Sunday, July 23rd, 2017 – Sermon on Jacob and Dreams and Jesus and Weeds

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
 24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, “An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ “ 36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! 

First Reading
Genesis 28:10-19a
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place -— and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz.

——-

In Martin Luther’s small catechism, which is in your hymnals –so if you open your hymnal to page 1167 –  there is an evening prayer, a prayer before bed that goes likes this – I give you thanks, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Is there anything so vulnerable as falling asleep? There is something about that moment when you enter the space of one who is sleeping. There is an innocence and softness to one who is sleeping. After the most frustrating day with a child, when you find them curled up and sleeping, something of the day starts to soften. And sleep can even make the most powerful and maybe even intimidating people look like small children. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.

 And to go to sleep – to finally lay down your head and close your eyes, to let go of everything we try to control and give ourselves over to God in whom we strive to trust.

It has been said that Angelo Roncalli, also known as Pope John the 23rd who lived and led during the chaos and turmoil of Vatican II, would each night say his prayers and then he would say to himself, “Who runs the church? You…or God? Go to sleep, Angelo. Go to sleep.”

To go to sleep is to let go of everything we try to micromanage and control in this world, and vulnerably give ourselves over into the hands of God.

That’s what Jacob does in our Old Testament story this morning. He lays down his head and goes to sleep. Last week we heard the story about how Jacob, the cheat, the heel, took what is not his and cheated his brother Esau out of Esau’s birthright. Since then, Jacob, along with his mother Rebekah, has deceived his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the blessing that Esau was to receive.

And now – he’s on the run. And for anyone whose running from anything, to have to stop and lay your head down is risky and vulnerable. Because whatever you’re running from – you’re enemy, you’re conscience, you’re God – it just might catch up to you.

And so Jacob sleeps. And when he sleeps – he dreams.

And in this dream, Jacob sees a ladder set upon the earth and reaching all the way into the heavens. And this scurry of angels ascending and descending.

Now, what could this mean? The text doesn’t say. Dreams are like that – we don’t always know what they mean. But one possibility is that back in the Ancient Near East, there were these staircases attached to the temple towers. And they represent the belief or the understanding that the very top of the tower represented heaven. The dwelling place of the gods. And so these staircases represented this pathway for the human realm to touch the divine realm. Priests or divine beings would go back and forth up and down the stairway, creating communication between the two realms.

So, in his dream, Jacob is watching this event happen, which maybe was an idea he was familiar with. And all of a sudden – did you notice what happens next? It says, “And the Lord stood beside him.”

Jacob is watching, over there, all of this flurry and scurry between the earthy realm and the heavenly realm – and God is standing right next to him.

That’s like if you show up at a multi-million dollar business, and you see all of these rich professionals running around with their brief cases and their suits, up and down the gilded elevators, and then you find the CEO out on a park bench playing chess with a person from the street.

It’s like if you’re at US Bank Stadium this September for the U2 concert, and you’re sitting there in your nosebleed seats, waiting for the band to step on stage, and suddenly you realize the man next to you crowding the arm rest is Bono, with his cool sunglasses.

Jacob is watching this ladder covered in angels, spanning the earth into the heavens. But God is right next to him and suddenly there are no two realms. God is now here.

And God says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 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.” 

Jacob’s on the run and he finds out God’s on the run with him. Nearly everything up until now in his life, Jacob’s stolen and cheated for. But in this moment, he receives something that can never be stolen, never be taken, it can only be received as gift – the promises and presence of God.

And Jacob wakes from the dream and proclaims, “The Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” Which is enough good news for one day – that God can be here even when we don’t see it.

Do you dream much these days? I’ve started dreaming again now that we are sleeping through the night more. This past weekend I had a dream where a whole section of my teeth shattered and fell out of my mouth.

One of my Old Testament professors has said we don’t pay enough attention to our dreams as a way for God to communicate to us.

In 1984, Herb Chilstrom (former presiding bishop of the ELCA) and his wife Corrine lost their son Andrew to suicide. In her powerful and yet devastating book, Andrew, You Died Too Soon, Corrine shares what she calls preparatory dreams that three of the family members had right before Andrew took his own life.

Four nights before it happened, Herb dreamt that he was talking with his kids about being financially responsible adults. But in the dream, Andrew was to the side – apart from the cluster of the family. Yet Andrew needed more help than the others. Why had he not been in the circle? He wondered when he awoke.

