Where do we go from here?

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13A (RCL)
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

The Windsor Continuation Group made its report at the Lambeth Conference yesterday. Reaction was mixed. They called for moratoria on cross provincial interventions and on blessing of same sex unions and consecrations of partnered gay persons as bishops. Nobody is happy.

I am glad that we have been reading the Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebekah, Jacob/Rachel and Leah saga with the Revised Common Lectionary this year. I have not before paid much attention to what surrounds our reading this week from Genesis. We all know the story of Jacob crossing the Jabbok, and its outcome: no one comes away from an encounter with God unmarked. But, I’ve not before paid much attention to his circumstance. He has just had a meal with Laban in which they establish an uneasy relationship of detente. They set up a pile of stones and each promise not to cross it into the other’s territory. It’s the last time Israel and Aram (Syria) are on familial terms. The relationship degenerates into one of enmity. Jacob is cut off from his immediate past.

And he faces an uncertain future, from even further in his past. He is going to meet Esau, who has every reason to hate him. No wonder he spends the night wrestling with God: the results of all his machinations are about to come home to roost. Jacob grows up. He learns that he can’t scheme and deceive without consequences. His wound is of his own making. But, he does wrestle with divine and human beings and survive. He’s screwed up, he’s going to pay for it (and does so with a limp), but he’s alive.

The Episcopal Church will face some decisions after Lambeth. There will be elections for bishop in which partnered gay or lesbian persons are elected. Then what? Pastors of congregations will be approached by gay or lesbian couples asking for the relationships to be blessed. Then what? We will have to wrestle with God. Jacob can’t go back. He can only hope to reach some kind of peace with Esau.

The crowd in the wilderness fed by Jesus is in similar circumstances. They have crossed the stormy sea, been healed of infirmities (demon possession, death, etc.) which rendered them unfit for table fellowship. Jesus instructs his disciples to “give them something to eat” (the same instruction he gives to the crowd around the dead girl). Make a place for them at the table. They’ve crossed the sea and entered the wilderness. God must now provide bread from heaven. So, what boundary are we called to cross? What’s our Jabbok or Sea of Galilee?

Paul shifts his rhetorical emphasis at this point in the letter to the Romans. Up until now he has been arguing for a mixed community, Jew and Greek. Now, he laments the fact that most of the Jews won’t accept the offer. He wishes he could be cut off from Christ (literally, anathema, a word which can also mean a gift to a god). Are we ready to go that far in our relationships with others in our communion. Would I be willing to be cut off if I thought the Nigerian Church would join this wild party in the wilderness, where demoniacs, unclean and even the dead are raised and eat? I don’t think so, more’s the shame.

One way or another, we stand at a brink, and we are not going to walk away without a limp.

Cutting ties and new beginnings

Proper 12A
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah is another story of a meeting at a well that ends in marriage. In this story, Jacob gets his comupance. He had extorted Esau’s birthright from him, and then tricked Isaac out of the blessing meant for Esau. He has to flee his brother to avoid his anger. He goes back to Abraham’s homeland, and meets Rachel, his cousin. He continues his tricky ways. The cover on the well is meant to be heavy enough that only all the shepherds together can lift it off, thereby guaranteeing a fair sharing of water rights. Jacob, who is evidently very strong, lifts it off by himself so that Rachel can water her father’s sheep. Not a good idea to mess with local custom. Rachel takes him home to meet Laban, her father and Jacob’s uncle. Jacob agrees to work seven years to marry Rachel, and on the wedding night (was Jacob drunk?), Laban gives him Leah instead. He gets tricked in his own turn. He marries Rachel a week later, and agrees to work another seven years for her dowry. Notice that neither of these women have any say in the matter.

After twenty years, Jacob decides that Laban has not treated him fairly, and so takes his family and flocks and leaves. Laban pursues him and accuses him of stealing flocks. The reach an uneasy peace, and essentially agree never to see one another again. The women claim abuse by their father (he married them off without permission) and agree to go with Jacob. Jacob’s is the last trip to Abraham’s homeland. It’s also another sort of “twin” story. Rachel, the youngest, is Jacob’s favorite, and though she and her sister get into a contest over who can bear Jacob the most sons (from which the twelve tribes of Israel take their names), Rachel bears his two favorite, Joseph and Benjamin.

As so often in the epic of Israel, God chooses unlikely people to carry forward the divine plan: the deceiver and the deceived; the lovely and the unloved. It’s never the hero as we would see it. Israel recounts its own history through these very flawed human characters. What might God be doing through us?

In the Gospel passage, we have a number of images for the Kingdom, all of them surprising. Mustard is a noxious weed. With no encouragement at all, and in fact without a great deal of vigilance, it will take over whole fields. No one in his right mind sows a mustard seed in his field. Noxious as it is, it never becomes a tree. A scrubby shrub maybe, but not a tree. The parable, about birds making their nest in it, is comparing mustard to the cedars of Lebanon. This scrappy, scrubby weed will replace the great tree of the davidic kingdom. Yeast is unclean — during the high holy days, no yeast can be in the house at all. Here, the kingdom is compared to a woman (!) placing just a little bit of yeast in a great mass of dough, and the whole thing being leavened. The Kingdom is treasure worth everything one has, and a net which catches good and not-so-good fish.

The communities that recorded these stories though of themselves as scrappy, yeasty, on the fringes of things, and yet once given foothold, capable of replacing the cedar of Lebanon, capable of gathering in all sorts of fish. This would not be their doing, but God’s. God prefers to use (or is forced to use?) people like deceitful and deceived Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, pawns in a men’s game, and communities like mustard seeds and yeast for the divine purposes. Whenever we come to think of ourselves as divine agents, all righteous and right, we would do well to remember Jacob, and the mustard weed and the yeast. Making peace in Sudan, bringing all the outcast to the table, will be accomplished more by scappy little weeds and very human people like Jacob and Rachel and Leah than by all the grand rhetoric we so often use. The kingdom ain’t pretty, but once that seed has been sown, it’s inevitable, once that yeast has been added, it’s sure to arrive.

