Sunday, July 27, 2014

Scribes for the Kingdom

When you think about it, the Kingdom of Heaven is a funny idea.  Clearly it is not like kingdoms on a map, where Heaven is this pink country, over here between the green and the purple ones.  It is not like the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom.  Heaven, which is Matthew’s way of saying “God” because, as a good Jew, he is shy about using the divine name, has to include all countries, all plants and animals.  Because God created everything, and sustains it, and his sovereignty over it is unlimited and eternal.  That is elementary biblical monotheism.

The Hebrew scriptures say that it really is that simple.  But they also tell us, and our own experience confirms this, that from the human point of view, the picture is more complicated.  And it is that complicated human situation that Jesus is addressing with his parables.  Jesus isn’t a theologian, he’s a preacher.  So the purpose behind his parables is not to convince people to get new ideas about God.  It is to train them for the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is to give them a way to follow that leads through the tangle of human complications to the simplicity of life in God, with God.  It is to help to see how God really is present and active and working in the world around them, in their lives.  The parables are meant to show people how to align themselves with the flow of God’s power, to go with it, and to let it carry them where God wants to go.

But when we hear parables one after another the way Matthew’s Gospel presents them, it seems that they are not all saying the same thing.  For example, there are those that compare the Kingdom of Heaven to a person who discovers something unique and particular: a pearl of great price, or a field with a buried treasure.  That person then goes and sells everything else that he has in order to purchase that one precious thing.  But others say it is like something extremely common, a mustard seed or yeast in dough, that grows and accomplishes its purpose easily and naturally.  Is it like the dragnet that catches every kind of fish in the sea, so that they can be sorted into good or bad, or like the one we had last week about the field where the wheat and the weeds are growing up together, and it does more harm than good to try separate them?  If you were trying to turn these sayings into a consistent doctrine of what the Kingdom of Heaven is and how it operates, you’d have to conclude that Jesus is a pretty poor theologian.

But, again, that would be to misunderstand what the parables are trying to do.  As we’ve said, they are not aimed at getting people to understand a concept, but to go in a different direction with their lives.  I think it helps to see how this works if we imagine that Jesus spoke each of these parables on a different occasion.  Each time, there were people in the audience who hadn’t been there before.  Each time, the setting was a little different—a market town, a fishing village, or a farming community—and the situation was different—the news from the capital, the questions people asked, the things that had been going on in their lives.  The parables seem to say different things because each circumstance and audience called for something different.

And, in particular, every person and every crowd that Jesus spoke to had its own form of resistance to his message.  We all have our habitual, unexamined ways of thinking, which are a way of keeping God at a distance.  So if you inviting people to get involved in their lives in a different way, to be a part of what God is doing in the world right now, you need words that take them where they don’t expect, and maybe don’t want, to go.  The author of Matthew understands this, and he uses Jesus’ parables in a way that he thinks will have the most impact on his audience, and will speak to their situation.  For his community of marginalized Jewish Christians, the parables manifest the unique importance of Jesus as a prophet and teacher.  They speak to the mystery of why it is that so many of their brothers and sisters not only fail to understand his significance, but strenuously, even violently oppose it.  Matthew makes the parables, with their unexpected reversals of meaning, a metaphor for the Gospel as a whole.  He turns the drama of understanding or not understanding the parables into the prelude to the final judgment of the world.   Matthew sharpens the parables into a sword, to cut through fear, confusion, and indecision and show how high the stakes are in this fight and to say that it is time to take sides.

And, just so we understand what he is doing, Matthew concludes this section on the parables in the following way:  Jesus asks, "’Have you understood all this?’” and the crowd all answered, ‘Yes.’"  (Again, the focus of the passage is that the people should grasp what they are hearing and decide about it for themselves.)  And he said to them, "’Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’"  This could be a reference to Jesus, who quotes the law and the prophets, when it helps to get his point across, but also feels free to create surprising new teachings.  But it could just as easily refer to Matthew himself, who has the audacity to write a new book of holy scripture for the sake of his community.  He works creatively with all kinds of old material—the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, different collections of the sayings of Jesus, many would say the Gospel of Mark—and shapes them into a new story that he hopes will wake people up to see what they could not see and do what they fear to do.

