Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” (Matthew 13)
I’m the kind of person who makes lists. When I go to the grocery store, I take a list of what I need. At the beginning of the week, I make a list of what needs to be accomplished.
The thing about lists, is they have a way of expanding. Lists can always have one more thing added — one more task to be done, one more thing to be picked up. Lists have a funny way of growing longer, rather than shorter.
How interesting, then, that today’s lessons are both in the form of lists. In the first instance, Paul encourages the beleaguered Christians in Rome by assuring them that nothing—nothing!—can separate them from the love of God: “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 …” That’s quite a list!
And then in the second instance, Jesus gives us a list of images for the kingdom of heaven: it’s like a mustard seed, it’s like yeast, it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, it’s like a pearl of great value, or a net thrown into the sea.
But lists, as we said, have a way of expanding. So I wonder if these two lists we have heard today are not given to us, with the invitation that we expand them in the hearing, with our own additions?
Take Paul’s list of the things that cannot separate us from the love of God. We all have a long list right now of things that seem to separate us not only from one another, but also from a communal awareness of God’s presence—things that we miss every day, giving us an underlying sense of disquiet and isolation.
On the list that I keep, at least in my head, is that I miss Sunday morning services. I miss meeting people for coffee. I miss dinner parties. I miss the EVs coming forward to take communion to those at home. I miss jet airplanes flying overhead. I miss the opera. I miss Spanish Market. I miss baseball. I miss friends on the Navajo reservation. I miss visiting people in the hospital. I miss teaching classes. I miss singing. I miss music. I miss the children. I miss America, at least the one I knew. I miss all of you.
Now, in its own way, any one of these things might be added to that list of things that can separate us from God’s love. Not because that love is dependent upon them, but because these things represent the arenas where we find God in one another. So more than anything, I miss finding God in other people.
During these times of pandemic, some people (myself included) have decided to take up reading Boccaccio’s Decameron, that collection of stories from the 14th century plague in Florence, Italy. For me, it was one of those books left unread on my bookshelf from my undergraduate days—and I figured if not now, then when would I read it? The story is set is 1348, when Florence was overcome by an especially horrific outbreak of the black death. Hoping to escape the pestilence, a group of seven young women and three men—ten altogether—decide to leave the city for a villa in the country, where for ten days they dine, dance, sing songs, and tell stories. Each person tells one story every day, for ten days, a hundred stories in all (and hence the book’s name, the Decameron).
Now, as you may know, the stories have a reputation for being rather risqué: tales of monks and nuns doing rather un-saintly things together, and that sort of thing— not the usual fodder for sermons! And it’s true, at the beginning of the ten days, when the band of refugees is still preoccupied with the death they have escaped, that the stories exhibit a kind of dark humor, as if inspired by the old adage, “Memento mori” (“Remember that you must die”).
But as the days go by, the stories grow increasingly less frivolous, and the story tellers begin talk about deeper things like human generosity, individual courage, and resilience in the face of fate. Rather than mocking death, the band of refugees comes slowly to realize that what is truly necessary for them to do, is to embrace life. It’s as if “Memento mori” (Remember that you will die) turns to “Memento vivere” (Remember to live). And so after ten days, having reaffirmed their faith in life, they are ready to return to the city, the place of death.
We are all surrounded right now by many things that cause us to feel separated and isolated, like Boccaccio’s band of storytellers, even from God. And we have a tendency to get stuck there. But we could take inspiration from their exile and return, to remember to live: to let the best part of who we are, shape the response we make to these days that are otherwise so volatile and uncertain.
What we might find, is that we can then add our own things to Paul’s list of what will not and cannot separate and isolate us, because we have nothing to fear. And to Jesus’ list of things that draw us toward the kingdom, we can also add our own, because in him we have everything to hope.
Like Boccacio’s “happy band,” maybe we’ll find that we are able to turn the corner from the dark thoughts of the present time, to an embrace of the things that truly matter to us, the things that make life livable: patience, compassion, fortitude, honesty, curiosity, awe, wonder, respect, reticence, silence, peace …
But there I go again, making another list. Yet it raises the question: what would your list of essential values be? Think on it: such a list is worth creating right now, even writing it down, to let it shape how you choose to live each day. Amen.