This week we hear one of my favorite parables in the whole New Testament, the so-called "parable of the laborers (or workers) in the vineyard," Matthew 20:1-16. I encourage you to read it for yourself and sit with it for a few days before church.
The story is of a house-master ("landowner" is our translation but it's not quite right) who goes out to the marketplace to find workers for the vineyard. He hires a group at 6 a.m. ("the first hour") and goes back to hire more at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. To the first group he promises a denarius, the "usual daily wage," and to the subsequent groups he promises "what is right." Finally he goes back at the eleventh hour (5 p.m.) and hires the last of those without work, sending them in to the vineyard for the last hour of the workday. Then he instructs the manager to pay each worker the full day's wage, starting with those hired at 5 p.m. This causes some resentment in those who worked all day; even though they were paid exactly what they expected, they do not appreciate the latecomers getting paid the same.
My perspective on this parable shifted at a synod assembly (of all places) when a pastor led a Bible study on it, retelling it from the perspective of the laborers who couldn't get hired all day and had to wait to the point of giving up before getting a last chance at work. It's easy enough to identify with those hired first, who work longest--we often feel that we are in that position. And it's easy to identify with the last hired, in an unreal way, as we sometimes feel ourselves to have received grace by the skin of our teeth. But hearing the story from the standpoint of actual day labor, where your family's ability to eat in the days ahead is dependent on being hired, made me feel differently about it. It's not actually easy to be looking for work and not finding it. And as a society, we tend to value the lives and welfare of those who are not working at a lower level than those who are (unless the people not working are living on investment income, in which case we tend not to object).
The parable confronts us with a scenario in which the house-master has chosen to honor the daily need of the workers rather than the hours they worked. No one would have objected if he'd pro-rated the wage for those hired later. It would be, in our world as in his, a kind of shrewd dealing and good stewardship to keep a lower but still technically "fair" wage for them. But the master in the story accepts both the hit to his "bottom line" and the resentment of the people he hired first in order to give a living wage to everyone.
It's worth running through this story a few times, putting ourselves in different places. How would we feel if we were the first hired? Or those hired mid-day, or at the last hour? How would we look at this scene--imagining a marketplace that always seems to have unemployed men looking for work--if we were the house-master? How would we interpret the master's command if we were the manager, handing out pay at the end of the day? The power of a parable is not that it makes a single point with a story, but that it invites us into a scene that has many possible meanings. We learn about ourselves and the assumptions we make when we hear it. And in that learning, Jesus is trying to show us something of the Kingdom of God.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago a professor of religious history was diagnosed with liver cancer. Her name is Kate Bowler and she was in her mid-thirties, with a very young son and an academic career that was really taking off, and all of a sudden she was confronted with a direct threat to all her hopes and plans. She ended up writing a book about the experience called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. It’s a very powerful story about someone encountering the very cheap, sometimes religious words of consolation we often give out when we come face to face with something inexplicably horrible. “Everything happens for a reason,” people say. Maybe we say this to minimize our own dread. Maybe we say it as a gesture that there really is an explanation. God is in charge. Therefore everything that happens is in accordance with God’s intentions. Therefore your incurable cancer happened for God’s reasons.
Please do not tell people this. No one needs to hear it. But I’ll admit that there is a flip side to this cheap kind of consolation. It’s when we tell ourselves that there is no reason for anything. Life is just random chance or blind fate, which we alter with our choices. Nothing happens for a reason. The world isn’t about reasons. That’s just something our minds come up with and project onto a random and meaningless world.
I promise I’ll get to the Bible story in a minute. But I want to talk about this. Because one big difference between our world and the ancient and medieval worlds that our theology comes from is that we tend to imagine that effects in the world have a single definitive cause or reason. But people did not always think this way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle identified different kinds of causes that together created a single effect in the world. Take our altar. In one sense the “cause” of the altar is the material it’s made from--the wood. In another sense the cause of the altar is the form or shape--a table that could be made from wood or stone or marble or concrete. In another sense the cause of the altar is the work of the craftsman who turns the material into the form. And in yet another sense, the cause is the purpose of the altar--the worship of God.
