Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Ordinary 17A; Proper 12
Who is in a position to condemn?
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Paul says emphatically in this letter to the Romans, no one and nothing. If God is for us, who can be against us? Such sentiments are reassuring during this time of much uncertainty and pain. And yet, reading this iconic text in Romans 8 also stings in this season of suffering and upheaval. Nothing separates us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord, but COVID-19 keeps us apart from those we most long to embrace. No calamity can prevent us from knowing and receiving the love and grace of God, and yet racism and its centuries-long impact festers and hurts, divides and persists. The coronavirus kills people. The economic realities injure many. Are these verses from Romans only nice words that help alleviate our stress for a moment or two? Or are they true?
Those of us who follow Jesus Christ – who preach and teach, who attempt to live out our faith, who claim to be Christians – emphatically say the latter. “This is the word of the Lord,” we pronounce after the reading. “Thanks be to God,” we all affirm. But with the state of our world, how can we say with confidence, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose”? Really, all things? Work together for good? Pandemics and the murder of Black and brown bodies at the hands of those entrusted to serve and protect, federal executions and climate change, job losses and a gig economy with no safety net, cancer diagnosis and poverty — all these things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose? What do we do with such a sweeping claim in the face of such expansive suffering?
Do Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom of heaven help us in this contradiction of God’s great promise and our very real finitude and failings?
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.”
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.”
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea.”
Notice these are not neat, tidy snapshots, but rich, complex metaphors. Themes such as transformative smallness, impacting hiddenness, joyous surprise, exponential growth and persistent effort emerge from these images. Mustard seeds get planted and tended. Yeast gets added to other ingredients; there is kneading and also waiting. Treasure must get dug up, unearthed and recognized as something of worth. Nets must be cast, repeatedly, hauled up over and over again, their contents made ready for consumption. The good, life-giving end does not come without energy, patience and days of no or very mixed results. All things work together for good and this is God’s ultimate doing, but we are gifted with the responsibility to participate in that good’s emergence.
Listening to the podcast “For the Life of the World” produced by Yale Center for Faith and Culture reminded me of the messiness of a life of faith. Miroslav Volf spoke with Willie James Jennings. Jennings noted that now is not the time for theological or biblical slogans. He went on to say that Christianity that seeks control is “unhelpful in a moment like this.” He asked how do we, the church, “help people think inside the overwhelming of this moment?” And, “How do we speak in a way that aligns our sight with real hope?” In other words, how do we speak and act in ways that demonstrate the truth, not the platitude, that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”?
We begin with kingdom-of-heaven sensibilities. We align our sight with Jesus’ vision. We sow the smallest of seeds – a call, a note, a conversation, a commitment, a donation, a prayer, a stand – and we scatter these seeds widely, generously, over and over and over again, individually and as a church. We enter the mystery of God-given, abundant growth in a world awash in a fear of scarcity. We let go of a little at a time so that with the Spirit’s help we can let go of more and more and more until we see all the birds of the air, all the nations of the earth, cared for under the branches of God’s tree of life.
We Christians “gestate communion” as Jennings notes and envision what “a good society looks like.” We use the kingdom of heaven templates to compare what is to what ought to be, adding the ingredients, working them in, letting them rise and kneading some more, until the bread of life emerges from formerly disparate parts and all are fed.
We look through the dirt and the rubble, digging until we discover hidden treasure underneath what looked like desolate land and depleted soil. Like archeologists of the holy we excavate the landscape for things of worth that reveal what is truly valuable: people, relationships, creation, beauty, mercy, truth, kindness, joy, love.
We are the people called to keep casting the nets and fishing for people — all kinds of people whom God will sort out, people who need to know that Christ is for them and we are, too.
Do all things work together for good those who love God? We trust and believe the answer is yes, a resounding yes embodied in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Yes, all things will work for good because God is working all things out. Yes, and we know what the kingdom of heaven is like. We know God’s will for this earth is like that of the heavenly kingdom. We know that the smallest of God’s seeds result in large, sheltering, life-giving trees for all nations and every creature. We know that God’s power is often unseen, embedded in all that feeds and nourishes us. We know that we must get our hands dirty if we are to discover the beautiful, priceless treasure that lies underneath the world’s grit. We know that fishing requires effort, repetition, patience.
We who follow Jesus Christ are not to be about control or slogans. We are about daily cultivating a society that reflects the goodness of our God — sowing, kneading, searching and fishing until everyone knows that nothing can separate them from the love of God.
- What is the kingdom of heaven like in your mind? When have you gotten a glimpse of it?
- Which of these metaphors resonate with you? Which ones are hard for you to envision?
- When you read the passage from Romans alongside the headlines of the day, how does one interpret the other?
- When have you experienced the use of a religious slogan? What was the context? Was it helpful or harmful? How do we faithfully share verses of Scripture?
- Listen to the podcast with Volf and Jennings. Does anything in their conversation resonate with the lectionary readings and how you and your congregation are navigating the pandemic?
- When have you felt God’s love even in the midst of a really difficult time? How was God’s love made manifest and real to you?
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