The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year A), 19 July 2020


July 19, 2020

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Genesis 28:10-19aPsalm 139:1-12, 23-24Romans 8:12-25Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8Psalm 86:11-17

by Nichole Torbitsky

Genesis 28:10-19a

Historical Background and Setting:
Jacob leaves Beersheba in our text for today.  Two reasons are given to explain why he leaves.  Genesis 27:41-45 says he leaves to escape Esau’s anger and Gen 28:1-2 says he leaves to find a wife from among his Grandfather’s people. The text also gives two different destinations, in Genesis 28:7 he goes to Paddan-Aram, but in Genesis 28:10 to Haran to his family’s home to find a wife. This is where the text picks up for today.  

Jacob ended up in Beersheba when his parents Rebekah and Isaac relocated there to escape famine in Hebron and hostile neighbors in Gerar.  The traditional site of Beersheba is about 75 miles south of Jerusalem.  Jacob sets out from there to head north back up to Haran on what is now the Syria-Turkey border.  This is about a 450-500 mile journey and it would take about 20 days to walk.

On his way to Haran, he stops at a place called Luz, renamed Bethel (house of God) for the night.  Jacob is traveling alone and sleeping rough.  He was a wealthy man in Beersheba and certainly had servants.  Why is he traveling to Haran for a wife without the camels and gifts and servants that welcomed his mother Rebekah into Abraham and Sarah’s family?  Why didn’t he even bring a pack to roll up an put under his head?  He’s on the run.  Years earlier, he bargained with his brother Esau for the family inheritance, and recently with the help of his mother, tricked his ailing father into giving him the birthright blessing instead of his older brother.  Esau was furious, and promised to kill Jacob.  So, Jacob is on the run.  He apparently had to leave without any comforts of home.  With no security, no home, no family, no land to farm or animals to tend, where does one go?  Best to go to one’s cousins and uncles and find a wife.  Best to find some people who may be sympathetic and start over.  So, sleeping rough, he uses a stone for a pillow.   

Loneliness and aimlessness
While the text never tells us that Jacob was lonely, it does allude to it.  God tells Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen 28:15).  These must have been comforting words.  When one is lonely and at loose ends, it is good to know that there is a companion and a purpose.  Both loneliness and aimlessness could be concerns members of your congregation are dealing with. 

While we do not have great statistics on loneliness in the US, the UK has recently done a reliable, widespread study on loneliness.  Cultural similarities between the US and UK are relatively high, so it is safe enough to apply these findings in general to people in the US and other predominantly English speaking, culturally Christian nations.  Here are a few of the most pertinent findings. This, and more, information can be found at the Campaign to End Loneliness website:

  • Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely, but almost two thirds feel uncomfortable admitting to it (British Red Cross and Co-Op, 2016)
  • Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010)
  • Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014)
  • 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report, feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013)
  • 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013)
  • A higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013)
  • 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)

Outside of deeply detrimental emotional and psychological effects, loneliness also has adverse physical effects.  This and more information can be found by visiting this other Campaign to End Loneliness website:

  • Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
  • Loneliness is worse for you than obesity. (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression. (Valtorta et al, 2016) (James et al, 2011) (Cacioppo et al, 2006)
  • Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 29% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)

Loneliness is a problem that most people experience at one point in their lives.  Many of us have had heighten feelings of loneliness during our stay-at-home response to COVID-19. And most of us, especially the younger we are, experience loneliness as periodic. But, for some in our congregations, loneliness is constant and draining.  Many in our congregations see little to no relief in sight and church might be the only place they have much interaction with other people. Loneliness is an insidious problem because the lonelier a person is, the harder it is for them to make the changes necessary to become less lonely. Our text for today offers some guidance on how to offer hope to our lonely members, and guidance for our socially connected members who would like to help.  

One of the reasons why loneliness might be experienced as painful is because we are fundamentally, internally related to other beings (and even non-living things) in existence.  When our relations with other people are limited, those things which Whitehead says have intrinsic value, beauty, harmony, massiveness and intensity of feeling are replaced by discord, narrowness, and triviality.  While it is well known that one can be lonely in a crowd, one can also experience discord, narrowness, and triviality in a crowd too.  Nonetheless, one is significantly more likely to begin to experience more strength of experience when one is in the company of other living things, especially human beings, precisely because we are internally related. 