Every effect has many causes. Everything happens for many reasons.
Today we hear the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers. It’s a powerful story that takes up the last fourteen chapters of Genesis. Joseph is the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. And he dreams that he will be raised up over his eleven brothers. He is favored by Jacob and given a special coat of many colors. His brothers are jealous of his dreams and the favor their father shows him, so they sell him into slavery and tell their father that he’s dead.
Joseph is purchased by a powerful man in Egypt. Because he thinks Joseph has attempted to assault his wife, he throws Joseph in prison. But thanks to Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams, he gains the attention of the Pharaoh and becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom.
There’s a terrible famine, which Joseph’s leadership helps Egypt survive. His brothers come down to Egypt looking for grain. And rather than take revenge on his brothers, who took everything from him many years before, he decides to help them. He is reconciled to them and he brings their families down to Egypt to live in safety. The snippet of the story we hear today is from the very end, when Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers worry that he is still nursing a grudge.
He tells them not to worry. While they intended to do evil by selling Joseph away, God intended their actions for good. If they had not done what they did, none of them would be in safety during this famine.
The story does not have to go that way. In plenty of ancient stories, Joseph would be fully entitled to punish his brothers violently for their betrayal. He chooses mercy and reconciliation instead. He forgives them.
Their action really was evil and it was meant for evil. But their intentions were not the only cause at work. God had his own intentions, and that was to bring Joseph and his family to safety. He does not excuse his brothers. He doesn’t say “yeah, I was kind of a pest and I get why you were angry.” He doesn’t treat it as a mistake or tell them that their choices didn’t matter because it was all God’s plan. But he does forgive them.
That is important context for Jesus’s demanding words to Peter in today’s Gospel. How many times should I forgive my brother? Peter asks. He certainly knew the story of Joseph. Seven times? Seven is more than a number here. It represents something like completeness or perfection. Jesus says that this is not enough. Forgive seventy-seven times--perfection, multiplied by ten, and added to perfection.
This is not a call to be a patsy or a punching-bag. Forgiveness in the Biblical sense is not excusing or indulging or just shrugging off the evil that is done to us or by us. Let alone allowing it to continue. Our sinful actions have many causes and we do them for many of our own reasons, and they are truly bad. But one purpose God has in allowing sin to abound is that mercy and forgiveness might abound even more, as Paul the Apostle says.
Joseph does not merely tolerate his brothers or overlook their crime. He truly releases his claim of vengeance against them. He blesses them by showing them mercy. And he becomes greater by showing them mercy. Joseph returns good for evil, and in doing so he makes both himself and his brothers richer.
This is not an explanation for evil and suffering in the world. But it reminds us to search for the purposes of God in the midst of life’s randomness. Like the altar that uses the wood from the earth and the skill of the worker to make a place for the worship of God, our lives are shaped by many causes that we don’t see and can’t understand. But the materials and the skill and the intentions of our own lives can always be made to serve God’s purposes. And they do this in very ordinary, obvious, unavoidable ways: Showing mercy. Persevering in prayer. Being generous where the world allows us to be cruel. Living in hope.
The professor, by the way, ends her story with a successful treatment that has extended her life beyond what she could have expected at her diagnosis. She continues to write and speak and teach, not just in her field but in that broader struggle of human beings to understand and find meaning in the randomness of life. Her work touches people, including me, with the urgency and beauty and fragility of a life that does not make sense at any given moment but that can serve a purpose in every moment. That is a path open to all of us. Amen.
We're resuming the outdoor celebration of Holy Communion on Sunday at 10:45 a.m. in the courtyard. In June and July our first attempts at celebrating and distributing the Sacrament went very smoothly and safely. Masks are required of everyone, and we ask everyone to maintain six feet of distance between households. I thoroughly wash and sanitize my hands beforehand, and I wear gloves for the consecration and distribution of the elements.
