Sunday, July 30, 2017

Trusting and Loving (Rom. 8:28-39; Matt. 13:31-33)

The movie A Beautiful Mind tells the story of John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, a brilliant mathematician who struggles with mental instability. His wife stood with him through years of illness and uncertainty. On the evening he proposed the conversation went like this: Nash says, “Alicia, does our relationship warrant long term commitment? I need some kind of proof, some kind of verifiable empirical data.” /  Alicia amused at his awkwardness says, “Sorry, I’m just trying to get over my girlish notions of romance.” Then she wonders out loud, “Hmmm . . . proof . . . verifiable data . . . Okay.  How big is the universe? / He says, “Infinite.” / She asks, “How do you know?” / He says, “I know because all the data indicates it’s infinite. / She responds, “But it hasn’t been proven yet?” / He says, “No.” / She asks, “You haven’t seen it?” / “No,” he says. / She asks, “How do you know for sure?” / He says, “I don’t. I just believe.” / She says, “It’s the same with love, I guess.

Can we trust that love will win? Can we trust that love will overcome all resistance and breakdown walls of hate and prejudice? Can we trust that at some point in our moral and spiritual evolution as a species, as image bearers of the Divine, that we will form a Beloved Community on the earth? Can we trust that love will change our world, beginning with ourselves?

The Romans 8 passage is a wonderful passage but I’m very disappointed with the way the NRSV handles verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God . . .” No, we don’t know that at all. In fact, there are a good many things that do not work together for good. There are massive economic, political, social, and even religious systems in the world that diminish life more than they enhance life. All sorts of random things happen in life that are not good. I can’t accept that point of view. Fortunately there is a better rendering. The NRSV provides a footnote with an alternate reading and why these intelligent translators did not choose this reading as the main reading beats me: “In all things God works for the good in the lives of those who love him.” That is a word I can trust. God is good and God always works for our good, and that is true no matter what happens in our lives. In all things - no matter how bad or difficult it gets – God is at work for our good.

Paul mentions in the text all sorts of bad things that can happen, and in fact, many of these things happened to him: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, impoverishment, perilous situations, and violence. Paul experienced all of that. God is not behind these things. God does not cause these things. God doesn’t exert power from without. God works from within. I believe that is what these two little parables in Matthew 13 teach. The divine energy and life is in the seed. The transformative power and catalyst for change is in the yeast. The seed and yeast carry their transformative power within them. The growth and change come from within, not without. There is no external, coercive force. The change takes place gradually from within. And therefore, it is a slow, hidden process.

God woos, lures, draws, and speaks in subtle ways. If we are not tuned in we won’t even notice. The growth of the small mustard seed into the “greatest of shrubs” even becoming “a tree” the text says takes place at a pace that is undetectable. In the parable of the yeast the woman “hides” the yeast in the dough. The translation says, “she mixed” the yeast in the dough, but the Greek word used here comes from a root word that means “to hide.” The woman “hides” the yeast in the dough. God is hidden in the world.

Years ago a rich widow who lived in New York City died and left her considerable estate to God.  Well, you can imagine the legal entanglements this created.  A summons was issued requiring God to file a legal response, which was given to the sheriff, whose responsibility it was to serve such papers.  The sheriff’s final report to the court read: “After due and diligent search, it has been determined that God cannot be found in New York City.”

Well, God is there, just like God is here, though we don’t see God the way we see one another. Look around. Do you see God? We should. God is present right now. Do you see God in the greeting, the smile, the face, the touch of your brother or sister? The divine life is hidden in the world and if you are not paying attention, if you are not aware, you will not see God at work. But God is at work and the divine life is within each of us. God works within the creation and God works within you and me to bring forth God’s own image in humanity. In fact, that is our first and primary calling, namely, to be image bearers of the divine.

The yeast is hidden in three measures of dough. Now, this is not synonymous with three cups. In first century terms we are talking about forty to sixty pounds of flour. It’s interesting that we have the same thing in the story in Gen. 18 where Abraham is visited by three strangers. As was customary he invites them to dinner. He says, “Let me bring a little bread.” Then he tells his wife to make ready three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Just a little bread? How about sixty dozen biscuits. A bit of hyperbole don’t you think? Jesus does the same thing quite often in the stories he tells. Jesus had a knack for employing shocking, exaggerated elements bordering on the ridiculous in his sayings and stories in order to make his point stick.

Jesus is telling us that the divine life that is in the world, the divine life that is in you and me though hidden and seemingly insignificant can result in expansive consequences. The late Fred Craddock recalls preaching in a university church in Norman, Oklahoma, some years ago, when a young woman came up to him after the service. He had preached from Mark 1 on the call of the disciples. She came up to Fred and said, “I’m in med school here and that sermon clinched what I’ve been struggling with for some time.”  Fred asked, “What’s that?” She said, “Dropping out of med school.” Fred asked her why she would want to do that and she said that she felt called to work in the Rio Grande Valley.

