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July 17, 2017

“Wasted”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Genesis 25.19-34

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

July 16, 2017

            Plants and flowers struggle. Well, maybe yours don’t, but mine sure do. If they could talk, they’d probably tell you about how I neglect them until they start losing leaves, and then I rush over with my watering can and they sigh with relief. Then again, if plants could talk, they would be able to remind me to water them.

            There are many reasons plants struggle – not enough water, too much water, not enough nutrients, not enough sun, too much sun, bad soil. Today our passages deal with struggle, and one is a parable about planting in different kinds of soil.

            The lectionary has us read two sections of Jesus speaking parables, cutting out a portion of the text. That reading includes the crowd asking Jesus why he talks in parables. Jesus tells them it is because some people do not comprehend and cannot see. He told stories that the people could understand. Since many in that time were farmers, talking about soil was something that would catch their attention.

            Jesus is trying to have a quiet moment at the beginning of our reading. The crowd follows him, and he goes on a boat, but they won’t go away. Jesus doesn’t become frustrated, but begins teaching them. He tells them about the different soils. Some seeds were scattered on rock and soil and thorns. Some are choked by the rocks, some don’t have enough nutrients from the soil. We see that the seeds in the good soil grow.

            Jesus tells of God spreading seeds everywhere – in places with rocks and thorns. Does this make God a bad farmer and potentially a bad business person? Regarding farming, it appears God does not do any prep work. God doesn’t plow first.[1] God doesn’t screen the seeds or make sure the soil is fertile. Why, it seems that God is wasting all these seeds! From a business perspective, it is a waste of resources and time. If you start a business you look carefully at your demographics.[2] Do you have the right age range for what you’re selling? Will people want to buy your Big Macs and fries? You wouldn’t put a Bloomingdale’s in the middle of a struggling small town, or book store in a mostly illiterate town, right? Church plants have been executed in a similar manner in the past. It was once thought that a demographic study of the area should be taken in order to know if the church will succeed. So, for example, the majority of PCUSA churches contain white, upper middle class, middle aged, educated people. So, according to this, it wouldn’t be a good business move to plant a PCUSA church in West Louisville or the Bronx. If this were true, though, think of how many black PCUSA churches would disappear. Think of how many New Worshiping communities wouldn’t exist. Imagine how quickly the median age would raise. Perhaps in building God’s realm and churches we shouldn’t worry too much about how a business is built, because God’s business is unlike any we have ever created.[3]

            God doesn’t weed out the bad soil. God scatters the seeds everywhere. God’s actions are surprising because this isn’t the kind of world in which we live. In Christian Century magazine, Joann Lee, a Presbyterian minister, wrote some reflections on this passage. She wrote about how we are discerning, maybe to a fault, about how we give of our time, our energy, our resources. Perhaps we are the same way in sharing our faith. “The message is clear:” she writes, “help is only for the deserving, and those in power get to decide who is deserving enough.”[4] How do we decide who is deserving? What criteria do we use? We never know how someone will be changed when we share with others – whether that is money, or time, or a word of encouragement.

            In seminary I spent a year as a chaplain at a medium security men’s prison in Kentucky. I taught Bible studies, listened to their stories, worshiped with members of various religious groups, and saw some released, and some denied probation. Some proclaimed a complete change in their lives – they saw the light, repented of their sins, and claimed that they would be changed upon release. How much of that was the truth, and how much was a show so that they could earn early parole? I was never able to tell if someone was telling me the truth or feeding me a line. So, I couldn’t hold God’s grace from anyone. I couldn’t tell the person who murdered a police officer that God forgave him, because I believed him, but not the man who had sold drugs, because I wasn’t sure if I believed him. I don’t know how deep their soil went, or how deep their souls went. All I know is that some of the seeds God planted probably struggled to take root, and some held on for dear life. None of us know if God’s seeds are growing in another until it comes to fruition.

            Jacob and Esau struggled in the Genesis passage we read, and even beyond today’s reading. The translation we use states that they “struggled together,” but that’s not an accurate reading. It probably should say something along the lines of “they struggled against each other, and crushed one another in the womb.” Struggling together means something quite different from struggling against. Congregations do both – they struggle together, and sometimes they struggle one another. Both are bound to happen, but we are closer and more united when we can struggle together. Rebekah noticed this struggle and cries out to God, asking what was happening in her. God tells her about two nations that are in her womb, fighting one another – a clue to what is to come. She sees the struggle before her. Brothers are apt to fight, but she knows this will be unlike any brotherly relationship in the world.

            The point of the struggle of Jacob and Esau in the womb is to set up this tension between twin brothers. Jacob is born holding onto Esau’s heel, and the drama begins. The two are named based on their personalities and physical features. Esau was red and hairy and a hunter. He is meant to appear as a sort of oaf that doesn’t know much. Jacob is called “quiet,” or “blameless.”[5] Esau should be viewed as the uncouth brother, while Jacob was somehow “civilized” because he knew how to cook and didn’t live in the woods.[6] Each had his own struggles. Esau was not as loved by his mother and felt burdened by his birthright. Jacob struggled with being second, and challenged Esau.

            Jacob saw an opportunity and seized it – Esau was hungry, Jacob made a meal and offered the meal in exchange for the birthright. Esau seems to think that if he doesn’t eat this soup he will die, so the birthright wouldn’t do him much good, anyway – and he accepts. Did Jacob trick him? Is someone at fault here? Later, when Isaac goes to bless Esau regarding the birthright, their mother helps Jacob trick Isaac. So, there is an aspect of dishonesty in this.

            Who is at fault? Jacob doesn’t trick Esau – he lays it out straight – the meal for the birthright. Except Esau can only think with his stomach. At a commencement speech in 1944 W.E.B. Du Bois addressed this passage. He stated that there was no respect for the birthright – for the gift that had been given, and charged Jacob as being at fault. He went on to say that the Jacob and Esau story was really no different than what was happening in the world in 1944 – and perhaps we would argue even in 2017 – that people will do anything to cheat someone out of anything if it benefits them.[7] He was making the point that the world needs to change. The same struggle is happening and people are still fighting for what they feel they are entitled to, unaware or uncaring of how it affects others. We should be struggling together, and no apart. We might feel like some people aren’t worth it, or that we’re wasting our time, but God made us all equal and we never know how the seed is growing within someone.

            You probably noticed the flowers on the front of your bulletin. While I was in Massachusetts I decided to be adventurous and cross a path of rocks that led from one point of the cape to a small peninsula about a mile away. That story is for another time – but as I was walking along these sandy, slick rocks, where algae grew and snails attached themselves for dear life, I found these flowers creeping up. If given seeds, I wouldn’t have planted them in this sandy, rocky area, but somehow the seeds made it through, and were beautiful. We don’t have control over what seeds will grow, but we can give everyone a chance. Let us share God’s grace with all we meet. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gary Peluso-Verdend, “Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 238.

[2] Peluso-Verdend, 238.

[3] Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),  239.

[4] Joann H. Lee, “Reflections on the Lectionary” in Christian Century (Vol. 134, No. 13, June 21, 2017).

[5] Victor H. Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 38.

[6] Pauline A. Viviano, Genesis (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985), 78.

[7] W. E. B. Du Bois, “Jacob and Esau,” http://www.webdubois.org/dbJacobEsau.html.