There is a commonplace experience of parenthood that may be as cliché as it is resonant. It often hits me in the evening when one of my daughters is nestled into my arms before bedtime, and I feel a deep desire to let them know how much I love them. I squeeze them tight and say something like, “You are so SO loved.” Surely, those of you who have endured the humiliations and joys of parenthood can think of moments in which you have been gripped by this desire to communicate your love for your children. The most profound and beautiful truths of life are often elegantly simple. “You are so SO loved.” That is one way we might articulate the Gospel: Our Father in heaven, our creator and maker wants us, his children, to abide in that simple truth: We are so SO loved.
We have been working through the eight chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans for the past three weeks, which is one of his most soaring. Today’s excerpt that Ben read for our first lesson is the final portion of the chapter, and I want to return to those lines, because they are Paul’s attempt to capture this gospel for the Romans. Listen again to Paul’s words:
“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? […] Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Amen. That is all that needs to be said in this sermon, or any sermon really. If every one of us could take this Word and let it live in our hearts and lives, the kingdom would be on earth as it is in heaven: fully realized. The difficulty is that it is tremendously difficult for us to trust in this Word. In a world so full of hardship, distress, persecution, famine, and death, living without fear and anger is a seemingly impossible task. As easy as it may be for some of us to express an unconditional love for our children, it is equal parts difficult for us to believe that our Father in heaven could love us with that same kind of love.
Our anxious minds are heavily resistant to the Gospel that Paul is proclaiming. Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, sword…these are things that make us anxious because, more often than not, we don’t trust Paul’s proclamation. So how do we come to trust in this Gospel? To ask the same question in a different way: How is it that God’s kingdom breaks through our unbelief, liberates us from fear and anger, and transforms our lives? Or we could ask this question a third time even more simply: How can we learn to trust that we are so SO loved by God? These “how” questions are the kinds of questions that Jesus’ parables seek to address.
This is the third Sunday that we are invited to engage with Jesus’ parables. As we have seen the past two Sundays, each parable in this chapter of Matthew begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and Jesus picks up speed today, offering us five quick glimpses into the kingdom of heaven without any explanatory notes. Each of these five parables is rich (and a sermon could focus on any one of them). I don’t want to bite off more than we can chew, so I am going to focus on only the first two this morning, and I’ll provide a pair of examples for each that I hope might give us some points of connection and access to what these parables are telling us about the kingdom of heaven.
First, Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The imagery of this first parable is clear: the kingdom of heaven work through small things, like a mustard seed that grows into something huge and amazing. Most of us expect transformative change to come in big, dramatic packages. But our parable suggests that God arrives to us sideways, in small things.
I have a crystal-clear memory of sitting on the dock as a boy and seeing my aunt Carolyn’s tattoo of a dragonfly. I asked her about it, and she shared with me that her sister, Katie (also my aunt), wrote in her journal that she had hoped to get a tattoo of a dragonfly. Some of you may know that my aunt Katie died in a car accident at the intersection by Donnelly’s only a couple years before I was born, and my aunt Carolyn got the dragonfly tattoo to remember her sister. Carolyn told me that she thinks of Katie every time she sees a dragonfly. For decades now, most every time I have seen a dragonfly, Katie comes to my mind too. This may seem silly to some, but even though I did not know her in the flesh, I have come to know Katie’s presence through these moments. I have her picture up in the Rectory smiling from ear to ear as she drives a boat on the lake. This is how I know Katie: full of life. How does God defeat death? Through a dragonfly and a journal: a mustard seed that points us to a love that is deeper and more powerful than death; a mustard seed that might allow someone to trust in the cross of Christ.
When we think of the most transformative moments and people in our lives, most of us can only articulate those relationships through small, concrete moments like my aunt’s tattoo. A famous educator name Richard Hawley found that when he asked students about their most transformative teachers, they were incapable of talking about them without sharing stories. “I remember how Mr. So-and-so wrinkled his nose when he was pleased,” or “I remember when Ms. So-and-so broke her measuring stick on the whiteboard.” These students experienced transformation through small, specific moments of integrity and truth. Not a single student talked about a teacher’s syllabus or teaching method. This is not to say that a syllabus and good teaching are unimportant, but they are not how our parable says that God’s kingdom breaks into our world.
Jesus’ point seems to be that the kingdom of heaven works in ways that are too small for us to understand at the time, slipping into our lives and planting seeds of transformation that are almost invisible until they are fully grown into something magnificent. This parable helps us to address our question: How do we come to know that we are so SO loved by God? We can begin by looking backwards in wonder at how some tiny seeds have already transformed us; we might also revel at how some seeds are being planted in and around us right now, too small for our notice; and we can look forward with joyful anticipation to how these seeds will be revealed to us like a great tree with branches for every type of bird. When we reorient ourselves to God’s mustard seeds, His love for us comes into focus.
The second parable in this collection also helps us to see how God’s kingdom works:
Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Again, the imagery of this parable is clear: God’s kingdom invades our bodies like yeast invades bread dough, bubbling up slowly throughout our whole being. Most of us expect transformative changes to happen immediately, but this parable suggests that God works slowly and organically until the entire body of dough has been transformed.
This is a silly example, but I have been known, upon occasion, to let my language slip into words “unbecoming of a Minister” (as my Bishop might refer to it). My wife will testify that I am still far from perfect in this regard. Before I went to seminary, I was in the habit of using Our Lord’s name in vain whenever I stubbed my toe or smashed my thumb. Perhaps I should have been more vigilant about this as someone preparing for ministry, but I never made a conscious decision to stop. With that said, as a seminarian, I was required to attend more than a dozen services each week with morning and evening prayer every weekday and several services on Sundays. Slowly, like yeast invading dough, with that much exposure to the name of Jesus Christ used reverently in the context of worship, I found myself silently wincing whenever Jesus was invoked crudely. Lord knows that I have no credibility to criticize anyone for vulgar language, but there was a transformation in my relationship with the words Jesus Christ. I have a whole lot more dough that needs to be leavened in ways much more significant than language, but my subconscious shift is a small example of how the kingdom of heaven works like yeast to slowly break through our entrenched habits. There was no virtue involved in my transformation, only exposure to a different way of being.
Some of you may be familiar with the character of Mr. Chips from the British television series To Serve Them All My Days. Mr. Chips provides an example of a transformation with more gravitas than my occasional swearing. Mr. Chips was a shell-shocked veteran from WWI who entered life as a teacher. He was a mess of anxiety and fear after the war. His contemporaries would have described him as a man "with the shakes." Slowly, like yeast invading dough, his life in the school community transformed his war wounds into a new and beautiful life. The series examines how exposure to God’s love, little by little, can transform our fears and desires. Mr. Chips did not have a sudden transformation (or even a conscious one), but over a lifetime, surrounded by a community that pointed him towards the kingdom of God, his transformation was dramatic.
Again, this parable helps us to address our question: How do we come to know that we are so SO loved by God? If the kingdom of heaven is working slowly, organically, and comprehensively, then we might begin with a the long view of our lives; we can look backwards at how our desires might have been transformed already over years and decades through exposure to relationships and communities of faith; we can look forwards with the promise that our most troublesome and intractable doubts and fears might still be transformed into something good. When we reorient ourselves to the yeast of God’s kingdom, His love for us comes into focus.
Mustard seeds and yeast. That kind of sounds like a recipe. Perhaps it is a recipe to hear and trust in the love that Paul proclaims to the Romans: “I am convinced that 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.” Every single child of God in this church is so SO loved. Amen.