In the Middle of the Action (#AnActiveFaith)

By Rev. J.C. Austin – June 16, 2019

When I was about five years old, I discovered gold in my backyard.  As you might imagine, it was pretty exciting.  It started off uneventfully: my brother and I had been busy all afternoon with my Mom’s gardening tools, innocently vandalizing an overgrown area she didn’t care much about, burrowing down and pulling up the rocks beneath.  I noticed one of them had a light spot on it, so I brushed the dirt off to reveal a section of gold glinting in the sun.

Jumping up, I ran over to my Mom to show her what I had found.  “Look Mom, it’s gold!  From the backyard!” I whispered breathlessly, proud and excited.  She took it carefully from me, looked, and said, “I don’t think it’s gold, sweetie.” “Yuh-huh!” I responded, helpfully pointing at the chunk I had spotted.  “No, this is something different,” she said gently; “people just think it’s gold.” She handed the rock back to me and, on seeing my disappointment, added, “it’s an easy mistake to make.”  She was kind enough not to tell me that it was my first encounter with “fool’s gold”.

The ability to appraise correctly makes all the difference in these situations.  That’s why the people in Jesus’ parables about the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value seem to have it easy:  both know and recognize the worth of what they’ve found; both know that they have the real thing and not fool’s gold, and are willing to invest their entire livelihoods in securing those treasures.  When you know you’ve got a sure thing, you can do that.

But how can you know?  How can you know that what you’ve got is real treasure and not fool’s gold?  How do you know what is a sure thing, sure enough to bet your livelihood, perhaps even your life on it? The truth is, these parables fly in the face of everything we know about making an investment. Virtually any financial advisor will tell you that the key to long-term investment success is to manage risk by diversifying your holdings across different sectors and types of investments. That way if you make a mistake or something happens in one area, the others will minimize your losses. That’s reasonable; that’s wise, because you can never truly know what the best investment is.

But that’s also what makes Paul’s assertion to the Romans all the more remarkable: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”  That’s a much bigger statement than just knowing about a financial investment! Now, this verse has been much abused, so it’s important to realize what he’s not saying here.

First of all, he’s not saying all things are good, or even that all things somehow work out for the best.  Rather, he’s saying that there is nothing so bad that God cannot also bring good out of it. Second, this isn’t a naïve platitude he’s tossing out. He’s not saying that the Romans, who are suffering precisely because they love God, should simply hope for the best and it will all turn out all right in the end, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He’s simply pointing to different evidence than it first appears.

Knowledge in this sense does not come from factual certainty; knowledge comes from trust and experience; from relationship. Paul is reminding the Romans that those who love God are well acquainted with God’s character:  merciful, just, righteous, loving, relentless in grace. They are well acquainted with God bringing good results out of evil intentions. It is, after all, the whole story of what God does throughout the Bible. The literal translation of Paul’s word for “we know” is “we have seen.”

We have seen that all things work together for good for those who love God.  It’s subtle, but so important:  we don’t “see” it in the present tense.  Rather, only in looking back do we perceive it, recognize the fact that God has been there at work all along, right in the middle of the action.  Many of you have had that experience: coming through a time of confusion and doubt, of asking where God is in the midst of it, and after it being able to look back and see God’s steady fingerprints all over it.  To have seen that in the past gives us hope and confidence for the future.  So we “know” that God will do so again, and is doing so right now, fulfilling the promise of the kingdom of heaven.

That is God’s purpose: the smallest of seeds grows into the greatest of shrubs that provides shade and shelter; the crucified criminal returns to be the glorious king dispensing justice and mercy. The problem of appraisal is reversed: what appears to be fool’s gold is actually the real thing. That’s the point of Paul’s soaring declaration at the end of this passage:  we know that God is with us and for us; and if God is for us, who can be against us?  Therefore nothing in heaven or in earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  That amazing affirmation is the sure thing, the unexpected treasure and the long-sought pearl; it is the unbreakable bedrock upon which our faith is built.

