Beyond Easy Answers

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Listen while you read

It’s hard, I think, really, to talk about God.  This past week I had a few conversations with folks, and they shared some of their experiences, some of their thinking and feeling on how they understand their spiritual practice.  Where they had noticed God in their lives…and where they had noticed God missing….struggles that they had in understanding where God was…

As I sat with each of them, listening to them share their accounts and sharing wonders and questions of my own, I realized—as I always do—that talking about God is hard.  Maybe that strikes you as an odd thing to say in church, but I think it’s true—when we really admit it.

Who do we understand God to be? What is God?  What is God like?  What image do we have for God?  How do we understand God being present and active in our lives?  How do we understand God relating to and acting in the rest of the world—with so much violence, religious animosity, confusion.  And with illness, surgery?  And, with plans for new baptisms, and marriages?

We so easily fall into a pattern in church of using our “churchy” language, and I have found that we far too seldom reflect on what we mean by the language we use.  It becomes our norm—and this is a wonderful thing because this normative language shapes the way we practice our faith.

But, there are moments in conversations, in crisis events, in what many call liminal spaces, times of transition or new encounter or sudden realization….times of authentic mystical experience, even…where we see that our language falls short.

In the Baptist tradition, I remember always sitting in admiration of folks who would stand and give their testimony, sharing how they perceived God being present and active in their life.  I was always intrigued…and when I have been asked to share my experiences, I become aware of how often I start to sputter about.

It’s difficult to talk about God in the same way it’s difficult to talk about love, I think.  If someone were to ask you what your experience of loving your spouse, your children, your parents, your partner was…what would you say?  How would you describe your love toward them, your connection with them?  What words would you use?  How do you describe the deep, complex emotions you feel?

Maybe this link between describing love and describing God is appropriate, because as the text from the First Letter of John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…for God is love.”  There is a link here, between how we understand God and how we seek to convey our love…

In the spiritual tradition of the Church, one practice that has been common is to speak in analogy.  The mystics and teachers of the past and present teach us that, yes, it can be difficult to talk about God.  And, so, we use analogies to help us frame our language, feeble mouthed and limited as we are.  Mystics and saints throughout the ages have resonated with certain metaphors:  St. Julian’s hazelnut…St. Francis’ Brother Sun and Sister Moon…St. Teresa of Avila’s castle…there are so many analogies and images…

We can see a rich dimension of this practice in today’s Gospel text with how Jesus uses parables to open up a deeper, more complex, piercing reality in the spiritual hearts of those who hear them.

If you’ll remember last week, we reflected on how Jesus takes the seemingly most mundane, ordinary events or objects or images in life.  And, through our reflection on these objects, a deeper spiritual reality is suddenly opened up before our eyes.  Our hearts are pierced, our minds are opened, and we realize…we realize that is true.  What is Truth.

The parables teach us that the most profound is often embedded in what seemingly seems so simple.  And, through parables, we are always reminded that simple does not mean easy.
When we look at St. Matthew’s account, it is an exemplary text for exploring parables.  Jesus is teaching those gathered, and he uses this list of images, one after the other, to invite them to see, to understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like—the full dimension of God’s Presence and reality that we are invited to participate with and live into…

Jesus says,
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…it is the smallest of all seeds but grows into a bush and tree…and the birds of the air come and make their home in its branches.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that leavens the entire dough.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. Someone found the treasure, hid it in the field and then bought the field.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.  He finds a perfect pearl, and he sells all he has and buys the perfect pearl.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, catching fish of every kind.  Then, the fishermen take the catch on shore and sort out the good from the bad… the bad are thrown into the furnace ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  (Like I told you last week, you always know it’s going to be an interesting sermon when there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth.’)

So, Jesus gives this litany of images, wonderful analogies.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, buying a field to get the treasure one finds and has hidden, selling all you have to purchase a pearl of great price, and catching and sorting fish.

And then, in the best part of this entire text I think, Jesus turns to them and asks those gathered, “Have you understood all this?”

And what do they say….. “Yes.”

Yes?!?!  Really…I don’t think so.

I imagine the disciples standing there, thinking that they have to say something…and when Jesus asks them if they understood, they look at each other saying, “sure…of course…..I get it…..in fact I was thinking the same thing just the other day…”

Parables are such wonderful spiritual tools, experiences, spaces for reflection….and they leave us with even more questions than they provide any sort of “answer.”  And, this may drive us a bit crazy in this world in which we seem to so often want to literalize things and control them.

Parables don’t let us control.  They don’t let us literalize spiritual truths.  Rather, they invite us in further and further….deeper and deeper…into spaces of greater risk and spiritual exploration.
So, as we enter this week, I invite you to keep your eyes and your spiritual heart open.  Pay attention to your days, to experiences you have, to conversations you share…

Keep a wondering perspective…as Jesus invites us to continue growing in our awareness of God’s loving presence.

How would you complete this analogy:  The Kingdom of God is like…..

 

The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 12, Year A
St. Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 27, 2014 | 8:15 AM

 

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