While the company of people may be an important source of beauty, it is not the only source.  We are also internally related to God. Much ink has been spilled through the millennia over the meaning of Jacob’s ladder.  Good.  More and better still.  This dream of Jacob’s with angels ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth, can symbolize for us the constant movement of God into our moments of becoming and our moments moving back into God’s becoming.  In Jacob’s dream, God stands at his side and promises that he will not be alone.  That God has a purpose for him.  Just like Jacob, even at our loneliest, our most discordant, our most narrow and trivial, we are never completely lost to those things, because God unfailingly provides an aim for us toward beauty, harmony and strength of experience.  This is not a platitude for the lonely.  It is a fact of existence.  We are internally related to each other and to God regardless.  This is a grace that we can use as a buoy when loneliness feels overwhelming.  It provides a way forward. If loneliness is like sleeping rough with a stone for a pillow, bereft of comfort and warmth, God and a ladder of angels remind us that we are connected unceasingly to something far greater than us.  

Like God’s promise to Jacob, God’s promise to each of us is that God does indeed have an aim, a lure for feeling, a purpose for each of our moments.  Loneliness and aimlessness are not the same thing, but they are closely related.  Remind your congregation that as children of God, as internally related to God, we also get grace for each moment of our lives, in the form of God’s aim for that moment.  We have a purpose.   We contribute to God’s life, and God lures us toward those things that add beauty to the divine life, if only we’ll seek after that aim.

Jacob recognizes how easy it is to miss God’s presence in our lives.  When he awakens he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! (Gen 28:17)”  He took the symbol of his loneliness, his stone pillow, and made it into a monument to mark God’s presence.  He anointed his ebenezer with oil.  If only we will look for God, we will surely find the divine presence and purpose.  This too sounds like a platitude.  It is not.  There are concrete things we can do to seek God in our lives. By seeking to recognize God’s presence and aims, we are more capable of seeking those things that alleviate loneliness.  

First, pray. As the statistics above indicate, most people do not like to admit they are lonely. If we can’t admit it to another person, we can at least take it to God. God who never leaves us, will hear and fully know the pain and grief of loneliness. God also aims at the beauty of our experience and therefore aims away from loneliness. We can ask for God’s presence in our lives. We can ask for God’s help in alleviating loneliness. Like it did for Jacob, it may take some real doing on our part. After his experience at Bethel, Jacob still had hundreds of miles to walk alone. But, like us, he knew God had an aim for him to follow.

Second, practice gratitude. Like Jacob, stop for a moment and raise an ebenezer to God’s presence in your life. Rather than build and anoint a stone pillar, keep a journal and write in it the same time every day. Every day, list five things you are grateful for. It is crucial to read over your previous entries daily too. At my lowest and loneliest, my gratitude journal was a little sad, I hate to admit. My entries were, “I have a place to live, food to eat, clean water to drink, clothes to wear, and the weather was nice.” (I’m not kidding, this is a quote. I was having a rough time.) They did not stay that way though. Even though life was tough, I trained myself to look for and dwell on the good.

Third, help others. The surefire way to follow God’s good aim for us, is to find a way to help others. The surefire way to build relationships is to help others. If you can find a place or two or three to volunteer, do that. Once again, while loneliness and aimlessness are not the same, having an aim goes a long way toward alleviating loneliness.

Here is a Psychology Today webpage with other helpful examples of what people who are lonely can do right now.

Here is where other people who are not lonely can help:

  • First, remember that you are not Jesus and you cannot save anyone. That is God’s job.
  • Second, you can help those who are lonely by calling or visiting for regularly scheduled prayer and check-ins. Regularly scheduled check-ins, provide a source of regularity that can become a real source of strength for someone suffering from loneliness.
  • Third, you can help those who are lonely to volunteer. If a senior is capable of getting out, the Silver Sneakers website has resources to help them find volunteer opportunities. Especially if someone is housebound, finding volunteer opportunities is more challenging but not impossible. Here is a Medicare website with resources for homebound volunteers. Perhaps your church has ministries that could use some extra help.

Almost everyone experiences loneliness at some time in our lives. Our text today shows that even those who are destined for greatness struggle with it too. The text also shows that we do not have to get stuck in our loneliness.

 

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

History and Setting:
Our text for today is often called the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. A parable (as I’m sure you are already aware) is the technical word for a teaching story.  It comes from the Greek parabole which means comparison. Which makes sense, Jesus often starts a teaching with the phrase, “the kingdom of God is like…” as he does with our parable for today.

A tare is a weed. A weed, as anyone who has a garden or a yard knows, is any plant that volunteers where it is unwanted.