The mess we’re in

I have to admit that I’ve been a little desultory in following news from the Lambeth conference. Mostly, I’ve been reading Bishop Smith’s blog. So I was a little startled yesterday when he wrote about the news from the Episcopal Church of Sudan, and the pain it was causing. I had to go hunting in the ENS website to find out what was so surprising. Archbsihop Daniel, speaking for the Episcopal Church of Sudan, had issued a news release and held a press conference, in which he called for Bishop Robinson’s resignation. As you can imagine, this statement touched off a storm of controversy on the internet. I read statements suggesting that ++Daniel was the latest and greatest spokesman for orthodoxy and truth, and had the courage to stand up to the corrupt Episcopal Church US. I read statements suggesting that he was duplicitous, accepting money from ECUSA with one hand and stabbing us in the back with the other hand. I’m not going to link to any of these blogs, as the language was really quite startling, on both sides.

All of this would have seemed like so much more of the same, if I hadn’t actually met the man. He preached on Ascension Day here at Church of the Advent (see Brother Andrew’s blog). He was a gracious man, and we enjoyed his company. ECS also issued another statement at Lambeth asking for continued prayers and assistance in rebuilding Sudan and assuring adherence to the peace process. The Diocese of Missouri, of course, has a relationship with the Diocese of Lui in Sudan, and Advent has a relationship with the parish of Lozoh, and Deb has spent six months in Lui, and knows so many of the people there.

Also, out there on the blogosphere, there has even been a call for the Companion Diocese Committee of the Diocese of Missouri to end our relationship with Lui, because of what ++Daniel has said. I can’t go that far. I am surprised and hurt by what ++Daniel has said at Lambeth, but I am encouraged by what our bishop says about God finding a way toward unity out of this complicated communion. When Archbishop Ndungane was at Advent, just as the whole Windsor thing was getting started, someone at adult forum asked him if he thought the Anglican Communion would fall apart. He thought for a minute and said, “This morning I received communion from your rector. He and I are in communion. Nothing will change that.” ++Daniel also received communion here. Nothing will change that.

Every wound in the Body of Christ cuts both ways. But if we separate from anyone who hurts us, what chance will there ever be for healing? When Jesus shows up a second time to his disciples in John’s Gospel, Thomas is with them. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Only then can Thomas exclaim, “My Lord and My God!” Thomas does not doubt. He refuses to believe in a Body of Christ that has no wounds. It is only when he touches the wounds that Jesus’ identity at last becomes clear (the disciples have been groping after it for the whole of the Gospel). I understand that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have been wounded so often that many would be unwilling to continue in relationship with ++Daniel, but I can only know he received communion at our altar, just like many on any Sunday with whom we disagree, with whom we argue, who have hurt us, and whom we have hurt. But the meal atones, or at least gives a foretaste of atonement. Until we eat it with Jesus in the Kingdom . . .

A marriage proposal

Proper 9A (RCL)
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The reading from Genesis comes for a longer reading of Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac. Abraham’s servant goes to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Abraham. Abraham has absolutely forbidden Isaac to go back (would this undo God’s promise to Abraham when he left home in the first place?), and does not want Isaac to marry a Caananite girl. Abraham’s servant takes ten camels loaded with gifts on the journey. He plans to ask the first girl he sees for a drink, and if she offers to water the camels as well, then, she’s the one.

Imagine what a stir ten camels made in the village — this was someone impressive passing through. Rebekah offers him a drink, and then offers to water the camels. That must have taken some time: ten camels can probably drink a lot of water. When she is done watering the camels, the servant puts a ring in her nose, and bracelets on her arm. I wonder what her reaction was (try reading that bit liturgically without smiling).

The long and short of the story is she agrees to go back with Abraham’s servant to be Isaac’s wife. We are told that Isaac loves her — it’s more than just an arranged marriage. I find it remarkable that Rebekah is given a choice; “will you go with him?” And she is the one who ends up repeating Abraham’s journey: she becomes the model for faithfulness to God’s promises after Abraham. Her family blesses her with the same blessing God gave to Abraham; may your offspring be thousands of myriads.

I also find it fascinating that this scene gets repeated a number of times. Jacob meets Rachel at the well. Moses meets Zipporah at the well. Did men go down to the well to watch the women work, to see who would make a good spouse? Women around the world draw the water for their families.

Marriage would serve as a metaphor for the relationship of God to God’s people. The well is a place where a basic human need is met. God’s people meet God at the well. Fast forward to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. He meets her at the well, and asks for a drink! This is a marriage proposal — perhaps between God and the Samaritan woman’s people. After a long theological dispute, Jesus asks the woman to go and bring her husband. I have no husband, she replies. Samaria has been conquered five times, and made to worship the gods of her conquerors, and the god they are worshiping now is not theirs (since they aren’t the true Israel). The woman invites Jesus to her village, and they entertain him, just as happens in all the marriage proposal stories at the well.

Abraham wanted to make sure Isaac didn’t marry one of “those sorts” of girls — Caananites. Jesus brings a marriage proposal from God exactly to one of “those sorts” of girls — the Samaritan woman who has had five husbands. No wonder people didn’t know what to make of Jesus. John came fasting and not drinking, and people thought he had a demon. Jesus came partying, and people said, “Look, a drunkard and glutton; a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” The smart and well bred didn’t get it, so God revealed God’s marriage proposal to the simple, those heavey laden and weary.