This process didn’t stop with the writing of the Gospel of Matthew.  The Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t frozen in that moment, like an insect in a lump of amber.  It has kept growing, like the seed of a mustard plant, so the process of trying to communicate it hasn’t stopped either.  And if we want to perceive the working of God in the world in our own day, to align our lives with it, and to help others to get into that flow, the question of what language to use looms large.  What treasures can we bring out of the storehouse, both old and new, with the power to change the way we see, and the way we walk?  Of course, as a preacher, I wrestle with this question almost every day.  But I don’t think this is just my work, or just my responsibility.  I’ve been trying to introduce it into the discernment conversation that is happening in formal and informal ways in our congregation right now—as we seek to clarify our shared understanding of who we are and what we need and what we are called to become, I keep wondering “what are the images and stories from our tradition that speak most powerfully to our circumstances?” 
And this needn’t apply only to our life together in the parish.  For our personal faith to come alive, and for us to become effective Christians in the world, we all need some training as scribes for the Kingdom of Heaven.  I think some regular reflection on the scriptures, in private reading or familiar conversation, even if it is just to take the little lectionary insert from the bulletin home after church, to read again and think about it during the week can be really important.  Not in order to construct a theological system, or to be able to quote verses for the sake of argument, but to rummage in the storehouse of our own imagination, to wonder about what those ancient people said, and why it was important to them and how it might be important to us.  And if you are already doing this you know what kinds of surprising treasures you bring out of it, some of them old, and some of them new.        


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bermuda Grass

If you are familiar with Bermuda Grass you know how invasive it is, and how hard to eradicate.  It spreads rapidly, sending out lateral runners that quickly take root and send out new runners from there.  But the underground rhizomes are worse.  These also spread out in every direction, forming a dense mat that chokes out other plants, and if you dig these out, one small section of rhizome remaining in the ground is enough to propagate a new plant and start the cycle over again.  And did I mention that at this time of year the Bermuda Grass is sending up slender stalks with forked seed heads like devil’s pitchforks, and that the slightest movement is enough to shatter them and scatter hundreds of tiny seeds onto the ground? 

I come from a long line of vegetable gardeners, and one of the things I was really looking forward to when we moved to the fine climate of Petaluma, and bought a little place of our own, was being able to grow a bit of our own food.     So you can imagine how delighted I was to move into our new house and discover that the yard is full of Bermuda Grass.  I considered various solutions to this problem, but all of them involved expensive and ecologically-dubious inputs like black plastic sheeting, redwood lumber, manufactured soil products, or herbicides.  I also know from experience that such solutions are temporary, and in the long run can create new problems that are just as hard to solve.
So in the end I decided to just start digging in the ground, and carve my vegetable beds out of the Bermuda Grass.  Every spring I’ve dug a new one, and re-dug the ones I dug before, so I now have three vegetable beds, and I think I’ll stop there, at least for now, and work on clearing some ground for vines and fruit trees.  Each time I dig those beds, and add compost and fertilizer, the easier the soil is to work, and the less time I have to spend squatting down, picking out rhizomes of Bermuda Grass.   I haven’t eradicated it, but I’ve accepted that I never will.  And I know that if I ever stop pulling it out around the edges of the beds, or re-digging them every spring, it will take no more than a year or two for it to reclaim my vegetable garden.  But for now, man and weed are in a tenuous balance, and that is good enough for me.
You can understand the story of my garden even if you don’t have Bermuda Grass in your yard.  In the same way, when Jesus told the parable of the Weeds in the Wheat it made sense to the people who were listening.  They would have appreciated the realistic agricultural detail in the story, even if nothing exactly like it had ever happened to them.  From their own experience they would have been able to imagine it vividly—the perniciousness of the enemy who sowed weed seeds in a carefully planted field, the dilemma facing the householder, and the practical good sense of his solution.  And this correspondence with their own experience would have made it all the more puzzling to consider this as religious teaching, and all the more startling to hear that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

The parables of Jesus make sense as stories about what really happens in the world, and so they are accessible to everyone.  This is also what makes them subversive.  The God whose kingdom is like the seed of a mustard plant, or a woman kneading yeast into her dough, or a man whose wheat field is full of weeds—this God is not the exclusive possession of religious professionals.  His word is not shut up in sacred texts that are hard to understand, but it falls freely here, and there, on the path, on the rocks, and among the thorns, as well as in the fertile soil.  Its harvest of liberating truth is ripe and plentiful, as anyone can see, needing only willing laborers to bring it in.

But the church by-and-large lost the common sense of Jesus’ parables in a process that was already underway when the gospels were written.  Her authoritative teachers began to read them in a way that Jesus himself likely never intended.  Rather than offering them as open-source images of the action of God in the world, they began to convert them into proprietary code, where every figure and action in the story is the outward form of a hidden religious idea.  This soon became the normative way of reading, and teaching, and preaching the parables of Jesus, and remained so for hundreds of years.  

