July 30, 2023
The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost - July 30, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Mathew 13:31-33, 44-52
From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the blessings of my recent Sabbatical rest, was the opportunity for in-depth reading of newspapers and periodicals – things I rarely have time for – as well as the opportunity to reflect – often in extensive silence – and listen more acutely to the voices of the writers and, in turn, the voice of God. It was time well spent and very revealing.
One such article was, of all things, a May 3, 2023 report from the Surgeon General. (Hey, I didn’t say what I read were thrilling novels. Nevertheless, that report was timely.) See, the Surgeon General expressed alarm that one of the most lasting and devastating effects of the recent Covid pandemic is that it has given rise to a public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection that is affecting individual and society health. And as a good Surgeon General should, he outlined some worthwhile steps we might take to remedy that crisis. Now the step that struck me most is: “to cultivate a culture of connection” – meaning that we honestly recognize that how we engage one another can significantly influence the relationships we have in our lives, as well as our mental and physical, and I would add, spiritual health. And that got me thinking.
See, a different article lamented that due to her obsession with calling out what one considers the sins of others and sins of society, the Church has made God’s grace transactional, something to be earned and in so doing, become judge and jury, rather than the exuding embodiment of God’s grace and forgiveness, love and welcome, connection and community.
When pondering today’s scripture lessons, I couldn’t help but recall the Surgeon General’s report and the Church’s tendency to condemn rather than forgive and welcome. And that brought to mind a story I have shared before – the following true story that I believe captures the essence of today’s readings and challenges us in these days of isolation, judgment, and loneliness. Our story begins:
“Why does God keep taking my babies?” It was her first night on call as Chaplain at the Medical Center where she was completing her seminary required “Clinical Pastoral Education Program.” Moments earlier, she received an urgent page to report to the Labor and Delivery area where, upon arrival, she was ushered in to meet a young woman who had experienced her fourth consecutive miscarriage. As she entered the patient’s dimly lit room, the Chaplain was struck by a palpable grief that permeated every corner of the room.
She quietly introduced herself to the patient, a young Hispanic woman, who uttered a deep lament of grief and despair as she asked over and again, “Why? Why? Why? Why! … Why does God keep taking my babies?” The Chaplain was desperate to come up with some theological concept she had learned at seminary, something, anything that might ease this poor woman’s pain … but no words came. Finally, with a sense of personal defeat and resignation, she whispered quietly, “I … don’t … know” and then added, “But, I am here for you.” She sat down next to the patient, took her hand in hers, and together they quietly wept.
Reflecting on this encounter later, the Chaplain shared that at the very moment she said, “I don’t know,” sat down, and touched the patient’s hand, she became aware of another presence in the room: A presence which also sat down, touched their hands, and wept with them. She believed that presence was God incarnate – Jesus Christ himself - who was willing to share in and be present in the midst of anguish.
Over the days that followed, the patient and Chaplain met several times. Usually they sat in silence so all that transpired between them was the gentle touch of their hands. Eventually, the patient shared how she believed God was punishing her for not being married to the father of her babies. After all, her parish priest had told her so. In fact, he said that as long as she continued in her unmarried state she was not only abandoned by God, but forever without hope, forgotten, and condemned. Hearing the grief in her voice as the woman told her story, the Chaplain opened her Bible and happened upon today’s reading from Romans. And then spoke aloud these words:
“For I am convinced that neither death, … nor life, … nor angels, … nor principalities, … 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.”
The Chaplain then shared from her heart that God desires wholeness for us, not judgment or punishment, that God’s love is eternal and beyond all imagination. She spoke of how God’s love and grace is fully present to us in Jesus Christ who promised, “I am with you even unto the end of time,” that we are never alone in our circumstances, that God is forever present, and like a father waiting for the return of the prodigal son, God never gives up on us because God’s love is inseparable from us.
The patient’s anguish slowly lessened with each visit but not because the Chaplain answered her questions. Truth be told, she offered no reason whatsoever for the repeated loss of each child. But the Chaplain did what so many throughout the world long and ache for today: she was willing to be present, willing to touch, to hold the hand of someone in pain, and just listen, not judge. In so doing, she both affirmed God’s eternal and unconditional love for all humankind, as well as offered this poor woman a glimpse of the healing presence and power of God’s kingdom.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, can be found in the smallest of things – a mustard seed - things easily overlooked – a kind word, a willingness to be present to someone in pain, someone in need. God’s kingdom is found in the grace and dignity realized through the gift of human touch, through embracing the stranger or welcoming someone home. The kingdom of God is found in hidden realities- those pearls and treasures that we don’t fully recognize or grasp their depth until we truly listen to the life story of the other in our midst, hear their experience of joy and sadness, and in our listening, see and hear Christ in them as their loneliness is eased.
What the Chaplain discovered is that God’s kingdom becomes real to our neighbors when God’s people demonstrate it not through condemning those different from us or whom we believe are guilty of sin, but through our willingness to be present to and love someone in need just as they are, when we are willing to reach out and touch our neighbors, especially those whom society calls worthless or the church calls condemned, when we dare to say “I don’t know …. I don’t know why this is happening to you, I don’t know why people betray and cheat one another like Laban did to Jacob in our reading from Genesis, or why people treat others like a commodity as if they are less than human like Leah and Rachel were treated, I don’t know why dreadful things happened to you in the past or even today, but … I … am … here for you, now.”
Our Chaplain became an effective witness for Christ, a witness to the promise of God’s kingdom, a witness to God’s healing and loving grace when she stopped trying to offer an answer, and, instead, became the answer: she chose to be present for as long as she was needed. No hidden agenda, no conversion tactic, just a willingness to recognize this neighbor as a precious child of God, to love her for who she was/who she is in Christ. That willingness to be present to the other in our midst can dispel loneliness and offer a glimpse of God’s kingdom, a kingdom marked by grace where all are loved and their dignity as human beings, creations of God, is restored and celebrated; where every ethnic, racial, religious, political and tribal barrier is cut down; where every circumstance – our worries, illnesses, loneliness, deaths, and despair – no matter who you are or what you have done is embraced by an unconditional love that says, “I am here for you.” Imagine that kingdom in our midst right now. It can be if we set judgment aside and listen, be present, touch, and choose to love our neighbors and our own selves with that same love with which God has loved and still loves the entire world in Jesus Christ, that love of which St. Paul was “convinced … in all creation – even those barriers of my own, our own creation - can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
By God’s grace, may we become God’s listening, hope-filled, healing presence and Kingdom to one another, to our neighbor, to our communities, and to the very ends of the earth. Amen.