We don't want anyone who is uncomfortable being in a group to feel obligated to participate. We believe we have a very safe and responsible procedure that also preserves the reverence and power of the Sacrament, but we all have to make the best choices we can about where and how we go out these days. It can help to bear in mind that the coronavirus is a respiratory virus. People contract it by breathing it in; food does not seem to be a source of transmission. This appears to be a disease we give each other directly, by proximity, rather than through a medium like the host or the chalice.
That said, we are being still more cautious, and so to minimize contact we are for now distributing only the host and not the chalice. I'm confident that we can find a good and safe way to include the chalice, but we will read up and plan out how best to do that before we make any changes.
A few people have mentioned this product to me as a possible answer, so I thought I'd share my reasons for not wishing to use it:
These pre-filled and sealed packages have become more popular recently among Lutheran churches. Previously they would have been more common in denominations that take a purely symbolic view of Communion. I've refrained from using them for two reasons: first because Holy Communion is essentially a shared meal. The community would bring the gifts, which the presider would then consecrate with the Word of God and prayer before distributing to those present. Originally this was in the form of a single loaf broken and shared, and a single cup from which everyone drank. The important thing was that it was an experience of real unity and sharing (this is the reason I touch each vessel during the words of Jesus). This was a difficult aspect of early Christianity, as Paul's first letter to the Corinthians made clear. By sharing one bread we become one Body with Christ and with one another. I don't think that works if each worshiper is getting an individual, pre-divided "dose" of the meal.
Second, I've avoided these products for the less theological reason that I dislike the waste. One problem with having a lot of individual packages rather than a single shared meal is that it leaves a lot of plastic to be discarded. Apart from the environmental concerns, it's spiritually and aesthetically discouraging to have to throw away a lot of packaging after celebrating the most important aspect of Christian worship. After spending many years watching little buckets fill with plastic cups, still coated with what we were just calling the Blood of Christ, it's not something I think communities should be doing.
One challenge of this period has been thinking through changes to our life together, as worshipers and in many other ways. One problem with Christian worship (especially among Lutherans, for whatever reason) is that the exception can very quickly become the rule. We've been careful about doing things in worship or education that we wouldn't be comfortable with under normal circumstances, if only because it's easier to establish an expectation than it is to take it away.
So I greatly appreciate your patience and cooperation as we continue to do the best we can, faithfully, reverently, and safely, to share the fullness of God's grace in Word and Sacrament.
For those interested, some further reading on the Sacrament:
"The Use of the Means of Grace," a 1997 ELCA document that gives helpful guidance on baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist (including the indication that the sacrament should be individually administered by the pastor, and all the gifts placed on the altar together).
From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession on the Sacrament of the Altar
I've written about Holy Communion here (with specific reference to the sealed packages, it turns out), and early in the pandemic when many churches were trying "virtual" communion. It's also Chapter 3 of my book, which I'll post here for anyone interested (please be a dear and don't download the whole thing; if you'd like a copy and the price will put you out, just let me know and I'll get one to you).
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s a young man I think about a lot. He’s not that young any more, but when I met him twelve or thirteen years ago he was probably college-aged. We ended up playing pool together at a bar in Oak Brook Terrace, Illinois. I used to have a lot of important pastoral interactions in bars.
Anyway this guy was a graduate of a very strict local Christian school. He had come to reject the faith he’d been taught, but in a particular way. It wasn’t that he’d come to the conclusion that it was all made up. It was that he’d become angry. He was angry at his church, his school, and at God. Really sincerely, passionately angry--the way I would imagine being angry at a former friend or an estranged parent. That’s actually how he put it. He said that God appeared to him as an absentee dad, who missed out on everything and then showed up with a nice toy truck to try to make up for it.
Now I will say that back then, and still today, I was not able to really empathize with this young man. I had certainly felt awe toward God, the fear of God’s judgment, the terror of God’s absence, the love of God’s grace, bafflement, distance, simple lack of belief. I’d felt all of that, but never that kind of anger.
I do not envy it. There was anguish in the man’s words that I do not wish to experience. But I am grateful that he was willing to share that experience with me. Because it is not a rare experience.
