Monday, July 18, 2011

Sermon: Attack of the Heavenly Hillbillies; Or, How Led Zepplin Got It Wrong

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, 17 July 2011
House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, CO

Texts: Genesis 28.10-19a
Psalm 86.11-17
Romans 8.12-25
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

"There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted."
-Bruce Springsteen, "Promised Land"

-Have you ever noticed that fear and angels seem to go together in Scripture? In almost every case of a human-angel encounter, the first words spoken are “fear not!” Is it just because angels are that scary no matter how they appear, even to the toughest mortal? Or because people are expecting little Precious Moments statuettes with innocent blue eyes and greeting card smiles (terrifying in their own right)? Or could it be that we know, deep down, that when these holy harbingers of heaven show up, it means judgment upon the impurities of our dirty, earth-encrusted humanity?

-Even when not wielding flaming swords, the angels in our texts today can still cause a stir. Jacob beholds angels utilizing what on first glance appears to be a celestial escalator. I didn't know that heaven was going to be like a shopping mall, but I know that's definitely not what I signed up for when I joined this faith thing.

-In our Gospel, Jesus paints a picture of apocalyptic agrarian angels. And while his naming them “reapers” conjures images of a grim, black-hooded death wielding a fearsome scythe, just as fearsome to me is the possibility of these angels as a hoard of heavenly hillbillies, replete with overalls, work-worn boots, and cans of Round-Up under their arms, waging chemical warfare upon the weeds of wickedness infesting the earth. Imagine the banjo riff from the film Deliverance as the soundtrack to the End of the Ages, and I dare you not to be afraid.

-Jesus’ parable of the wheat, the weeds and the reapers has meant many things to many people over the ages. The beauty of a parable is that it defies paint-by-numbers allegorical interpretation. It can even mean many different things to the same person throughout their life. So this week, I’ve been thinking about the weeds, which Jesus says represent “stumbling blocks.” And if there’s any candidate for stumbling block in my own life, its fear of judgment. Fear that my shortcomings will end up defining me.

-This past week, a few of us attended a retreat on discerning vocation. Many times throughout the process, we were asked about a time when we heard the “sound of the genuine” deep in our souls. It was not just the fact that I am not a baby boomer or a new age crystal worshipper -or that I was with House folks - that this phrase aroused in me smirks of annoyance and cynicism. It was also because, glimpsing within, I heard only an empty echo in my soul. I was struck by the fear that I had not lived out of the genuine, the true, the good within me. Ever. If anything, the majority of my life is an exercise in trying to make the un-genuine merely good enough. And that’s a painful realization. A realization that filled me with terror and fear. Because too often, it is fear of judgment that has led me to this ingenuous way of life in the first place.

-What if part of the destructive tendency of the weeds is to try to convince us of the lie that ultimately, it is our failures, our faults and our fears that will finally define us? The weeds just might be those voices that say, “you are guilty of X, and you will never change.” They say things like, “you really should have done this,” or, “if you had only done it this way, you might have made it, but instead, you are stuck here, this is your fate.” They specialize in formulas of fear, such as “you have done Y, and now you are forever defined by Y, and you will be judged forever on the basis of Y.” What if the weeds are the snares and the shackles of the satanic, striving to make us believe that we are slaves to sin, rather than sons and daughters, new and beloved creations of the loving God of the Crucified One?

-As with any convincing, persistent lie, it can be very easy to begin to worship it as truth. During college, when I first began to struggle deeply with depression, I read a book by Andrew Solomon called The Noonday Demon. Solomon describes the experience of depression as a vine that snakes its way about a healthy tree. Over time the tree is strangled by the vine. And yet, as the tree weakens, it becomes more and more reliant upon the strength of the vine to uphold it, to keep it from falling. You cannot cut off the weed without killing the tree. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome of the soul. We despise our weeds. And yet, the longer we listen to them, the longer we live with them, the harder it is to imagine life without them. And they become the standards by which we judge and condemn ourselves and others. Late-90's olitically-charged rock band Rage Against the Machine summed up the inevitable result in their apt slogan: “fear is your only god.”

-I wonder if Jacob felt afraid as he lay there with his head resting on a stone in the middle of God-knows-where. Jacob, the younger twin who stole his brother’s birthright by pulling a fast one on his old blind father. Jacob, the fugitive, the trickster, a perfect candidate for weediness if ever there was one. Jacob full of fear. Jacob skilled in sin. Jacob on the run.

-Yet, into his dark and dreadful dreams, God sent a “bustle in Jacob’s hedegrow,” and unveiled to Jacob a vision of a stairway to heaven. Long before the epic Zepplin song was banned from guitar stores everywhere, Jacob witnessed firsthand the traffic patterns heaven shares with earth. Amazed, Jacob exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” You know what I think led him to utter this? I think it is the fact that in his vision, the angels are not only ascending, but descending. Not leaving him alone in his fear, but coming to meet him in the midst of it.

-You see, Zepplin got it wrong. It’s not a stairway TO heaven, but a stairway FROM it. The ladder to the divine is not some standard of perfection humanity is demanded to climb. It’s a pathway by which God comes down to meet, and to minister, to humanity. A ladder that extends not just to the high places where holy men worship. But lower, to the valleys where thieves and scoundrels sleep with their regrets while fleeing from their sins. Lower, into the blackened soil where roots of weeds refuse to be pulled by persistent human hands. Lower, into the depths of the human heart, where depression, doubt, despair, disillusion, disappointment, disingenousness and death dwell. Lower still, into the very halls of hell, where Christ descended to be with us, there where we feel lost, alone, forsaken, damned.

-Jacob recognized the closeness of God, because God came close to Jacob when Jacob was furthest from God, from others, and from himself. It is there that God arrives, in the deepest pit of human brokenness. So that there we might also exclaim, “surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” So that there, we might begin to have real hope.

-If you’re anything like me, then you need to hear the promise of Jesus Christ, that we are not our weeds. That fear is NOT our only god. That we are wheat, and that one day, we will indeed shine like the sun. That the final judgment has been pronounced, not by our failures, but on the cross, when the Lord of the Angels died for the sake of all failures. That like Jacob, we are sons and daughters, heirs and heiresses to the goodness of a God who is faithful, even and especially in the midst of our most wanton unfaithfulness. We have made a weedy parking lot of Eden. Yet God continues to tend the soil, bringing forth wildflowers from the cracks of the concrete. The angels coming to eradicate the minions of the evil one from the earth are not coming to annihilate us as well, but rather, to liberate us, to landscape us, to unleash the light of our glory, to unveil our naked beauty before the touch of the Divine Lover. To declare to us not a new command, but a new possibility: “Fear Not!”

-We are not our weeds, and the weeds know it. It is not we who should fear, but the spirits of fear who should fear us. Because if we listen to the parable, we are reminded that the wheat was sown first. And only the wheat will remain.

-And when hillbilly angels seem in short supply, we have one another. For just as there are many weeds, so too, there are many grains of wheat, brought together as one body, rich in failure, but more abundant in grace, bringing to each other and to the world the Good News that God is for us. That there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus. That when we grasp each others’ hands as we pass the peace – this day - it is a peace that does not depend on us, but on the promises and the faithfulness of the God of Jacob, whose banner over us is Love, whose blood has won eternal peace for all creation. That when we look into one another’s eyes, we see not weeds, but the bread of life broken and offered for us. We see that we are caretaker’s of each others’ glory. And that we are well cared for in return.

-So fear not. And please. Don’t fear the reapers. Amen.

(Oh, and more cowbell please!)