It has only been in last couple of centuries that New Testament scholars have developed the critical tools to make convincing arguments for the way the gospel texts were put together.  They have shown how the different authors used their source material in different ways, and that not all of that material came originally from Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew, for example, has a particular concern for the problems of internal conflict, order, and discipline in the faith community, and includes material, not found in the other gospels, that specifically addresses those issues.  With that in mind, it is not too hard to see why Matthew is the only gospel to include the story of the Weeds in the Wheat.  It also explains the addition of an allegorical interpretation of the parable, making it about the future destruction of evil and vindication of the righteous. 

This type of allegory was common enough in the 1st century, and it spoke particularly to people enduring persecution because of their religious beliefs.  The historical-critical study of Matthew suggests that the gospel originated in a Jewish-Christian community suffering in this way.  But while this reading addressed the urgent concerns of Matthew’s congregation, 40 or 50 or 60 years after the resurrection, it doesn’t fit so well with Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom of God. 

There was well-established precedent in Hebrew scripture for talking about this Kingdom, but Jesus is unique for his claim that it is not only the foundation of Israel’s identity as a people; it is not merely the guarantee of the authority of the law and the prophets; it is not only the promise of ultimate deliverance from evil and oppression and of the reward of plenty and rest.  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is most importantly a present power, visibly at work in the realms of nature and human affairs, and impinging on the history of the world in a decisive and unprecedented way in his own life and ministry. 

So it might be more faithful to the mind of Jesus not to abstract from this parable an allegory of the final judgment, but to enter into the concrete situation it describes, to see what it shows us about our present world and the choices we must make there.  We dream of a world of order, of harmony and perfection, where our mate loves and wants and needs the same things we do, and on the same schedule; or of an ideologically and culturally homogenous nation, where everyone, or at least everyone in power, agrees with us; or we imagine a pure market economy, functioning perfectly without the need for political intervention; or of fields where herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides have eliminated every pest from the endless parallel rows of genetically-identical corn.   But instead of this perfect order, we get Bermuda Grass in the yard, Weeds in the Wheat, Muslims in the Middle-East, and Central-American children on the border, a mixed-up muddled mess. 

The frustration of our dreams of perfection continually tempts us to take action to set things right.   But Jesus’ parable puts hard questions to any corrective steps we might take:  do we have the greatness of mind to acknowledge the real presence of evil in the world, with all its destructive effects, and yet also to see that God is this world’s true ruler, who is preparing in the same place, at the same time, an immeasurable harvest of blessing and good?   Beyond that, do we have the humility and the wisdom to admit that we are not able finally to discriminate between what is of God, and what is not?  And most importantly, do we have the faith and the hope to hear the news that the one who can untangle this knot is here? 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wisdom's Well

The part of the story of Rebekah that always has intrigued me is that moment where her family summons her and asks if she wishes to go away and journey hundreds of miles to a new country to be the wife of a cousin whom she has never met, and she says “I will.”   It’s hard to know what motivates her.  Maybe she is just being obedient.  She is used to going along with what her elders want from her and she’s probably good at anticipating what that might be.   Or maybe she’s made a careful calculation.  After all, her latitude for making choices about her own life is pretty limited.  She knows that her father will be looking for a husband for her anyway, and that everything about her future depends on who she marries.  So when she learns that this Isaac is the sole heir of a wealthy man, and imagines that from now on it will be her servants going to the spring to fetch water, maybe she decides that this is as good an offer as she’s going to get.
Or perhaps she listens to the story of Abraham’s determination to find a bride for his son from among his own people, and of his servant’s long journey, and his prayer for a sign, a sign that she unwittingly fulfilled, and something in her own spirit is stirred and she intuits that this is invitation she can trust.  Maybe she senses the awakening of a faith and a hope that she hasn’t known before, a glimpse of the deeper purpose of her life that impels her irresistibly to say “I will” and so take up her part in a great and holy destiny.  The role of wife and mother may be the only one available to her as a woman, but the story of Rebekah makes her out to be a little more than a merely passive object of the desires and agendas of men.  I think we are meant to admire her, and to see her as a worthy choice to be the matriarch of the people of God.

