Monday, July 28, 2008

How Good Is the Good News?

Scripture for this Sunday includes I Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. Primary for this sermon is the Gospel portion, and the version in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” has influenced this message.

So what is this kingdom of heaven we’re hearing about? We’re told what it’s like—a pine nut planted, yeast added, hidden treasure found, a fine pearl bought, a net-full of fish sorted—but these figures of speech make us wonder all the more, what is this kingdom of heaven?

With that many similes, watch for just as many definitions. But I’ll go with St. Paul and what he writes to the Church in Rome. The kingdom of heaven is that inseparable union with God in Jesus Christ our Lord, it is that reigning love of Christ which proves stronger than hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword.

How good is this good news? Good enough to arm that vulnerable band of 1st-century believers as the bloody wrath of Roman emperors fell on them viciously, ruthlessly, because these Christians would not worship those emperors. Good enough to convince them that neither death, nor life, nor rulers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So is the good news of the kingdom of God, the reigning love of God, good enough to shape a healthy attitude of peaceable courage in our vulnerable band of 21st-century believers? Good enough to convince us that neither recession, nor presidential campaigns, nor globalizing greed, nor electromagnetic fields, nor global warming, nor fanatic religions, nor terrorism and war, nor private grief will be able to separate us from that love of God in Jesus Christ?

That’s the question, isn’t it? I mean the question that keeps drawing us here, keeps belonging here where we find the common prayer and the apostolic buildup of hope and the kindling of love that make us bold enough to ask the question.

When I first went to tap it out on my keyboard, I thought it was a no-brainer. Look at those first-century Christians, I thought: their lives were on the line, they were so threatened, and yet listen to their sureness. Their faith and hope and love were their only safety. And we, I thought as I wrote, think it’s a crisis when the Dow Jones drops another two hundred points. We complain about having to adjust our lifestyle—what a far cry from being dragged into the Coliseum! If the good news is good enough to arm them, surely it’s good enough to equip us.

But I’ve got to admit, when I went to list all those things we’re up against, this good question of ours no longer felt like a no-brainer. We really need to ask the question honestly: How good is the good news of God in Christ?

At our weekly wardens’ meeting this week, we lived a while with this Gospel. Our Junior Warden pointed out that most important of all is the message that God’s kingdom is, and is here, not off in some transcendent place or future time. It’s here and it’s now. It started long ago in God’s first embrace of the world in creation; it went exponentially deeper in God’s embrace of the world in Jesus, the new creation. And so, to hear Peterson’s version of Paul, “I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

Maybe the likeliest wedge to get in the way between us and God’s love is none of those external forces, but a person’s own self-doubt and self-reproach. Taking honest stock of oneself ought to give a person cause to repent, confess, accept pardon, and make amends. The self-doubt and self-blame I mean have forgotten that rhythm of repentance and try to replace the uncondemning voice of God with another, condemning, voice.

A monastic writer observes that the purpose of prayer is to bring the human voice into harmony with the voice of God. Jean Leclercq writes, “Prayer is not a dialogue with God, but rather a duet. It does not consist in stating problems and receiving answers, in alternating our words with God’s, but in placing our voice in harmony with the voice of God in the Church and in ourselves, harmonizing our voice with his.”

“Who is to condemn?” asks Paul. “If God is for us, who is against us?”

So these five little parables of Jesus today are like voice lessons, music lessons, teaching us how to move in harmony with God, in keeping with the reign of God’s love.

In baptism, that love is planted in us like a pine nut. Over years, it may grow into a pine tree where eagles may nest.

In childhood, the love of God leavens the dough in young Christians when imaginations are sparked and a life of service is inspired.

Adolescents and young adults can’t help but trespass some boundaries, and it’s in pushing boundaries that they may learn what they treasure most.

By middle age, we may have acted on it! An eye for excellence, for what really matters, focuses us to invest ourselves wholeheartedly in what truly completes life.

And by old age our fishnets have certainly caught all kinds of fish. The prayer of Solomon is answered: understanding to discern what is right leads us to the beach where we allow the tide to carry out much that we must shed, leaving intensified in us what is good and valuable, please God.

Each little parable invites us, teaches us, to practice a basic skill of the spirit: to keep planting seeds and nurturing them, to fold in yeast and wait, to pay attention to what may be hidden, to let ourselves be inspired by the true and the brave and the lovely, and to let God cull the net results.

So being well-trained in God’s kingdom is “like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

Williamstown used to have a general store, Phillips’ on Water Street, where Brown’s is now. It made me want to go there. I went there one day for cup hooks and came home with Nigerian handwoven tablecloths. The kingdom of God is full of surprises, and so was Phillips’.

The Anglican Church is like a general store. As our bishops meet at Canterbury, we need them to teach each other more about the kingdom of God, so they may come home and teach us, in just as simple language as Jesus in these parables.

Some bishops have gone there—and more than a few have refused to go there—believing that they, rightly trained in the kingdom of God, are appointed to pick out the bad fish from the good.

Addressing the 650 bishops at the opening of the Lambeth Conference, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said to them, “We need to get beyond the reciprocal impatience that shows itself in the ways in which both liberals and traditionalists are ready—almost eager at times, it appears—to assume that the other is not actually listening to Jesus.”

In that address he also said, “Our own communion and unity are created and nourished by God for the sake of the Good News. If our efforts at finding greater coherence for our Communion don’t result in more transforming love for the needy, in greater awareness and compassion for those whose humanity is abused or denied, then this coherence is a hollow, self-serving thing, a matter of living ‘religiously’ rather than ‘biblically’…”

Holy One, save us from the first. Open us to the second.