The night Andrew died but before anyone knew, their daughter Mary had been awake for along but when she finally fell asleep, she awoke to a stabbing pain in her heart accompanied by a very bright light. And with a sense of sadness, she fell back asleep only to be awaken by her parent’s phone call.

Corrine had a dream that night too. She was walking to her car downtown at dusk, when she walk by five men in a huddle. She sensed that something terrible was about to happen and rushed into a building. Soon, the young men were in the building and a frenzy was building among the group. Corrine woke up and immediately woke up her husband saying, “I feel afraid, as though something frightening is happening somewhere.” The next morning she knew the meaning of her dream.

God does speak to us in our dreams, Corrine writes.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann calls them Holy Intrusions.[1]

Brueggemann says that the biblical world knows about dreams and understood that they can open us up to a world that is different than the one we try to micromanage during the day. And they were willing to risk wondering if dreams, as confusing and odd as they might be, could be a way through which God tries to speak to us, and that this communication is worth our wonder and thought and questioning.

Can we be open to the mystery and the wonder of our dreams? Which, I guess, is how I’ve found myself thinking about parables this week too. And I guess for me, parables have become like dreams. Parables, like dreams, serve as keys that can help us “unlock the mysteries we face by helping us ask the right questions.”[2] Parables are not answers – they are trying to communicate something true about this life, and about God to us and they are invitations to question our own conclusions about this life and about God.

And so as much as I want to disregard this awful parable because it seems to reinforce an unhelpful (and I think unChristian) theology that some people are bad people and other people are good people and the bad people will get cooked and the good people will celebrate – as much as I want to ditch this parable for that easy misreading, I think there is too much truth and wonder and mystery here to get rid of it. Because you see, we are such a product of our own age – we think this parable is all about us. When in fact it’s about God and the kingdom of Heaven and the truth about this life.

Rather than scare us into judgment of others or fear of judgment, but rather like all of our readings this morning, is steeped in words of promise to pass on to each generation.

Lord, there are weeds in this field. There is evil in the world. Lord, did you sow these bad seeds?[3] Did you cause the evil in the world?  Right away, the parable gives a clear and defined answer.

No.

To the cancer takes a young woman’s life, to the systemic racism that panics and divides, to the cultures of perfection that breed shame and isolation and a sense of worthless. To all of these evils, and more, the text proclaims a thousand no’s. No – these do not come from the Lord. In fact they are the enemy of God and us all.

Lord, can we fix it?

No.

 The parable names a hard truth about the reality of the world – the seeds of justice and injustice, the good and the bad – lie side-by-side. And there is good news in this hard truth. Not everything in the worlds is wheat. You don’t have to act like you have it all together. And not everything is a weed. But truth be told, sometimes it can be hard to figure out which is which. Just like wheat and the darnel weed, what looks like good can turn out to be evil and what looks like evil could turn out to be good. You pull one out and the entangled roots of the other are not far behind. If we seek to be the ones to rid the world of evil, can anyone be left standing? Because the truth is that our life is the field, and that each one of us is mixed up in goodness and evil. It’s not up to us to determine and rid the world of evil. Yes, we do what we can do to resist evil in ourselves and in others, but it is not on you do it all. Which frees you.

Will it always be this way, Lord?

No.

I don’t know if you noticed, but the evil one may have sowed the bad seeds, but the evil one also left. That’s what evil does. It abandons. It isolates. It neglects. But sower of the good seeds stays beside the field – wheat, weeds in all. In the end, the Lord has stuck around to sort it all – it won’t always be this way.

I don’t think it’s a simple as the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell. I think we live in complicated and mixed up world –where sometimes it can all look the same. But the Lord – the one who sows good seed, has stuck around. And will lead the sorting out. The kingdom of Heaven demands change and transformation.  Which, I trust, will be good too. I don’t know about you, but it’s good when the evil in my life is burned away with the truth spoken in love. It hurts – but it hurts like a surgeon’s scalpel and not a mugger’s knife.

And so, in the end the promise I’m left with, both from Jacob’s dream and Jesus’ parable comes right form the Psalm. Where can we free from your spirit, O Lord? Where can we free from your presence? Nowhere. The world groans but you are here, O Lord. We make love and we make war but you are the ground of our being who holds us fast in the midst of our own self-destruction.

God is with us – on the run. Pouring promises of grace over us like oil over a stone. So that those who encounter us might one day say – look, God is in this place and I did not know it.

Amen.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-06/holy-intrusion

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, pg. 275.

[3] What follows is drawn from Tom Long’s book, What Shall We say?

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