Saturday, July 23, 2011

Living Lives that Matter (July 24 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 17, July 24 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Gen 29:15-28; Ps 105:1-11; Rom 8:26-39; Mt 13:31-33,44-52

Those of you who were here last week might recall that we took two of our readings, the story of Jacob, and Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds, and we put them together and found that we needed both of them to tell the story of how God responds to our human situation.  So I thought we’d try the same thing again this week, this time with the reading from Romans and with the gospel from Matthew.  Two very different texts.  Two very different agendas.  

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul’s intent is to provide us with a bedrock of security.  His words are meant to be profoundly orienting and stabilizing.  Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, are intended to have just the opposite effect.  They are meant to be profoundly disorienting and destabilizing.  Think about it for a moment.  When is the last time any of you went out and sold everything you own, so that you could spend it all on a pearl, whatever that pearl might represent for you.  Can you even imagine doing such a thing?

But let’s start with Paul.  Paul’s readers lived in a world where there were great concerns about security.  We can relate to that.  Certainly people in Norway are concerned about security in the wake of the tragic events of the last few days.  Certainly people in the horn of Africa are worried about security, in their case, food security, as a result of the drought and famine in that part of the world.  Security has been big news for us too over the last 10 years, especially since the events of 9/11.  We as a society spend billions of dollars on security every year.  We spend those dollars to protect ourselves against terrorism, against crime, to fight wars, to patrol our borders, to make air travel safe – I could go on and on.

Why do we do it?  Well, we do it because there are threats and we have fears, and whether our fears are justified or unjustified isn’t my concern at the moment.  But as a society, we do have fears, and we try to beef up our security because we don’t want to feel afraid, we don’t want to feel insecure.  Why?  Well one reason is that when we feel insecure, life changes.  We stop doing things.  We travel less, we stay home.  We avoid risk, we play it safe.  We become prone to anxiety. We cling to our jobs.  We become suspicious of others.  In a whole variety of different ways, we are constrained, one could even say, diminished.  We need to feel secure in order to flourish, both as a society and as individuals.

For me, some of the best illustrations of the effects of security and insecurity come from the world of sports.  If you’ve ever coached sports, you will know that one of the most important roles of a coach is to build up the confidence of your athletes.  To give them a sense of security in their own and the team’s ability, whether it’s through repeated practice or positive reinforcement.  Of course, at the elite levels, it’s not just the coaches who do this.  Elite athletes have whole retinues of sports psychologists whose role is to deal with the insecurities and anxieties that the athletes may have, and in their place to build up confidence and give the athlete a strong sense of security. 

Why is this so important?  Well it’s important because you can’t perform at your highest level without being confident and secure.  An athlete who lacks these qualities will be afraid of making a mistake, will worry too much about the competition, will be tense and anxious, will make excuses, and just won’t be able to play his or her game at the highest level.

But security isn’t just important for athletes.  For all of us, for all of us to live boldly, to live lives that matter, to be the people that we were created to be, we all need a rock-solid foundation of security.

Psychologists will tell us that in order for humans to flourish, we need to feel that we are both loved and lovable, and we need to feel that we belong, that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.

There are many things in our lives that can challenge these, the foundations of our security.  Family problems, loss of loved ones, criticism, abandonment, failure, guilt, conflict, and we could go on.  Our primal fear, far greater than our fears at the societal level, is that somehow we will be separated from those who love us.  And when that fear translates into insecurity, how do we live?

We play it safe.  We worry about what others think.  We’re afraid of making a mistake.  We expend energy in self-justification.  We seek security in the wrong places.

Paul knows all this.  He knows it, because he’s experienced it.  Paul had his own crisis, the moment when he became aware of his guilt, lost his sight and felt totally abandoned and unworthy of love.  And yet, in that moment of weakness, in that moment when he knew he needed something, but probably didn’t know or couldn’t articulate what it was, he became aware of the Spirit of God, the Spirit that helps us in our weakness, the Spirit that in those moments when we don’t even know what to ask for, intercedes for us, and assures us that we are loved, and that nothing, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.

This is the untouchable, unshakeable, absolute, rock-solid foundation of security that we need, and Paul wants to communicate this first to his readers in Rome and by extension to us.

Who or what will separate us from the love of God?  Nothing.  No one. Nada.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor divorce, nor loss, nor addiction, nor abandonment, nor the judgement of others, nor our own guilt, nor anything we do or don’t do, nor illness, nor failure, nor any power, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God, which was shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is our rock-solid foundation of security, the foundation that allows us to go out and to flourish, to live boldly, to live passionately, to be at the top of our game, to live lives that matter.

We need this rock-solid foundation to be the people that God created us to be and to do the things that God is calling us to do.

That’s the message of our reading from Romans. 

Now let’s put that into conversation with our gospel readings, with all these images and parables of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus gives us.

When I put them together, I find that there is a kind of irony.  And the irony is this:  one of the reasons we need the rock solid foundation of God’s love that Paul writes about in Romans is precisely because the encounter with God can be profoundly disorienting, something that pushes us beyond our usual way of doing things.

Did it ever occur to you that the people in these kingdom of heaven parables are acting a little strange?

Mustard.  Mustard in Jesus part of the world was basically a weed.  It was one of those invasive plants that keeps spreading and spreading, and is hard to eradicate, a bit like dandelions or mint.  You’d have to be crazy to plant it in your field, most farmers were trying to eradicate it – but that’s what someone does, and eventually it becomes a place where birds can make their nest.

Yeast.  Yeast was undesirable in Jesus world, a corrupting influence, something you had to cleanse your house of each year at the passover.  Yeast is a fungus, and the yeast that the woman took was not from a nice clean jar in the fridge, but was likely a lump of rotting bread or fruit.  What does she do?  She hides it.  Our translation says she mixes it, but the original greek actually says she hides it.  She tries to hide this small rotting lump in three measures of flour, a huge amount of flour.  What happens?  She ends up with enough bread to feed a hundred people.

The one who finds the treasure, the merchant who finds the pearl of great value.  Both end up selling everything they had to buy that one thing.  Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.  Imagine the reaction from their spouses when they got home that night and explained that they were going to have to leave their house because they had just sold it.

None of the people that we encounter in these kingdom of heaven parables seem to be acting in accordance with the usual rules, the conventional wisdom.  They’re pushing the boundaries, taking chances, acting boldly.  It’s all a bit absurd – though not as absurd as marching into the capital city, defying the authorities and ending up nailed to a cross.

There’s lots that could be said about these parables.  But one thing that we can perhaps say is that the encounter with God, life lived in relationship with God, can be profoundly disorienting.  It can call us to live in ways that are surprising, in ways that go beyond our comfort zone, in ways that risk failure, in ways that may be looked down upon.
That’s not easy.  But no matter where our journey with God takes us, no matter how absurd life gets, no matter the surprises that the kingdom of heaven may have in store for us, we have that rock-solid foundation that gives us our security.  Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. 

So go for it.  Act boldly.  Live lives that matter.  Be the people that God created you to be.


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