Based on Genesis 29:15-28, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
By the time each of us has reached a certain age we have encountered the difference between a dream we have and the reality of trying to live into that dream. Perhaps it was the dream of a perfect relationship or event, perhaps it was the dream of some attractive bauble or thing, perhaps it was the dream of that perfect job or career, perhaps the dream of the perfect children, marriage or family life. Whatever it was, often the reality of life pales in comparison to the dream once we are in it. We come to realize that the dream often cannot survive the ups and downs of lived experience. We find ourselves concluding that dreaming is, more often than not, preferable to having.
The same can be said about church communities and our search for the perfect fit. From the time of Jesus up until 1054 there was only one Christian church. In that year, the first schism in the Church of Jesus occurred when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split over a minor issue in theology and a major issue in politics of who was THE Pope. The next split began in the early 1500’s when a priest and theologian in the Roman Catholic church decided to place in the public square some ideas for reform of church policies and procedures. Martin Luther was hoping to get some of his colleagues engaged in debate, what happened instead was that he had to go into hiding, was excommunicated, and ultimately began a movement that led to the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Protestantism continued to fractionate over the centuries as men emerged who had a different and more perfect dream for what the Church of Jesus should be. Each in its own way has moved the Church forward and each in its own way has failed to realize the dream that Jesus has for it.
Our scriptures speak to us today about our dream of life together versus our lived reality. Whether it is Jacob’s dream of Rachel versus the reality of Leah, Jesus’ teaching us about what the kingdom of heaven is like if we put away our worldly striving, or Paul’s teaching of how it is that God loves us no matter how we struggle to live life together. Let us go to God now in thanksgiving that God continues to create the reality of shalom with and in spite of us…
Jesus is once again teaching in parables in the Gospel of Matthew. In the scripture reading for today, Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of heaven and how we as humans can recognize it. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is so small as to be overlooked by the world as insignificant, and yet it expands and provides shelter and comfort to everything it touches. The kingdom of heaven is like an item of such worth that people will give anything to obtain it. The kingdom of heaven is like a great net which gathers all living things to it without condition, the good and the bad. The kingdom of heaven is like the wealthy master of a house who shares all he has without holding anything in reserve. Do you understand, Jesus asks, what this means for living our lives together with God and each other as the Church?
Paul is hitting a climax in our reading for today from his letter to the believers in Rome. Paul is continuing to teach the young church about the power of living life together in the Spirit, surrounded by God’s love. Paul writes that there is nothing worldly that can touch those who have been adopted by God. This is because God alone sets us free through grace – and there is no place on the earth that God’s love isn’t. Therefore, we need to live together as God’s elect, in the power of God’s love no matter what earthly powers are arrayed against us. Nothing created can ever separate us from God’s grace in Jesus the Christ.
Jacob made it to Laban’s and has been working for him for about a month as we pick up the story today. Jacob and Laban make the first of what will turn out to be many agreements between them. Through the course of their multiple agreements, both men will seek to get the upper hand by trying to work the agreement to his own profit. The first round goes to Laban who gives his elder daughter Leah instead of the agreed upon Rachel to Jacob after seven years. Jacob is incensed, but Laban explains the policy of elder before younger and extracts another seven years of labor out of Jacob in order for him to receive his dream wife, Rachel.
The story of Laban, Jacob, Leah and Rachel is a tale that highlights the difficulty of humans living righteous life together. Jacob falls for the “graceful and beautiful” Rachel over the “lovely eyes” of Leah. He is willing to give his kinsman Laban seven years of labor to earn the right to marry his dream girl. All is well until the night of the feast when Laban switches things on Jacob in the dark. Jacob didn’t realize the substitution possibly because of the dark, possibly because of too much partying and/or possibly because our minds convince us that we are seeing is what we most want to see. One can’t feel too sorry for Jacob as this is exactly the kind of subterfuge he used with his father Isaac when he stole Esau’s blessing.
I wonder if Jesus feels sometimes about His Church like Jacob felt about Leah? Afterall, Jesus had taught and dreamed about a gathered body of believers in God who would live together perfectly loving God and each other. The dream cost him his life after three years of labor trying to teach 12 men how to be in right relationship with him and with each other. One of those 12 betrayed him to the authorities, the others did the best they could to follow His teachings. Following the first Pentecost and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, people came and were baptized into the faith by the thousands. They began a new life together selling all they had and sharing it equitably. Men and women shared leadership and teaching roles equally in this new community of God, and the dream of God and Jesus seemed to be coming to fruition after so many millennia. However, once the first Disciples and Apostles died out, the desire for power and control of this new movement began. Capitulation with the world surrounding the movement brought male-dominated hierarchies and sidelined women leaders. By the early 100’s CE the layers of church leadership with Bishops and clergy and deacons along with a standard approach to training believers solidified into the Church structure we find some 2000 years later; a structure Jesus never imagined.
From time to time, Jesus must be looking around saying, what happened?! Everything I worked and sacrificed for was going along like my dream…then reality and flawed humanity set in and I ended up with something unexpected, something less than the dream. It is a Church that I can live and work with, but it is so much less than the Church which I envisioned. I had hoped for a grace-filled and beautiful Church, yet I received the Church with beautiful eyes. While Jesus is probably depressed at times over the Church He has over the Church he dreams of, all is not lost. This is because Jesus knows that Jacob found Leah to have been made fruitful by God. Likewise, the Church of Jesus, though often not functioning like He intended has borne fruit in each season.
To put a fine point on the difference between the Church we dream of versus the Church we have, we turn to the martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote a 105-page book entitled, “Life Together”, in which he describes the Church that Jesus envisioned and the life together that we are supposed to live. Bonhoeffer notes that in every church there is bound to be strife because we as humans are always in power struggles with each other (think Laban and Jacob) or judging each other. Bonhoeffer writes of our struggles to live life together as God intends, “…God did not make this person as I would have made him…God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in God’s [sic his] very freedom from me God made this person in His image…God creates every person [sic man] in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified….”
The Church (meaning the people of God not the buildings) that Jesus died for is a far cry from the Church we embody. Therefore, in order to leave behind the worldly life of the Church that we have, we will need to live into the truth that we are all created by God and gifted differently. Because of that we must learn to work together as servants of Jesus to realize the Spirit-led Church of God’s dream. May God have patience with us while we continue to learn and live together into God’s dream for us and the Church universal! Amen.