This is not done …

Laban said, “This is not done in our country …”[1]

In his explanation for giving Leah to Jacob before he gives Rachel, Laban offers cultural custom as his excuse – it’s just not done. The custom becomes the excuse for not honoring his agreement with Jacob.

Regardless of how we may interpret Laban’s act, at some level, many of us can appreciate the instinct to honor customs. Some of us may be very active in institutions or even families that understand their role as guardians or safe keepers of cherished customs and traditions.

Thus we can probably relate when custom or tradition is invoked in opposition to something new when the new thing is disturbing the way things are. I suspect we can all think of some occasion when we’ve heard custom used as the argument against a new idea. There is certainly no shortage of these disturbances within the Episcopal Church.

In fact one such disturbance occurred forty-three years ago – almost to the day – on July 29th in Philadelphia. Three retired bishops broke with custom and ordained eleven women as priests. There was no precedent for this audacious act. Yet here it was – in our midst – creating both furor and rejoicing throughout the church for years to come.

This act was not a violation of any law but it went against the custom of the time – the ordination of only men as priests. Because it violated no law it was not illegal; however, because it did not conform to custom it was considered “irregular”.

With time the Episcopal Church adapted to this irregularity, first by amending its rules to approve of the ordination of women to the priesthood. But it still took time for the irregular to become regular – that is a part of our custom.

The Episcopal Church has had an entire generation of women priests serve faithfully during that time, and an entire generation of Episcopalians has been raised up that has never known a time when there were not female priests.

Nonetheless, the change of customs takes time. It took another twenty-three years before the Church of England – our cultural cousins – ordained women to the priesthood. It took twenty-six years before Epiphany called Mother Barbara to be its first female priest. And it took forty-three years for the Church of England to finally approve the ordination of women as bishops.

But the matter is still not settled within much of the Anglican Communion where our sisters and brothers in Christ are bound by cultural customs that say “this is not done.” I don’t point this out as a criticism but to observe that we are both constrained by our respective customs, which are different because we live in cultural realities that are vastly different. Therefore, we should respect and honor their faithful discipleship within the constraints of their customs.

However, things do change with time but at different paces and depending upon one’s perspective. Shifts in customs or even in the kingdom of heaven come slowly or with terrifying rapidity depending upon which side of the shift you are on. It can’t be fast enough if you are the firebrand that’s agitating for change, but it’s all too fast if you see your cherished tradition or way of life in the path of change.

As I am saying this, I am struck with a new appreciation of how the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and others must have felt as Jesus began to preach and teach against their customs and practices.

Jesus too seems to appreciate these very same dynamics as he describes the kingdom of heaven in the parables we have heard this morning. The first two parables are shared publicly with a large crowd and they seem to be safe enough so as not to offend. But Jesus is not yet ready to begin his direct confrontation of the customs of the powers that be and their entrenched interests.

In the first parable the kingdom of heaven is compared to the harmless and tiny mustard seed; safe enough but for the improbable outcome – something apparently insignificant becomes something far vaster.

The yeast parable is likewise not shocking on its surface – people understand that yeast leavens bread – no big deal. But the reason that a little yeast is so effective is because it is so pervasive – it spreads throughout – all the dough is affected.

These are seemingly harmless parables, unless one listens closely and realizes the potential of the kingdom of heaven to bring about a shift in customs.

The last three parables are told in private – only to his disciples. These parables are more direct and speak directly to the kingdom of heaven in the context the of disciples’ Jewish heritage and customs. Thus the disciples readily understand them.

But it is the last verse that really invites our attention, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[2]

To paraphrase, Jesus is telling the disciples that they are now experts in Jewish Law as well as being authorities on the kingdom of heaven. As such they are, ironically, now keepers or guardians of the customs of the kingdom of heaven, which will cherish its roots in the old – the Jewish Law or Torah even as it brings about the new – Jesus’ kingdom of heaven.

