Year A, Proper 12
It has been one of those fire drill weeks in my parish. Well, actually I guess it’s been at times more like a real fire. We had a member die by suicide after struggling with a very long, debilitating and painful illness. I had been with her in many pastoral care session. Ministry is kicked up a notch at times of death and even further during the time after a tragic death. Throughout the reeling emotions and concern for her wife, family and those who cared for her, stewardship preparation for the fall goes on; other pastoral care goes on; planning for Christian Formation programming for the fall goes on. We are in the search for a new full time music director and a half-time data base coordinator. We are saying goodbye to the current beloved music director and a big “see you soon” to our senior minister as he goes on a three month sabbatical. And this coming Sunday I am preaching the candidating sermon for the position I have held as acting/interim for the past two and a half years. After the morning service there will be a congregational meeting to vote on my candidacy for the position. Whew!
I share my particular situation because I know that all of you have had – maybe are having – weeks like this. Sometimes its hard to stop and pray in the midst of it all. I have taken comfort this week in Paul’s words, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I have pondered his assertion, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Are all things working together for good for the wife who is left alone after the death of her beloved even though she knows her loved one is now out of pain and at peace with God? I cling to Paul’s rhetorical questions, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?… Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? “ I cling to Paul’s conclusion that nothing, NO-THING, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
It is through the lens of our passage from Romans 8 that I look at the parables of Jesus in Matthew this week. Do any of them help us understand the sustaining, creating work of the Spirit about which Paul writes to encourage the Christians of Rome? Paul is writing a good twenty-five to thirty years before the Gospel of Matthew was written. Has he heard these parables of Jesus? We will never know. We can only hope that he has heard many of the stories about Jesus and the stories Jesus told that make up the written gospels in our canon. So let’s imagine he has heard the parables in Matthew 13. Do they resonate with Paul’s writing in Roman’s 8? Can these two passages inform one another in creative ways? Can the echoes between them help us tell the parables in new ways?
If we back up our reading of Romans 8 to include verses 18-25 we discover Paul’s adamant assertion that God is working for the transformation and redemption of all creation. In fact, this is the destiny of creation that God has already ordained and accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The redemption of creation includes the transformation of human nature. God’s Spirit is working throughout all of creation, throughout all of human life, to redeem its goodness. It is all God’s and it is all good. Can we allow the Spirit to pray with us, in us, when we have no words for prayer in the worst of times, to bring God’s redeeming, wholeness-making power to our souls, our lives and the events of the world?
As I ponder the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast I hear Paul’s words, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). How miraculous that the smallest seed becomes the largest of shrubs offering shelter for other parts of creation? How miraculous that yeast which was thought of as a corrupting agent in Jesus’ time can leaven such a large amount of flour making it possible to feed many, many people? Are both of the these parables speaking of, maybe illustrating, the miracle of God working in all things for good? Even in the midst of tragedy and sorrow? What unheard of, unimagined goodness can God be bringing to fruition in situations that we see as hopeless?
If, as Paul believes and preaches, God is in the business of transforming all creation to conform to God’s miraculous image of love and justice, peace and compassion, then how do we hear Jesus’ parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price? These parables are not just about individual salvation and piety. They are about giving our all to be part of God’s work of redemption of all the world, of each of us, of climate change, war and hatred and greed. We are those who sell all to be part of this miracle. And we are also the treasure, the pearl of great price! Each of us, each Body of Christ, each faith community, each country and nationality and all of the beauty of the natural world. We belong to God and we are the treasures that God wants to redeem. At the same time we participate in the redemption by our willingness to give all we have to be open to the work of the Spirit as it prays through us.
I enjoy challenging my preconceived notions about passages such as Romans 8 and Matthew 13 that hold material that is overly familiar to me. Like the householder n Jesus’ last saying in Matthew 13:52 who brings out the old and the new for her household’s flourishing, I find new perspectives in comparing these passages that have been paired in our lectionary readings this week. I hope my musings will spur more questions in you as prepare to preach and teach and tell stories. I hope you might find a new way to spin out one of these parables in a longer fashion for your congregations whether they are in the midst of fire drills, or actual fires, or enjoying a peaceful summer.
Given the challenge above I invite you to pick one of Matthew’s parables and expand it. Give the woman who bakes or the merchant who buys the pearl or the explorer who finds and hide the treasure a back story. Who are they? What is their life like? Are they living in Jesus’ time or in ours? Fill out physical characteristics and family history. Why do they do what they do, bake, buy and sell merchandise, explore? What is the redemption that occurs for them in the story, the transformation?
Or can you tell the story of the mustard seed from the perspective of the seed? Or from the perspective of a bird seeking shelter? The fisherman story is more problematic if you take the interpretation given in the text. My speculation is that this commentary comes from the gospel writer or a later editor rather than from Jesus. So leaving off the interpretation how could you expand on the story in light of the themes of redemption and transformation in Romans 8. Will you tell the story from the perspective of the fisherman or one of the fish? Or someone sorting the catch on the beach?
Finally I offer you a story that holds wonderful resonance with the parables the hidden treasure and pearl of great price, The Peddler of Swaffham.[i] This story tells of a man who gives all to find a treasure in a far off city that he sees repeatedly in his dreams. Eventually he travels in search of the treasure. Where he ultimately finds it is a delightful twist in the tale!
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!
[i] You can find this story at http://spellbinders.org/story/the-peddler-of-swaffham/ and at http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/textonly11-the-pedlar-of-swaffham.html.