Romans 8:26-39 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
I still remember the first time I heard that particular piece of scripture. It may not have been the first time it was read in my presence, but it was the first time I HEARD it. I was at a retreat and it was the text that the retreat master was using for that session. And the reason that I remember it was because of my reaction to those words, which was, I have to say, NOT positive. Because what went immediately through my mind were a whole lot of examples of things that I thought were certainly not working for good for some people I knew at that time whom I believed certainly did love the Lord. There was my friend whose dad was dying of cancer. There was my classmate whose family had lost their house and everything in it to a fire the year before. There was the girl in the class ahead of me whose beautiful and talented older sister had been killed by a drunk driver. How, I thought, could any of those things possibly work together for any kind of good! There were no happy endings here! But fortunately on that retreat day, as on many days since, through God’s amazing grace I have been helped to understand that our relationship with God is not about happy endings, it is not about only good things happening in a pretty world. That is not ever what anyone is ever promised. That would not be realistic. It would be a cheat. There is so much more to the story of our relationship with God than that. It is so much richer and deeper and greater. But it’s a struggle for us as humans to understand the love of God, and apparently it always has been. Jesus tried to explain it to the disciples. That is some of what we have going on in Matthew with the parables we hear today.
The language our translation uses is the “Kingdom of God.” I don’t know about you, but this term, the Kingdom of God, makes me think about the hereafter. Maybe it’s just my upbringing, but it distances it, and makes it even harder for me to think about as something I’m to be engaging with in the here and now. So I played with the language a little bit. What if instead of the Kingdom of God, we call it the way of God or even the love of God instead as we look at some of the parables and see where it takes us?
The way of God is like a mustard seed. Hmmm. Mustard seeds. What the folks in Jesus’ time knew about them that we don’t is that they really didn’t grow trees but big kind of bushy things. And that they went kind of rampant. They got sort of wild. In fact if you planted one in your field you could never be sure just how it was going to grow or where. And the mustard seed is very prolific. It germinates very easily, and once it takes root is very hard to get rid of. It might just take over. You could lose control of it once it begins to grow.
And yeast. If you will recall, in those time unleavened bread is the preferred kind, at least for religious ritual. Yeast or leavening was considered a common thing, even dirty, as it came from letting bread rot until it molded. It is suggested that it is even a metaphor for moral corruption. So Jesus’ listeners may well have been shocked to hear this comparison to God, but it certainly got their attention. The woman (and we know what their status was) “mixed in” the leaven with the flour. And yet we know that no matter what, when mixed into the flour and turned loose, whether it is acceptable or not, yeast will do what yeast will do, when mixed with the flour it will cause the bread to rise and there is no stopping it!
The treasure in the field, which someone found and then hid again. Why? Because it was not his field. It was common in those days for people to hide things by burying them simply because there were few other place to hide them, and the law said whoever owned the field owned what was buried in it. This lucky guy stumbles upon someone else’s treasure, and buys the field in order to have it. Somhow the treasure grasped and possessed him and his only concern in life became getting that treasure no matter what it might cost him. Like the merchant with the pearl in the next parable there was something so great about the treasure that it was worth risking all he had for it.
So what is it Jesus was trying to say here? How is it that the way of God, the love of is like these things? The mustard seed….Something that germinates easily, a small, small thing that once planted takes hold and grows and flourishes. And as it grows it becomes something big and powerful. Big enough to make a resting place. But never something that is entirely predictable, or in our control. In God’s way, expect the unexpected. God is always doing a new thing.
The leavening yeast…the way of God? Jesus seems to be saying that in God’s way, something we reject or turn away from as right, acceptable or good still has the power to transform. Perhaps the message here is, in God’s way, we must look beyond the surface of things because things are not as we see them but as God, who has a bigger picture, does.
And the treasure in the field and the pearl? Both of the men in the parable were overwhelmed by their desire to possess these treasures to the point that the cost no longer mattered, and they would do whatever it took to have what they wanted. Both of them gave everything they had to get the prize. Jesus says imagine being so possessed by God that you would do this, because this is how God is for you. Remember, “for God so loved the world……”
So we have a picture painted by Jesus in parables of a prolific, tenacious, transforming and loving God. One who makes old things new, breaks rules and colors outside the lines. One who has a bigger picture than our little human minds could ever conceive, and who we are forever striving to capture in some way that we can make sense of.
Which leads us back to Romans. “What then are we to say about these things?” These things that happen…my girlfriend’s dad who did die of cancer, and the fire and the sister who was killed and all those other sad and painful things that happen in all of our lives? What we are to say, I think, is what Paul says in the rest of what he writes in Romans, and what Jesus said in the parables in today’s Gospel. “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?.... 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 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.”
The way of God, this mysterious, transformative, sometimes overwhelming relationship with this prolific, tenacious, transforming and loving God who makes old things new, breaks rules and colors outside the lines and who has this big picture that is way bigger than we can grasp with our limited human vision. This God who “so loved the world” that He was willing to become one of us. This God is not a gumball-machine God who responds to requests like Santa Claus giving out happily ever afters. This is not what Paul had in mind. I get that now. It wasn’t ever about that. It’s not about what happens when, or what happens if. It’s about what happens now, in every single minute of God-with-us in the Kingdom that is here, God in the midst. God who grows great from small, transforms one thing into another, turns peoples lives upside down, even in the middle of what sometimes seem impossible circumstances. Our task, as Solomon in his wisdom knew, was to discern. To look for the signs of God at work in our lives and others, to carry on the conversation with God and do as much listening as we do talking to come to know how the stories of our lives are working together towards God’s dream of good for us.