It’s there in our passage from the prophet Jeremiah today. Jeremiah is a remarkable figure in the history of prophecy. He was fully engaged in the religious and political conflicts of his time, which was the end of the kingdom of Judah in the last decade of the 7th and first decade of the 6th century BC. He was arrested more than once, put on trial for his life, clapped in stocks, was nearly assassinated, and ultimately died in exile. He was consistently unpopular.
And in our passage today, he is venting his anger at God. God put this prophetic call on Jeremiah. God appointed him over kings and nations. If he speaks he is attacked, and if he keeps silent he is in agony as God’s words burn within him. You gave me these words to eat, he tells God. I avoided celebration and rejoicing. “Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
It’s as if the prophet is seeing one of the stream beds that cut across Dallas. You can tell from a distance that there are trees and a downward slope. Evidence of water. But when you get there, the bed is dry. Or when you see water shimmering in the desert and it keeps disappearing as you draw near--a mirage.
This is how the prophet speaks of God. You gave me this task and then you vanished.
We can hear this same anger in the voice of Peter today. He has just before declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. But when Jesus shows his disciples that he must be betrayed and arrested and executed, Peter reacts angrily. This must never happen. It’s as if Peter’s blessed vision of the Son of God has turned out to be a mirage.
There is power and there is love in this anger. This anger is the voice of one who loves God better than he understands God. Peter loves Jesus but does not know what Jesus is doing. Jeremiah loves God but does not understand what God is doing.
And if you are like me, the dissonance between loving God and understanding God will resolve as doubt. Maybe this whole thing was mistaken. Maybe I missed something somewhere. If you are like me, that is a feeling to notice and pay attention to. It may be a sign that we need to retrace our spiritual steps. For me it is often a sign that I need to rededicate myself to daily prayer, or just go and do something stupidly kind and generous to capture a hint of God’s presence again.
But if you’re like the leader of the apostles, or if you’re like Jeremiah the prophet, the dissonance between loving God and understanding God may make you angry. And that’s not entirely bad, as long as you recognize the love and ask for more understanding.
Peter, after all, will eventually understand what Jesus does in his crucifixion. Peter will follow him to a death on the cross.
And in the same way God responds to the prophet: turn back and I will take you back. You will stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.
The people will turn back to you--you will not have to yield to them. You will be a bronze wall; they will attack you but not overcome you. And I will rescue you.
God has not abandoned the prophet. God has not fled like a mirage. God is there in the prophet’s rejection by the people, and in the Messiah’s betrayal and suffering. They are still working together. And despite the prophet’s anguish--through the prophet’s anguish--God is still making use of him.
“If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.”
Perhaps this is exactly what Jeremiah needed to hear. Speak the truth, however hard or costly, and you will speak for me. Perhaps this is what many of us need to hear, in our own ways. Do what is right, however lonely or hard it is to do, and you will be my hands. Go where I lead you, and not where you may wish to go, and you will be my feet.
There is ultimately no substitute for doing the right thing. There is no substitute for speaking the truth. So much of life is taken up with convincing ourselves that there is a substitute for doing the right thing. The need of the moment. The grasp for success. Our own anger or alienation which justify to us the compromises we make.
But none of that is real in the end. There is only God and the road that God calls you to. The path of the lonely, unpopular prophet. The path of the rejected Messiah. The way of the cross. The costly discipleship. The right thing in this moment.
Jeremiah does not want to be rejected by God. Jesus is not eager to die. Peter is not spoiling for a fight. The followers of Jesus are not supposed to be excited to bear their cross. That young man I talked to all those years ago, who looked at God as a neglectful dad buying trinkets, wanted love, not anger. In every heart the desire to love and be loved by God burns, however we smother it. Even in the heart of the devil himself, believe it or not. And the hard, beautiful truth is that in this world of sin and death there is simply no way to separate the love of God from the cross. And in the life of the believer there is no way to separate the experience of the cross from God’s love. Because it is through the experience of the cross that God touches our brittle hearts, that God strengthens our feeble hands, and fills our mouths with words of truth and songs of praise.
Please pray with me.
