Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
July 26, 2020
Lessons: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33 and 44-52
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people trust that nothing can separate them from God’s love in Christ Jesus, and they know that surely this is a foretaste of heaven.
Key Scripture: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, 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. – Romans 8:38-39
These two short verses pretty much sum up what heaven is like without the potentially confusing parables. Jesus may have been employing a poetic approach (think Emily Dickinson) by telling the truth about heaven but telling it slant. Paul, however, finally cuts to the heart of the matter and pronounces that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. We are grafted into the family. Paul lays out a clear case of our full inclusion in this week’s epistle lesson. But perhaps he does more than that.
Perhaps Paul is also intimating to us that heaven is known by boundless love and by intimate connection to the Creator of the Cosmos. This is big news. We are never alone, and we are completely embraced in divine love, mercy, and grace. What else really matters? As Julian of Norwich said, “And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.”
Are you looking for pearly gates and streets paved with gold? Pining for that mansion above? Planning to meet on that beautiful shore in the sweet by and by? Convinced that “heaven” is a future tense word? What if those treasured visions of heaven are too limiting and prettified to contain the vastness of God and the Creator’s desire for real relationship that’s as near as our next breath? If that’s the best we can come up with, we might as well plan for a similar existence to what we have now—just without problems or violence and with only the people with whom we agree as heavenly neighbors.
Maybe we should scratch our heads and wonder why folks aren’t beating down the doors to join the party. The views described above may serve well to comfort, sustain, and inspire those who hold them, but they hold no water for many other people. There’s no sense of mystery and awe; instead, the vision feels pretty self-serving and reward/works-based. So is that all there is? What more can we know about heaven than what’s written in scripture?
Thankfully we have the mystics and the prophets to guide us into a deep cloud of unknowing and unlearning (if we are willing) so that we may, as Elijah, finally draw near to the still small voice of God and the divine prayer for our soul. Yes, God will pursue us, ever ready to wrap us in the surety of divine love and belonging.
Julian of Norwich, 1342 – c. 1416, had this to say about creation (and thus about heaven) in her work Revelations of Divine Love:
“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
Maybe Jesus has been inviting us to experience a foretaste of heaven all through this life when he says in Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message):
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Even this week’s truth-told-slant parables help us see beyond our limited vision of heaven or the reign of God. Like the mustard seed, the reign of God is so much more inclusive and all encompassing. Like the yeast, a little bit of God’s reign of divine love goes a long way to leaven the sorrows and suffering of this world. Like the treasure buried in a field, when you finally figure out how amazing and cosmic in scope God’s reign really is, nothing else matters but life in God. As with the pearl of great value, the merchant recognized his need for that single spectacular pearl and let everything else go to procure it. And finally, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches all kinds of fish. The fisher folk are charged with separating the good (edible) from the bad (inedible). Evil has already been defeated and will be sorted out in the end. In all these short parables, the reign of God is bigger, more surprising, and more inclusive than our human minds can grasp. The reign of God is not, however, too big for our hearts and souls to embrace.
We have the gift of the Holy Spirit given in our baptism and always there to lead, guide, shape, and form. May that same Spirit of wisdom and truth guide your path and inspire your work and ministry. May your eyes and heart and mind be opened to new possibilities and visions for the inbreaking reign of God, for nothing can separate us from that love in Christ Jesus. This is the amazing good news of Jesus the Christ: love always wins, and heaven is not all future tense. Rehearsals already started. Amen and amen.
If you are still hosting digital worship, consider this short video before your sermon (if you’re preaching on the Matthew lesson). You might also invite congregants in advance to ponder which parable makes the most sense to them. How would they describe heaven? If they were charged with teaching about heaven through parables, what images would they use?
You might even want to read Emily Dickinson’s poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” What does that mean? Is it that the truth is too bright and powerful for us to encounter directly? That would surely support why Moses and Elijah handled the truth of God like a perfect pearl in a mine field. Parables are a “slant” way of teaching truth, too. How might this matter for the church that is emerging into an uncertain and frightening world? How might we help one another to see bigger images of God and heaven than what we’ve been taught and assembled into our faith?