We are the heirs of this tradition – these customs – and we respect and honor the best of what has been handed down to us but we must also be prepared to test and challenge customs when and where error may be revealed.

As the masters of the household we dare not say, “It’s not done!” Rather we listen, we test the spirit of revelation, and we imagine what it may look like a generation from now.

[1] Genesis 29:26a

[2] Matthew 13:52

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You’re a mess!

Some of you will recall my fondness for the expression, “You’re a mess!” I think of it as a Southern thing because that is the context I grew up in; and it is a common expression in my family of origin. Unlike “Bless your heart,” “You’re a mess” is simultaneously a term of endearment or affection, and a statement of fact.

In today’s lessons God is telling us, “You are a mess!” We should take this as both an endearment and as a statement of fact. We are a mess in that we are a tangled mix of motives and emotions – we are complicated, and so are our attachments or entanglements.

All the same, God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is present among our messiness making promises and covenant with some messy characters – God’s people.

By the time we encounter Jacob in our reading from Genesis he has already established himself as a deceiver and manipulator – in more polite circles he is referred to as a trickster. Nonetheless this complicated mess of a patriarch finds himself sleeping with his head upon a stone in one of the “thin places.” “Thin places” is a term used in the mystic tradition of Celtic Christianity to describe those places where heaven and earth are so near to one another as to be entangled – a place where one can sense the presence and nearness of God.

As Jacob – this trickster – sleeps, he finds himself in the presence of God in just such a thin place as angels ascend and descend between and heaven and earth. Despite his messiness – or perhaps because he is a mess, God loves him and makes a covenant with Jacob.

This covenant resonates with the same quality as those covenants God made with Jacob’s father and grandfather, “… your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, …; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring.”[1]

“All shall be blessed in you?” When it comes to Jacob I don’t get the loveliness that God sees. Clearly God has the ability to look beyond what irks me about Jacob the trickster. Perhaps it’s not my place to focus on the trickster, the quality I dislike. Perhaps it is only my place to see God’s love demonstrated for someone I don’t get, and to recognize that place of revelation as a thin place – a holy place – an awesome place – “none other than the House of God, … the gate of heaven.”[2]

Nonetheless, we – as God’s own messes – do from time to time lose sight of God’s love for us and all his creation because we are a complicated tangle of spirit and humanity. The entanglements that accompany this existence may weary us. And sometimes this weariness finds expression in impatience.

I often hear two refrains that are in fact opposite sides of the same coin. One goes something like this, “Do you believe we’re in the end times?” In this question you can almost hear the fatigue and anticipation that seems to say, “I can’t take much more. Let me go home now so I can claim my rest.”

The other sounds like, “There is so much wickedness in the world, surely things can’t continue like this.” In these I hear impatience and fatigue with the presence of wickedness and messiness; I hear a desire to tidy up the kingdom now; and I hear, most clearly, a desire to withdraw from entanglement to a tidier – less messy – order that just does not exist this side of the kingdom of heaven.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks directly to the issues of entanglement, impatience, and the desire to withdraw. And it is not necessarily what we all want to hear. The field of the parable is the world in which we live with our roots – and sometimes even our DNA – entangled with those about us that we love and those that we don’t care for.

The slaves to tidiness, orderliness, and withdrawal among us want to get rid of the weeds now for the sake of the wheat. But Jesus tells us “No!” for in getting rid of the weeds we will destroy the wheat as well. Jesus tells us to leave it to the end times, leave it to those he has charged with the harvest so that none will be lost before their time. In our humanness, we have a different assessment than Jesus as to what is wheat and what is weed; thus we are to leave judgment to him.

When I arrived in Sedan as a newcomer I was overwhelmed by the weeds – both literal and figurative. The unkempt and overgrown lots; the decaying houses, buildings, and infrastructure; and the widespread poverty.

