Texts: Romans 8:26-39 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Before worship began, I noted the editorial in this day’s Lexington Herald-Leader about God as human creation. I also commented on the theology articulated in a Christian Business directory that was left on my doorstep. And finally, I shared this quotation from Richard Rohr: “The spiritual life does not come cheap. It is not a stroll down a Mary Poppins path with a candy store God who gives you sweets and miracles. It is a walk into the dark with the God who isthe light that leads us through the darkness.” For further information pertinent to this sermon, the word “God” is a name we use to represent the holiness, or sacred power that mysteriously permeates all life, and which we experience as transcendent love. It does not necessarily entail a “being”, but because we experience this holiness in a relational way, we personify the word God to represent a divine being. To say that the word “God” is a metaphor does not diminish the reality of which we speak. Religious language therefore uses a shorthand word, “God”, to represent the transcendent holy, sacred mystery.
On Friday, the world heard the news of the terrible havoc that could be unleashed by one fanatic on innocent victims, attempting to broadcast his own ideological agenda through violence. Norway’s version of Timothy McVeigh is apparently a man named Anders Breivik, who claims to be a Christian, and who believes that Islam and multiculturalism are destroying the culture of Christian Europe, especially that of his own country, Norway. Despite the rush to judgment that the bomb in the government center of Oslo might be the work of Islamic terrorists, the truth turned out to be that a so-called Christian had been the perpetrator of all that death and destruction, because he believed that violence could somehow restore what he perceived to be lost: his Norwegian ethnic and Christian religious heritage. He thought he was starting a revolution.
[As an aside: isn’t it perverse on our part to label Anders Breivik a “so-called” Christian when we do not call Islamic fundamentalists “so-called” Muslims, despite the insistence, regularly, of orthodox Muslims that these people do not represent their religion?]
I want to talk a bit this morning about how religion gets twisted from being a force for good into becoming motivation for evil. How this happens is relatively simple: if one believes that a particular religion expresses the whole and only truth about human life, its meaning, and the only way in which such a life can be lived, then those who do not share those convictions can easily be categorized as anti-religion, as anti-God, as the anti-Christ. If they are against God, against Christ, or against Allah and his prophet Mohammed, then such persons must be overcome, or at least excluded. It is then but a short step to teaching prejudice, bigotry, exclusiveness, and hate for the other. Prejudice against those who believe differently than you inevitably leads to tragic outcomes: whether it be such instances as the murder and torture of Matthew Shepherd, who was gay; or whether it be the Nazis out to destroy Judaism; or the fanatics who commandeered those airplanes and flew them into the twin towers in New York or the Pentagon in Washington. Believe me when I tell you that we have such prejudiced fanatics in our own Commonwealth of Kentucky who are arming themselves both with guns and with a political ideology for what they perceive to be the coming time when in the name of American liberty and Christianity, they have to use their weapons to overthrow the government.
There is a verse in our reading from Romans today that has lent itself to such abuses: Paul says: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. This passage has often been treated as the outline for the process of special election of some persons for “salvation and glorification”. John Calvin, the Geneva reformer, articulated the theory of predestination most clearly. If you believe that some are predestined by God for election to salvation, then others become those who are somehow NOT valued by God, but as those who, it is believed are like the bad fish in the last of the parables in the verses from the Gospel that we read this morning, will be separated from the righteous and thrown in the furnace of fire. In the mind of someone with this narrow view of God’s intentions, it is not hard to grasp how they could come to the conclusion that if the elect are threatened, then why not hasten the process and help God now eliminate those who deserve, because they do not seem to be part of one’s own group of persons elected for salvation, to be thrown in the furnace of fire? [This indeed was the result in Calvin’s Geneva theocracy, and Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for heresy.]
The narrow reading of verses like these on Romans 8:29-30, taking them out of context and rendering them as step by step indicators of who is in and who is out, twists the very intentions of the Apostle Paul. Careful Scriptural scholarship and the capacity to consider the broad themes of Scripture rather than the rigid application of a few verses are essential to overcome twisted religion. For many, religion’s capacity to be perverted in the fashion that we have witnessed this week, means that we should be done with all religion.
I would suggest that the antidote to bad religion is not the absence or elimination of religion, which can lead only to a sort of vain, narcissistic libertarianism and a social Darwinism for the survival of the fittest, or the richest, as the case may be, but liberating and enlightening religion that expands our understanding, deepens our appreciation of the holiness that resides at the heart, the core of all that is and has been and will be (a way of saying God), and enlists us in the love of neighbor as ourselves.
