Proper 12a, July 26, 2020
Sermon live-streamed from Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, on Sunday, July 26, 2020
Here we are in the long liturgical non-season stretching from Pentecost and Trinity to Advent. We call it ordinary time — not because it is humdrum — ordinary as opposed to extraordinary — but ordinary as in ordinal numbers (first, second, third and so on), since each of the Sundays in this period is named for where it stands in relation to Pentecost (so, for instance, today is the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost).
Even so, ordinary time tends to be uneventful until we get to September. Not this year, though, with surges of COVID-19, along with ever-rising political and economic tensions. Yet the parables we just heard from Matthew (13:31-33, 44-52) do use ordinary things as windows onto the kingdom of God — ordinary things in the usual, everyday sense of ordinary: A mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, an unexpected bargain, a mixed catch of fish.
At 12 o’clock I will be leading a reflection on these parables for the noonday service, where the sermon is replaced by an actual conversation anyone can contribute to. I’m always glad when I can be part of that. Just this last week, a group from that congregation spent an evening looking at the readings for the next seven weeks in order to decide on a theme for the rest of the summer. And for them a clear theme emerged, starting with the readings for today. The theme that emerged was ordinariness.
They too were struck by the homeliness and simplicity of the parables we just heard.
I look forward to hearing what the noonday people have to say about that.
What I will probably say at noon is this. These short and pithy illustrations of the kingdom of God are not so much about defining the kingdom or pinning down what it means, as they are about offering us lenses through which to see the rule of God at work in our midst, right here, right now.
It’s like one of my favorite poems — Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” As its title suggests, it is a series of thirteen short ‘takes’ on a familiar and ordinary bird that can change our way of seeing ourselves and the world if we pay attention. Let me just read you the first three of these, and you’ll see what I mean:
Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Each of these vignettes is a sort of secular parable, using what could be a mundane observation — or something we might not even notice — to take our minds to a new place. It’s just what Jesus is also doing. We could call today’s series of parables ‘Five Ways of Looking at the Kingdom,’ that is, five ways of catching the mysterious workings of God in our very midst, in the places we would be least likely to look for God, because they are so very ordinary.
But these parables are not just about God lurking in our everyday lives. Just as in Wallace Stevens’ poem, they are about us, about our longing for God, our hope for salvation, our desire to be on the right side of truth. They are about our deepest desires as well as our deepest fears. And these desires and fears may be just as selfish as they are altruistic. Think of the man who finds buried treasure in a field and sells all he has to buy it. Jesus uses self-serving cunning as a metaphor for willingness to sacrifice everything for admission into the kingdom, but he is also reminding us that our purest religious motives are never entirely pure.
The same goes for the parable of the catch of fish, some good, some only fit to be thrown back into the water. Isn’t Jesus addressing our fear that we will ultimately be judged unworthy of admission to the kingdom, because of our failure to put God and the neighbor first?
Of course, the good news of God in Christ is that God is not going to throw any of us bad fish back into the water — or, as Paul puts it in today’s reading from Romans 8:26-39 — nothing imaginable can separate us from the love of God in Christ. (I will come back to Paul in a minute.) In any case, Jesus does not shrink from letting us be chastened from time to time by a healthy dose of religious fear.
Nevertheless, what these parables bring home is that our truest hope lies close by. None of these parables is about travel far from home; none is about heroic sacrifice; none is about selflessness. But if we have ears to hear, each hints at how God takes our selfish desires, our ignorance, and even our guilt, and transforms these into the raw material, the hidden seed, of a true love of the goodness of God and a genuine desire for the welfare of our neighbor. What is closest to us, what is most ordinary about us, is what God works with.
Yet how do we relate this good news about closeness to the extraordinary distancing this pandemic has forced on us? If our truest hope lies close by, what do we do when those we want to be closest to are unavailable to us, or when whatever physical contact we still enjoy with those we live with comes with its own challenges and strains? I have no easy answer to that. How do we seek for God in what is close, when these days there is so much less closeness available to us?
…”What these parables bring home is that our truest hope lies close by. None of these parables is about travel far from home; none is about heroic sacrifice; none is about selflessness. But if we have ears to hear, each hints at how God takes our selfish desires, our ignorance, and even our guilt, and transforms these into the raw material, the hidden seed, of a true love of the goodness of God and a genuine desire for the welfare of our neighbor.”
The answer must lie in how closeness can survive distance. Many of us are thankful for the technology that has, to a real, if limited, extent, allowed closeness to overcome distance. We can talk to each other at a distance; we can see each other at a distance; we can even meet in small or large groups at a distance. But as we all know, that is not enough. We need something that will overcome the barrier of physical distancing in a way that answers our human need for more visceral connection. Or, to put it another way, we need something that simply removes any barrier, physical or otherwise, that separates us.
This brings me to today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which I mentioned earlier. Hear again what Paul says:
“What 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 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.”(Romans 8: 35-39).
At least two things are happening in this passage. First, Paul is saying that there are no barriers between any of us and God, because Jesus, who is the eternal Word, has crashed all of them to be one of us. Second, Paul is saying that because Jesus has done this, there are no real barriers that distance us from one another, apart from the barriers of injustice and abuse that we ourselves construct. So as Christians, we are assured that, inasmuch as we love God and our neighbor, whatever keeps us apart from one another is illusory. The life blood of Jesus holds us all together. It is the medium that holds not only us but all humanity together.
So what do we do with that? We pray more deeply for one another, especially for those from whom we may be alienated for any reason. We pray for those we love and for those we hate, for those we know and miss and those who are strangers to us. We pray, knowing that in our praying we are not making or maintaining a connection, but acknowledging and living into a connection that is more real than any momentary affliction.
I think this is why we take the emotional risk of continuing to worship together Sunday by Sunday, with few of the emotional props that come with bodily presence. This is an emotional risk, because every experience of remote worship heightens our sense of loss, and chips away at our patience with it. But we face this risk out of our faith that we remain one body, in covenant with one another in Christ, no matter what.
That work is our ordinary work as followers of Jesus, more sharply highlighted in this time, but no less new.