Next week we're starting a four-week discussion of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. One of Lewis's most famous books, Screwtape takes the form of letters from the titular senior demon to his nephew, a junior tempter tasked with corrupting and winning the soul of a young man for Hell. It's a clever book and full of powerful insight on humanity as seen from the imagined perspective of our spiritual foes. You can order it here, or on Amazon, or anywhere else you buy books. And of course you can get it from the library. We'll start our conversation on Wednesday, September 9 at 6:30 p.m. You can join us at this link (open it in Chrome or Edge web browsers, or download the free Microsoft Teams app).
We're going to look at Letters 1-7 at our first session, which cover topics like "modern" thought, Christians, family relationships, and war (a lot of big topics get touched on in a few pages, which makes the book so fun to read). But as I read ahead to reacquaint myself with this book, which I hadn't picked up in a dozen years or more, I was struck by a moment a little later on. Screwtape talks to his nephew about tempting humans away from both what they enjoy (sinfully or harmlessly) and what they are obligated to do:
"You [the demon tasked with tempting and winning a human soul] no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we [the demons] want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here [in hell], 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.' The Christians describe the Enemy [i.e., God] as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.' And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off."
This experience doing neither what one wants nor what one should is something Christian monks identified sixteen centuries ago as acedia. It's a kind of sullen, restless boredom that haunts all human effort. For Lewis it's in a way worse than actual pleasurable sins, because even a wicked enjoyment relies on some gift of God. This vacancy of thought and enjoyment and intention doesn't even offer that glimpse into God's goodness.
As I read this passage again I was struck by how much more true and urgent it seems today than it could have even for Lewis himself. Acedia is not just a destructive quirk of human personality now. It's central to the business model of much of our lives. When I think about how much time we can spend watching Netflix shows we only half enjoy, engaging in online conversations we only barely care about with people we don't really know, or watching an endless queue of YouTube videos chosen for us because we had a momentary interest in a topic or a game, I feel the shudder Lewis is trying to provoke here.
There are moments like this strewn through this little book. It's got its problems too (which I will probably talk about more than anyone wants to hear), but even those are very interesting. This is the kind of book than can get us to rethink some important questions, assumptions, and habits in our lives. So don't miss out! See you on Wednesday!
Perhaps you've seen this graphic or one like it recently. It shows the countries closed to American travelers, open to American travelers, or those open only with restrictions (including negative COVID tests, two-week self-quarantine upon arrival, and so forth).
I'm not much of an international traveler--I've been out of the country five times this century--but I have to admit these graphics have caught me up short. As an American, I'm accustomed to being part of a nation that puts a great deal of effort into deciding who may or may not enter my country, and on what terms (dubious as much of this effort may be). But as I preached way back in my first sermon at Christ, on Lazarus and the rich man's gate, you can't build a wall to keep others out without also locking yourself in. And because of our disastrous failure to contain the novel virus, that's exactly what has happened: we are, for the most part, stuck here.
This week we hear part of Paul the Apostle's famous depiction of humanity under the Law. In making his case that Jews and Gentiles, by different routes, are included in God's promises, Paul says that "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that hey may be merciful to all." That word, which our version translates as "imprisoned," seems to have made translators and commentators squirm a bit. The King James scholars say "concluded," the New International Version says "bound over," the Revised Standard Version says "consigned." We have tended to hear it with two overriding concerns: am I really trapped in disobedience? And to what extent has God willed this imprisonment?
Here, as in most places, I prefer the more shocking and unpleasant translation. And the map above may explain why. Part of Paul's argument in his letters is that, Jew or Gentile, we tend not to know that we are imprisoned in disobedience. Day to day I just don't think about where I can go outside of the country. But faced with the grim reality--I am, in fact, more or less trapped here--it makes me think differently. Freedom can't come until we recognize that we are not already free.
Paul's harsh and stirring word here connects the Old Testament and the Gospel. Isaiah promises a time when God will gather not only his own people but others; and a Gentile woman pleads with Jesus to make this promise a reality for her. It is not that she is better or worse than the Jewish followers of Jesus. It is merely that she stands outside of the people to whom and through whom the Law and the Prophets speak. She is imprisoned in disobedience in her own way, as all the Gentiles are, but she makes the act of faith in pleading with the Messiah to heal her daughter all the same.
