God’s mysterious ways
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
As you’ve heard me say many times, Jesus taught more about the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) than anything else. Recently I’ve taken to calling this kingdom <em>the divine dimension</em>.
We all know what it is. Some call it <em>openness </em>– knowing that we’re intimately connected with everything and everyone. Or you might describe it as <em>transcendence </em>- when a greater wisdom and love moves through you. Others see this kingdom in <em>social and political terms </em>– wherever the lowly have been lifted up and treated with dignity and mercy.
However we might describe it, it is the reality that God intends for all creation. It is the reality that Jesus lived in. That is why so many were drawn to him. And it is available to us at any time.
We all probably like the idea of living more fully in the kingdom of God. But how do we do that?
First of all, I think about what Fr. Ken Clark used to say about pledging programs in church – nothing works, and everything works. So it is with faith. Just make the effort with a sincere heart. Those who seek will find. Those who ask will receive. For those who knock, the door will be opened.
But our gospel today does offer a helpful perspective. Today is the third week in a row that we have heard from the 13th chapter of Matthew, which is all about the kingdom of God. Jesus has been using agricultural similes: seeds sown on different kinds of soil, weeds and wheat growing together…
Today we’ve got a real cornucopia - shrubs, yeast, fields, treasures, pearls, and fish of the sea. There is a common theme, however, that emerges. Jesus seems to be saying that we find our way into this kingdom - or it finds its way into us - in a very unpredictable and paradoxical manner.
It’s a cliché to say that God works in mysterious ways, but it’s true. By contrast, think about a less mysterious process, how we usually move into any new endeavor - a career, a self-improvement program, a project at work. We set the vision, break it down into do-able chunks, apply ourselves, measure progress, and evaluate results. We know where we’re going, we’re in control of the process, and we know what tools to use along the way.
Our movement into the divine dimension doesn’t work like that. We always have a blurry vision of the goal and mixed motivations for getting there. There’s no clear methodology. And along the way, we discover that we’re unable to apply ourselves consistently.
So first of all, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed. It seems negligible, easy to overlook. And yet it spreads, like the mustard plant, like a weed, all over the place, big shrubs you can’t get rid of.
Isn’t this true about faith? Of what consequence is a little prayer, ventured tentatively in trust? Of what significance is it that we eat a little bread and drink a sip of wine each Sunday? And what possible importance in public affairs can the gospel have, compared to corporate interests and the obsession with winning elections?
Think for a moment about the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived. They were small-town, uneducated, powerless peasants. They were brutalized by Romans, oppressed by their own religious leaders, seemingly without hope for happiness, security, or freedom.
And yet, with Christ they became so much larger than their circumstances would suggest. They healed others and found spiritual freedom for themselves. Like weeds, they spread all over the Roman Empire until their vision of radical equality, mercy, and simplicity of life could be found everywhere.
People of true faith are still all over, like weeds. Their conscience and compassion helped society move through child labor, slavery and civil rights. I like to think that the Episcopal Church’s open affirmation of gay and lesbian people helped New York embrace marriage equality. People who know God have always influenced social policy.
So it is with the faith you and I carry in our hearts, however insignificant it may seem. Never underestimate its potential. It can lift you up from suffering. It can set you free in the direst circumstances, as it has for countless people in prison or in poverty.
Secondly, Jesus says that the kingdom of God always works within an inseparable mixture of good and bad. Like desirable and undesirable fish caught up in the same net, there is no such thing as a pure heart or pure religion. And yet the good somehow endures.
Christians have done many things we are ashamed of: inquisitions, moralism, pedophilia, and much more. And yet at the very same time, the saints have shined with God’s light, consoling the grieving, building up faith, drawing in the marginalized.
Our church today, our congregation, even our own hearts, are mixtures of good and bad. We have the worst and the best motivations competing side by side. But this is not a war we have to win. The point is not purity. For the light shines in the darkness, not in the absence of darkness. And the darkness will never overcome it. The good in you, the good in the church, the church’s good in the world, will make its way forward and have its effect. Nothing can stop God’s Spirit.
Finally, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is sneaky. A man is out walking in someone else’s field, and kicks what he thinks is a rock, which turns out to be buried treasure. He goes to the owner, being careful not to mention the treasure chest, and offers to buy the field for a price that is slightly above market value. He’s a con man.
Or to put it another way, into dough we put some fermented starter – which was the only kind of yeast the ancient world had. In the night, the microbiological culture then contaminates the dough until it rises.
In both examples, God’s work is sneaky, hidden, bubbling up from within, something we cannot see at work. You know what this is like.
On Sunday, you hear something in scripture, and it starts to work on you, coming out into the open later on, offering comfort or confrontation. You ask for transformation and things begin to stir within, and you find yourself being changed in ways you hadn’t counted on. Or you turn around one day and notice that when you weren’t looking, you became more centered, more loving, less afraid. God snuck up on you. The kingdom of God spread within you like a bacteria.
Similarly, people of faith are a kind of benign contamination in the world. Our insistence on good stewardship of the earth works its way into the hearts of some of those in power. Our quiet witness to a life of kindness, simplicity and peace affects others around us.
We can’t achieve the kingdom of God by some sure-fire method. We’ll always wonder whether all this faith business is of any consequence at all. We’ll never be pure. And the working of the Spirit within us will always remain hidden.
And yet it somehow works, doesn’t it? If we ask, God will always be active in us, through us, like a weed, like a fisherman who gathers everything up and sorts it all out, like a sneaky con man, like a contaminating yeast.
What a relief it is to know that God is so clever and persistent, to know that it isn’t all up to us.