So, in one sense, the kingdom of heaven is not like a high-risk investment at all: the outcome is assured, and God will fulfill the promise, even though it begins in what appears to be weakness and defeat.  There is risk of a different sort, however.  The kingdom of heaven is high-risk in the sense that those who love God must invest everything. There is no diversification, no hedging; nothing can be held back.  We must risk all our other interests and investments, loyalties and relationships, identities and allegiances, whatever they may be.  Jesus demands that we bet our very lives on the kingdom, investing everything we are in it.

It is high-risk in that though nothing can separate us from God’s love, many things will try; not only competing interests, but the things that actively oppose God’s purpose.  It is high-risk in that the treasure of the kingdom is not ours to keep and retire on, withdrawing from the cares of the world, secure in our own comfortable future.  No, we are sent to bear the treasure of the kingdom into the midst of those cares. That is, after all, what Christ did: bear God’s loving presence right into the middle of all the powers scrabbling, clawing, and competing with God and one another for a piece of the action.

The blessing of a life of faith is not the chance to escape the challenges and powers of this world; it is the opportunity to be right there in the middle of the action as the kingdom of heaven breaks into this world, confronting and conquering those powers.  It is the chance to be part of the active yeast of God’s kingdom permeating and leavening the heavy dough of this world that is powerless to raise itself up.  Indeed, that is one of the greatest blessings of a life of faith; it is the purpose to which we have been called, which sustains us and enables us to give thanks even in the midst of great hardship.

On September 11, 2001, I stood on the front steps of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where I was serving as a pastor, looking south down Madison Avenue towards lower Manhattan. The street was empty of cars but teeming with physically and emotionally drained people who had made their way on foot all the way from lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers were, a distance of up to five miles. Naturally, we had the church doors open so people could come in to rest or pray. But somebody suggested we set up a table out on the street to offer folks some water as they walked by. A simple suggestion, really, but it hadn’t occurred to anybody else.  And yet before much time had passed, we had used every cup in the building; I had to race to a nearby store and clean out their supply of cups to meet the demand.

We estimated we gave away as many as 8,000 cups of water that day.  Many people returned in the coming days, but one woman made a special point of telling us how much it meant to her: “I needed the water,” she said, “but more than anything I needed to see some kindness that day; I needed to know that evil hadn’t won.” A cup of water and a compassionate face, in that place and time, communicated more about Christ’s steady love in the middle of chaos and grief than scores of the most eloquent and provocative sermons could ever hope to, for her and for us.  And we were grateful, grateful for the opportunity to embody Christ’s love in that moment, on that terrible day, for that woman and literally thousands of others.

Thankfully, being part of the kingdom’s yeast at work is rarely that dramatic.  And yet it’s often that profound.  Sometimes we can plan for it, like the merchant seeking out the pearl.  Maybe it’s getting past our awkwardness and apprehension and calling up someone whom we’ve been avoiding because of a disease or a life situation, or with whom we have an ongoing conflict. Sometimes we stumble across the opportunity like the worker in the field.

Maybe it’s speaking up when somebody makes a racist joke or comment, or when we realize that someone isn’t telling the truth when they tell you they are fine. Those may not be not world-changing moments, but they and so many more are “kingdom moments,” moments in which the Holy Spirit can work through us, turning us into active yeast for God’s kingdom at work in the middle of the everydayness of the world.  And all of them can change something. All of them establish the claim of God’s kingdom over the order of this world. All of them give witness to God’s love at work in our lives, emanating out of us and raising up the heavy mixture around us.

That’s our calling, our purpose; that is what it means to have a truly active faith. The gifts we have been given, the opportunities we have, the situations we find ourselves in; all of them are the ways God is kneading us through the world as agents for God’s transformation of it.

So, where have you been called, have we as a congregation been called?  What action has God placed you and us in the middle of?  Those are the questions we as Christians must always ask, that we spend a lifetime of faith in asking and answering.  But the answers are always there if we look and listen for them, and respond to them. You can bet your life on it.

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