Monday, July 28, 2014

"If God Is For Us..." A Sermon on Romans 8:26-39 & Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“If God Is For Us…”
Year A Proper 12, July 27, 2014
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

One of my favorite passages about prayer is the words of Paul in Romans in today’s lectionary reading.  Unlike the other writings of Paul, where he is reaching back to churches he founded to correct or encourage, in Romans he is reaching forward to a gathering of followers of Jesus who are in a place he has not been, and he is putting all his theological stuff on the table so that they can be on the same page when he arrives.  Or at worst, they will know where he is coming from so they can work it out when he gets there.  Paul here is at his most theological, convoluted on some points, but we have more glimpses into the heart and soul of the man and what his faith means to him.
At this passage, he speaks of the Spirit “interced[ing] for us in sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  Think of it, as we do not know the words to say, or the thoughts to think, we pray.   The Holy Spirit, moving in us and through us, is mingling and pleading with God the Father on our behalf according to God’s will.  Our sacred grunts and groans are enough.  Words fail, but we are known.  Words are not needed.
Then we get to a very problematic Scripture, where it seems a wrong statement at best, or a lie at worst.  “We know that all things work together for good for those that love God, and are called according to God’s purpose.” 
Do we know that?  Do I know that?
Some pretty horrible things are happening to Christians right now, in Iraq and Syria.  Are all things working together for good?  I heard on the radio yesterday that Secretary of State Kerry said that he had never seen the world stage in such a bad condition.  Is the world working together for good?  As Rabbi Kushner’s book was titled, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, we could very well say the same thing.
And the bad does not have to be global.  Like Jacob in the Genesis reading, we can do everything right and there is still a bait and switch.  We do not get what is promised.  Things are not fair.
Before we come back to the theodicy of Romans, this question of the bad happening to those who seem to be the good, I do want us to make note of today’s Gospel reading, and use that to help us illumine what Paul may have meant.
Jesus is preaching is using simple metaphors of the agrarian and fishing variety.  Both would have been common and pervasive in Galilee during his day.  Mustard seeds, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl of great price, nets pulling in the good and the not-so-good.  These are all metaphors of the kingdom.  They are all surprises, as well.
Mustard seeds, itty-bitty.  Mustard plants, not so much.
Yeast, nigh invisible.  Yeast in dough, all pervasive.
Treasure in a field, hidden and desperately sought.  Purchased field with a treasure to boot, worth every penny.
A priceless pearl, once again worth every penny.
A net pulling in fish of every kind, the wonderful and the awful.  The good are retained, and the not-good are disposed of. 
Now what do all these have to do with the Kingdom of heaven?
These metaphors give handles to the intangible.  They let people grasp the ephemeral.  The Kingdom of Heaven may seem small, but its potential is hidden.  The Kingdom is pervasive and all-encompassing.  The Kingdom is worth the cost, no matter how steep the price.  The Kingdom cannot be avoided.  It receives all.  It encompasses all.  It embraces all.
The Kingdom itself is a metaphor, if you have not realized it, for the work of God in the world and in the hearts and lives of Christ’s followers.
And that is how Paul can say that audacious line, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”  God’s Kingdom is all-pervasive.  Like the yeast and the fishing net, nothing is separate from its influence.
An old story goes that has a man stopping for directions after getting hopelessly lost in the country.  After describing where they are supposed to be going, the local on the porch says, “Well, you know, you can’t get there from here.”
Thanks be to God that we are not in that same situation.  There is no one so far to be unable to get to God, or vice versa. 
I am not saying the cliché here, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  That would be naïve and false.  Bad things happen.  Evil exists.  There are events that are beyond redemption.
I know many people read this passage and make God the causative agent.  “It was God’s will.”  I do not and cannot say that.  Remember the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)  There are things and events that break the very heart of God.  We live in a universe where some of the things that transpire, they cannot be redeemed.  Broke is broke.  But, no matter what we have done or what has been done (to us or someone else), we can be redeemed.  
God had a choice to make.  It is in the earliest of our stories.  We were not made a creature like any other.  God saw all of the created order and declared it was good.  But when God got around to creating us, male and female, we were created in the very image of God, the imago Dei.  And when we were created, out of all creation, God declared that we were tov vetov, VERY GOOD.  But as Spider-Man reminded my daughter and  me at the Byrd Friday night, with great power comes great responsibility.  We bear the precious and dangerous gift of Free Will.
Abraham Lincoln was asked in the midst of the bloody Civil War, if God was on the Union’s side.  He responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”  This is very close to how I hear Paul’s, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  It is not that God steps into our history to rescue us.  That would be the word “miracle.”  And today, I am not speaking of miracles.  
Today I am speaking of yeast working its way through the dough of our lives.  The slow and steady kneading of our souls.  I want to be so identified with Christ that when people think of me, they think of him; I hope; I pray.  I do not want to be a pita for Jesus; I want to be a big fat yeast roll for him where the yeast of the Kingdom has worked its way into all the aspects of my life.
In my faith, I want to be on the side of justice and peace at work in the world.  Is the world just?  No.  Is there peace?  Hardly.  Watching the news the last week has been horrific, and I see no peace in sight.  But I do not look to the now, and neither did Paul.  He wrote ahead to Rome, doing his best to encourage and support fellow believers in the way of Christ trying to live out their faith in the dominant capital city in the world at the time.  Take the long view, he seems to say.  If we have latched onto the Christ, who has paid the ultimate price to redeem the world, we are on the prevailing side though there are many battles ahead.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  and also, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  …No, in all this we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
There is nothing from without that can take away what we hold within.  Our precious hidden treasure in the field, we have claimed.  The pearl of pearls we have claimed.  And not only that, it has claimed us.  As the old hymn declares, “In a love which cannot cease, I am his and he is mine.”
Paul again: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And that is the essence of our faith.
It empowers us and strengthens us.  We look to what should not be do-able, and we think to how and worry not about the “if.”  We are the yeast permeating God’s creative and amazing grace throughout the world.  When we see more and more people begging at street corners, when the line gets longer on Thursday mornings to get a few bags of food at our Food Pantry, when the news is horrific, we have faith.  This is not the end.  If God is for us, who or what can be against us?  Situations might be bigger than you, but God plus you is greater than anything you will ever face.
Frederick Buechner said of our call of God, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.”  In other words, what brings you the greatest bliss comes up against the world’s great needs is where you are to be at work in the world.
That does not mean that the bad will *poof* disappear.  We still have our brokenness and hurts.  But what will we do with our brokenness?  What of our deep sorrows?  Dan Allender, a counselor and president of a seminary in Seattle took Buechner’s quote and reframed it.  “The place where God calls you is where your greatest hurt and the world’s greatest need meet.”  And in this I hear the truth of Paul.  When I in my weakness bring that to Christ, my brokenness is transformed and becomes a thing of beauty and glory in Christ.  Christ did not cause it.  I do not believe Christ wanted it to happen.  But like a child whose precious item is shattered, and brings it with outstretched arms to the loving parent, we bring the broken bits of ourselves and come with trust to Christ.

Why?  Because, as Paul said, “We know that all things work together for good for those that love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  In that, even the worst parts of our lives are brought into the Kingdom, and are wrought into the agents for justice, peace and grace.  Because, “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock