My kids might not remember this story now, but when they were younger, they used to laugh about something funny Katie once said back when she was probably six or seven, and her brother was ten or eleven. The three of us were in the car, driving to or from school, and Tom and I were engaged in a conversation about his friends. I don’t quite remember the subject exactly, but I believe we were talking about rather mundane differences that set the different kids in his friendship circle apart, so I could match names with faces. It was something like height: “Oh, John’s the really tall kid, and Brian is the short one,” something along those lines — when Katie suddenly piped up from the back seat. “I thought everyone was Christian!” she said.
Tom and I collapsed into laughter. I found this amusing on more than one level. Not only because it seemed that Katie had a rather unusual notion of what the term “Christian” meant and what a Christian looked like; maybe, in retrospect, the term was equivalent to “human” in her mind. I also thought it interesting because, at that time, she and her brother had friends who were Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist, in addition to Catholics and Protestants.
In the last few years I have found myself spending more and more time among people who practice and profess no faith at all — most of them good, ethical people, who are trying to make a positive impact in the world, just as much as most people who actively participate in a faith community. And I’ve found myself wondering, quite often, just what a difference faith actually makes. And if that difference is significant, even life-changing, is it imperative, or appropriate, to share it — and if so, how do you do that without becoming manipulative or even harmful, in the long run?
Some skeptics would claim that religion — or religious affiliation — has often done more harm than good. They point to examples like the Crusades, the decimation of native cultures, the institution of slavery, the oppression of women and many contemporary examples of violence, evil, and the maintenance of unjust systems of inequality which benefit only a few in privileged positions of power — all in the name of religion. And these critics make valid points. It’s appalling and sad how many examples they can find, and with every passing generation the number of examples multiplies.
During our two-week visit to Holland, I was deeply struck by the impact of World War II on the people there and how that war is still part of the collective consciousness. There were many who lost their faith in that war, shaken to the core by the helplessness they felt in the face of so much evil, which felt, to them, like the absence of God.
There was more to see that triggered further reflection, from centuries before that. We visited two medieval churches which were festooned with sculptures — but the faces had been removed during the transfer of power from Catholic to Protestant in the 16th century. One of our guidebooks described this as a peaceful, bloodless coup — because no one was killed — but, seeing the violence done to the art, the phrase “iconoclastic fury,” which we read inside the church, was a far more apt description. In another city, we found a church that is no longer used as a house of worship but is, instead, a museum. It was located a few blocks from a lavish cathedral that is extraordinary in its ostentatiousness, with the bigger, more elaborate and more expensive art devoted to stories of prominent people of the time period — and these pieces overshadow the biblical figures. I only saw one cross, on the altar, covered in flowers and so small it was nearly lost in the beauty and spectacle of the rest of the space. And I wondered: was the heart of the Christian message lost in this space?
In a world full of violence and distraction, and heavy with a history of both, where is the Kingdom of God to be found? This is an age-old question.
So now we turn to the Gospel reading. I couldn’t do a series on being an Easter people, drawn from a search on the word “rise” in the scriptures, and not include the rather unusual images evoked by this little bunch of parables.
When our Wednesday Bible study group looked at these teachings a few months ago, aided by a book of commentary by Jewish author Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, I was surprised to discover that many in the class were unfamiliar with these particular little stories. More attention is drawn, I guess, to those parables of Jesus that are longer in length — and these are just a sentence each. But they are intriguing to me nonetheless, for they speak to this challenge of being Kingdom people in the midst of a noisy, violent, greedy and distracted world.
The parables of the yeast, the mustard seed, the treasure and the pearl point to small, hidden, yet very valuable qualities — of both the Kingdom and those who belong to the Kingdom. And whenever I begin to doubt, considering my faithfulness an insignificant blip on the vast landscape of history, thinking my impact is pitiful and my effort for naught, I think of yeast, and mustard seeds, and the hidden, unseen power of God at work in the course of human events.
And one thing that strikes me in these little parables is the role of time and space. You need time and space for things to rise. You need time for investments to grow in value. Seeds need room to grow, yeast needs room to make the dough expand, things that are precious and hidden need time and appreciation to be revealed.
And in this world of hurry and pressure and fear, making space is a spiritual practice. But when you do, there’s room for justice. There’s room for grace. There’s room for faith.
In our human interactions, curiosity and listening play a key role in making space for things to rise.
One of the books I read during my time away, published by Stephen Ministries, is filled with excellent advice about how to support people who are grieving. (I got two copies, to encourage plenty of borrowing; it’s a really good and helpful read and I strongly recommend it. Of particular value are the chapters on what not to do and what not to say, the things that do much more harm than good, even if they come from a well-intentioned place.) The helpful stance is one which doesn’t try to force healing, but gently holds space for grief, for questions, for being human in the face of suffering.
The same principle applies even when grief is not the presenting situation. We make space for faith to rise when we treat others with dignity and kindness, without pushing or forcing our way in. We make space for faith to rise when we work for justice by walking alongside the poor and the oppressed, not forcing our answers, or our way, but treating others the way they would like to be treated (what my friend Pastor Sun Hee Kim refers to as “the Platinum Rule” that goes beyond the Golden Rule) — which requires that we listen so we can learn what that way is.
When I looked through this year’s denominational resources for Peace with Justice Sunday, I came across a moving song that I want to share this morning. It’s a bit complicated rhythmically and not suited to my voice, so I thought we’d just listen to a recording instead, and as it’s not our typical style, I’ll be projecting the words for your comprehension (not for singing along).
What I hope you’ll hear in this anthem is a call to step forward humbly, to create space for that rising to happen, not to keep our faith all to ourselves, but to act in a spirit of compassion — not so that we get attention or that we get our way, but so that others may genuinely experience the life-giving love and kindness of God. That is how the Kingdom rises — one changed life at a time.