We live in a world full of unjust distinctions. Imprisonment is a powerful metaphor because we in America can be particularly cruel to the incarcerated on the grounds that they have somehow deserved that cruelty. Even prisoners approved for parole in Texas are being kept behind bars during a pandemic hitting those facilities especially hard. Humans tolerate cruelty like this because we can convince ourselves that the imprisoned are categorically different from us, deserving of a lower standard of dignity and humanity.
But Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul all remind us this week that our prison bars are just not visible to us. God saw fit to make confinement a universal human condition, so that all of us would need and call upon God's even-more-abundant mercy.
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house." Or, for that matter, your neighbor's "wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." So end the Ten Commandments, on what may sound like a doubly sour note.
First, to state the obvious: there is nothing good to say about a list in which "wife" is included among possessions alongside oxen and donkeys. And while there were meaningful differences between slavery as practiced in the the ancient world and as it was practiced in the Americas starting in the 17th century, it is lamentable that slaves were likewise listed alongside livestock as possessions not to be coveted.
Second, and rather less obvious: how exactly are we to refrain from not stealing our neighbor's possessions, or slandering our neighbor to get them, or harming our neighbor to take them, but from wanting to have what is theirs? What kind of religion polices not just your actions but your desires like his?
Paul the Apostle, writing to the church in Rome, gives us an answer:
Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.
For Paul, God's mere act of naming the sin of covetousness shows him that he's doing it. And the more we focus on the disposition to want what is not ours, the more we find it. This, Paul insists, is why the grace of Jesus Christ is no necessary and overwhelming: because we cannot bear the Law in its infinite majesty on our own, we need a savior who will fulfill it for us, and impute his righteousness to us for the sake of faith in him.
Coveting is a very subtle sin. It's not coveting to say "I wish I had a nice house like my brother's," though that can be spiritually corrosive as well. It's coveting when we say to ourselves, "my brother's house should really be mine." Covetousness happens at a paradoxical intersection of resentment and admiration, hostility and envy. It can be worse than straightforward greed or acquisitiveness, because it involves telling a story about both ourselves and our neighbor. Not just "I want this" but "I deserve this;" not just "hers is nice" but "hers belongs rightly to me."
One of the unexpected ways this plays out in our world is in the controversial topic of Native American sports mascots. On one hand, people insist that a team name like "Redskins" or a mascot like Cleveland's Chief Wahoo is demeaning and offensive. On the other hand, defenders of the teams insist that no one names their team after something or someone they hate. And in a sense both are correct: the names and mascots are demeaning and admiring at the same time. Even in the 19th century Americans started to express a kind of nostalgia for the peoples our nation had conquered and replaced. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were identified with a noble simplicity, an authentic connection to nature, and all kinds of virtues we "modern" people had lost touch with. If you remember movies like Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man you may see what I'm talking about.
It is a very strange thing on its face to envy the people one conquers and even destroys. But that's how covetousness works: I want what I think you have, but I don't want you to have it.
By contrast, the parables we hear in this week's Gospel passage are about acquiring the Kingdom of Heaven in a much different way. A man finds treasure hidden in a field--by someone, at some time, for who knows what purpose--and instead of pilfering it he sells everything he owns to buy the field. A merchant searches for fine pearls and finds one so great that he gives up everything else to get it. The message of these parables seems to be that there is no shortcut to God's kingdom. You can't scheme it away or talk yourself into deserving it. It requires everything of us, without resentment or hostility, without envy or admiration for any human being. But instead of eating away at our souls, it makes us rich beyond compare.
After a two-week break for my pulpit exchange with Fr. Matt of St. Christopher's, we'll come back to the Ten Commandments. But first a word about the readings for Sunday, which are powerful and well worth your time to read and ponder in preparation for worship.
First, we're hearing from the Wisdom of Solomon, part of the Greek version of the Old Testament (sometimes called the Second Canon or the Apocrypha, which just means hidden or obscure writings). The full passage is here, though we're skipping verses 14-15 for some reason. I love the Wisdom of Solomon because it is both very philosophical in an ancient manner, influenced by Greek thought and culture, and very devout. This week we will hear about the way God's power and God's mildness interact:
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
"Your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all": God does not need to demonstrate strength or overcome any rivals, so God is free to judge with mercy. Just as the farm owner in the Gospel passage says to allow the field to grow together until the harvest, God's power is the power to be patient and merciful.
Our passage from Romans is about hope, among other things, and the creation groaning in travail until the delivery of the children of God. This is an image Christians have mulled and meditated over for many centuries. The creation has been subjected to futility, for the sake of hope--this is a strange thought. Our world of universal mortality is, in Paul's words, pregnant with something new, and we groan along with the world as we await our redemption. Indeed we "suffer with [Christ] so that we may be glorified with him." This hope, however, is a secret thing. If we hope for what is seen, Paul says, what kind of hope is that? We hope in the unseen--unseen but yet somehow known and sensed within this world of groaning.
Jesus, in a characteristic parable, puts this matter of hope in a very different way. A field is sown with wheat, and at night an enemy comes and sows it with tares. For many historical commentators and artists, this is the key moment in the parable: while the workers sleep, the enemy is at work, following, mimicking, and ultimately marring the work of God. God never builds a church but the Devil sets up a copy of it next door, as Luther put it (more or less). Modern commentators and preachers tend to focus more on what comes next:
The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 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.” ’
The farm owner here is showing patience. It is often pointed out these days that wheat and tares are very hard to tell apart. The point of the parable being, then, that we do not know whether someone will turn out to be a wheat stalk or a tare. We don't know so we should allow God's patience to work and leave judgment to the end of the age.
But the early hearers of Matthew's Gospel may have been listening to something else in this. Yes, they had to contend with divisions in the church (and in the wider Jewish community of which they were still probably a part), which they understood to be the work of a demonic power. But they had no power to uproot the "weeds" around them, being a small and weak community. They needed to understand God's forbearance, and they needed to hope that they would ultimately be vindicated--that among the weeds of the world, they would not be finally choked out of existence.
I must admit that lately I have been struggling with hope as our Scriptures and theology use the term. I am not especially hopeful--using the term casually, I suppose--about the future course of the coronavirus pandemic or, for that matter, the unfolding crises of climate change that the pandemic seems to be mimicking in a miniature, sped-up way. I don't see a way that our institutions will address the problems adequately, our culture and expectations adapt to deep and enduring changes, and our networks of inter-dependence sustain us. I ask myself what my work or anyone else's will mean as we sail straight into what threaten to be major storms ahead.
So it helps to remember that Paul and, in a different way, Jesus are talking about hope in a sense that really excludes the possibility of envisioning its fulfillment. I am dissatisfied by my own preaching and writing when I am left using "hope" as a box stuffed with IOUs, or as a spot on a draft saying "[add more examples here]." Everything else I can talk about practicing or picturing--as something we can do or imagine. Hope is more like an acknowledgment of God's freedom--that God is active in history and in current events and in every detail of our lives, both good and bad, but also beyond them all in ways we cannot comprehend. And just as a cell in a body wracked with labor pangs does not know what will come, and just as an ephemeral flower at the end of its bloom does not know the place it has in a vast and mortal creation, we don't know what God has laid up for us.
Finally, we'll take a look this week at the seventh and eighth commandments: against stealing and bearing false witness against our neighbor. I find myself especially moved by Luther's explanation of the false witness prohibition:
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
I added the emphasis there because that bit is hard. Luther talks about using our words like a cloak to throw over the weakness of our neighbor. And I wonder how to do that while preserving, for example, a necessary accountability in relationships of trust (the condemnation of "gossip" has been used to keep plenty of abusive clergy in positions of power). But be that as it may: there is something here of hope, I think. We are to protect our (unworthy) neighbor's reputation because he, for all his flaws, may prove to be the wheat that must not be torn up before its time. We are told to value our neighbor in ways that go beyond what we can see and know, into the realm of trusting God's goodness when we do not see it at work in front of us. This is hard but it is, I must admit, a way to practice hope.
God's Work. Our hands.