Lectionary Musings (Proper 11, Year A)

So we’re home from our visit with my grandparents in Florida, and I had my second cervical prolotherapy treatment yesterday.  I’m working from home today, and my daughter is hanging out with me before her appointment this afternoon.  The sun is shining after yesterday’s thunderstorms, and the streets are quiet in my neighborhood, but for the sweet sounds of the birds and the squirrels about their daily work.  And this Sunday’s readings include the famous image of Jacob’s Ladder, a tough parable from Jesus, and Paul using the image of God’s creation groaning with labor pains.

I know that the RCL is not organized around a theme, but I do see a thread that ties these together.  In all of these, I see the idea of God planting a seed in us, in God’s people.  It could be a seed of faith, a seed of love, a seed of trust, a seed of obedience.  It could be an idea for a dream, the kernel of a plan, or the essence of a vocation that is ready to take root and grow.

The gospel lesson is explicit in this imagery, with the story Jesus tells about the Son of Man sowing seed in the field while the Enemy sows weeds that try to choke out and kill the good seed.  The explanation of the parable that Jesus gives is his intended lesson, but experience has taught me that there is never any one interpretation that is the one and only right way to read the parable.  While the field can be the world and the good seeds be those of us who hear and obey God, the field can also be one person – my mind, your heart, the inner landscape of just one soul – so that the good seed is God’s word sown within us, and the weeds are the words that the Enemy whispers to try to separate us from God’s grace.

The imagery is similarly clear in the epistle reading, too.  It speaks of the time of waiting for God’s kingdom – the gestation, the longing, the labor pains.  Rather than being a field of crops, the comparison here is to a pregnant woman.  But the waiting on fertility is similar regardless of whether we are waiting for the food to grow from the earth so that it can nourish us or waiting for a child to grow within a mother’s body so that it can continue our life and nourish our hearts.

In the story from Genesis this week, we see God planting the seed within Jacob, and Jacob accepting it.  This story here is the seed of the Promised Land, the land to which Moses leads the Israelites through the desert out of Egypt.  This story is the seed of the nation of Israel, the seed of much of the conflict that has torn the Middle East for millennia.  And it is a seed of awe and wonder and joy and delight – gifts that God plants in Jacob’s heart, gifts that will sustain him through the rest of his life.  The psalm describes this wonder and delight, some of the feelings that Jacob must have experienced after his amazing mystical experience.

So the question for us today is, what kind of seed is God planting in our hearts, in our minds?  What seeds are being sown in the fields within us?  What labor pains are we experiencing, and what are we giving birth to?  What are the dreams that God wants us to dream?

Before you begin to despair, because you haven’t experienced a dream as clear as Jacob’s dream, in which God speaks directly to you, please remember something.  God speaks to us at exactly the level we can hear.  If you can hear God’s whispers in your heart, then God doesn’t need to shout.  But if you can’t hear the whispers, and you ignore the shouts, then God brings out the clue-by-four and whomps you upside the head with it.  We saw last week that Jacob wasn’t the nicest of people growing up.  He took advantage of his twin brother’s hunger to coerce his brother’s birthright from him, and then when their father Isaac was blind and on his deathbed, Jacob conspired with his mother Rebekah to steal Isaac’s dying blessing, the inheritance that rightfully belonged to the (very slightly) older Esau.  And yet, God gave Jacob the dream, and it is not a small one.  God promises Jacob a nation, millions of offspring who will bear Jacob’s name.  And God promises Jacob God’s unending presence, God’s blessing, God’s love – the gifts that will sustain Jacob as he groans with the labor pains of bringing to life the dream of a nation for God’s chosen people.

The dreams God gives us are rarely small.  They may not have quite the impact of the dream God gave to Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  But the dreams God plants in us can be enormous in their effect on us, and they can be enormous in their effect on the people around us.  If it had not been for the seed planted in Abram and Sarai – the dream that they would have a child together in their barren old age – then Isaac and Jacob would never have been born.  And yes, Sarai laughed.  She laughed bitterly at the utter ridiculousness of the seed of this dream, looking down at her tired, wrinkled body, placing a hand over her empty womb.  But God planted this dream.  Though it may seem a small thing for one woman to bear a child, I can assure you that this was no small gift for Sarah… and one never knows how one person will change the world.  I have known a woman who could not bear a child, despite years of trying, of undergoing painful and humiliating fertility treatments.  And though she bore this publicly with grace and dignity, I could see the anguish it brought her.  I promise you that the gift of a child in her womb would have been absolutely huge for her.

The seeds God plants in our hearts can be threatening and frightening to us, too.  Jesus brought a wonderful message of love and light and hope… and with that message, he was very threatening and frightening to those in power.  The words of the Magnificat sung by his mother Mary talk about the lowly being lifted up, and the mighty being removed from their thrones, about the hungry being fed and the rich being sent away empty.  These words are powerful for those who are lowly and hungry, but are powerfully threatening for those who are rich or mighty.  When we become comfortable with our place, with our life, that is when God’s dreams can feel scary to us… and that is usually when we can expect God’s dreams to shake our lives up, to invite us out of the place where we are comfortable and secure, out into the wilderness where we have to trust in our loving God to guide us.  Although the Israelites may not have all been happy in their bondage in Egypt, they did feel secure there.  They knew they would be fed and clothed and housed, and they knew what to expect.  I promise you that there were several who were threatened and frightened by the audacious dream of God, planted in the heart of Moses, that drew them out of that secure place and into the literal wilderness.  And God did guide them and feed them and help them, despite the whining and belligerence and outright disobedience of the Israelites.  God loved them and cared for them and brought them to the Promised Land, the very land that Sunday’s Genesis reading describes.

So, my friends, what is God whispering into your heart?  What are God’s dreams for you?  Where are the places you are most secure and comfortable?  Do you hear a voice calling you to step out of those places?  Where are the places that are wilderness to you – uncomfortable, scary, threatening?  Are you being drawn into the wilderness?

I promise you that God’s dreams for you are huge and magnificent.  The rector at my parish once said in a sermon that God’s dreams are never small.  And I’d bet that if you take a close look at the deepest dreams of your heart – the ones that you might be a little afraid or embarrassed to talk about – if you look at those dreams, you will find God.  God will be standing there, holding those bright and shining seeds in God’s hands, smiling at you and saying, “Are you ready to get started?  Can we plant these now, so that they will take root in you and grow?”