July 30, 2017
From today’s gospel parables, we learn that while God’s kingdom is real and life-giving and wonderful, it is not always obvious. It may even seem hidden. One must discover it, often with a sense of joyful surprise. A farmer doesn’t see much in a tiny mustard seed, but discovers its potential to produce a huge tree that gives shelter to many birds. Yeast seems like nothing until one sees what happens when a woman mixes it with flour. A field seems ordinary and barren until one discovers the treasure within it. The pearls in a drawer all seem alike, until suddenly someone with a good eye for such things sees a truly fine one among them.
The parables suggest that one might discover God’s realm, the situations where God is doing wondrous things, by accident. However, one stands a better chance of striking pay dirt when one is on a quest; when one is looking and longing for something more. This is the mindset of a pilgrim. The twenty-six of us who participated in a group pilgrimage to England last month visited holy places knowing that God had been active there in the past but also in hopes of experiencing this in our own day. In all these places, Christians are currently engaged in regular prayer, believing that this connects them to heavenly realities and powers that are in our midst if we only have eyes to see them. We sought to benefit from their example and to engage in this life of prayer more fully than ever so that God’s wonders might be manifest in our own lives and in the world around us. Such seeking, such pilgrimage, ideally characterizes all Christians until we experience the kingdom fully and see God face to face.
The Christian life is supposed to be anything but dull. Poetry perhaps best gives us a sense of its adventure, its discoveries, and its sense of both frustration and fulfillment. Scripture is full of such poetry. In Psalm 63, for example, David prays, “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory. For your loving-kindness is better than life itself . . . .”
T. S. Eliot, whose poem “Little Gidding” was inspired by one of the places we visited on our pilgrimage, wrote that “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” Many of our hymn texts are poetry. One that especially expresses a sense of the Christian life as an adventure of discovery is by W. H. Auden (#463) Referring to Christ, Auden writes: “He is the Way, Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures. He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety: you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.”
St. Paul, the author of today’s reading from the epistle to the Romans, had huge experience of the Christian life as an adventure of discovery. At first, he was under the illusion that he saw everything clearly. He thought he knew that the message about salvation through the crucified and risen Jesus was folly and that this movement should be put down, with violence if necessary. Then, of course, God in Christ dramatically set him on another path. Paul realized that in this life we see dimly as in one of the ancient world’s mirrors. Nevertheless, as he sought the one who had first sought him, he discovered the truth we still hold, that God was and is in Christ reconciling not just his ancient people but all the world to himself. Even in the midst of persecution and also division in the Church, Paul perceived, as he excitedly worked to spread the good news, that, despite appearances to the contrary, “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” He trusted that God was bringing together what he called in today’s reading “a large family” into the new life that Jesus had inaugurated with his death and Resurrection. And he came to know as surely as we can know anything in this life that the source of this new life was divine love, which we see in Jesus and which is stronger even than death itself. With God’s help, Paul had discovered the pearl of great price, and he gave his life, everything that he had, to take hold of it and to proclaim the good news that it can belong to all of us.
Most if not all of us have cause to thank God for opening our eyes, at least to some extent, and for bringing us along the road toward appreciating and embracing the treasure we have been given. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be here in church. We can perhaps look back and see the hand of God in the turning points of our lives, leading us toward involvement in the kingdom, even though we may have been only dimly aware of what was happening. In a sense, as Paul put it, we have been predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son and to membership in God’s family. This is very comforting, but what about those who seem less aware of the presence and activity of God in their lives, to whom a mustard seed is just a mustard seed and a field is just a field? We all know and love people who seem skeptical of or uninterested in the claim of Jesus and his Church that God’s kingdom is in our midst. We want to share the gospel, the good news, with them, but we meet with resistance. Are they not predestined? Are all things not working together for good in their lives? Are they even the bad fish who in the parable represent evil ones who will be thrown into the furnace of fire?
At our SUMMA theological debate camp at Sewanee this past week, 49 high school students debated a worst-case scenario along these lines, preparing arguments for and against the resolution, “In Christ, there is hope for Cruella de Vil,” where Cruella stands for the worst person you can think of. Could even she, or Hitler, or Judas, or “you name it” be redeemed by God’s call through his infinite love and mercy? Some good arguments were made on either side of the question, but most leaned personally toward the belief that redemption was possible. After all, the story is not over. The light of the gospel is still spreading. Our friends and family members who seem resistant to the good news of God’s kingdom may well have revelations, as Paul did; they may yet join the pilgrims’ way of discovery. For all these folks, God is available; and, we hope, we are available as witnesses. In our baptismal covenant, in fact, we pledge that we will “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” We never know when this might have an amazing effect. We are called simply to be true to God and to our best selves; then we trust that, as with seeds sown in the field, God will give the growth in due time. Our commitment and excitement can be catching, and our longing to bring others fully into God’s family is a form of prayer.
Our final hymn today is, in fact, a prayer for the spreading of the truth of God’s reign. Many think of evangelism as something negative, as forcing something on people, but this speaks of the gentle spreading of something beautiful, for which all people desperately long, whether they are aware of it or not. So we pray in our hymn, “Spread, O spread, thou mighty word, spread the kingdom of the Lord, that to earth’s remotest bounds all may heed the joyful sound. . . . Word of life, most pure and strong, word for which the nations long, spread abroad until from night all the world awakes to light.”
We, like Paul and like so many saints we have known, past and present, have been entrusted with a precious, if sometimes hidden, gift. Thanks be to God for life in God’s kingdom, which we can experience even now, and share with others.