Sunday, July 23, 2017

Embodying Thin Places

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 11 (Year A)
Genesis 28.10-19a; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Jesus’ parable of wheat and weeds as being an allegory for good and bad in our midst should come as no surprise. One only has to look at the world around us to see that this is, sadly, the case. While we might like to think that it should be possible to easily identify good from bad, and therefore be able to separate out the bad so that the good may thrive, as do the Master’s servants in the parable, Jesus gives a realistic, albeit sobering, assessment. In theory, yes. But in actuality, this is not always the case.

As Jesus explains in the follow-up, good cannot always be separated from the bad. In the image of wheat and weeds, weeds grow along side, in amongst, the wheat. When intermingled, the two can become almost indistinguishable to all but the most discerning eye. And even when able to distinguish between the two, removal of the weeds is complicated by the fact that below the surface, the roots of the weeds have similarly intertwined with the roots of the wheat. As a result of this tangled mess below ground, pulling out the bad weeds would result in the good wheat also being pulled out. In killing the weeds, the wheat would also be destroyed. Quite often, this is the case with good and bad in our midst. Both exist, side by side, often intermingled. Sometimes it may difficult to distinguish between the two. And even when distinguishable, extricating the bad from the good can actually do more harm than good. What should be black and white, when intermingled, becomes a sea of gray.

Based on Jesus’ interpretation, where he equates the good with his followers and the bad with sin and evildoers, it is obvious that he is talking about the human condition. About how good and bad become inextricably intermingled within persons and institutions. If we are completely honest with ourselves, if we do some serious self-evaluation, we see that there are those parts of us that are good and those parts that are bad. And certainly we see this played out in society, in human institutions. There are good parts and bad. And sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference. Sometimes it is not always a matter of black and white. Sometimes it is a matter of perspective. From one angle, something may appear to be good, while from another it may appear to be bad.

A great example is the current conflicts in the Senate over health care. Fear not, I’m not going to get political on this hotly contested issue. I merely make an observation based on the various arguments and the popularity or unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. Or as commonly referred to, Obamacare. As the Senate has tried and failed several times over the last few months to repeal and replace the ACA, various issues have become clear. Debate seems to center around key features of the ACA and whether some or all of them should be scrapped or retained. Coverage for pre-existing conditions. Some consider it good, as it benefits those who would otherwise be denied coverage. Some consider it bad, as it increases the cost of insurance coverage for people who will require additional, often significant, care. The individual mandate. Some consider it good, as it requires younger, healthier people to buy insurance, resulting in a larger pool, helping to reduce insurance costs. Some consider it bad, as it levies a penalty on those who may not want or be able to easily afford insurance coverage. Extent of the use of Medicaid. Some consider it good, as it provides care for the poor who are unable to afford insurance at all. Some consider it bad, as it increases governmental costs.

These elements exist within a single, unified plan. Perceived wheat and weeds are intertwined. What our politicians are finding out is that to pull out one part can cause significant consequences, even damage, to the viability of the plan, to the benefits provided, to the number of people covered. While in the eyes of some, more damage may be caused by not doing anything.

This points to the thorny nature of human institutions and their actions. Even when intended for good, some actions may cause damage. And that which is perceived as bad by some, may be preferable to some of the alternatives.

Jesus’ broader message is really about the place of the Church in amongst these thorny issues of good and bad. The Church, a human institution, itself flawed and subject to the influences of good and bad forces. But more importantly, despite its flaws, Jesus is pointing to the place of the Church in the world – a world subject to the forces of good and evil, a world in which good and evil so often grow side-by-side, intertwining to the point of being difficult to distinguish. And certainly difficult, if not impossible, to separate without causing other problems.

The Church cannot separate itself from the world. We must, therefore, as the community of faith, accept the bad along with the good – within reason. As Jesus tells us in his explanation of the parable, this is because it is not our job to segregate saints from sinners. The place of the Church is not to be the one who roots out that which is bad and to pluck it out of existence. That responsibility for judging righteousness and the quality of one’s relationship to God belongs solely to God. Rather, the place of the Church is to be a beacon, a presence in the world of intertwining interests and values. To point to that which is good, to seek to uphold it as a model for a better way.

Paul addresses this tension in his letter to the Romans. “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” (Rom 8.14-17a). He then talks about the whole of creation groaning with labor pains – the labor pains of living into right relationship with God. The labor pains of bringing this earthly world closer and closer to knowing the divine. To embrace what God offers.

Our Old Testament reading from Genesis gives an image of the earthly world coming closer to, even touching the world of the divine. We hear of Jacob, who is running away from his brother Esau after cheating him out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing. He stops to rest, and in his dreams, he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels, messengers of God, moving back and forth along it. What we refer to as “Jacob’s ladder” alludes to Canaanite worship practices in which priests ascended a temple stairway to approach their gods. In contrast, this dream shows that Israel receives God’s blessing brought down to them by angels. In this place, Jacob is able to glimpse something of the divine. He exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place” (Gen 28.16). God seeks Jacob out, showing him a sign of his blessedness, even in his brokenness. And as a result, Jacob’s perspective changes.

This holy place which Jacob names Bethel would eventually become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. The most holy place for the Jewish faith. Indeed, the Temple Mount becoming the most holy place for all three Abrahamic faiths. A place where, for a majority of the world’s population, heaven and earth come together, almost touching each other.

The ancient Celts have a concept for such holy places where the distance between heaven and earth collapse. Thin places. They say that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in these places that distance is even shorter. Heaven and earth come closer and closer, almost but not quite touching. As if there is a thin veil between the two. In these thin places, we are able to glimpse the divine, the transcendent. Not necessarily with our physical eyes, but we are able to sense in our spirit the presence of the holy in these places. In them, we are moved out of old ways of seeing the world. We experience in a new way the world as God intends it to be. Filled with his love.

There are places around the world that are traditionally identified as thin places. Holy sites. Mystical places. Then there are thin places that are relatively unknown, known to only a few. But what may be a thin place to one person may not be for another. While we may seek out such places, we cannot make ourselves experience the thinness they offer. Experiences of thinness, of being in close proximity to the divine, is purely a gift from God. But we can open ourselves up to the possibility of experiencing God’s presence when we encounter thin places, when they present themselves. When God creates them for our benefit. This is why the Church emphasizes the importance of spiritual practices. Of silence. Of meditation. Of prayer, particularly practices like contemplative prayer. Of studying scripture. Of worship. Each of these provides an opportunity, provides the potential, to move a little outside of ourselves, to move a little more toward focus on God. Providing an opening in which God may pull back the veil, even if only slightly, to allow us the opportunity to glimpse, to experience, his loving presence.

In today’s Epistle reading, Paul talks about the Spirit dwelling in us. Bishop and theologian N.T. Wright tells us “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God’s new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.” Isn’t this the very definition of thin places? In Bishop Wright’s assessment, we are all, therefore, called to be the embodiment of “thin places” – where the divine and the earthly touch – allowing for interaction between the two within us.

This is why the Church exists. To be a place of refuge in amongst the wheat and the weeds of our world. To be a thin place where all may come to catch even a glimpse of what God has to offer such a world. To be a place where we may open ourselves up to God’s love, to receiving the gracious gifts he offers. To be a place where we might be transformed, so that when we go back out into the field of wheat and weeds, we just might serve as thin places in a world searching for a better way.

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