This past week might have seemed like a good week to be on vacation from the world, off on an island somewhere with no access to news or current events. The world does not seem to be in very good shape. Nowhere seems safe. Too many refugees. Too many people becoming homeless, made even more poor, hungry, and hopeless. We might well wonder where God is in all of this?
The answer comes to us from scripture, reason, and tradition; and while the answer may not be completely satisfying on the face of it, the answer is nonetheless true: “God is,” is the short answer. “God is,” and God is for us right here and right now as much as God is for everyone, everywhere. God is with the children who trudge across desserts. God is with the mother in Gaza, and the mothers in Israel. God is with the passengers of the Malaysian airplane, with Ukraine and Russia, alike. How, and in what way, and what it means exactly that “God is,” is the question of faith. But it’s a question amplified and reflected upon in today’s scriptures.
In today’s second reading, Paul is writing to the church in Rome, and there are problems in Rome. There’s a strong community of Gentile Christians—those of non-Jewish background who have come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ. But also, there are followers of Jesus who are former Jews, some of whom left Rome during a persecution, and have returned. And so, among this mixed bunch of experiences and perspectives, there are disagreements and arguments. Paul’s message to the Romans has to do with getting along, with keeping faith in Jesus, and with simply getting through the day, through the week, through this present age. His message is incredibly practical.
Paul reminds his audience—then and now—that we have the Spirit. We have the Spirit of Christ and “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Especially when we don’t know what to pray for, or how to pray, or which words to pray—(For example, should we pray for the Central American children or for political leaders? Should we pray for the people we support at the eye hospital in Gaza supported by this parish and others, or for the Israeli soldiers? And how, when we hope/pray/and assume God is busy in the midst of the most extreme situations of the world, how do we even begin to pray for the concerns in our lives: for a safe vacation, for a good experience at summer camp, for healing through surgery or illness, or whatever concerns us most closely?) Into all of these questions about what to pray for and how to form those prayers, Paul’s words comes like a quiet, soothing rainstorm after a hot, loud, frantic day. He assures us, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of God’s foreknowledge, of God’s elect and the predestination of those who would follow Christ. Here, Paul is not laying the groundwork for future Calvinists or Cranmerians. This is not a doctrine of exclusion but of reassurance. It’s for all who might have known the love of Christ, but perhaps doubt, or wonder, or fear that God might be too busy for them. Paul’s words are meant for any of us who might wonder—even for a second—if we’re included in God’s plan. And to our wonder or worry, to our question, Paul says YES in the face of the world’s various “no’s.”
Yes, Paul says. Yes, Christ, echoes. Yes, rumbles the Spirit. And yes, as God embraces us with a love that nothing can separate. As Paul says, “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 these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For … neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depths, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
With the Spirit praying in us, with the love of God keeping us close in a bond that can never be broken, we can then begin to live into the Kingdom of God as Jesus portrays it in today’s Gospel.
Today’s Gospel gives us five images for the kingdom.
The kingdom is like a mustard seed– a tiny mustard seed that can grow into a large bush or tree. Everything it needs to grow is contained in that little seed, invisible to the eye, but thoroughly known to God. And it is the seed’s nature to grow. It can’t help but grow because that is what it does.
The kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman works into the dough. It is worked in quietly, mysteriously, almost without being notices as anything special. Until the dough is covered and left a lone for a while, and then, before you know it, it has doubled in size.
The kingdom is like hidden treasure in a field. One stumbles upon it. Others might be looking elsewhere for treasure, or perhaps they’re too busy doing other things. But some—they find the treasure. And they do whatever they can to make the field their own.
The kingdom is like a pearl of extraordinary value. Like the treasure in the field, the pearl is of such value that it re-orients everything else. Finding the pearl, priorities change and shift and allow for this one, very best, most precious thing. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.
The kingdom of God is like great net that is cast into the ocean and gathers all kinds of fish. Some good, some bad, some a few in-between. But the time of the kingdom is to be all together in the net, a little like last week’s Gospel of the wheat and the tares.
Again, and again, Jesus calls his disciples and us to live into the kingdom of God. But notice that each of these images is incredibly active.
While the mustard seed may seem to have all that it needs within it, for the farmer who wants “mustard,” faith is required. It takes active waiting, trusting that God will grow what needs to be grown.
As a woman makes bread, she works in the dough. Her fingers will hurt and her arms will get sore. Though the yeast does its work, the person kneading the dough also has to do her part.
The treasure has to be found and uncovered. The pearl has to be recognized and valued. In other words, the kingdom of God is something that we choose. It’s something we go after. We make decisions and plans for. It doesn’t just happen.
And finally, there’s an image for the kingdom of God that involves throwing a net into the sea, casting about to reach all kinds, in every place. This image of casting a wide net reminds us that it’s not enough simply to have found the pearl of great price or the hidden treasure. These gifts are increased and their true value is realized when they are shared. The kingdom of God includes our inviting others and including others into what we have found.
Stories of the kingdom are all around us. They’re even within us and they grow from some of the most unlikely places. In 2001, a 33-year old named Peter Goodrich was among those who died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Some months later, his mother, Sally, got an email from a friend of Peter’s that carried within it the seed for an idea. The friend suggested that supplies might be gotten together for a school in Afghanistan—the very place out of which the terrorist attack was believed to originated. Out of this idea, came another idea, and eventually a hope and a plan. Sally and her family, with the help of others, were able to build one school, support two others, and continue programs that spread hope even in the midst of fear. Since creating the foundation, Sally fought a personal battle with cancer, and died in 2010. But the bit of the kingdom she helped grow continues in her son’s name, in her name, and in the name of love. In words that echo the Magnificat, Sally Goodrich said, ““I have regained my sense of trust and hope, and I have seen the best of human nature,” she said. “I’ve been the most unfortunate of women, but I am now the most fortunate of women.” [Quoted in The New York Times, 12/24/2010.]
Even when the world seems to be crumbling—the larger world outside of us, or our own world (through work or relationships or personal health), God’s Spirit is busy within us, quietly praying and working for good.
The seeds of God’s kingdom are within us. As Christ calls us into new growth, may we experience God’s kingdom in our midst, that it might rise like yeast, spread like a mustard tree, increase in beauty and value, and spread to include all.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.