Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

July 20, 2014

Isaac must have wondered what he did to deserve a son like Jacob, who from the moment of his birth was already such a nasty personality that his parents gave him the name Jacob, which means “one who supplants another” because he came out of the womb attempting to do his twin brother harm.  And supplant he did. Jacob eventually found a way to cheat his brother Esau out of his inheritance – he lied to his father – he was manipulative, conniving, self-centered – he was a thief and a coward — a son only a mother could love, as they say.  Isaac clearly preferred Esau, and for good reason.

Jacob is one of those 0.1% people we hear about today, the Bernie Madoff of the biblical world, one of those “it’s all about me” kind of guys.  He is one of those people who is desperate to get there first, who go through life succeeding at other people’s expense and leaving a trail of damaged people behind them.  Jacob didn’t care that his brother was broken-hearted, or humiliated, or impoverished, as long as he had what he wanted.

Jacob is someone who struggled from day one.  He struggled with his brother and father; he struggled with his father-in-law; he even struggled with God. The one thing he apparently didn’t struggle with was his conscience. In our conflicted and competitive society, his story is one that many of us can identify with.

In the terminology of today’s Gospel, Jacob is a weed, someone whose own aspirations and growth make the lives of others more difficult.  So what’s the solution? Terminate him?  In our prevailing wisdom, “the only good weed is a dead weed,” but Jesus suggests that approach is impossible.  We might wonder at his reasoning, when sometimes the evil is so obvious and the bad guy so despicable.  But what if we are the weed?

Here’s a scenario to consider, an application, a different way of looking at what this story might be saying to us:  We are Jacob and the Native people of this country are Esau.

Think about it.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word supplant as “to supersede and replace.”  Much of our mentality in the Western, Christianized world is supercessionist.  For many centuries, Western societies have assumed the right to supersede – to take over, even if it meant cheating someone out their birthright.  Under the influence of that mindset, beginning in the 15th century, a handful of Western European nations began to claim and colonize much of the reat of the world.

We see how ugly that mentality was in terms of the way Jacob related to everything and everyone around him.  Where does that mentality come from?

It starts with the sense of being chosen people, and the belief that others are not, that God cares more about certain people than others.  To use the garden analogy, the tendency is to see some people as flowers and some people as weeds.  Jacob and his people carried the designation of “chosen people” for centuries, and then, somewhat ironically, Christians claimed that mantle and transferred it from the Jews to themselves, forgetting in the process that Jesus himself was a Jew, and not terribly concerned about where that left the Jews in the process.

The supercessionist, or Jacob, mindset, has played out in a variety of ways.  So for example, it gave us the right to justify superseding the Native or First Nations people in this country – to knowingly cheat them into trading away their possessions, their land, their cultural practices – it gave us the right to relegate them to the margins, to herd them onto reserves, to kidnap them and intern them in residential schools that were more like penitentiaries.  Or so we thought.

Again, to use the imagery of today’s Gospel, we deemed Native people to be weeds.  If we considered them as fellow human beings at all (and many didn’t), we still didn’t think of them as people who matter.  Jesus taught that we should let the weeds and the wheat grow together, but we in our wisdom chose to uproot them (the “weeds”), supplant them and remove them, instead of choosing to live alongside them.  And by doing so we not only deprived them, we deprived ourselves.

What if we were invaded by aliens (in whatever form that might take); what if we were suddenly removed from our homes, taken away from our livelihoods and not allowed to dance or sing or go to church or send Christmas cards?  What if we were separated from family members, denied freedom of mobility and forbidden to speak our own language?  That would be a painful pill to swallow, but it’s exactly what was imposed on First Nations people.

To continue with the Jacob model, we might ask what gave our society the right to supersede native species of animals and plants and replace them with invasive species? We have not just supplanted human beings – we have supplanted countless species of animals, birds, even amphibians and insects. Many of the things that once grew naturally here – on the land and in the water – no longer do.  From the point of the view of the environment, industrial society is like a weed spreading over the face of the planet.

Like Jacob, we are attempting to cling to a lifestyle divorced from the transcendent and driven by greed to exploit without restraint.  Indeed, according to that criterion, we are Jacob – our society is a massive version of the unredeemed and unconscious Jacob, living for himself and unconcerned and uncaring about the impact on the world around him.  We are the weed.

As a society, as consumers and materialists, we refuse to learn.  We take without any sense of consequence and we do not give in return; we seem determined to poison every river, and scrape every mountain bare; we punish the soil with chemicals so that it continues to produce even as we are killing it; and we are doing our best to empty the oceans of all forms of life.

What’s the answer?  Pull up all the “weeds?”  Make all of us go back to our countries of origin?  Dismantle our society and try to make things like they were 500 years ago?  No — not according to the model Jesus suggests.

If Jacob the “bad weed” had been eliminated or removed as an undesirable, the world would have been deprived of a very great man, because, according to today’s reading, one day Jacob woke up and decided not to be a jerk any more.  With a little divine help, he decided he was going to be someone else, and heturned out to be instrumental to the future of God’s people.  No one, least of all his brother Esau, or his father Isaac, would have ever looked at Jacob and predicted that a whole nation would be named after him, but by God’s grace, Jacob became a new man, a renewal so complete that he required a new name – Israel.

So what can we learn from someone like Jacob? Is such a massive transformation possible?   The Christian Gospel asks us to persist in believing that with God, nothing is impossible.

