The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 12
8th Sunday After Pentecost
30 July 2017
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
I’ve been struggling recently with my youngest son, Luke’s, inability to regulate his energy. Like most seven year old boys, his energy starts at 100% from about 6:00am onward, and seems to somehow make its way UP from there. Like Jane when she was a kid, Luke is anxious a lot of the time, and this frequently presents as being out of control. You can practically see the anxiety build when something happens that triggers his concern. His body gets restless, and he starts chaotically running and jumping around the room, bouncing off of furniture, his siblings, and the pets, and he stops using words and just loudly starts making nonsensical and chaotic sounds that describe by both action and sound how he is feeling inside. If it goes on long enough, it makes the rest of us feel out of control as well, and it is easy to lose patience with him—especially if I’m distracted by parenting my other children, cleaning the house, cooking, a phone call, or—heaven forbid—writing a sermon!
When I’m my best self, I can help him regulate his body. I can touch him to get his attention, invite him to sit on my lap, and ask him what is troubling him so that I can help him through it. When I’m my best self, I have patience, insight, tools to help him as well as help him learn to help himself, and we all thrive. But like everyone, I’m not always my best self… in fact most days I count myself lucky if I’m able to be that person for an hour or two that he so desperately needs me to be.
This is the kingdom we keep hearing about in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus can’t just come out and tell people what the kingdom of heaven is because it’s not something that can be described directly. Rather it’s something that has to be experienced. And we are being called, time and time again, to be a part both of experiencing that kingdom and of helping others experience it in relationship with us.
Five of the eighty-four references to God’s kingdom take place in this morning’s Gospel from Matthew in which we hear that the kingdom of heaven is like a Mustard Seed, is like leavening yeast, is like treasure worth more than all that one owns, is like a pearl of great price, and is like a net thrown into the sea, catching fish of every kind.
While many of these references have become less accessible in our own time, what Jesus is seeking to capture for his listeners is the experiences familiar to them that might relate the essence of what it would be like to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.
The mustard seed, for anyone who has been touched by the loving gesture of another, may serve as a reminder that the tiniest of beginnings can create something incredibly profound. It doesn’t matter how small the gesture might be when we reach out in love and support, but how it is received, and the profound difference it can make in the life of another.
The yeast, leavening the dough may demonstrate both the transforming power and the in- extractable nature of what we infuse into our relationships. Just as the yeast bonds with the dough, transforming it into a living, rising, new creation—from which the yeast can never be taken back out—so too when we work love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and peace into our relationships we bring forth that new creation that models God’s abundance to the world around us and draws us together in community with others.
The treasure found in the field may be that life-changing encounter of experiencing the divine—present, active, alive, in our interactions in relationship with others or the world around us—whether for the first time or for the hundredth! It is an experience that is of such profound joy, satisfaction, peace, surprise, and promise, that one would not hold back any material possession in order to experience it again.
The pearl of great value may describe the desperate search for that which will fulfill our longing, and which we finally find in the deep and passionate union that can only happen when we come out from behind our walls and risk loving as Christ loved.
And the net thrown into the sea, catching every kind of fish may demonstrate the universality of God’s call to all of human kind, where Christ’s way of living, of loving, and of reaching-out draws the full diversity of God’s image in all its best and all its most unsettling manifestations, into the intimacy of God’s embrace.
As with last week’s wheat and weed’s metaphor, the diversity of God’s call catches all kinds in the net of God’s love, but as Paul so often reminds his followers, it is always our choice whether to embrace God’s ways of loving without walls as our own, whether to claim our inheritance as God’s children, or to remain inwardly focused and cut off in alienation from God and others around us.
We get an incredible richness through these various glimpses into the character of what life can be like when we live as instruments of God’s reign. And perhaps what is most incredible about this Kingdom is that it is not some far off place beyond this life, but is something that is perpetually in a state of becoming. It is something that is within our grasp in every moment of our lives where we stand to make a difference in the lives of those around us, and in which our love and service to one another in relational unity succeeds in bringing God’s kingdom to life in the here and now.
However, each of these metaphors also has two sides to it. The seed must be sown to grow, the leaven must be good to not spoil the dough, the treasure must be encountered— experienced first hand—for joy to be complete, the pearl must be sought and risked for.
And the net of God’s love must be cast indiscriminately, leaving judgment to God. The kingdom of heaven is like the best outcome in each metaphor. Likewise, the kingdom of heaven is like each of us in our best moments, as our truest selves, living for one another, loving as Christ loved, serving as Christ served. It is a testament to the inexhaustible abundance of God, shining forth in our lives, in our labors, in our loves, and reaching out with that abundance to all those with whom we come into contact in the world.
