Sermon: 8th Sunday after Pentecost
26 July 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long
Romans 8:26-30 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; NRSV
Greetings once again as we continue to navigate this new context thrust upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, when I last preached, we met between storms as the Cape was lashed by high winds and substantial rain. Today we gather in after a period of balmy winter weather – balmy by Cape standards, anyway – with sun and relative warmth for company. Dawn and my time away has possibly added to the sense of warmth and well-being for me in this moment. Again, thank you all so much for the opportunity to break away for a few days: we both remain incredibly grateful and appreciative of the opportunity!
Today’s reading from Romans invites us into a very special place of being, to open ourselves and our most intimate interior spaces to the ministry of God’s Holy Spirit. Personally, I mostly find it hard to share my need, especially my broken places that expose my weakness, both with God and even with close family and friends; and perhaps you, too, can relate. Today’s invitation is to allow the Holy Spirit of God to inhabit this vulnerability, and to find the words that we cannot to express the fragility that underlies our lives at this time. The nature of this pandemic is that there are no certainties, either in the present, and perhaps even less so for the future; and with that comes a plethora of concerns, even fear. For me there is a deep comfort in Paul’s encouragement that “… the Spirit helps us in our weakness; … [interceding] with sighs too deep for words” (8:26). It is comforting to know that we don’t always have to find words, that God searches and knows our hearts sufficiently to hold us as we face the abyss of our fear. And even more than this, that there is hope, “… because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27). The nature of our new context and it’s related uncertainties is that we do not yet know what to truly want, or what may practically be helpful in navigating this journey. We still lack the language to put our longings into words, and our prayers appear all too stunted in our attempt to define an unknown future. It has been many decades since we in our common humanity last felt so out of control of our environment and our world.
It may be helpful to reflect on what Paul means here in Romans when he refers to the will of God, especially if we are honestly seeking wisdom in beginning to plot our future beyond the present frustrations of lockdown; and beyond the devastation this pandemic brings to our communities in terms of loss of life, loss of employment, and a potential ultimate loss of hope. As people of faith our hope is in God’s purposes being worked out through the brokenness of our present experience, and – in our increasing lack of trust in Government – in our trust that God has a plan that we can link into and build together. This is increasingly vital to our spiritual, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. In this Scripture passage God’s will is linked to the word “predestined” (8:30), and our common understanding of predestination tends to suggest a lack of choice, that God has ordained what will happen and we have little alternative but to go along with it. In the context here of Romans, however, it refers more to the unfolding of God’s purposes in the broad context of God’s will, and not to a specific path or even to specific detail of our present or future journey. Our ability to choose is integral to this unfolding, allowing us to be active participants in God’s will and not pawns. God’s will is about possibility and potential; and it is to be discovered within our present suffering, and is composted by our brokenness.
None of this promises us an easy journey, or that we will clearly comprehend God’s will; but our hope lies in trusting that it will unfold. Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew offers us some signposts, parables that highlight something of the paradoxical nature of God’s activity in our world, some handholds on the mystery of it all. The parable of the mustard seed reminds us not to discount the seemingly insignificant signs of God’s presence; and the parable of the yeast prompts us to trust that God’s will is not limited by seeming insufficiency (13:31-33). These two parables are a powerful reminder that despite the limitations of our present, growth is not just a possibility; it is a reality. If we can gather our courage and commit to being active participants in the unfolding of God’s will, we will be co-creators of a hope-filled future.
The following two parables (13:44-46) give us an insight into the nature of this co-creative journey: it is one of discovery. It is one in which we will discover truths and insights that are so valuable that we will be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to sustain these gifts for the common good of our communities, and the common good of humanity. I find it intriguing that when Jesus asks the disciples if they understand this, they answer, “Yes” (8:51). Are we able to respond with such confidence?
Again, none of this is offered as a comfortable or certain journey. It will require us to discover these nuggets in the context of our present and ongoing struggles. It will demand we face our uncertainty, and move forward despite our fear. In today’s reading from Romans we are reminded that we are called, and that our calling comes with resources (8:30); and with a reminder that if God is for us all things are possible (8:31). We may not feel confident, but our confidence is in the Holy Spirit’s ability to use us in the unfolding of God’s will.
Going forward, as people of faith, I do not believe we have the luxury any longer to live out our faith in any way that is separate from the wider needs of the society we belong to. We cannot afford to insulate ourselves from the social, economic or body-political realities of our Nation, or distance ourselves from the suffering of the majority of our fellow South Africans. God’s love is indiscriminate, and ours must be, too. I am only too aware that this is easy to say, and that follow-through is easily distracted by the unsettling nature that the practicalities of what it actually means to move beyond the protective boundaries of our Church walls will require of us. As I have intimated before, this pandemic is a kairos moment for us as God’s people. We need to connect meaningfully and life-givingly with the world that God has placed us in, and no matter the difficulties or challenges, commit anew to being of service to others and to the unfolding of God’s will in our world and our time.
I was gifted this week with an awakening to three principles that carry substantial Biblical content, and which I believe to be critical to the future health and healing of our social, economic, and body-political environment in Southern Africa: transformation, equity, and belonging. Transformation is about a marked change in the form and nature of our relationships; equity is the quality of being fair and impartial; belonging is about creating safe and welcoming spaces. These are three principles I am willing to commit to and seek to sustain for the common good, to which I can say, “Yes” with confidence. In them I see the possibility and potential for growth, tools for the unfolding of God’s will as we journey through our present uncertainties, a source of hope for our future. I hope you may similarly be inspired, and that we may find the time and space to explore these as a practical map to our faith-journey at St Andrew’s, both in serving each other and in serving the world.
In place of a prayer, I close today with a few selected verses from the poem Narrative Theology #2 by Irish Poet and Theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama:
God is the crack
where the story begins.
We are the crack
where the story gets interesting.
We are the choice
of where to begin –
the person going out?
the stranger coming in?
God is the fracture,
and the ache in your voice,
God is the story,
flavoured with choice.
God is the bit
that we can’t explain –
maybe the healing
maybe the pain.
We are the bit
that God can’t explain –
maybe the harmony
maybe the strain.
God is the plot,
and we are the writers,
the story of winners
and the story of fighters,
the story of love,
and the story of rupture,
the story of stories,
the story without structure.
 Pádraig Ó Tuama In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world, page 129-130