I hope your worship will help open minds, hearts, and spirits to envision a more cosmic scope to heaven, to a reign that has already begun and is very much present in our world. The question we need to ponder is whether we are able, like Elijah, to wait long enough and listen deeply enough for the voice of God to call, love, and guide.
If you are able to gather using proper guidelines and social distancing, consider gathering at a large outdoor pavilion for a creative “check-in” time using a breathing and stretching exercise. If you need to move it to a digital platform, you may need to adapt a few things. If meeting in person, then gather in a socially-distanced circle, barefoot if possible. Encourage youth to stand firm and grounded, as if they could grow roots or draw in energy. Have everyone take a few deep cleansing belly breaths and then raise their arms out from the side, hands extended and palms facing forward. Hold the position with natural breathing for as long as it feels good. Slowly roll your spine down to bring your head in front of your knees. Rest in a squatting position, and then stand when you are ready.
Remind youth that nature is healing and hope-filled, and the more time they can safely spend outside, the better they may feel. It may also be easier to listen and look for signs of God in the abundance of creation.
Keep this meeting short, perhaps with prayers and a reflection on Romans 8:38-39. Remind youth that they are enough, that nothing can separate them from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
This week’s focus verses are 1 Kings 3:11-12 – God said to Solomon, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”
King Solomon was really smart! I mean REALLY smart! God offered to give him anything he wanted, and Solomon asked for wisdom to govern the people and to discern between good and evil. God gave him just what he asked for, and guess what? King Solomon didn’t ask for like money, revenge, or anything else like that, but God blessed him with amazing wealth, a peaceful spirit of power, and a willingness to use the gifts God gave him to govern his people successfully.
What one thing would you ask God for? I might ask for inner peace and clarity. Or maybe healing. What about you? Know that whatever you might ask for, God knows exactly what you need and when you need it. So don’t be disappointed if things don’t go by your timeline. God will not leave or forsake you. This I can promise you with my whole heart.
Finish with a simple echo prayer and blessing.
Dear God (Dear God),
Thank you (Thank you) for being God (for being God). Thank you for giving us gifts (Thank you for giving us gifts). Help us to choose wisely what we ask for (Help us to choose wisely what we ask for), so that we can be your people (so that we can be your people) and share the good news (and share the good news). Keep us from fear (Keep us from fear). Keep us hopeful (Keep us hopeful). Make us helpful (Make us helpful). Give us peace (Give us peace). Amen. (Amen).
Stewardship Bulletin Insert
What would having a wise and discerning mind look like for church finances, stewardship, and giving? This week we learn that this is what Solomon asks of God, along with the ability to govern well and discern good from evil. Let that be our prayer as we discern what God is asking us to give of our time, talents, and resources. Thank you for your wisdom and generosity in 2020. Because of you we are able to continue important ministries that share God’s love in tangible ways.
Stewardship at Home
Do you enjoy baking bread? If not, are you willing to try? Why not make this a week to explore the parable of the yeast in a tangible way. There are many excellent no-knead bread recipes out there; we like Mark Bittman’s easy and original recipes that are baked to perfection in a dutch oven. As you stir the ingredients together to form a shaggy dough, imagine how the yeast of God’s love and divine yes is mending, expanding, and filling our sad shaggy selves. After the first rise, give thanks for the gift of yeast that activates the dough, just as the in-breaking reign of God activates everyday disciples like you and me.
As you wrap the dough in a floured cotton towel, give thanks for the gift of bread that rises to feed, nourish, and comfort. How is this risen bread like the reign of God right now?
Next, as the bread bakes, let its fragrance waft like incense throughout your home. Give thanks for bread, an earthly element Jesus chose to reveal himself to us in the Eucharist.
Finally, why not bake two loaves and give one away, or cut your loaf in half and share it with gratitude for God’s abundance that Jesus reveals in the miracle of the loaves and fishes. If baking’s not your thing, try to buy a loaf or two of artisan bread or some quick-bake frozen rolls.
Images: Kenny Uh and Johann Larsson, Creative Commons usage license.© Sychugina_Elena – Fotolia.com Thanks!
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