions, because perhaps the dance we are invited to join is with street urchins instead of the ballet? Or are we perhaps the overworked, the underpaid, the not appreciated, the ignored, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor of our own time and place?

The trajectory of today’s gospel suggests that those to whom the Word of Wisdom is addressed are the little ones of the world, the ones who don’t matter, the children of the street, those whose lives are scarred by poverty and oppressed by disability, hopelessness, despair and death. This discourse is exaggerated, perhaps in the way of Middle Eastern rhetoric through the ages. But what do we have in common with them? What part of our lives shares their life? If those disastrous qualities disqualify us from the great race of the world, they are precisely the qualities which gain us entrance into the Kingdom. For it is only when we live in the truth of our limitations, and not just in our glories, that we can stand before God, when we can mourn when it is time to mourn, and dance when it is time to dance, and dance in the street with the children if that is where God gives it to us to dance, it is only when we live in our whole truth that we can recognize the Son of God when He comes among us and know that He, even He who keeps company with gluttons, drunkards, tax collectors and sinners, and perhaps with us, is the one who reveals the truth of God to us.

For most of us, the reality of our life is work. Work to make a living. Work to make a family. Work to make a home. Work to make a community, a city, a nation, a world worth living in. Work to share what we can with others. Work to build a church and work to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those the Holy Spirit brings to us. Work to create what is noble, beautiful and inspiring. Work. Work. It seems sometimes that our work never stops, that every waking moment is given over. I think that is what travail must be. Not just eight hours given for a paycheck, but a lifetime of obligations, faithfully and caringly attended to, even when we would rather not. No wonder our Lord calls it a yoke.

But his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. So join the urchins in their dance. “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”