If the slaughter in Norway leaves you with a sigh, if religion perverted away from positive contributions to being an agent for prejudice and hate, makes you want to throw up your hands, then Paul says that very sigh is the Holy Spirit interceding for us, helping us when we do not know how, or what, to pray for. Then Paul suggests that no matter what happens, if you love God, you will find the good, even as you and God both may grieve. Despite the sound of the next words…For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… this is not a statement of limited grace, that God has only determined to “save” a few—but rather Paul is arguing that all human beings are meant to be like Jesus, which is NOT the same thing as saying that ALL PEOPLE MUST ACCEPT JESUS as the sole avenue and means for human salvation.
Paul says: “If God is for us, who is against us?” The “if” is not conditional as in, “If tomorrow is a nice day.” It means “since” or “because”. “Since/Because God is for us, who is against us!” God’s sovereignty is such that we may not overrule God’s freedom and autonomy by our little petty judgments of each other, or ourselves. For, Paul asserts, there is no difficulty, no tragedy, no suffering that can separate us or anyone from God’s amazing grace and love. The passage is meant to suggest that God foreknows and elects and calls all people to a holiness of life, and to love of neighbor.
I have come increasingly in my latter years to see that THE major emphasis of the ministry of Jesus focused on subverting fundamentalist religion and literalist interpretations of Torah, and possibly political ideologies, be they Roman or that of the Jewish Zealot movement, all of which he believed had gotten twisted, perverted, and destructive of relationships between persons and God, and between human beings. God was not far off, but the kingdom of God, he said in his first sermon, is “at hand”, within our grasp.
Jesus uses “down to earth” stories to challenge his hearers about their exclusivist and restricting understandings of whom God loves and whom God will use. Mustard seeds and yeast are invasive agents that, though they are small, can transform the environment in which they live. Mustard seed, so small it can get mixed in with good wheat seed, can take over a field with plants that grow to be huge weeds. Yeast is something that a woman would clean out of her house in preparation for Passover becomes in this short parable of the kingdom a sign that god is fermenting the empire of heaven within the world.
Matthew might also be pointing to the fact that the young churches for whom he was writing were like mustard seeds and yeast—perceived as subverting traditional religions of Judaism and Rome—and despite their size, could be transformative agents for the world. This message should bring back echoes to your mind of what Brandon was telling us last Sunday about the calling of a marginalized church called to critique and offer alternatives to the dominant culture of narcissism and greed. Brandon’s senior minister at the United Church of Santa Fe, Talitha Arnold, writing in a commentary on the Gospel for this week, suggests that “If God can use mustard seed and corrupt leaven to grow the kin_dom of God, imagine what God can do with you!” [Talitha Arnold, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3, p. 286]
The parable about the man finding the treasure in a field offers another subversive point. Note that the man may have been a tenant farmer, or as another commentator suggested a thief, digging around in someone else’s field. Could that be a metaphor for people who go searching in the religions of other people for the treasures that could transform life? I think it might be. Does Jesus condemn them? No, he notes the joy with which they give all that they have for that treasure. The merchant in the next parable who went in search of fine pearls should not be seen as some upstanding businessman. More than likely Jesus was speaking about a figure who was as appreciated as a used-car or a snake-oil salesman. For many of the fundamentalists of his day, these people—be they tenant farmer, thief, or snake-oil salesman—would have been beyond the pale of God’s concern. Yet Jesus is saying that these latter two characters are not beyond finding the great gifts and treasure that God has to offer.
The final parable of the Dragnet that brings up good fish and bad fish articulates even more clearly that God wishes to dredge the bottom of humanity’s lake and bring up all people for the possibility of that life with God. The negative portion describing how the bad fish will be thrown away in the furnace of fire, may be meant not to exclude the stranger, but to suggest that fish—that is, people, religion—which is not nurturing, which doesn’t feed but poisons, that is not provocative of that holy relationship with being itself, namely with God, and with one’s neighbors—should be cast into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Do you understand?” Jesus asks his followers. “The Kingdom of Heaven” is not just what is old, but a treasure in which there will be new ideas, new people, new understandings. The great pilgrim John Robinson said of the Bible, which so many want to take as literal truth and to use as a battering ram against others, “I believe that God hath yet more truth and light to bring forth from God’s holy word.” So may it be for us, as we live and work to straighten out the twisted religious convictions of our time that can become so dangerous and destructive. Amen.