As a slave to tidiness, I so badly wanted to pull the weeds; restore or remove the decay; and fix the systemic poverty. But in my fixation on the weeds I was distracted from the wheat – the loveliness amid the mess, and I was not aware enough of the presence and nearness of God in our midst.

But your loveliness prevailed, and as I began to focus on the wheat my vision was changed. I began to recognize Sedan as a thin place, and I began to see the possibility and potential among the weeds, not as something to be eradicated, but like myself, something that wanted to be loved and in loving could be redeemed, and in redemption transformed.

Thus Jesus’ charge to us, to make covenant with messy people – God’s people. In telling us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus charges us to declare to our neighbor – especially the weeds, you and I are a mess! God’s own mess! And in loving one another we can be redeemed.

[1] Genesis 28:14

[2] Genesis 28:17

“Come to me …”

Will you marry me? Will you spend your life with me? Will you come to me?

Such proposals are leaps of faith, hope, and love. They are risky propositions, not only for the one asking the question, but for the one being asked as well. They may well be one of the most vulnerable points of our lives, as they invite us to lower our guard and invite another in. In this moment of vulnerability, while there is the prospect of requited love, there is also the possibility of the pain of unrequited love.

But beyond the moment of proposal there is the optimistic but uncertain and expectant reality of what our life together will be like. With this in mind, our story of Rebekah’s betrothal to Isaac is remarkable.

While we may accept that such arranged marriages are a cultural norm in many places, what is particularly noteworthy in this story is the question Rebekah’s family puts to her, “Will you go with this man?”[1]

Rebekah has yet to lay eyes on the man she is being asked to marry, all she has before her is the story of a strange man. It is as if the psalmist has told her, “Hear, O daughter; consider and listen closely; forget your people and your father’s house.”[2]

Yes, Rebekah has the evidence of gifts of jewelry, but ultimately her choice is based upon another person’s story, his proposition. She takes a leap of faith and hope based upon this story, and her risk is requited with love.

Can we imagine such a thing? Have we encountered such as thing? Well, if we are baptized, if we spend time with Scripture, if we are confirmed, and if we pray the Eucharistic Prayer we are propositioned and accept this proposal over and over again.

Perhaps we have become so use to it that we aren’t conscious of what a radical thing it is we agreed to week in and week out. Perhaps we have become complacent in our familiarity with our faith and with one another.

This is precisely what Jesus is speaking to this morning as he poses the question, “But to what will I compare this generation?”[3]

In complacency we become self-centered; like the children in the market place, we want others to play the game by our rules, and when they don’t we complain.

In complacency, we become like the adults who find fault with John the Baptist and Jesus because their messages challenge our self-interests and ask us to take risks – to become vulnerable – to turn outward rather than inward.

This morning, and every day, Jesus proposes to us, “Come to me.”[4] Jesus asks us to turn outward, to turn and return to him in love as he loves us. He asks us to lay down the burden of our complacency, which gnaws away corrosively at our relationships with him and one another. Jesus promises us a yoke that will not only make the challenges of this life bearable, but that will open the door to eternal life if we, like Rebekah say, “I will.”

Like Rebekah, all we have before us is the story of promise. Will we respond like the self-centered children or self-interested adults of the generation Jesus speaks of? When asked, “Will you go with this [strange] man?” Will you respond like Rebekah and say “I will” to Jesus’ radical proposition?

In yesterday’s meditation from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Brother Curtis Almquist reminds us to:

Be caught by the love God has for you… and for everyone else. It’s real, and it’s forever, and it’s for now. Who you are, what you are, however it is that you’ve gotten to be the way you are, God knows, God desires, God loves. God does love you.

It is in the name of God that Jesus is asking you to “Come to me.” In this moment of vulnerability take the leap, lay down your heavy burdens, and say, Yes!

[1] Genesis 24:58

[2] Psalm 45:11, BCP, p. 648

[3] Matthew 11:16

[4] Ibid., v.28