If you were here last Sunday you might recall that we took two of our readings, the story of Jacob the cheat, and Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds, and we put them together, and we found that we needed both of them to tell the story of how God responds to our human situation. So I thought we’d try the same thing again this week, this time with the reading from Romans and with the gospel from Matthew. Two very different texts. Two very different agendas.
In the epistle to the Romans, Paul’s intent is to provide us with a bedrock of security. His words are meant to be profoundly orienting and stabilizing. Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, are intended to have exactly the opposite effect. His parables are meant to be profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Think about it for a moment. When is the last time any of you went out and sold everything you own, so that you could spend it all on a pearl, or whatever that pearl might represent for you. Can you even imagine doing such a thing?
But let’s start with Paul. Paul’s readers lived in a world where there were great concerns about security. Well we can certainly relate to that. We’re living in the midst of a pandemic. We’re worried about our health. We’re worried about our jobs, about the economy. We’re worried because we’ve seen a spike of new COVID-19 cases just this week. We don’t know what’s going to happen when kids go back to school in the fall and we all move indoors again. Will there be a second wave? Probably, but we don’t know how big it will be and we don’t know when it will happen, and that makes it really hard to plan for the future.
So yes, there is real insecurity in our world, and it’s not just the pandemic, there are lots of other things that can make us feel anxious as well. And when we feel insecure, life changes. We stop doing things. We get out less, we stay home. We avoid risks, we play it safe. We spend less, we save more, we cling to our jobs, we stop making plans. We become suspicious of others, sometimes viewing them or their behaviours as threats. Whenever we feel insecure, whether because of this pandemic or any of the many forces that can threaten us, we become constrained, one could even say diminished.
We need to feel secure in order to flourish, both as a society and as individuals.
For me, one of the best illustrations of the effects of security and insecurity come from the world of sports. If you’ve ever coached a sport, you’ll know that one of your roles is to build up the confidence of your athletes. To give them a sense of security in their own and the team’s ability. Of course, at the elite levels, it’s not just coaches who do this. Elite athletes have whole retinues of sports psychologists whose role it is to deal with the insecurities and anxieties that the athletes may have, and to give them the confidence and the strong sense of security needed to perform at the highest levels.
But security isn’t just important for athletes. For all of us, for all of us to live boldly, to live lives that matter, to be the people that we were created to be, we all need a rock-solid foundation of security.
Psychologists will tell us that in order for people to flourish, we need to feel secure. To know that we are loved, that we belong and that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.
There are many things that can challenge the foundations of our security. Our primal fear, far greater than our fears at the societal level, is that somehow we will be separated from those who love us. And when that fear translates into insecurity, how do we live?
We play it safe. We worry about what others think. We’re afraid of making a mistake. We expend energy in self-justification. We seek security in the wrong places.
Paul knows all this. He knows it, because he’s lived it. Paul had his own crisis, the moment when he became aware that his life was all screwed up. He lost his sight and felt totally abandoned and unworthy of love. And yet, in that moment of weakness, in that moment when he knew he needed something, but probably didn’t know or couldn’t articulate what it was, it was then that he became aware of the Spirit of God. The Spirit that helps us in our weakness, the Spirit that in those moments when we don’t even know what to ask for, intercedes for us, and assures us that we are loved, and reassures us that nothing, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.
This is the untouchable, unshakable, absolute, rock-solid foundation of security that we need.
Who or what will separate us from the love of God? Nothing. No one. Nada. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor divorce, nor loss, nor addiction, nor abandonment, nor the judgement of others, nor our own guilt, nor anything we do or don’t do, nor illness, nor failure, nor pandemic, nor any power, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God, which was shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is our rock-solid foundation of security, the foundation that allows us to go out and to flourish, to live boldly, to live passionately, to be at the top of our game, to live lives that matter.
We need this rock-solid foundation to be the people that God created us to be and to do the things that God is calling us to do, and we’ve got it.
That’s the message of our reading from Romans.
Now let’s put that into conversation with our gospel readings, with all these images and parables of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus gives us.
When I put the two together, I find that there is a kind of irony. The irony is this: one of the reasons we need the rock solid foundation of God’s love that Paul writes about in Romans is precisely because the encounter with God can be profoundly disorienting and destabilizing, something that pushes us beyond our usual way of doing things.
Did it ever occur to you that the people in these kingdom of heaven parables are acting a little strange?
Mustard. Mustard in Jesus part of the world was basically a weed. It was one of those invasive plants that keeps spreading and spreading, and is hard to eradicate, a bit like dandelions or mint. You’d have to be crazy to plant it in your field, most farmers try to eradicate it – but that’s what the farmer does in this parable, and eventually it becomes a place where birds can make their nest.
Yeast. Yeast was undesirable in Jesus’ world, a corrupting influence, something you had to cleanse your house of each year at the passover. Yeast is a fungus, and the yeast that the woman took didn’t come from a nice clean jar in the fridge, but was likely a lump of rotting bread or fruit. What does she do? She hides it. Our translation says she mixes it, but the original Greek actually says she hides it. She tries to hide this small rotting lump in three measures of flour, a huge amount of flour. But the yeast won’t stay hidden. What happens? She ends up with enough bread to feed a hundred people.
The one who finds the treasure, the merchant who finds the pearl of great value. Both end up selling everything they have to buy that one thing. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. Imagine the reaction from their spouses when they get home that night and tell them that it’s time to pack their bags, they’re going to have to leave the house because they just sold it.
None of the people that we encounter in these kingdom of heaven parables seem to be acting in accordance with the usual rules, the conventional wisdom. They’re pushing boundaries, taking chances, acting boldly. It’s all a bit absurd, surprising, disorienting, counter-intuitive – but the kingdom of God always prevails in the end.
There’s a lot could be said about these parables. But one thing that we can say is that the encounter with God, life lived in relationship with God, can be profoundly disorienting. It can call us to live in ways that are surprising, in ways that go beyond our comfort zone, in ways that risk failure, in ways that may invite judgment from others.
That’s not easy. But no matter where our journey with God takes us, no matter how absurd life gets, no matter the surprises that the kingdom of heaven may have in store for us, we have that rock-solid foundation that gives us our security. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.
So go for it. Act boldly. Live lives that matter. Be the people that God created you to be.
Homily: Yr A Proper 17, July 26 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 29:15-28; Ps 105:1-11; Rom 8:26-39; Mt 13:31-33,44-52