The ideal of femininity that Rebekah represents begins with her generous hospitality to the stranger at the spring, and even to his animals, and goes on to include her clear reckoning with the practicalities of her situation.  She is a good judge of character, is courageous and decisive in the moment of truth, and, if I’m reading the story right, is sensitive to the designs of the spirit, and their claim on her life.  I think it is interesting that in a later development of the biblical tradition, these same characteristics become aspects of a universal religious ideal, called by the proper name of Wisdom.  And the Hebrew sages personified Wisdom as a woman.  The word for “wisdom” in Hebrew, Chokmah, is a feminine noun, as is its Greek counterpart, Sophia. 

So, for that matter, is the Sanskrit Praj├▒a, the Hindu and Buddhist goddess of Wisom.  These very different cultures agree that Wisdom’s generous hospitality, her pragmatism about the social and biological necessities of life, her finely-honed discernment of human nature and the opportunities afforded by a given situation, her skill and versatility in action, all grounded that profound spiritual receptivity that the Hebrew scriptures call “the fear of the Lord”—all belong to the feminine aspect of consciousness, which is itself a manifestation of God in the concrete, embodied, life of the world.

Last week an old friend came to see me.  She wanted to hear what I might to say because she is worried about her son.  I remember him as a young teenager, high-strung, intensely serious, and apparently he’s much the same ten or twelve years later.  My friend described hers son as a young man who holds himself aloof from the conventional values and norms of society and attempts to live by his own, impossibly lofty principles.  He is a scholar of the Spirit, whose interests range from comparative mythology and Jungian psychology, to esoteric Christianity, Taoism, and South American indigenous shamanism.  But he has no idea where to focus, or how to make a living, or what his place is in the world, and he struggles with depression, and wonders at times whether he even wants to live. 

And in her description I recognized a certain classic type.  Usually young men, they are intellectually and spiritually gifted and privileged enough to be able to pursue their interests.  In our time, sacred knowledge from all over the world has uprooted from its traditional contexts and entered the modern marketplace of the internet and the shopping mall.  And if you are into that sort of thing, the upper reaches, outer fringes, and inner secrets of human consciousness hold a lot more interest than washing dishes, and changing diapers, and holding down a job.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and a superficial acquaintance with the spiritual world can create in impressionable and idealistic minds the false notion that if we read the right book, or find the right teacher, or do the right practice, we can move to that spiritual world, and leave all this other stuff behind. 

I understand why that young man’s mother came to see me—there was a time in my life when I wasn’t all that different from her son.  But I’m well down the road to recovery now.  And in my experience the best medicine for this condition is wisdom.  For me, it was the wisdom earned by years of manual labor, and of sitting down on a meditation cushion and trying to sit still; the kind learned by living in community, and being close at hand with other people in their joys and agonies, and mine; of seeing them grow into adulthood, or grow old, or get sick and die.  The wisdom that cured me of my restless thirst for spiritual knowledge came from falling in love, and having my heart broken and seeing myself inflict pain on others, and learning by trial and error over years and decades what love really is, and how it is done; it was the kind of wisdom that comes from prayer, from reaching out to God with no other means than my own ordinary body and mind, and the holy name of Jesus Christ, and finding that somehow these are enough, because in that effort God was reaching out to me.

Wisdom accepts that being human means there are limits to what you can know and what you can do.  It means admitting that you are a person like other persons, that you were born into a body, and a family, and a history, and trusting that that’s how you come to be who you are and how you know what part you are to play.  And that’s important, because Wisdom is a worker, engaged in creating the world.    In the Eleventh Chapter of Matthew, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the work of Sophia, with Wisdom.  His actions, he says, are her deeds, and in them She is vindicated.  People don’t understand why he befriends tax collectors and sinners and eats and drinks with them, but that is because they don’t know wisdom.  They don’t recognize that the Jesus presides at Sophia’s table, extending her hospitality, her invitation to all to join the dance of the new creation at the feast of the Kingdom of God.
But this is also the time and the place where Jesus makes the boldest claim that you will find anywhere in the gospels, outside of John, about being the Son of God the Father, the unique possessor of the highest spiritual knowledge.  And this is no accident.  Here Jesus presents himself as the supreme authority, who gives to those he chooses his privileged knowledge of God the Father, and at the same time as the one who offers humble service to the world, in the name of Lady Wisdom.  Here is the perfect integration of the love of God with the love of neighbor, and it is on this that Jesus  bases his call to discipleship.   “Take my yoke upon you,” he says, “and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.”  Being his disciple is work, the work of Wisdom’s commitment to the practical realities of being human, and of loving one’s neighbor.  But this work is easy, because Christ endows it with his love, the love that knows the full measure of the love of God, who holds our souls in health and life, in whom is rest and refreshment and the peace that passes all understanding. 


About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.