Sermon preached on Proper 12A (July 27, 2014) at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI on the occasion of my final Sunday as the Director of Ministry. You can read the lessons here.
Life is hard. There is no way around it. Life is simply hard. For me, and maybe for you, today is hard. There is no way around it. Today is simply hard.
Many people say that when a person prepares a sermon, what they are really preaching is what they need to hear most. When I first read the lessons for today, I was less than amused. What was being said is exactly what I did not want to hear. But, in a way only possible by the Spirit, today’s lessons could not have been more appropriate. These lessons are exactly what I need to hear, and I hope that they provide a similar encouragement and support to you.
I wonder how many of you thought today’s Epistle – the lesson we hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans – sounds familiar? If 1 Corinthians 13 – love is patient, love is kind – has become the lesson for weddings, today’s lesson from Romans has become the favorite text for funerals. There is something incredibly profound for those who mourn in this lesson. “For I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” One of the most important pastoral privileges is to stand with those who have been weighed down by the power of death and cannot proclaim with Paul, “No, these things cannot prevail.” When we are surrounded by death, when we face the painful reality of being separated in this earthly life form a loved one – it is easy to see how moving these words can be, that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God. But, this message and the power of this lesson, goes far beyond the liturgical setting of a funeral.
Separation is a genuine issue in our lives. Each and every day with each and every decision we make we are faced with the reality of separation. To chose one thing inherently means we leave behind something else. This leaving behind is a source of great pain in life. One cannot become an adult without leaving childhood behind. One cannot raise children without the full expectation that they will go away and leave us behind. One cannot become postulant and go to seminary without leaving a parish community behind. At the very heart of what it means to be human is separation from those things and those people we love. This is the genius of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Paul writes eloquently about the powers that cause separation. Paul understand this conflict, he understands the cosmic forces that cause separation. He understands leaving behind a way of life in order to follow God. So Paul lists the many forces at work in the world around us. Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angles, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, and anything else in all creation.
Hardship is the first thing listed, and as such it is easy to overlook and pass by it without a second thought. This is something we should not overlook, because hardness of life is a struggle that presents itself to us each and every day. Life is hard. We must make difficult decisions, do things we do not wish to do, be faced with circumstances we have never been prepared for, leave behind things and people we have come to know and love. The best pastoral care we can extend to one another is to stand along side, to be a companion along the way, to help each other find ways through the hard stuff of life.
From hardness Paul goes on to talk about distress. Let’s talk about a frequent force in life. When we cannot complete all that we want to finish, when we do all that we can do and it is still not enough, when we are unable to figure out what we need to do next, we are in distress. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever not been able to accomplish everything? Have you ever felt that what you have to offer is never enough? Have you ever felt that no matter how hard you try you can never accomplish those last few things on your to-do list? I know I have. I know that I will not get to those last couple of emails, phone calls, or meetings I hoped to as your Director of Ministry. This distress, this seeming failure, can easily overwhelm and over take us.
Paul moves on, from hardness to distress and distress to persecution. The prevalence of persecution makes this force especially significant. The violence done to women and men as a result of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, physical ability, political affiliation, and so on. The violence committed for no other reason than the continuation of more violence and hatred. Maybe you have been victim to this violence, to this persecution and oppression. I know there are people in our midst, people we may not even realize, who have experienced the devastating pain of being named other – of being cast off and set aside.
One of the saddest things about this type of violence is that we are the creators of such boundaries. We are the ones who create the status of other. It is our duty and responsibility to recognize where we build up and sustain societal expressions of power and privilege. We must recognize that we benefit from someone else being put down. We must recognize that the Church is at times, the worst offender of naming someone other.
These forces are completely overwhelming, and have seemingly tipped the scales completely over. How easy it would be to just let these forces of separation knock us over and become further participants and bystanders to their work in the world. How easy it would be to accept that this is just the way life is. But, Paul – this great apostle to the gentiles, the apostle to you and to me – reminds us that this overwhelming reality is not the last word.
In the midst of all this, it is remarkable that Paul proclaims, “NO!” Shall these things prevail? Shall these things have the capacity to undo us, to undo the most central element of our lives – God’s love? No! Paul is convinced, and we should be too, that nothing will ever prevail against God’s love. The conflict of the powers is engaged head-on, and the victor is God’s love. It is God’s grace, power, and love that will have the last word, that will overturn all the binds and oppresses us, that will flip the scales in the other direction – the direction of the true nature of creation the nature of the Kingdom of God.
