Jacob is on the run. He is running from the murderous rage of his twin brother, Esau, whom he has tricked out of his birthright as the firstborn son. He is in the wilderness, alone, heading for the farm of his uncle, Laban, where he is to find a wife. And out there, in the desert, he has a dream. And he discovers that in this inhospitable place, this place of death, he can encounter the God of life, and God makes a promise that he will survive this, and even that he will be the father of a great nation. When Jacob awakens he commemorates the moment with worship, and he names that place Bethel – God’s House.
Where is God’s house for you? I’m not just talking about a beautiful Gothic building with stained glass and an altar. I’m talking about the places where you have met God, places perhaps of despair or fear, places of wilderness or pilgrimage, places where death and life stand close together, or where the holy becomes evident in unexpected ways.
Last week, for me, God’s house was on Normal Street in the midst of a 100,000 strong Pride crowd, as we celebrated the Eucharist in the street with about 90 of our fellow Episcopalians. I have found myself in God’s house at the hospital, on a boat in Mission Bay, at a tense board meeting, on a subway platform. Where have you found God’s house?
The more we think about Jacob’s journey, the broader becomes our conception of God’s house. In this post-Christendom, post-institutional, post-millennial era, we might feel like we are walking through a wilderness, looking back to see the threat of secularism pursuing us, looking ahead to see nothing but desert. Attendance is falling. Resources are not meeting expenditures. Young people are simply not interested in traditional organized religion. How will the church survive in this place that feels like death? How will we maintain the beautiful fabric of our worship spaces, the comfort of our common prayer, the joy of being part of a community that serves others?
Today we need to hear St. Paul’s pep talk: you didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. Just as Jacob was adopted by God, so we too are God’s children. We are not to live in fear but in hope. We are to look for God’s house even in the places of death. We are to continue forward, knowing God’s presence with us in the wilderness, believing the promises, and mentoring the young to seek and see the holy in their lives.
Something new is coming into being. The profound shift in religious culture is only part of this new thing. This year’s pride parade included not only our expanded diocesan group but about 100 leaders of every faith, leading the parade, walking right in front of contingents of uniformed military personnel from all branches of the armed services. 43 years on from the first San Diego pride celebration in which participants had to wear paper bags on their heads for fear of violent reprisals, this year hundreds of community leaders were proud to be identified as LGBT clergy and public servants, while our own church marched under a banner proclaiming fearless love. We were a visible part of this new world in the making.
Now, new creation is not an easy or painless process. Whether you are making a complicated recipe, or designing a building, or birthing a new culture, it’s hard work. As Paul puts it, the whole creation is groaning in labor pains. In the beginning there was chaos before creation, and every creative process starts in chaos, in a wilderness space, and the new thing is brought into being only through the pain and struggle of childbirth, the labor of becoming free. We are all part of that struggle.
And meanwhile the church continues its story, an unchanging story of death and resurrection, of love and sacrifice, of community and growth. Weeds and wheat grow alongside each other, sometimes looking remarkably similar, congregations getting tangled in the weeds of disfunction and despair, and idolatry, the wheat bearing fruit in new generations of Christians and new understandings of the amazing breadth of God’s inclusive love.
Jesus warns against premature weeding. In an agricultural society his listeners would have understood that the bearded darnel that grows amongst the wheat wraps its roots around its neighbors, so that, if you try to pull up the weed, you will also uproot the good crops. So you wait, and in due course all will be harvested and the grains sorted by the farmer.
If Jesus were telling this story to us today he might use a different metaphor than wheat and weeds. Think about the news reports we see on social media. Some are genuine but a surprising number are inaccurate or deliberate hoaxes or lies. It’s really hard to tell sometimes. I’ve been caught out myself. In the flood of information that comes our way, how do we know what is wholesome wheat and what is worthless darnel? I often turn to the experts at snopes.com because I am not equipped to judge.
When it comes to people, we are not equipped to judge, either. We might look at someone and think, “that person doesn’t belong here”, because of their appearance, their accent, or their body language. But that’s not our job or our mission. We are to welcome all who want to be a part of our community and leave it to God to figure out who is wheat and who is weed.
Historically, the church has been infested with a toxic weed. It’s the weed of exclusionary, judgmental, self-righteous theology which has insinuated itself into the very heart of Christianity, tearing people apart because their better natures cannot accept its lethal teachings.
One of the most ancient heresies is the one that says we must root out the weeds, the people and viewpoints that we think don’t belong in our church. We saw this heresy raise its ugly head a decade or so ago in the Episcopal Church, when some clergy and congregations divorced themselves from our community in the belief that we were weeds and that they were the only true wheat. The logical end result of that approach is that you end up with a one-person church, because the further you go down that road, the weedier everyone else starts to look.
As I look at where our church is today I see a healthier and much more loving church. We have largely made it through the labor pains of inclusion, the successive struggles of women, people of color, and LGBT people to be fully recognized and honored. It’s not a perfect institution and it never will be, because we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. In particular, our Episcopal/Anglican way of being church is a comprehensive way, not a confessional way. We don’t insist on uniformity, but we believe that the very act of worshiping as a community forms us into the body of Christ. It’s not tidy, but neither, I suspect, is the Kingdom of God.
Our struggle in the church is just a small part of the global struggle, the universal shift that is striving to be born. This new world, this thing that the Spirit is birthing, is a world where nobody will be excluded for who they are, a world where corruption will be exposed and justice will be done, the hungry fed, the captives freed, and the gifts of all the people of God will be fully embraced. And we are not there yet. This is a difficult labor, an agonizing struggle, because the life of the new means the death of the old, and the old is comfortable for many. We see the struggle all over our culture, in the violent thrashing of the old order of patriarchy and greed, in the backlashes against anti-discrimination laws and environmental regulations and scientific expertise. Too many people are falling back into fear, as they see a landscape around them that seems to be a place of death. Too many people are refusing to dream the dream of God, to recognize the holy in unlikely places, or to embrace hope.
The call to the Church in this time of labor is to be a community of hope; to see and name the new life emerging out of death; to live in the tension of this messy and imperfect institution, weeds and wheat together, trusting God to sort it all out in the end, and boldly claiming the whole creation as the house of the God who created us, who loves us, and who longs to see us free, to shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
July 23, 2017