How many of you had a mustard seed in a piece of jewelry growing up? I had one in a necklace. I remember being by my mother how this tiny little seed could grow into a big tree, and that this was a sign of God’s love for me. I liked to wear it. But I had no idea what a mustard tree looked like because we didn’t have one in our yard or neighborhood. Still, I was impressed, in the way that young children are impressed. But I don’t think I really understood the mustard seed any more than I understood that Jesus died on a cross for me.
Still, those things we learn in childhood are often hard to shake. When I learned in studying this passage that the mustard seed is not really the tiniest of seeds, and that the mustard tree is more of a bush, I had to stop and ponder a moment. I had to shake off those long-held beliefs. Tom Long thinks Jesus may even have been poking a bit of fun at those who compare earthly political kingdoms to strong, mighty trees (as occurs several times in the Old Testament). If the kingdoms of people, the governments, look like mighty oaks, why would God’s kingdom be more humble like a mustard bush, the people of Jesus’ time must have wondered. Long thinks that Jesus wanted to make the point that the kingdom of God is nothing like the kingdoms of earth, that the kingdom of God can surprise in ways we cannot imagine, like making the mustard tree big enough for the birds of the air to nest in its branches, big enough to offer shade and refuge for all who seek the kingdom of God. It is hard to capture such things as faith and the kingdom of God in a few words, or in one image.
In our Romans passage, the apostle Paul looks to worship for assurance of God’s presence. When we do not even know how to pray, the Holy Spirit offers prayers for us in "sighs too deep for words." This image carries many people through tough times, knowing that prayers still go up even when we mere mortals do not have the words to express what we are feeling.
Verse 28 of Romans 8 is my favorite verse of all Scripture, a mantra of sorts for my adult life. "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose." This section goes on to mention one of the most difficult doctrines of the church, predestination. But Paul is not telling us that God has pre-ordained everything that happens in our lives, what we say or do, which is how many people try to interpret predestination. Paul is not even saying that everything in life is good. Paul is reminding us, with eloquent words, that God is God, and that our lives are in God’s hands from birth to death and beyond death. We do not know that every loss or tragedy is a part of God’s plan for us. We do know that God moves our lives and all of history towards the good God has always intended for our lives and our world. Unfortunately, some of the bad things that happen are a result of human sin, of greed and selfishness. But our faith reminds us that God works for good even in the midst of evil. If we are faithful, we can see ourselves as partners with God in bringing about good in our world. God has shown us an exceedingly great love by giving the Son, Jesus Christ, to us. As people of faith, we can be assured that there is nothing that life can throw at us, even death, that will defeat the love of God. Wow! That is a powerful statement. And we need a powerful statement sometimes to make it through the trails of life.
I have been reading an interesting book by Barbara Brown Taylor, who has been declared one of the best preachers of the English-speaking world by TIME Magazine. Time Magazine also featured this book recently, titled Learning to Walk in the Dark. Barbara Brown Taylor realized that Christian faith tends to make darkness evil and light good, and she decided to explore why. She said Christian teaching "tends to divide reality into opposing pairs – good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark," and that one of each pair is higher and the other lower. (p.10) But she points out good things that have happened in the darkness, including God directing Abraham to look at the stars to see how many descendants he would have, and Jesus born in the dark, and resurrected in the darkness of the tomb. Yet we call grief, fear, and despair "dark emotions," she says, and we have a low tolerance for sadness (p.59).
Those things that we call darkness often test our faith to the point of breaking it. But what would happen, Taylor asks, if we cease to see them as "darkness" and "evil," and rather see them as a part of the life that God has created?
I have had the opportunity in recent months to discuss with my daughter and some of her friends their departure from church, though most of them were raised by their parents as regular church attendees. These are not evil, dark young people because they no longer claim church and faith as central in their lives. I have spent time with them – they are really good people. They are delightful, sensitive, caring, sharing young adults who have found other ways to express their spirituality. Christian faith is no longer a meaningful part of their lives. Barbara Brown Taylor posits that the language of faith, the rigid divisions of right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark, drive many young people away, because the world is not so black and white; there are many shades of gray in our fast-moving and fast-changing world. There are many tragedies for which there are no clear answers.
Earlier in Romans 8, Paul said, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us….We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, for the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes in what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Romans 8:18, 22-25) Paul, whose writing can be obscure with long run-on sentences, has captured in this chapter the essence of the human struggle of faith. Faith is not something we can see, or even really define. Sometimes our faith seems to fail us. There are no words for what we feel. And yet Paul reminds us that at such times, the Spirit prays for us "with sighs too deep for words" (Rom. 8:27). And that is what we need, when the world seems to be falling apart around us, in a personal or a global sense, and when our insides are churning with those "dark emotions" of grief, fear, shame, jealousy, despair.
Paul so eloquently offers us a glimpse of the answer that faith brings us. "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God." "If God is for us, who can be against us?" "Who will separate us from the love of God?" And he gives us the answer so clearly and strongly – Nothing, he says. "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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." (Rom. 8:39) And while we cannot even fully comprehend such a love, we count on it, especially in those hardest moments of our lives, with a faith that was born into our hearts by the very God who made us.
Those young people I mentioned earlier, I believe they still have faith. They just call it something different. They have faith in the power of love, of goodness, of the community of humanity. But we can articulate that for us it is God who brings order to chaos, who conquers hatred with love, who redeems good out of evil. Perhaps we are all on the same page. We just have different words to express what we believe.
This passage from Romans 8 is one we can turn to in times of grief or fear or any of those "dark emotions." The way Paul mastered these words fills us with a sense of God in a way words rarely can. These words comfort. These words build us up. These words define for us things we cannot define ourselves – the Spirit sighing for us, God defeating all that life throws at us with love. It is hard to preach on these words because these words preach themselves, they are a sermon, a master sermon on the face of faith.
Yet still we struggle to make these words live in our lives. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?" The Message Bible says, "not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins in Scripture" can separate us from the love of God. Barbara Brown Taylor says, "Meanwhile, here is some good news you can use: even when light fades and darkness falls – as it does every single day, in every single life – God does not turn the world over to some other diety…. Darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day." (BBT, p.17)
So the face of faith may look like our own Norm Gaddis, a prisoner of war in isolation for 6 years in the Korean War, who survived by remembering Scripture and hymns, and recalling the love of his wife and children. Or it may look like a teenage Pakistani girl named Malala who was shot by the Taliban because she said women had a right to education, and who survived and is still bravely supporting women’s rights in a land that does not respect women. Or the face of faith may look a lot like your face, as you sit by the bedside of a dying parent or friend, or as you raise your children to know the God of love by coming to church and Sunday School regularly and as you tackle their sometimes difficult theological questions. We nurture the face of faith together in this covenant community.
It is faith that gets us through life with a sense of peace and even joy – all because we trust that, as The Message Bible puts it, "nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely NOTHING can get between us and God’s love." Keep that thought, that assurance, in your head, and "All will be well, all manner of things will be well."
Thanks be to God. Amen.