Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 12A

1 Kings 3:5-12

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

If you’re a regular, or even semi-regular church-goer, you’ve probably been asked by a skeptical friend or relative if you really “believe all that stuff about the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body.” To many folk who pride themselves on their rational and inquiring minds, these doctrines seem quite implausible. After all, the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body appear to violate what we think we know about the laws of nature.

You might be relieved to know that I’m not planning to unpack those tenets of the faith for you this morning. Among other reasons, I don’t feel equal to the task, and we don’t have the time. Instead, I’d like to talk about an aspect of our Christian faith in which I think all of us have great difficulty believing.

Whatever we might say to the contrary, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s something that even the most devout Christian believer struggles with at times. What we have a hard time believing is that God loves us. More specifically, we have a hard time believing how MUCH God loves us. I’m not at all sure that this difficulty comes from any notion we have that we’re fundamentally unlovable. It’s not necessarily a problem, or not only a problem, of feeling worthy before God.

Our difficulty in believing how much God loves us is a result of OUR human finitude. Our difficulty in grasping how it’s even possible that God can love us to the extent that God does is due to our own limitations. WE have limited time, a limited attention span, and limited patience. We find ourselves stretched to our very limits by the competing demands on our own love. Our partners, our children—toddler and teenager alike, our aging parents and often our friends all ask for a part of us. Even the family pets ask for our love and attention! At the very least we may feel harried, and we may even feel overextended. It’s easy to think that God does too.

The theologian Robert Farrar Capon likes to compare our difficulty in comprehending the range of God’s abilities to the difficulty that an oyster would have in understanding how much humans are capable of. An oyster, as we know, is confined to its shell and living underwater. An oyster cannot conceive of a being that can move about freely in its less restricted environment. Similarly, we can’t really grasp the extent to which God’s capabilities far exceed our own. Our very human limitations are analogous to the oyster’s immobility. As the oyster is limited in the scope of its movement, so are we limited in our ability to love by our human constraints of time and attention.

Have you ever thought a concern was too trivial to bring before God in prayer? I know I have. It’s tempting to save the big stuff, like life or death situations, for God. It’s easy to think that seemingly trivial matters are a waste of God’s time. And we wouldn’t want to waste God’s time, because God only has so much, right? Well, NO. WE only have so much time, though even we probably have more than we think we do. God, though, being God, doesn’t share our limitations. While we’re tempted to act from a presumption of scarcity, God just doesn’t work that way.

God is all about abundance. That’s what Jesus has been telling us these past few weeks in the lessons from Matthew’s gospel and what Jesus is telling us in our reading from Matthew today. We’ve heard the words “the kingdom of heaven is like” over and over again. It’s been suggested that you could read these parables substituting the words “the love of god is like…” for “the kingdom of heaven is like…” Let’s try it and find out what we hear.

The love of God “is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” What a lovely image! The love of God starts out as something seemingly insignificant and grows into something living, spreading, and nurturing. The love of God grows from something so small as to be barely visible into a tree that provides a place to nest and be safe, a tree in which one can be fruitful and multiply.

If that image isn’t powerful enough, the next parable provides us with another one. The love of God “is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.” At first glance this doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you look at a commentary and learn that three measures is a huge amount of flour. Three measures of flour is equivalent to 128 cups; that’s sixteen five pound bags! The leaven—yeast, most of us would call it—will work its magic with the flour until its volume is multiplied. Once the leavened dough is baked, there will be enough bread to nurture and nourish perhaps not the entire kingdom, but certainly a rather large crowd! And notice, please, that in this parable the stand-in figure for God is a woman!

The kingdom of God, or if you prefer, the love of God, is also like a pearl or a treasure. The love of God is worth all of what one possesses. The love of God is worth EVERYTHING. That any single thing could be worth everything flies in the face of conventional wisdom. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” is a well-known piece of advice, and probably good advice in some situations. You won’t find that phrase here in Matthew’s gospel, though. The kingdom of God, the love of God, IS worth everything.

The love of God is like a nesting place, a vast supply of bread for the body and the soul, a treasure in a field, and a pearl of great price. In case we haven’t gotten the message by now, Jesus gives us another one. He tells us that the kingdom of heaven, or if you prefer, the love of God, “is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad.” At first glance this might seem like a case of good news/bad news. Gathering every kind of fish indiscriminately is indeed good news. We might feel some concern about the sorting, though. But fear not. It’s Jesus who is speaking here, the same Jesus who eats with sinners and tax collectors, the very same Jesus who tells us that we must be willing to forgive not just seven times but SEVENTY times seven times!

If we’re still feeling uneasy about the prospect of sorting and judgment, turning to Paul’s words for today from the Letter to the Romans gives us much reassurance concerning God’s great love for us. According to Paul, God even helps us to pray when we’re not able to. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Can you imagine a more loving action from God? With Paul, then, may we all say, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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.” Amen.