So she quit med school and went to the Rio Grand Valley, sleeping under a piece of tin in the back of a pickup truck some nights, teaching little children while their parents were out in the field. She dropped out of med school for this and her folks back in Montana were saying, “What in the world happened?” Fred didn’t have any answers for her parents. He said, “Well, I don’t know what happened. I was just preaching. I didn’t mean too.” There is transformative power in the seed and the yeast. Just let that seed take root in some good soil. Just hide that yeast in some dough and see what can happen.

The expanding life in the seed and the dynamic, transformative power in the yeast   should give us hope. Jerome Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School has written a book entitled The Anatomy of Hope. He says in the book, “I think hope has been, is, and always will be the heart of medicine and healing. We could not live without hope.” He says that even with all the medical technology available to us now, “we still come back to this profound human need to believe that there is a possibility to reach a future that is better than the one in the present.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of love to effect change, and when we are in touch with and connected to the power of divine love/ Spirit, hope wells up within us. In Romans 5 Paul mentions how that our sufferings can actually help to stimulate hope, and then he says that hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God is love, so when we are in touch with God, when we live in union with God, we know and experience God’s love, and that is what gives us hope, because we trust that love will one day overcome all.  

This experience of God’s love gives us the courage to hope and to trust that the life of God within us, within our communities, and within our world is slowly and silently and mysteriously at work and will in due time reveal itself. The growth is slow and incremental and hardly even discernable, but in time our lives and our world is transformed by it. So we have to trust the process and learn to wait. There is nothing we can do to rush the process. It is a natural process that takes time. And so we have to trust the process and learn to wait.

The late Henry Nouwen tells about some trapeze artists who became his good friends. They told Nouwen that when the flyer is swinging high above the crowd, the moment comes when he or she lets go of the trapeze and arcs out into the air. For that moment the flyer is suspended in nothingness. It is too late to reach back for the trapeze, she has let go and there is no going back. However, it is too soon to be grasped by the one who is doing the catching. She cannot hurry up the process.  In that moment, when she is suspended in air, her job is to be still and wait. One said to Nouwen, “the flyer must never try to catch the catcher. She must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch her. But she must wait. Her job is not to flail about in anxiety. In fact, if she does, she could die. Her job is to be still.  To wait.  And to wait is the hardest work of all.”

Yes, waiting is hard, but when we tap into the divine Spirit we experience divine love and that gives us the courage to hope and the endurance to wait. But we do not wait in idleness. God’s love empowers us to become agents of change – to actually be the body of Christ in the world.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Love Letters Charlotte Clement remembers an incident from the past when she had gone downstairs to say goodnight to her widowed father, James Clement, a writer who cannot get his most recent books published. He is going through a time of doubt and depression and is feeling like a failure.  A conversation ensues.  He says, “Oh, Cotty, let’s not fool each other any longer. Why do I go on groping in the dark? Why can’t I accept the absurdity of existence and laugh, as the absurd ought to be laughed at? Why can’t I face the fact that it’s all an accident, that man is an unattractive skin eruption on an improbable planet, that what came gurgling up from the void will die down again into darkness.”[He stands up]. “Why does all of me reject this, Cotty?  Why must there be beauty and meaning when everything that has happened to me teaches me that there is none?”

What he is asking is, “How can I still have faith?” He tells her though, that in spite of all his doubt and despair he still has faith. Then he shares this little parable about the making of applejack: “You put apple juice in a keg and leave it outdoors all winter and let it freeze.  Almost all of it will turn to ice, but there’s a tiny core of liquid inside, of pure flame.”  Then he says, “I have that core of faith in myself. There’s always that small searing drop that doesn’t freeze.”

When we allow the promise of God’s love and our identity as God’s children to sink deep into our hearts – like seed into the ground and yeast into the dough – then that “tiny core of pure flame” begins to burn. As we allow the love of God to dwell in our hearts God’s love takes hold of us and begins to drive us and define us, and no amount of hardship, distress, persecution, famine, destitution, danger, or violence can quench that fire. The love of God becomes the light that sustains us and guides us through the darkness, the anchor that keeps us from being swept away by the strong currents of indifference and despair, and the strong arms that hold us tight and assure us how much we are loved when we want to break away from everyone into our own silent despondency. 

The more we allow the love of God to penetrate our defenses and pervade our conscious awareness and permeate our relationships, the more we will be able to say with Paul that we are convinced that neither death nor life, neither principalities nor rulers, neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God that we have come to experience in Christ.

Gracious God, may we come to see and experience how your hidden, invisible, non-manipulative, and gracious power works in our lives and in our world. Help us to rely on that power, which is nothing less than the power of love that has been made known to us in such a beautiful way through Jesus. Give us the courage to trust your love and to wait for your love to do its work. And may we as a church and as individual followers of Jesus be available and ready and adept at being agents and representatives and instruments through whom you convey and communicate this love to our world. 


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