Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pentecost 7, 2014: It's always about redemption

Lectionary: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Thomas Merton once said: “Prayer is… not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration.” (Source: Thoughts In Solitude. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1993, 44.)

As many of you know, Pam and I have just returned from a 3-day silent retreat at the hermitages at Valle Crucis Conference Center. There are many benefits to a silent retreat, but one of the most important is the focused, intentional orientation of our whole selves to God. It is a way to set ourselves back on the path of righteousness, that is, right relationship with God. In a silent retreat, we commit to let go and let God connect with us, in whatever way God chooses: in nature, in prayer, in the silence.

One morning I sat on the front porch of the hermitage. I wasn’t writing in my prayer journal or reading my book. I wasn’t praying the morning office. I wasn’t doing anything. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. I find it very hard not to be doing something. I was clear, though, that at this moment God wanted me to just sit and be still. So I did.

Suddenly my eyes were opened to a great drama taking place right in front of me – in a tree – a beautiful, broad-limbed oak tree. I watched as the breeze blew the leaves in places so it looked like the tree was waving at me calling my gaze first to this part of the tree, then to that.

Then I noticed that there was a variety of birds flying in and out of the tree: cardinals, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, wrens, swallows, and others I couldn’t identify. I watched as some of the birds seemed to play chase together. At some point my ears were opened to the amazing sound of their many songs. It sounded to me like the music of heaven.

I continued watching this tree community for longer than it felt like I should, aware that God was asking me to stay still a little longer and be open. Then it hit me. This tree was a church – a living allegory of how the church – the body of Christ - is meant to be.

This majestic, deeply rooted, elder oak tree represented a sure foundation, a shelter, a home. Its arms reached far in all directions and it didn’t discriminate about who could come in and nest in its branches.

The tree-community was varied yet harmonious. There were no good birds or bad birds – just birds, living together in harmony while maintaining their unique identities and patterns of life. Their individual songs also came together into what sounded like a song of utter praise. It was joyful, lyrical, and unpredictable.

God’s plan of redemption is like that: joyful, lyrical, unpredictable. Despite our fear and selfishness, our attempts to limit and constrain (based on our sense of justice), and our need for certainty, the Spirit of God blows freely where it wills and works the plan of redemption promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ.

In Genesis, God’s plan for the redemption of the world requires both of Laban’s daughters to be wives to Jacob’s, even though Jacob only asked for Rachel. Let’s be clear, what Laban did was dishonest – a cruel trick. But God redeemed it as only God can do. You see, Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Abraham through Judah, who is Leah’s son.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses a string of parables to challenge us to trust God and God’s plan of redemption. As you know, parables almost always contain a surprise – something to shock us out of our expectations.

In the first parable the seemingly tiny, insignificant mustard seed is transformed into a large, strong, welcoming, life-giving presence. Like the tree I witnessed at the hermitage, this parable is an allegory of the church. Sometimes God uses the same allegory over and over because it works.

The next parable, however, contains a real shocker – and it’s buried in the midst of the other parables so there’s hardly time to process the shock of it. Jesus says the reign of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with flour until all of it was leavened.

This makes perfect sense to us and it isn’t the least bit offensive, but to the Jewish listeners, this was shocking. Yeast was considered unclean. That’s why there could be no yeast present at the Passover. So the unclean was mixed together with the clean – by a woman! This is how we’re to understand the reign of God?

But Jesus doesn’t wait. On he goes… the reign of God is like a treasure someone finds. He hides the treasure, sells all he has, then claims the treasure for his own. Wait… the reign of God is characterized by ‘It’s mine, it’s all mine…’?

But Jesus doesn’t wait. On he goes… The next one is similar: the reign of God is like when a merchant, Who, experienced in knowing the quality of gems, finds an exquisite pearl, and sells all he has in order to have that perfect pearl.

The issue in these two parables isn’t hogging the kingdom. It’s realizing that nothing is worth having more than this treasure – the true treasure. These are stories of absolute commitment – something the church could use a bit more of today.

On Jesus goes, not waiting… the reign of God is like a dragnet, catching fish of every kind. This is how the end of time, the judgment will look, Jesus says. God will send angels to separate the good fish from the bad fish. The good fish will be collected into baskets and the bad fish will be thrown “into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Don’t you just love apocalyptic language? But remember, this is a parable, so it’s meant to upend our expectations. One of our expectations is that there are good fish and bad fish.

Another is that we’ll know which are which. Thankfully, Jesus makes clear that it isn’t our job to judge or separate the fish, not even in our thoughts. We’re to live together in this heavenly dragnet on earth until the angels come to separate the evil from the righteous.

Another of our expectations is that this is a metaphor about being sent to our eternal reward or punishment – but it isn’t. It’s about redemption. It’s always about redemption.

For the righteous, i.e., those who are in right relationship with God, the reconciliation begun in Jesus Christ is completed at this moment. They are reconciled with the Source of all that is and it is truly a heavenly reunion. They are now among all the communion of saints, living in perfect harmony in the company of heaven. This is not a reward – it’s an outcome.

Jesus says those whom the angels deem to be evil are cast “into the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I know, it sounds like punishment, doesn’t it? But think about it – what is the plan of God? What was the purpose of the Incarnation?

The answer is always redemption. It’s always about redemption!

Remember, fire, in Biblical language, symbolizes the presence of God. Think about the burning bush in Genesis and the tongues of fire at Pentecost. Think about the refining fire of God’s love, purifying us the way silver is purified.

Those who have gone off the path of righteousness, those who are out of right relationship with God, are sent into the purifying presence of God. Yes, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – because in the presence of God, we see every instance we failed to love God, our neighbor or ourselves, and it causes us to weep.

In the presence of God we remember every time we failed to forgive and held someone bound to their sin, and it causes us to share the grief of God which is too much for our mortal souls.

In the presence of God, who is love, and truth, and life, we recognize all those times we misused our God-given gifts to serve or punish ourselves rather than to fulfill God’s purpose for us and the world, and our regret is so intense, it is well described as gnashing of teeth.

In the presence of God we see the unguarded truth of ourselves. And the truth is, all of us have times in our lives when we are righteous – in right relationship with God, and all of us have moments when we are evil – out of right relationship with God. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” (Source:

That’s why Jesus commands us not to judge. Instead, we’re to commit to live together in the diversity of the heavenly dragnet during our time on earth. And we’re to let our diversity bless instead of frighten us, knowing that God’s plan of redemption, which is beyond our comprehension and control, is assured. As Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, “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 Jesus Christ, our Lord.

When we believe that, when we live like that, we are free to spend our time drawing close to God, that true treasure. God, who created us, loves us, and keeps us, as Julian of Norwich said. And we can each sing our unique song, which is brought by the grace of God into one joyful, lyrical, unpredictably beautiful song of utter praise to God. Amen.

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