Like last Sunday’s parable, this parable uses a comparison that most of Jesus’s listeners would have understood. We can pretty safely assume that most of Jesus’ listeners would be keenly aware of the difficulties of working with seeds and understood the problem with weeds. While not everyone gathered in the crowd by the Sea of Galilee was a farmer, many fished for living. Nearly all of them would have a home garden of some kind. This comparison also suggests that Jesus’ gathered crowd was probably made up of people who did farm, at least a little, rather than people from large cities who did not have space to farm.

Since this parable comes in a series of parables, it is connected to our text from last week. Jesus is still on board a boat just off shore on the Sea of Galilee. The text does not give a specific location, but tradition holds that the house mentioned in the first verse is Peter’s house in Capernaum. Capernaum is located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and is thought to be Jesus’ “home base” during his ministry in Galilee.

The text also says that after a great crowd gathers, Jesus gets into a boat so he can preach without the great press of the crowd. But, also, tradition holds that there are a few coves around Capernaum with great acoustics that would have served to amplify Jesus’ voice to the crowd. (Perhaps someone more in the know than me can affirm the truth or falsity of this claim in the comments.) Whether for safety or clarity of a line of sight or amplification or for the gorgeous backdrop of the Sea of Galilee or any combination of these, Jesus delivers this and six other parables that day. From this day until the end of his ministry in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will only speak in parables to large crowds. We can only guess why, but it may be because they are a really effective way to make a point.

Wheat and Weeds
As you read the text for today, did you think to yourself, “In the Kingdom of Heaven, I am I the householder, the good seed, the weeds, the field, the slaves, the enemy? Thankfully, Jesus clearly explains this one to us. He says, the Son of Man is the householder, the field is the world, the good seed is children of the kingdom, the weeds are the children of the evil one, the angels are the reapers, and the harvest is the end of the age where the angels will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers. Jesus makes it pretty easy to narrow down who we are, we are either the good seed or the weeds, because pretty much everybody else is taken.

The scary part of this passage is that the angles are going to come and collect all causes of sin and all evildoers. In the reading for today we run into one of the great judgment passages in the Bible. This passage always prompts me to ask myself if I am wheat or weed? I have to say that in my life,I have failed to live up to the life Christ asks of me; most of us have. Even in my adult life, I have failed, and regularly. I just deleted a whole list of sins and failures. I think I’ll keep that list between me and my redeemer, rather than me and the whole of the internet, but the truth is I fail and sin more than I wish I did. Does this make me an evildoer? Am I a cause of sin? By the letter of the law, you betcha’! I’m one of the ones headed into the furnace of fire to weep and gnash my teeth.

For those of us who lean toward the ‘grace’ side of the church, we tend to get a little uneasy around the judgment passages, and would like to skip straight on to the grace and forgiveness part of Jesus’ message. I would like to suggest to you to not skip the judgment part because God’s judgment is real, but very unlike the caricature of judgment circulating in popular American culture today. I began thinking about how this passage talks about judgment after my yoga instructor helped me out in class a few weeks ago.

In one particularly demanding class and one particularly demanding pose, I was breathing hard, feeling the muscles in my back, the compression in my stomach and chest and the weight of my body on my chest and shoulders.  I could hold this pose, but it was a lot of hard work. As a good teacher will do, my instructor appeared over my tense, compressed form to help rescue me. He gently leaned over me, ran his thumb down the wrinkle pressed between my frowning eyebrows and reminded me to breathe. “Breath out,” he encouraged me, “use your breath and relax,” all the while smoothing the frown between my eyes. He looked me squarely in the eyes, seeing the fear and struggle there and said, “No one is chasing you.” After a few more breaths he let us out of the pose and allowed us to rest a moment on our backs before the class moved again. While I laid there my mind wandered to what he had said. What did he mean, “No one is chasing you?” Of course no one is chasing me; I’m not in a race, or a B horror film. But then it began to dawn on me, I was racing. Not the people around me, but myself.

One of the first things we are supposed to learn in yoga is to let go of judgment. That means not watching the people around you and how deep they can bend or how far they can stretch. It also means letting go of judging ourselves. In yoga we are supposed to be where we are for this day and this time.  That means that if yesterday I could hang out all day with my feet tucked around my head, but today I’m not as comfortable, then something about today makes it that way, and I am to honor my situation and my body today.  Of course that doesn’t mean that I don’t put in work on the pose, it does mean that I stop comparing myself to myself and deal with what I have going on now.  “No one is chasing you,” means suspending destructive judgment without ceasing to embrace possibility.   

