“Know that I am with you” – God A Sermon for St. John the Baptist’s Episcopal Church, Minneapolis by The Rev. Craig Lemming, Curate Sunday, July 23, 2018

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life, who speaks chiefly through dreams and visions. Amen.

Good morning! It is a delight and an honor to preside and to preach in Susan’s stead this morning at St. John’s, a few weeks before I prospectively begin serving as your Curate. And of course, as the Universe would have it, I am faced with the problematic parable of the wheat and the weeds in today’s Gospel. As we heard, after the servants ask their Master if they should pull up the weeds which are growing among the wheat, the Master replies, “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.” If that wasn’t daunting enough, the pericope ends with an explanation of the meaning of this parable: “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.” Parables are clearly not for the weak. I bid your prayers for your poor Curate!

It is tempting to apply binary thinking to this parable: wheat is good; weeds are bad. Wheat is gathered up into heaven; weeds end up in the fires of hell. In other words, you must be good; otherwise you’ll get tossed into a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thankfully, as Episcopalians, our Anglican approach to Theology and to Scripture rejects this fundamentalist, either/or, binary thinking. Instead, we always embrace both/and; that holy tension of the via media – the middle way. As we ponder today’s Gospel, journey with me into our Catechism, that succinct theological gem in The Book of Common Prayer we sometimes forget to consult.

On page 862 of The Book of Common Prayer our Catechism poses this question: “What do we mean by heaven and hell?” A daunting question to say the least. Thankfully, the Catechism gives us the answer in plain English:

By heaven we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God; by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.

Applying this to the parable of wheat and the weeds in today’s Gospel, it seems to me that our enjoyment of God and our rejection of God are very present realities. We glimpse and experience Heaven and Hell in our lives here and now. In our daily life, those weeds: those causes of sin and those evildoers are inextricably bound up with life’s heavenly wheat. We cannot avoid the fact that those weeds are very present realities which threaten our enjoyment of God. We exist in a lived reality of both good and evil – both/and; not either/or. We would like to believe that we are always the wheat and we are always the sowers of wheat. And yet, we fall short. Having just moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis, under that stress and strain of moving, I allowed weeds to strangle life’s wheat and I sowed weeds of my own. My enjoyment of God was compromised in moments when my temper got the better of me. When I had to have things my way, weeds crowded in and things fell apart. Our Catechism asks, “What is sin?” and gives us this answer:

Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.[1]

Seeking our own will, instead of the will of God, involves making rational and well-reasoned arguments to get our way. We come up with reasons why our will, not God’s, must be done. We allow those weeds to distort our relationship with God, with our neighbors, and with all creation. We use Reason to convince and delude ourselves that our will, instead of God’s will, is righteous. Swiss Psychologist and Psychoanalyst Carl Jung, observed that “Our present lives are dominated by the goddess Reason, who is our greatest and most tragic illusion.”[2] Jung goes on to say that, “We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.”[3] We discern God’s will by paying attention to dreams and visions. We cannot make rational sense of God. The Holy Mystery of God is beyond Reason. Indeed, in today’s Old Testament lesson it is in Jacob’s Dream that we come to know the will of God. God makes this promise:

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… 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!

At Jacob’s most vulnerable moment, fleeing from his home to a foreign land, in his sacred dream, he gains a divine protector, discovers his destiny,[4] and discerns the will of God. God’s will is to be with us. Through Jacob’s dream we know that God is always with us. God keeps us where ever we go. God will not leave us until God’s will for us is done.

We live in vulnerable times. Poverty, addiction, and violence – those weeds, those causes of sin – are preventing so many from the eternal enjoyment of God. Today’s Epistle to the Romans speaks to vulnerable Jewish-Christian communities struggling with the weeds of Empire’s ubiquity of sin and evildoers. Paul writes:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour 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 (Romans 8:22-23).

As Jacob’s dream discloses, God is with us in our most vulnerable moments. God is with us in those desperate moments when we groan and struggle with all the weeds that threaten to crowd out the wheat of our enjoyment of God. Instead of the futile attempt to use Reason alone to discern God’s presence in our struggles, I believe, like Carl Jung, in “the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.” As Christians living in a vulnerable world today, we remember that God’s will is still disclosed to us in yet another dreamer’s dream:

an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,     and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.[5]

In Jesus, God’s promise is fulfilled. God is with us in the flesh. God incarnate, in the Christ crucified and resurrected, is with us. In and among life’s weeds and wheat, good and evil, joys and sufferings, God is always with us. That is precisely why today’s Psalmist proclaims that God has hemmed us into God’s presence:

God presses upon us behind and before *        and God lays hands upon us. Such knowledge is too wonderful for us; *        it is so high that we cannot attain to it. Where can we go then from God’s Spirit? *        where can we flee from God’s presence? If we climb up to heaven, God is there; *        if we make the grave our bed, God is there also. If we take the wings of the morning *        and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there God’s hand will lead us *        and God’s right hand holds us fast. (Psalm 139:5-10 adapted)

God’s steadfast presence with each of us is an ineffable truth that transcends Reason: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for us; it is so high that we cannot attain to it.” God’s truth is known in the mystical stuff of dreams and visions. Our eternal enjoyment of God, that heavenly wheat, is always a very present reality amidst the weeds of life. We need only accept that by Grace, God gathers us into “a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.”[6] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, 848.

 

[2] C. G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), 91.

 

[3] Jung, 92.

[4] Harold W. Attridge, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books, fully rev. and updated. student ed. (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 45.

[5] Matthew 1:20-24.

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, 862.