Year A, Proper 11
Our passage from Isaiah definitively proclaims the sovereignty of the God of Israel, YHWH, to a cultural context that holds many gods. The writer of second Isaiah declares that YHWH is God/King of all. “… I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. …Do not fear, or be afraid; … There is no other rock; I know not one. “(Isaiah 44:6-8). Old Testament scholar, Steed Vernyl Davidson, observes that the divine speech in this passage “gets to the ancient understanding that words shape reality.”[i]
The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon also underscores Davidson’s observation. “For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people, to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly; … For your strength is the source of righteousness, and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16). In the Genesis passage, Jacob discovers and proclaims the sovereignty of his father’s, god, as he travels to Haran seeking a wife. In verses just after the end of our passage (Genesis 28:20-22) he makes a vow to YHWH, god of his father, Isaac and grandfather, Abraham, that shapes his reality and the reality of his descendants, the Israelite people, for generations.
Words shape our reality. We cannot relegate this to an ancient understanding of the people of Israel. It is just as true today. We are inundated with words in the 21st century. Covered in them. Consciously or unconsciously they shape who we are along with their accompanying visuals in news, social and entertainment media, in print, on-line or on TV. We must be as vigilant as our ancestors in faith, if not more so, about what words we let shape our reality. As Christian preachers and teachers the first words to shape our reality are hopefully, the Word of God, in biblical text and lived experience.
Yet even in the biblical texts we find words that shape our reality in not so helpful ways due to the problems of translation and interpretation of the ancient languages of the Bible. We continually seek the words of truth in the Word we have been given so we may follow God’s ways with “an undivided heart” (Psalm 85:11). Endeavoring to have a heart undivided in the pursuit of God is a compass for steering us through problems of translation and interpretation.
For instance, Paul’s words in Romans 8 and in other places throughout his writing have been misunderstood in translation leaving generations of Christian with a false duality between “flesh” and “spirit”, between “law” and “grace.” We have to dig deep to understand Paul’s meaning in the original 1st century Greek vernacular in which he writes. Then we present the treasures of our discovery in words and images that shape reality that brings flesh (“sarx”) and spirit (“pneuma”) into a healthful relationship that acknowledge that the sacred is embodied as well as transcendent. We discover a symbiotic relationship between law and grace rather than a relationship of competition or win/lose.
Our job as storytelling preachers and teachers is to dig deep in our scriptures. Seeking with an undivided heart steeped in the love of God in Christ Jesus, we carefully choose the images and metaphors that craft our stories. Our stories shape our reality in the ways of God. While we cannot be fully responsible for every way in which stories fall on the ears of all our listeners, our choices bear a responsibility to be rich and nuanced, to be layered with meaning as they echo with the scripture’s imagery. Our cultural context holds many gods, though they may not be immediately identified as such, gods of consumerism, scarcity thinking, competitive aggression, success at all costs, retributive violence, bigotry and prejudice, homophobia and sexism, classism, racism. Our relationships to these gods are often unconscious. The scriptures, God’s Word in the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, call us to bring these relationships into the light of day. Telling stories can reveal the sometimes hidden nature of reality when it is and is not shaped by God’s Word of love and justice.
This week I offer you three stories. The first is a story of the origin of story from our First Nations brothers and sisters in the Seneca nation in the northeastern region of the US. It is a story that reveals the origin of story in the embodiment of creation, the sacred text of the earth and of humanity’s lived experience. As I read the most ancient of our sacred texts I find commonalities. The stories of Genesis are the stories of some of God’s earliest agrarian people who experienced God in the fabric of their lives as they lived in cooperation with the earth. I first learned this story from the book, Keepers of the Earth by Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac and I have told it for many years to all ages. I call it “Grandfather Rock”. You can find a longer version of the tale titled, “The Origin of Stories” at this link. I suggest this story to you for your own meditation on the way that stories work in our lives. They connect the body and the spirit as their words shape our realities.
Our passage from Matthew gives us a wonderful parable from Jesus. “The Wheat and the Weeds” is not as well known as “The Sower and the Seed” that we had this past Sunday or “The Mustard Seed” that we will have next Sunday. Yet I find it quite compelling in its realistic portrayal of how we experience the good and bad, the ugly and the beautiful in life all together as we build the Kingdom of God. I have to wonder if he really gave the meaning of the story after he told it in the way recorded in our passage. Or if that meaning is an addition by the writer of the gospel in reaction to what was happening in the community of believers at the time the story was recorded. I think Jesus, being the astute storyteller that he was, would have left the story to be talked about in its many layers of meaning. What does it mean to be the community of believers with our goodness and not-so-goodness striving to be God’s people? Are we not a combination of good seeds and weeds as individuals and as communities? Is there no mercy or compassion for the weeds in God’s ways of dealing with the world? As you ponder Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, perhaps preparing to tell it, consider these two stories about planting seeds, “What We Plant We Will Eat?” and “The Seed of Justice.”
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017. Commentary and photos may be reprinted with permission only. Please find the stories and tell them!
[i] Steed Vernyl Davidson, “Exegetical Perspective for Isaiah 44:6-8”, Preaching the Revised common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2013, 247).