When I was a sophomore in college, I lived in a dormitory suite with nine other guys: six bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a large locker-room style bathroom. About mid-way through the first semester, one of our number, a 3rd-year biochemistry major, suggested that set up a small brewery in one of the sitting rooms. We all read up on how to make beer and thought it was a great idea; so we helped him do it. It takes three to four weeks to make a batch of beer, so over the next few months we made quite a bit of beer.
Then, late in the spring semester, one of our roommates had a chance to get some yeast from a famous California champagne producer, so we thought we’d use it in our beer. We thought we’d be super-cool making beer with champagne yeast and our beer would be magnificent; we weren’t and it wasn’t. In fact, it was downright awful.
It turns out that not all yeasts are the same!
When I was 19 years old, my parish priest, Fr. John Donaldson, died of cancer. I was privileged to be the acolyte and crucifer at his requiem and burial. It was a very formal, high-church affair. In all honesty, I remember very little of Fr. John’s funeral. I don’t remember Bishop Bloy’s homily at all, but I do remember the committal at the graveside. You see, it was my first experience of a burial using the liturgy of the Episcopal Church.
I had been to plenty of funerals by then: my father died when I was five, my grandfather when I was eight, my paternal uncle when I was twelve. But I had been an Episcopalian for only five years when Fr. John died and until then I’d never been to a Prayer Book funeral and I’d never heard the words spoken as dirt is tossed onto the coffin:
Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ….
Those words, “in sure and certain hope,” really hit me and have stuck with me through the years. They have been used in Anglican burials since Archbishop Cranmer first penned them for the original Prayer Book in 1549. We still use them in the Prayer Book of 1979. They are fundamental to the Anglican expression of the Christian faith.
This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower. We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means because Jesus takes the time to explain it. Jesus calls it “the parable of the sower,” but it really ought to be called “the parable of the soils.” The parable presents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses the metaphor of the different types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” he explains, is people.
Some seed that falls on the path which, says Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.
A clergy colleague suggested recently that this Sunday’s epistle reading makes a lot more sense if you add ‘Dear Diary’ at the start. I think he’s right. For seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul the erudite and well-educated Greek-speaking rabbi has been going on at length about the Law and how it does or does not apply to Jews and Gentiles, how it does or does not apply to members of the church, and so forth. And then, all of a sudden, he’s no longer the learned Jewish Christian apologist; he’s just a guy complaining about life. He begins writing in the first person and bemoaning his inability to carry through with his best intentions. It’s like, “Dear Diary, I really screwed up and I don’t understand why!”
But this passage is not in Paul’s diary, it’s in his letter to the Romans, which the church has preserved as part of Holy Scripture, so here we are reading it during worship and trying to figure out just what the heck Paul is talking about! Is he, autobiographically and symbolically, describing a believer’s pre-conversion state? That is, does the misery described in these verses represent a person’s life before receiving the grace of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension? Or, alternatively, is he presenting himself as the stereotypical believer after receiving the grace of baptism? Does the conundrum Paul describes characterize the life of faith? And if he couldn’t get it right, who could?
What are we to do with our first lesson today? The story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, “exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers.” In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that such “darkness and mystery,” and the thousands of unanswerable questions they bring, are really fundamental to our relationship with God. “[O]f God Himself can no man think,” he writes, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.”
The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem known as The Dark Night of the Soul. He wrote in the first verse:
Once in the dark of night,?
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose?
(O coming of delight!)?
And went, as no one knows,
?When all my house lay long in deep repose….
“In this first stanza,” John himself said, the soul relates the way and manner which it followed “to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation.” This “purgative contemplation” has been called a darkening of the will, intellect, and senses, or more simply a “remain[ing] silent, …not thinking of anything.”
Do any of you know the story of Tubby the Cocker Spaniel? Well . . . remember Tubby’s name. We’ll come back to him, but first let’s put today’s gospel lesson in perspective.
This lesson picks up where last week’s lesson ended. You’ll recall that Jesus is sending the twelve out to do missionary work. “Go,” he tells them “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel . . . proclaim the good news . . . cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” In last week’s lesson, he warned them that this was not going to be easy, that they would face opposition. In this week’s reading, he continues in that vein and ups the ante, increases the volume: it won’t just be difficult, he says, it’s possibly going to be deadly!
There won’t just be arguments at the Thanksgiving table; there will be fights! Your father or your mother, your sister or your brother . . . they won’t just disagree with you; they will be your enemies; they will try to kill you. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Something similar happens in the Genesis reading from the Hebrew scriptures appointed for today: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ * * * So Abram went, as the Lord had told him….”
Abram’s immediate response to God’s call is the subject of Paul’s comments in the Epistle reading from the Letter to the Romans. Abram believed God, believed in God, and acted on that belief, and that combination of belief and action is what Paul refers to as faith and that “faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
“Put things in order, … agree with one another, live in peace.” That’s Paul’s advice to the Corinthians and to us this morning. It’s a goal to which we often pledge ourselves. Sometimes, though, the world makes it hard to get there.
In January of 2013, a 16-year-old girl in Detroit, Michigan, was minding her own business in a public playground when she became the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting. Two years later, on June 3, 2015, on what would have been her 18th birthday, her friends decided to honor her memory by dressing in her favorite color, orange, which just happens to be the color hunters wear for safety. The next year, they decided to do it again and create a campaign for gun violence awareness. Thus was born Wear Orange Day which has since become Wear Orange Weekend. Also in 2016, some of us Episcopal clergy here in Ohio heard of their effort and decided to join it by making and wearing orange stoles on the first Sunday of June.
The last sentence of our reading from Genesis says, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” so this text is often treated as a story of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abram questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.
We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. Think about the neighborhood and community where you live; I’m willing to bet that your neighborhoods are made up of people for the most part pretty similar to yourselves. Aside from clearly racist practices like red lining and sundown laws, we modern Americans may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do. Like attracts like. As individuals, we are initially situated within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, political party, nation.
It’s genetic: our nearest relatives, the great apes and chimpanzees, demonstrate this same family and clan predilection. And it’s religious: we find it in sacred literatures across cultures. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.