Only a few years ago, in our supposedly secular society, tens of millions were suddenly influenced by the spiritual writings of Carlos Castenada. In his stories (which were presented as research but later pretty much dismissed as being at least partly fictional) Castendada recounted how the mysterious don Juan, a Yacqui Indian and seer, also in the context of the desert, prodded and provoked Castenada to let go of his story – his former assumptions and connections – urging Castaneda toward a personal transformation, helping him to allow a  new identity to emerge, as it did with Jacob.

As Don Juan began to teach him, Castaneda had to acknowledge that he was stupid, blind, and spiritually inept (hard to do for a bright young doctoral student in anthropology), but he came to see how trapped he was in a cynical, controlling and fear-based way of looking at the world.  Don Juan Matus, the weird but brilliant Yacqui Indian, guided Castenada toward insights, new powers, new freedom, and a new sense of identity and purpose.

As part of the process, Don Juan got Castenada to start paying attention to his dreams.  How often dreams are the means by which change happens, when out of the depths of our being, things surface that we had held in for years, and a connection is made between our stifled souls and the life we were meant to live.  Fiction or not, people ate it up.

We can hope that one day, millions will again read scripture, as they read Castenada’s writing, seeking divine guidance and spiritual insight, but only if scripture is freed from its slavery to our culture.  For centuries, scripture has been used to justify a model of supplanting and occupying — a model of oppression — a colonial model.

Perhaps now the Bible can now teach us some different lessons and approaches, ones that are consistent with the model of Jesus, whose wisdom we see clearly in today’s Gospel about the weeds and the wheat, and who taught us that we must develop ears that really hear and eyes that really see.  I hope we are ready to be challenged by new interpretations of scripture.

The text says, “The Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac . . .”  Jacob knows himself all too well, so I can imagine his response might be much like ours: “Who, me? Are you talking to ME?” God’s voice continues: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 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.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . .”  The days of the old lying, cheating, deceitful, grasping and conniving Jacob are over.

Jacob’s story teaches us thatGod is always that close, and that the potential for change is always within us.  Jacob suddenly sees angels where he had seen nothing previously – he is suddenly aware of the presence of God, that there is a sacred dimension to life that he was previously oblivious about.  Suddenly he is awake and reverential; he also has a newfound sense of his responsibility and of a potential destiny that will stem from who he chooses to be in this moment. Jacob starts re-naming things as a sign that his life is now being re-defined from a new perspective.   He is almost ready to become Israel.

The place had been empty and void to him before – “Terra Nullis,” you might say (which is what white people called North America when they first arrived, because, to their minds the land was empty and open to their claims).

But Jacob came to his senses and realized there was much more to life than he had seen previously.  He was suddenly aware of his context, just as we are now waking up to the ways in which our lifestyle is not sustainable.

Again, what’s the answer?  Rip everything up?  As Jesus suggests, that is not the way. What’s done is done.  What we have to do is to find a new will and a new way to go forward.   The answer lies in trying to find a way to live together, and in the process discover that we have things to learn from each other.

Significantly, Native people by and large continue to recognize the environment as something sacred, as an expression of the Creator, as something that needs to be kept in balance.  St Paul suggests in the second reading today (from Romans 8) that at times creation itself cries out, yearning for the appearance of people who understand themselves to be children of God, as opposed to selfish consumers and opportunists.  It seems to me that First Nations people could help us regain our sanity about the environment and the evils of over-consumption before it’s impossible to turn things around.

Tragically, we chose to learn almost nothing from them in the past.  Now, many of us are becoming aware that they have much to teach us, that there is much wisdom in their ways of relating not only to nature but to fellow human beings.  We are no longer very good at either.

One day, Jacob woke up, and realized he had to make peace; he had to reconcile with Esau.  After many years of refusing to see First Nations people as equals, after many years of treating the first peoples of this land as weeds, as less than human,the hope is that we can find a new way.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently opened new possibilities about a way forward – we are at least daring to become familiar with the truth (about residential schools, abuse, injustice, persistent colonialism, etc).  The Native Ministry Consortium, which I attended this summer, has been going for 30 years, training Native people, and helping people of various backgrounds to come together in a learning context.  There is still much anger, hostility, suspicion, and the need for humility, sensitivity and openness.  After all that has happened, and considering our own role in that history, I am glad that the Anglican Church is committed to making more than a token effort to find a better way forward by direct involvement.

The Bible is all about redemption and hope.  Again and again, it presents accounts of people who seemed to be beyond hope, beyond redemption, and shows how, when they encounter the living God, they are transformed – even the most insidious weeds like Jacob are suddenly brought back into harmony,  peace and holy purpose.

I hope that we, like Jacob, will choose to allow ourselves to be open to the voices and images of our consciences, our dreams, that we may be transformed as he was, and be able to walk a new path of reverence, reconciliation and respect.

For the sake of the entire creation, may it be so.

The Venerable Grant Rodgers+

Your comments are welcome.  Email me at rhgr@shaw.ca

RCL-apppointed readings for Pentecost 7:

Genesis 28:10-19a Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.  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.  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.  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; 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.  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.”  Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” 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.”  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.   He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

 Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.   You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.  Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”  even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Romans 8:12-25 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43   He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;  but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  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?’  He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’  But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  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.'”  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.”  He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.  Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!


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