St George’s, Belleville—Romans 8:26-34, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
As you may know, I was raised in a Christian tradition that placed a high value on memorizing scripture, and being able to cite book, chapter, and verse, and all of this beginning at a very young age. One of the verses that I committed to memory, and was of some encouragement and comfort to me as I grew up, is Romans 8:28, which includes the words, “All things work together for good…”. These words often helped me take a long view of things, when the short view wasn’t very appealing. Of course, I remember my mother pointing out to me that this phrase isn’t the whole verse; it’s not a blank-check promise that everything will automatically turn out OK for everybody. There’s some qualifying language: “For we know that all things work together for good, to them that love God, to them that are called according to his purpose.” (This is, of course, the language of the King James Version, which is how I memorized my scripture.)
Anyway, adding the bit about “lov[ing] him and [being] called according to his purpose” is an improvement, at least insofar as we’re interested in an accurate understanding of what St Paul is trying to say. But I would suggest that the Revised Standard Version gets us even closer still to where Paul wants us: “God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” This offers us a vision of God as the one who is “operating” and those who love God and are called according to his purpose—which would, presumably, include the community of those who have been reborn in Christ through the waters of baptism—God is operating and those who love him and are called by him are “co-operating” with God in bringing forth good out from and in the midst of conditions that look to us like anything but good.
The whole notion of God operating to bring forth good and people cooperating with God in that project is an immense comfort, because our experience in this life is, at best, a mixed bag—a mixed bag of bane and blessing, pain and pleasure. As we contemplate our sorry state, as we try to salvage some meaning and fulfillment from the challenges and the sorrows that surround us, we instinctively look to the past for clues to the great mystery of our existence. The future, after all, is unknown, and the present is unclear. So we look in the only apparently available direction—backwards. We look to the past for clues to the meaning of what we’re experiencing in the present. Am I being punished or rewarded for something I did? Did my parents make some colossal mistake in raising me such that I turned out the way I did? Is what I’m going through the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy? Did I forget to take my medication this morning? Is it something I ate, or some chemical I was exposed to before I was born? Particularly as we age, and as we slowly but surely acquire a past that is rather longer than any future we might have in this world, our inclination to interpret the present through the lens of the past becomes even stronger.
In fact, you and I are handicapped because we’re living our lives with only a partial map of the reality we inhabit. We are prisoners of time. We are bound by the dimensions of past, present, and future. We cannot conceive of any other way of being. We are by nature incapable of seeing reality the way God sees it, from the perspective of eternity—eternity, where there is only “now,” and no “then,” where there is no past or future, strictly speaking, but only an eternal present. Can you imagine how seeing reality from God’s point of view would change our interpretation of our experience? Can you imagine how viewing our experience through the lens of eternity would give us wonderful new insight into how “God works for good with those who love him and are called according to his purpose”?
Well, here’s the good news: Christian faith offers us just that sort of opportunity. Walking with Jesus as his disciple, and walking with our fellow disciples, gives us a completely new way of seeing and interpreting our experience, which is that the clue to the meaning of the present lies not in the past, but in the future—in Eternity to be completely accurate, but from our perspective, the future. If you feel that your life, if you feel that the whole of human existence, is devoid of meaning and purpose, it could be that you’ve been looking in the wrong place, looking in the wrong direction. The clues we’re looking for lie in the future, not in the past.
You have, I’m sure, had the experience of reading a suspense thriller novel, or watching a suspense movie, for the second or even third time. It can be an enjoyable experience. There are details that you may have missed the first time, or elements of the plot that become clearer and make more sense. You can focus more on matters of artistry and craftsmanship like camera angles and lighting and scene editing and dialogue. But there’s nothing that can duplicate the experience of seeing it for the first time, when you’re engrossed in the actual story. Subsequent viewings—or readings, as the case may be—are more of the head and less of the gut. We may enjoy it even more than we did the first time, but as the story unfolds, we have a lot less anxiety. Why? Obviously, it’s because we know what’s going to happen, we know what comes next. Most importantly, we know how it turns out. We know whether the ending is happy, tragic, or just unsatisfying. Second- or third-time viewers can relax in a way that a first-time viewer never can, because they know how the story turns out.
This is essentially what Jesus is trying to get across to us in what we might call the “parables of expansion”—the mustard seed, the leaven, the pearl of great price. Don’t judge a mustard seed by its present size, which is miniscule. Judge it according to what it will become—an expansive and hearty tree. Look to the end of the story, not the beginning. Yeast look insignificant when you add them to flour and water, but an hour later, it is evident that they are significant indeed. Look to the end of the story, not the beginning. The treasure hunter impoverishes himself in order to acquire a particular pearl. But he knows that he can eventually sell that pearl for many times what it cost him. Look to the end of the story, not the beginning.
This is, of course, also St Paul’s point as he writes the passage that includes Romans 8:28:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Both the pithy language of the parables and the exalted prose of the epistle to the Romans accomplish the same purpose—they both give us God’s eternal perspective. When we look for meaning only in the past, it can be depressing because there’s an awful lot of suffering in the past. I’m talking about my past and your past, and humankind’s collective past. If we look to the past to interpret the present, we are left consumed by anxiety and uncertainty—and this is certainly no way one would want to live! With faith in the one who foreknew and predestined us, and with God working for good in and with us because he has called us according to his purpose, we are able to live with confidence, hope, and joy. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.