So what is this Kingdom of God, to what should we compare it? The kingdom of heave is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea. Mustard and yeast, a thief and a merchant.
If we take a second look at the characters we find in this rapid-fire list of parables, you might be struck by the fact that they are a little shady, subversive, and corrupt. Mustard is a weed a farmer would pull from a field, but here God’s empire is compared to the mustard seed, starting very small but growing into a shrub. Yeast, the agent that bloats and rots corpses and what a woman would clean from her house in preparation for Passover, is a positive here. God is fermenting the kingdom of heaven within the world, just like the woman mixes – or spoils – flour with yeast. What about the man who finds the treasure in someone else’s field? He sells all that he has, gets rid of every possession, in order to buy that field. By the way, he doesn’t tell the current owner that there is a treasure on his property. What was he even doing digging around someone else’ field in the first place? His action is a theft.
Now merchants were not highly regarded in biblical times. Their motives and everything they did was suspect. This merchant, however, puts himself out of business to make the ultimate purchase. Once one has sacrificed everything to make the ultimate purchase, there is nothing left to buy and sell.
These parables elevate convention-subverting persons and things to describe discipleship in the kingdom of God. Whatever else they mean, these parables hint that God’s kingdom – and therefore good citizenship in God’s kingdom – is fundamentally different from Rome’s. It is fundamentally different from the secular culture around us.
These parables present a radical challenge to us living in the United States, where the Christian faith is predominantly a middle-class, convention-supporting religion. While church going does no occupy the same mainline practice as it once did in the 1950s, we still operate under a mainline mentality. These parables challenge what it means to be a mainline mentality by asking what is means to prepare – to be trained – to be a disciple fit for the kingdom of God.
The church’s work in every age is to form disciples who value contemporary equivalents of weeds, yeast, thieves, and merchants. We are to value that which is cast aside and use it to proclaim the Gospel in our midst. We are to put our own greed aside to help those who have nothing – to realize that we are called to give up some of our power so that those who have been put down can be raised up. We are to shed everything of this world that binds us so that we can obtain the ultimate possession. We are to take that which we wish to deny in ourselves, that which we have been told is wrong, bad, evil, and no good and use it to build the Kingdom of God.
It is easy to think we are not good enough, that we have not done enough, that we do not know enough, that we are not worthy enough to do that which we have been called to do. To think we have no place being a business owner, a teacher, a community member, a parent, a spouse, a priest, that we have no business being a seminarian. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the forces at work in the world that try to do nothing more than tear us down. It is easy to allow those forces to do that work, to believe the world when it tells you that you are not rich enough, pretty enough, fast enough, or smart enough to carry out your work. But when all this gets in our way, we join our voices with Paul and proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God – that nothing can separate us from the reality of the goodness of our creation. We remember that the Kingdom of God does not subscribe to the wills and understandings of this world, because that which the world names a weed, God uses to build the kingdom.
We live in a world based on fear and scarcity. In a world where we are told there is not enough to go around. But I wonder, what would it mean for us to live without fear? I wonder what it would mean to live a life of abundance? If God’s promises are true, if Paul is correct, than nothing will ever stand in our way. If we truly believe the Good News of God in Christ there is always enough to go around, there is no reason to live a life of any fear, anxiety, or scarcity. If we trust in God, God will have the last word and the Kingdom of God will prevail. This is the work set before us, this is what we are called, implored, begged to do.
As followers of Jesus we are called to participate in God’s work in companionship with others, walking alongside them as equals. We are to reach out to the world God so loved, the world far outside our Church doors, the world that may not know the story of Jesus and of God’s unconditional love for humanity. We are to tell the world of God’s power over death and all that separates us from the life abundant God offers.
Together as Director of Ministry and congregation we have begun to do this work. We have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, given the gift of joy to those in despair in ways that I still cannot even begin to comprehend. Together we have trained to be disciples of Jesus. Thank you for trusting me to lead you in this ministry, thank you for joining in being a weed in this world, thank you for counting me as a member of this truly blessed community.
My friends, life is hard. Each and everyday we make decisions that cause us to leave behind those people and things we know and love. But in the midst of all this we have no reason to fear, and every reason to rejoice.