As this class was coming to a close, he began to talk to us about the philosophy of yoga.  He reminded us that the practice of yoga is not about judgment, but about possibility.  I think this is some of what Jesus was trying to get across in these passages. Judgment is much like how we are supposed to practice yoga, with an eye toward fulfilling possibility rather than how I often find myself practicing, full of pushing, harsh expectation and lack of understanding and trust.  God practices the judgment of possibility.  

To be able to practice the judgment of possibility God must be able to perfectly know who we are, where we come from and why we choose or don’t chose the options of our lives.  As options pass by and choices are made, God who is closer to us than our own breath, knows those deep and hidden and even not so subtle motivations for our choices.  God who knows our struggles and our triumphs also is more kneely aware of what we can be, the choices we could have made for better or worse and mourns or rejoices when we fail or succeed.  God holds before us, not a rubric of unattainable perfection, but offers us what is possible for each of us according to our own situation moment to moment.  God honors us where we are, knowing that sometimes in life the best possible choice can be pretty rotten (Sophie’s choice).  God who honors us for where we are constantly calls us to where we could be by holding up the best possibility for our situation, wanting the best for us.  Our responsibility is to breathe into that situation, reaching for what is possible for us.

How can we possibly do this?  The grace of this passage is easy to miss.  I’ve read this passage countless times in my life, and have preached on it, at least once before, but I always missed this crucial point until this time around.  You see, the grace of this passage is that we are already living in the Kingdom of God.  It is not something that happens at the judgment when the angels come to separate the wheat and weeds.  Right now, God’s kingdom contains us all.  Wheat and weeds and those for who it is still too early to tell the difference.  The Kingdom of Heaven is right now, full of all of our struggles.  God who loves us, is aware of our struggles with evil and sin.  God, who can sow the good seed, cannot sprout and grow for us.  We are responsible for our own growth.  This is the loving judgment of God.  This is the judgment that calls us to our best possibility.  It does not mean we destructively compare ourselves to others or even to ourselves when we were at a different place in our lives, but we are called to be the best we can be now.  This kind of judgment can be very scary to those of us who are not used to practicing it, because it makes us responsible for our actions.  If there is no perfect score card holding up impossible standards, then we cannot blame God for when we fail.  My yoga instructor says, we don’t come to class to torture ourselves, so if I go to class and have a torturesome class even though I have been taught how to keep that from happening then, it is my responsibility to change my attitude.  It is not my instructor’s fault.  I cannot blame him, I am responsible for my actions.  Since God works with us from where we are, calling us to the best possibility, then it is not God’s fault if we fail to reach that best possibility, it is our responsibility.  If there is no perfect score card and we are responsible for our choices, then there is also no predetermined course of events set out by God from the beginning of time that means we had no choice and once again, we cannot blame God for the choices we have made.  

God who loves us constantly calls us to our best possibility.  This is the light yoke Jesus describes in a parable just before this one.  No destructive judgment, no impossible standards, but working with us from where we are calling us to what we can be.  That is an easy yoke.  It is one of humility and gentleness.  It is the grace of context.  It is one who recognizes and respects the depths of each person so much so that we can be called to task in those places where we should be stretching, strengthening, trusting and learning.  God sees the best in us and calls us toward it.  God calls to all who are weary from carrying these heavy loads of impossible judgment and offers rest for our souls. 

Jesus never leaves us with judgment as the last word, because it is not.  Struggle with the weeds of sin and evil will be replaced because Jesus shows us that God is humble and gentle, and constantly calls us to be the best we can be.  God who is infinitely patient waits for us to respond to the grace offered to each of our moments.  God who reveals this simple truth to even the dullest wit among us, awaits our joyful response to the call. The yoke is easy and light, once we trust that it is easy and light. God who loves us has already placed us in the Kingdom of Heaven, our job is to do what we can to make that kingdom as little work for the angel reapers as possible. That yoga pose has gotten easier for me.  I have taken to heart what my instructor said, I remember that there is no one chasing me, there is only my breath and trust in my body and spirit.  The more I trust and reach for the possibility of this pose, the easier it becomes. That is the judgment we need to remember, nothing happens all at once, but if we see what we are called to be and reach for that possibility then we are answering God’s call and we will be joyful people and a joyful kingdom.


Nichole Torbitzky earned a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God.  Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, Women and Religion, African Diaspora and African American religion.

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