Sunday, July 26, 2020

Finding faith in unexpected places

Have you ever stopped to ask for directions?
These days, I depend on the GPS in my phone which suits me just fine because (I have been told) that I have to be in complete desperation to finally break down and admit to a total stranger—let alone my spouse!—that I am lost! When I have asked, I have found that there at least two ways people give directions: one is by landmark and one is by precise distance and direction.
The first is “go the third elm tree, the one at the fork in the road with the hound dog sleeping under it….”
The second is “go ½ mile north, and then at Route 137A, make a left.”
When you’re lost or in crisis, sometimes Mr. Precision is a real comfort: just tell me what to do!
But there are other times when the landmark method is at least as accurate, if not more colorful. The trouble is that you don’t know how accurate the hound-dog-guy is until you round the bend, approach the fork in the road and then see the tree and the dog, right where he said it was.
Either way, it’s an act of faith. One is faith in the precision, and the other is faith in, well, the art of the direction.
So, if you were going to give someone directions to God, which would you be? Would you choose precise, or describe the landmarks? If you shared your spiritual story, how would you describe God’s presence in your life? Or talk about the way you connect with God? How precise would your language be?
While I have been trained in Mr. Precision—to rattle off the Catechism—I am kind of drawn to hound dog and the elm tree approach. Because the truth is, there would be a lot of ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and some foot shuffling. The hesitation is neither shame, nor uncertainty, as it is trying to find the right image.  Because I’ve found out that everyday there is the discovery, and the recognition that we are always at least a little lost, and everyday, there are little signs of redemption.
When Jesus describes God’s reign, the Kingdom of God, and he uses landmarks. He uses simple stories. Jesus, and then Matthew the Gospel-writer, tell us what living under God’s rule is like.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard plant in a wheat field. It’s like a little yeast in a little flour that makes a great big loaf of bread.
It’s like seeking or having a treasure that possesses you.
The kingdom of God is like a net that hauls in all kinds of fish, and other things, too.
All of these parables are about how something useless or out of place becomes the hallmark of God’s kingdom. If Jesus is the rejected stone that become the chief cornerstone, then the stands to reason that the kingdom of God is like, a weed, some leaven, a hidden or longed for treasure, or like being drawn into a fishing net, like it or not.
When Jesus talks about mustard seeds in this parable it’s the size of the plant not the seed that’s important. Mustard plants were considered weeds in the Ancient Near East. Like any weed, you can’t get rid of them and they grow like mad. So the parable says the Kingdom of God is like … a weed that someone sowed in the field. It may be a small seed, but in a garden or farm field it stands out like a sore thumb. And it turns out that the birds like it for shade. In our little garden, this weed might as well be as big as a Cedar of Lebanon! What was once a lamentable eyesore is now a great tree which gives shelter to all the birds!
Think about it… Jesus says the kingdom of God is like…a big weed!
The second parable is equally strange. For Jews of Jesus’ day, leavening bread was a symbol of corruption because they did not have our filtered and purified yeast in those days. Leaven came from moldy bread. So…the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like…some yucky leaven that a woman hid in the dough. Something that was corrupted has become the source of abundance. The kingdom of God is like leaven.
The two stories of people with treasure talk about people who find treasure: one finds it by accident, hidden in a plot of land, and the other finds exactly what he is looking for. In both cases, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like that: once the desire for God gets in us, we crave it as badly as the greedy man wants gold. God’s Spirit owns us that much!
Jesus says that God’s grace is a like a fisher’s net. A net that catches fish, sure, but also old tires, and empty cans, and God knows what else! The kingdom of God is like being caught up in a net.
What strange, unexpected images Jesus uses!  If you think that the Kingdom of God is like a perfect earthly monarchy, think again!  The people who thought that the Kingdom be filled with people behaving themselves and being good, and only come when our side wins, are going to be surprised! Jesus has given us some very different landmarks. His parables are like telling us to keep going until we see the fork in the road by the hound-dog tied to a big shade tree.
Why does Jesus talk like this to tell us what the kingdom of God is like? Because in God’s reign, God takes the unexpected, the unclean and the unwanted, and turns all of that into abundance! Like a big shrubby weed with all those birds in an otherwise perfectly sown field.
Life in God’s kingdom owns us, even as we do everything to own it.  Seeking and having the pearl of great price changes us. We are owned by the faith we posses.
Life in God’s world is at once diverse and irresistible. We are all caught up in it as in a net.
I don’t know about you, but I am not so hot at giving—or taking—direction. There are times in my life when I want, when I need, the precision of distance and direction. But much of life lends itself to the poetry of landmark and story. Turns out that God has room for both.
How would you describe God alive in your life? To what would you compare it? Jesus is says is like something we want that is hard to describe, but when we see it we know it.

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