But of course, we are not always able to be our best selves.
If there are lessons we can learn from the relationships described between God and those throughout the Hebrew Testament, who show us time and again the imperfectness of being human, and our long history of not being our best selves, it is that we are not alone in having perhaps more moments of not being our best selves than moments in which we are. In today’s first reading, if we can, for a moment suspend our anachronistic judgment of the scene and seek the heart of the story, we find that Rachel is Jacob’s pearl—and not because she is an object of value, but because he is said to have loved her at first sight. Despite the near constant dishonesty for twenty years of working for his uncle, Jacob’s love for Rachel is what kept him true to his own work, honest in his dealing with Laban, and is what allowed him to maintain his integrity as his best self in relationship to an uncle who was clearly not able to be his own best self in this story. In other stories we see that neither is Jacob always his best self, nor was Isaac before him, nor Abraham before him, and yet their stories are kept because through their best and worst selves, God continued to call to them, just as God calls to us.
In Paul’s beautiful reminder, sometimes we don’t have the words to express what the Spirit expresses in sighs too deep for words. Sometimes I am simply too stressed out by the demands of living and making ends meet in a world of complicated and messy human relationships to be my best self. Sometimes I look at my amazing, stressed and anxious little seven-year-old with exasperation, and meet his chaos head-on with my own. In these moments, both of us fail. I’m not able to be who he needs me to be, and instead of finding transformation, we both find frustration.
But in those tremendous sighs in which I give up in frustration or resignation of my failure to be my best self, Paul reminds us that the Spirit yet speaks.
Today’s lesson from Romans is the culmination of Paul’s long discussion of living into our inheritance as God’s children. Today, Paul is exultant in the Spirit that lies at our core— that element of the divine that connects each of us, that draws us outside ourselves into contact with others and with God, and which groans with passionate longing from within us to connect intimately in relationship. This is that Spirit that intercedes with sighs too deep for words—that beckons us outside of our protective walls and into the embrace of our Beloved who hears the sighs of our hearts even when we don’t have the words to express our longing.
God knew us before we were even created. As the omitted part of our Psalm from last week exults, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” It is God’s image that was the map onto which we were formed. God called us into co-creative relationship, and Christ recalls us to that same work as the living example of the relational unity to which God has called each and every one of us since we walked together in the wild and untended gardens at the core of our being.
All of this, Paul draws into his celebratory words from today’s reading, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
Paul speaks here of those God foreknew, which is all of us, being predestined for, called to, and justified by and in that love without walls that Jesus lived and taught. And with all due respect to John Calvin, there is no one whom God hasn’t foreknown, so there is no one who isn’t predestined for, called to, and justified by God’s love. No matter what adversity we face in the complexity and messiness of human relationships, as Paul further exults, there is nothing that can separate us from God, who dwells within us, sustains us, and in whose sacred creation we walk, breathe, bathe, and relate with the countless other images of God reflected back to us in every other human person.
Drawing these images into today’s gospel, the realization of God’s love in us, surrounding us, and reflected back to others through us as we each reach outside of ourselves to bring God’s love to life in the world is precisely what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom of heaven is exactly like life if we were all able to live it as our best selves. And when we can’t, Paul assures us that God is still there loving us, hearing us in both our words and in our sighs that speak of a truth deeper even than our words can sometimes tell.
The reality for Luke and I is that for however long it will last, I am still his favorite person. Despite my inability to always be the person he needs me to be, I am still the person he desperately seeks out in his anxiety and search for help and wholeness. I am the person he runs to. I am the person he crawls into bed next to when he can’t sleep at night. I am also the person he complains to, who he screams at when he doesn’t feel heard, who he seems to so want to impress and have be proud of him that he constantly and anxiously strives to live up to expectations that I try just as constantly to remind him aren’t mine—and that he’s amazing just as he is. In their own ways, each of my kids reminds me every day how important relationship is. They are my pearl. My treasure. My tiny grains beckoning to be sown. My best self being called back to good leaven, and being called to cast love’s net without walls and without judgment. They make me want to be my best self more often than I am. And that, more than anything, is what those great sighs are all about when I run out of patience and realize I’m also not always good enough to be who they need me to be 100% of the time.
At our best, we are the instruments of God’s reign. As we are daily called to be our best selves in the abundance of God’s love, may we also daily seek those moments out when we
can act out that abundance in our own lives and relationships, and may we ever strive toward them even when the best we can give is a sigh too deep for words.