(9th Sunday after Pentecost July 20, 2008 Genesis 28:10-19a; Matthew 13:24-30)
He was bad to the bone, a weed growing in the midst of a carefully planted field of wheat. If anyone ever needed to be set right it was Jacob. The second brother in a set of twins, he came into the world holding the heel of his slightly older brother, Esau. And as they grew up, Esau came first in the patriarchy’s view: the older son and heir, the one who liked to hunt, the manly man who wouldn’t have found Irish Spring a manly enough soap, a guy who might prefer a "pumice-powered" bar of Lava.
And Jacob, well, he was soft in a world where man needed to be rough and hard to be sure of their family’s survival. He spent time with his mother, Rebekah, in the tents, a woman’s place, and he learned to cook, a woman’s job. And his mother urged him on in a scheme that makes the hair go up on the back of my neck every time I read the story.
Do you remember it? We skipped it in the lectionary last week, but it’s important to have some context for this week’s amazing tale. This summer’s cycle from the Hebrew Bible takes us through the story of Abraham and his descendants. A few weeks ago we left young Isaac on the verge of death, only to be saved by a ram in a thicket. By last week, we would have found Isaac the aging father of two grown men.
When the twins were born, an oracle informed Isaac and Rebekah that the younger would rule the elder, a real overturning of the way things were meant to be in their world. But because Rebekah preferred the son who liked cooking, she decided it was up to her to make the prophecy come true. She encouraged Jacob in a two-part scheme. First he convinced his brother to sell his birthright, which meant his inheritance, in exchange for a very tasty bowl of stew. Then she had him dress up in furs, so that he would feel hairy like his manlier brother, to go and see his nearly-blind father and ask for his blessing, a blessing reserved for the eldest son.
Oh, Jacob! He did all those dreadful things and then, afraid for his life, ran off to find his mother’s people in Haran. And it is on the first leg of that journey that we find him, using a stone for a pillow, and having a big dream about angels.
You may well wonder, “Why is this Bad Boy of the Bible getting a spectacular encounter with angels? Isn’t that the sort of thing that ought to be reserved for good guys?”
Maybe it’s good for us to be reminded that the God who was in that place, and who is in this one, is forgiving.
Earlier in the week I met with Baby G and his parents to discuss the various meanings attached to baptism, and we pondered for what reason a baby so cute might need forgiveness? Other than the dent his new little tooth left in his mother’s finger, not much, not yet. But for G, as for all of us, the day will come when there will be temptations of one kind and another, and we will have to hope that the parenting he receives and the care of his godparents and the support of the church will give him the tools he needs to confront whatever comes his way.
It’s probably too easy to blame Jacob’s bad choices on his mother. In this story he is a grown man, old enough to marry, which his mama sends him off to do! He is a grown man, old enough to travel by himself, old enough to choose between right and wrong.
But sometimes we cannot see the wheat for the weeds. Sometimes we need to find a new way to look at things, to acknowledge that God may be working and present in ways we didn’t think of all by ourselves.
Those weeds in the gospel lesson are not just garden weeds. They are not small and squat where wheat grows lean and tall. They are an especially, spectacularly inconvenient form of weed, a weed that looks just like wheat!!!
Even when weeds are less obscure, I’m not always sure of the difference between good growth and bad growth in my yard or my garden. My next-door neighbor gardens avidly, and she has been kind about my much less elaborate efforts. This year I noticed that she has been letting wildflowers grow rather, well, wildly, in her backyard. The other day she apologized. “It looks like my forget-me-nots have gotten into your flower beds.” I guess they spread all by themselves. She considers them an informal backyard sort of flower, not a weed, but not something you would cultivate in the front yard. I, on the other hand, see them as something small and pretty, and I wondered if I could divide them and spread them further!
In the parable we heard in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus encourages us to look twice and be sure, not to be so quick to cut down what we think might be a trickster, a weed that looks like wheat, but isn’t.
I have to admit that I can be quick to go the other way and reluctant to admit my judgment may have been wrong. I’ve been reading a book by the puppeteer, Kevin Clash, who is the voice and the mind and the hands behind that furry little red monster from Sesame Street, Elmo. Now, I like Elmo as much as anyone might. After all, he’s furry and red! Little children like him. Even our dogs liked “Tickle Me Elmo” when they were puppies, liked him so much they broke him! But as the mother of a 22-year-old, I am an old school Sesame Street fan, and I would have told you I could never understand why they shortened the regular show to add the segment called “Elmo’s World.” Why, when they had lovely, relaxed through-plotted stories in the late 80s and early 90s—the era when I watched with my little boys—did they feel the need to do something so obviously for babies?
The puppeteer’s book informed me that I was on the right track with my disparaging thought. For many years, the audience of Sesame Street had an average age of 5. But in the 90s, as more children went to day care, the average viewer’s age dropped—to two years old or younger.
That’s why the Children’s Television Network felt they needed to do something so obviously for babies. Babies were their new audience.
And I? I did not know it. I only knew about my experience, what suited me, what I liked.
I think churches today are in the same boat. Our audience, the people who feel naturally drawn to most of what we have to offer, has changed. We are living in a demographic shift illustrated by Sunday morning sports and Sunday morning birthday parties and Sunday morning everything except church. We think we are the wheat, the wholesome wheat, and we feel challenged, maybe at times even strangled, by weeds that we believe are not good for the world, but that look so much like us, it takes an expert to know the difference.
The church’s place in the world is changing just as the world itself is changing. Where church once seemed like the safest and most sacred sort of space, there are people for whom it now seems dangerous or foreign, or, and this sounds even worse to me, old-fashioned and quaint. But maybe it is. Maybe we are. Maybe we need a good dose of angels going up and down ladders to heaven, a major in-breaking of God’s spirit, to remind us that our rituals carried over from the 20th century and even the 19th are not as old as we might think and yet not as new as they might need to be to speak to the world!
Jacob, Jacob: a liar and a thief, yet he is the recipient of a visit from angels. And it will not be his last encounter with God, although he is not yet finished being a con artist, either. Even this person whose life, on the face of it, seems so unsatisfactory, falls under the attention, the loving attention, of God. "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:15)
And I am thankful to know it! I am thankful that God’s love works in ways I cannot anticipate or approve or appreciate, because there are probably times someone could say the same about me
Today we took part in one of our two sacraments when we baptized G. Baptism is a sign and symbol of holy activity in this place on this day. God is in this place, although perhaps we did not know it or expect it fully. Did you feel the Spirit breaking through in that moment? God the Master of all fields in all times and all places does not pluck up young weeds, in order to protect young wheat. God the Master of All Fields keeps an eye on everything that grows, on everything new that comes to fruition and will sort it all out in the end. With God’s help, as the parents and the godparents said this morning, we might be able to do more, to look beyond the obvious, to admit that there are times God was present and we did not know it, to admit that there were times when the world changed and we did not see it, that there were times when we saw weeds among the wheat and pulled it all out to be on the safe side. May we look for the places in our lives that might need a new perspective, places where God may have been all along and we, we did not know it. Amen.