The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: July 30, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Kate Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
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 Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ah, it’s summer. A chance to slow down, to go outside, to see things a little differently. I just returned from several weeks of doing things differently – a week at the Family Camp we’ve helped run in California and a few more weeks of traveling, backpacking, visiting friends and family up and down the West Coast. I have been slow to get back up to speed since my return on Wednesday. But if I’m honest, I’ll admit, I don’t really want to get back up to speed. Over the past several weeks I did a lot of slowing down: sitting outside looking at views and listening to the wind and the water; chatting idly with people I’ve known for a long time; reading books and magazines that didn’t purport to improve me or my professional identity but were just good reads. We traveled many miles, we hiked in the mountains, I took long runs, and really, all of it was relaxing. It was an alternate reality. And this reality now is having a hard time tamping that one back down. Deadline? Whatever. What’s for dinner? Vacation is subversive.
But I know that all too soon I will be re-infected with the New York (American) way, and I’ll start getting things done again. I’ll start focusing on the list of to-dos to prepare for the fall and the program year, and I’ll begin to worry over back-to-school shopping and the calendar and meetings and before long, my family will complain that I’m never home and I’ll forget to sit and hang out with the kids and my mom will say I haven’t called and all the intentions I have of writing notes to everyone I saw will slip away in a wash of accomplishment and purpose. This reality will take back over. Unless, by God’s grace, it doesn’t.
Because actually, I’ll tell you right now: that alternate reality is exactly what God would prefer for us. Which is better? Slaving at the office to accomplish goals, make money and pursue prestige and advancement? Or being with people you love in a beautiful place and doing only what really needs to be done? Our world says one thing. But I think you know just what Jesus would do. We do a lot to wall our reality off from the upset and confusion of what God is up to. Summer is a time when that other way, the kingdom of heaven way, breaks in.
If you’re not so sure, just listen to the stories Jesus tells. Today we have a whole lot of them – not stories exactly, but parables, images that crack the façade of our reality enough to let in the alternative. The kingdom of heaven is like this, he says. And then he goes on to paint pictures to show us what he means. And the pictures don’t look anything like what we would expect him to say.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed someone sowed in his field. Which would make no sense. Who in their right mind would sow the seed of an invasive weed in their neatly cultivated field? But this guy did, and the tiny seed grew into a plant that took over and now the field is full of wild birds. So much for the field.
The kingdom of heaven is like a woman hiding yeast in flour. Our translation reads ‘mixed,’ but actually the word is better translated ‘hid.’ Hang on, Jesus, didn’t you really mean mixing yeast into flour? No? hiding? Was the bread supposed to be unleavened but this tricky woman came along and messed with it? So now there’s a whole lot of bread rising, and what are we supposed to do with it? That’s the kingdom of heaven?
The kingdom of heaven is like someone hiding treasure in a field and then buying the field, tricking the seller into a low price that doesn’t reflect the true value of the treasure. Maybe this is ok in the world of Manhattan real estate, but it doesn’t sound exactly like gospel values. More trickiness.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant selling everything to buy the one pearl – which means that then the merchant would be no longer a merchant, because she’s sold everything she had to trade. She gave up her entire livelihood just for a pearl. How will she eat?
The kingdom of heaven is like nets full of fish that aren’t sorted yet. Anything and everything is dragged to shore. Someone else will figure out what to do with it from there. And now you know what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Very little in this set of images accords with normal reality. The people listening to Jesus may have nodded along at images of farming and baking and merchanting and fishing, things like what they themselves did in their own realities. But then they would have stopped short, puzzled. I wouldn’t do it like that, they’d think. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like? Where’s the rational behavior? Where’s the clear system of reward and punishment? Where’s the goal-setting and the strategic plan? What is God up to?
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus suggests, is unexpected. It’s sneaky, even. It doesn’t operate the way you’d think. It’s worth everything. It’s everywhere. It picks you up even when you don’t think you’re ready for it, and it turns you upside down. It calls you, and it finds you. The kingdom of heaven is far outside of your control. Nothing can separate you from God’s love. The kingdom of heaven may have more to do with summer vacation than we realize.
In a few moments we will offer time for healing prayer right in the midst of the worship service. We’ll pray together the litany for healing instead of the usual creed and prayers of the people, and then we’ll offer time for any of you who would like to come up for the laying on of hands for healing. Normally we offer this every Sunday during communion over at the side altar in the chapel. But today we’re being subversive, you might say, and putting it more front and center. Not to say that every person here must get up and come forward and be prayed for, but to make it clear that healing prayer is a pretty central part of our mission and ministry here these days. St Michael the archangel was known in the early church as the healing angel, and here at this church devoted in his name, that healing is at work more and more. By giving a more prominent place for it in the service, we’re reminding ourselves of what’s always going on in the margins here, seen out of the corner of our eyes. From simply reading aloud some names at the appropriate time in the service, we’ve now gone on to have a ministry of people praying for those names every day, in our prayer chain. We’ve trained more and more people to offer healing prayer for others in person, and they’ll do that right here in just a few moments. We’ve trained more people to go and visit those who can’t make it to church, to bring them communion and healing. We’ll be doing even more training for prayer and visiting and conversation over the next year. More and more people are involved in healing ministries here, like a mustard seed gone out of control. And just what this is all doing among us, I don’t think we really know yet. Healing is a little sneaky and unexpected. It’s subversive and not under our control. The kingdom of heaven is like a healing service, Jesus might say.
In some deep way we know that it’s all really outside of our control. Healing is in the hands of genetics and environmental toxins and inept politicians, for one thing. But it’s also in the hands of the unknown and the ineffable. Things happen, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and they’re not all explainable. Sometimes it happens the way we expect it to and often it doesn’t. And yet we come to pray and be prayed for. We place ourselves in the stream of healing light and we see what happens. Healing prayer isn’t always that successful in the world of cause and effect, though sometimes it pops up that way. Mostly healing is a part of the alternate reality we aren’t entirely certain about, the reality that cracks into our own reality every now and then but is never at our command. Healing, and love, happen. Even though we don’t really understand how and why.
Because as St. Paul says, nothing separates us from God’s love. Jesus’ parables urge us to leave everything behind in pursuit of God, the pearl of great price. But God also pursues us, each and every one of us, as precious in his sight. God works out everything for good even when we’ve messed it up, when we’re just sitting there as big piles of flour not looking to be raised. When our lives are neatly plowed in rows and we don’t intend to welcome in any birds. When we’d like to sort out the nets ourselves, and instead we’re lumped in with everybody. In all the ways that we have our selves and our lives labeled and categorized and planned and then up it all goes, out the window. And all we can do is just sit there, in God’s hands, and let it go. Because the kingdom of heaven is like that.
In the last book of the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, after the last battle has been fought, as the children and the animals move through a new and beautiful Narnia, Aslan the lion tells them, ‘The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream has ended: this is the morning.’ May this holiday vacation, this healing, this morning, open your eyes to God’s love.