Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-52 Heaven on Earth Susan J. Barnes
July 30, 2017 St. John’s, Minneapolis
A great book found me this summer: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. It’s a treasure!
Hope Jahren is a 40-something professor of earth sciences who grew up in small-town southern Minnesota. Lab Girl is the memoir of her unique, indescribable, fruitful partnership with a brilliant, eccentric guy, with whom she has worked closely in the lab for twenty years.
The book is superb: hilarious, heartbreaking, enchanting and mind expanding about the wonders of the plant world. Jahren writes sparely, evocatively.
Listen to the opening and closing sentences from her brief meditation on a seed.
“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed….
Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”
The image of the seed took me on a metaphorical journey; it led me to think about “seeds” in my own life that long laid dormant: the seed of faith, for example; the seed of priestly vocation (I went to seminary at 50); the seed of commitment to another person in marriage–finally at age 63.
Metaphor enriches our understanding of the world and ourselves. Metaphor is essential to the “explanation” of anything immaterial, invisible, transcendent.
Like the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus knows the kingdom of heaven. To him, it’s more than a vision. It’s the glorious reality of union with God in which Jesus lives. He wants to share it with the people around him–particularly his closest followers. He invites them to in the only way he can: through metaphor.
Jesus’ followers live in villages in the Galilee, close to the land, to the farming and fishing that sustain their lives. So he uses images that connect directly to their experience. Sometimes he tells stories, like the parable of the sower. Other images, like today’s, are shorter, simpler; they more quickly engage the imagination and emotions.
Jesus offers up a dizzying variety of images. He knows that different ones speak to different persons.
In the first two we just heard, Jesus used irony that is lost to us today. Back then, commentator Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman noted, everybody knew that a mustard plant was a bush, and a weed, not a great tree to be admired. And that yeast, a “rotten, moldy lump of bread” was a “symbol of corruption”. Jesus’ exaltation of those two elements gave listeners pause, surprising them and confounding their expectations.
Surprising, confounding expectations–just the way that God does.
Jesus’ other images are more accessible to us. The net thrown into the sea, e.g., which becomes the last judgment. Some people crave the finality of that. They need to know for sure that there is salvation for the righteous and damnation of the evil–complete with wailing and gnashing of teeth!
Many people are captivated by stories of hidden valuables, like the the pearl of great price and the treasure in the field.
Both of those spoke to me–not about the having, not about the owning, but the selling, the giving up, the surrendering.
I identified completely–body and soul–with the idea that there’s something so precious you would give up everything for it.
That’s the way I felt when my sister Polly told me she was dying of cancer eight years ago. I would have given anything, everything–beginning with my own life–to save hers.
I still would today–in a heartbeat.
That’s Jesus’ point, isn’t it? That’s the depth of commitment that Jesus wants us to feel. Jesus wants us to seek the kingdom, the love of God, with that intensity, that passion, that total abandon–just as Jesus has.
Jesus is casting a wide net himself with all these images piled one on another. Each one may be the story, the image, the example that opens the heart, that awakens the seed of faith and vocation in another human soul.
It’s remarkable that we can still connect with some of these images–given the enormous gulf of time and culture between us and the people of first-century Palestine. We have next to nothing in common with them.
Their lives were hard, short, simple, and full of risk. In addition, they had no freedom. They were oppressed by the Roman imperial system that taxed them heavily, leaving them little on which to survive.
Two of the things we do have in common with them are what make Jesus’ teachings universal, and compelling.
The first thing is the simple human tendency to be preoccupied: mulling over the past, worrying about the future. Jesus’ disciples were probably preoccupied with survival. Many of us have the luxury of first-world preoccupations. Whatever the case, preoccupations keep us from being present to the presence of God.
So Jesus calls us to be awake, alive to the treasure of God–the kingdom of heaven in our very midst.
The second thing we have in common with them is that we all suffer. Suffering is an inescapable part of life, of the human condition. Nobody gets a pass.
Suffering may shake our faith in God. On the other hand, it may lead us to faith more deeply. Shattering our self-absorption and preoccupation, suffering can break through. It can bring us to a screeching halt in the present moment–where God is ALWAYS present. Remember, God’s name is “I am”.
Christians from St. Paul down to Anne Lamott have written about the link between struggle and faith, suffering and hope.
It is not that God causes suffering or wills it. But that God is present in our suffering.
Simone Weil, the early-20th century French mystic, discovered that when she was in agony from chronic migraines on a Holy Week retreat. Eric Springsted, author of Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love, quotes her journal entry: ‘neither my senses nor my imagination had any part [in the experience]. I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.”
The seed of my own faith was brought to life through a kind of suffering, too–minimal though it was in comparison to Weil’s and others’. Mine was existential: the struggle to find the meaning that was lacking in my very “successful” professional life. I’ve told the story here. Bottom line: God surprised me! Confounding my expectations–filling me with love, acceptance, forgiveness.
Ever since then, my faith grows in fits and spurts. The growth still can come in my own grief, or in pondering the suffering of others–of individual people I know or the billions whom I don’t; of planet Earth; of nations–including our own, but especially those we are harming. Like St. Paul, I don’t have the words for any of this. So I trust God. I count on the Spirit to intercede “with sighs too deep for words.”
More and more, though, my faith grows slowly, steadily with the awe and gratitude I feel every day. The moments when the goodness and beauty of God’s creation break through my preoccupation, my busy-ness. When I stop to revel in the glory of a summer day and the genius of a flower’s design, to admire a piece of ceramic or another inspiring work of human imagination and hands, to really feel the embrace of the kindness, generosity and compassion of people I meet along the way.
These are the signs of God’s love in our midst, the reality of the kingdom of heaven.
So, in those moments of presence–whether to sorrow or joy–for a moment I know the truth that Paul wrote to the church in Rome:
neither death, or 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.