July 26, 2020

Learning to Smile
Pentecost 8, Proper 12, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman

Teddy, our grandson, will be 3 months old on Saturday. He is such a healthy, happy baby. He as already learned so much in less than 90 days. The most charming thing is that he has learned to smile back. His face bursts into pure delight when he sees his sisters and brother, his father and mother, beam at him.

Now, let’s imagine that someone had given you the job, while he was still growing in the darkness of his mother, of explaining to Teddy about smiles, about families, about being hungry, about music, about love, about the world he would soon enter. He’s never seen a face. If he opened his eyes, he’d see nothing. He’s never been hungry; though he might be aware of something going on if Sarah ate hot sauce (which she loves) or cabbage. Neither of my babies liked it when I ate cabbage.

Teddy doesn’t even know he’s a baby or that he’s nestled inside another person. He may have heard some sounds: his mother’s heartbeat, sirens, maybe even voices – but he wouldn’t know what they were. Of course, he doesn’t have any language, either. It would be a hard thing to help Teddy understand what’s coming next. But no one taught him anything before the day came when next is now; and without his consent or intent, he emerged into the world and began the adventure of learning about life.

The contrast between babies’ lives in the womb and what’s waiting for them when they are suddenly born is the best analogy I have for trying to convey the struggle Jesus must have had to describe heaven to us earth-dwellers. Jesus already knew what all Creation is destined for – when God is all in all, when every enemy – all the evil that brings suffering – is vanquished, and when even death has been destroyed.

But humanity has words for only those things we have some experience with, so we just don’t have a lot of ways to talk about the nature of God’s Kingdom that is beyond all evil and death, when creation is enveloped in the utter perfection of God’s eternal life.

Jesus tried, though, by talking about things we do understand: Bushes and birds and bread, fields and pearls and fishing. The kingdom of heaven is somehow like all of those. How? First, the kingdom of heaven is about abundance, a big ol’ bush coming out of a little tiny seed, As I pointed out last week, every speck of dirt in Creation was created by the one God, and in verse after verse of Chapter 13, Matthew has Jesus talking about God sowing seeds.

In the first parable, God is the “Someone” who does everything: providing the dirt, the seed, the planting, and the growth into a big ol’ bush. We are the birds who just happen to come across it after all the work is done and make our home safe in its branches, much like every human just happens to be born and makes this fragile earth our island home.

The same for the bread dough: God is the woman (the WOMAN!) who hides yeast in some 60 pounds of flour to make 100 loaves of bread. God does all the work: bringing the flour and hiding the yeast in it, yeast which works through the dough to make enough bread to feed a hundred hungry people. The Kingdom of Heaven provides for the creatures of earth without our doing a thing to make it happen.

The next parables, about treasure and pearls and fish, all make the same point: God is doing all the work in these, too. We – humanity – are the hidden treasure and the precious pearl that God gives everything God has to own, Just as God gave everything – indeed, God’s own life – to redeem us. We – humanity – are the fish that God spreads out a net to get and to bring into God’s presence. Oops, but wait: some of the fish are “bad,” literally, “rotten.” Stinky. Those stinky fish are cast away.

Remember what I said earlier, that the nature of the realm beyond death is that everything is enveloped in the utter perfection of God’s eternal life. This means that no darkness at all, no evil, no rottenness, no stinky fish will be present in that utter perfection of the eternal life that Creation is destined for. Obviously, evil and death MUST be vanquished, completely eliminated, for utter perfection to be total and eternal.

It is God’s will for this to happen, and we can’t stop Creation from getting to the destination God is bringing it. Even though we can’t stop it, we can choose to be part of God’s project, or we can choose to resist God’s will. Humanity, unique among all life on this planet, has free will, a choice on whether or not to be stinky fish.

Stinky fish are selfish, looking only to serve themselves, not their neighbors. Stinky fish bring the suffering to others as Paul describes: trouble, distress, harassment, famine, nakedness, danger, and the sword, causing their eyes to shed rivers of tears. Those things weren’t all invented in January of 2020!

Ultimately, though, stinky fish bring the same suffering into their own lives, and they, to, will weep and grind their teeth. Yes, one of the great mysteries of human existence is why God gives humanity the choice to be stinky fish, to choose to do evil…

Read the full sermon text HERE.

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