Inflection points

Pentecost 9, Proper 12

In the name of God, our way.  Amen.

The Gospel lesson today is a collection of small parables from Jesus that all center around the idea of the significant impacts of seemingly insignificant things.  The mustard seed that turns out to be more impactful than its initial size might suggest.  The yeast – which, on its own, doesn’t amount to much.  But once it’s fed, a reaction takes place that opens the way for feeding a family.  A nondescript field that holds a treasure.  A pearl whose value surpasses all others.  A humble net that pulls in all manner of fish.

Each of these is something small – but it leads to something more.  And that’s often the way life is: the big things – the things we most remember – are, at their core, a collection of smaller things that start to add up.  Single decisions that grow into greater influence.

It reminds me of the movie The Shawshank Redemption.  There are so many meaningful nuggets throughout that film, but near the end, Red, the character played by Morgan Freeman, comes before the parole board.  Throughout his 40 years in prison, he appeared before them numerous times.  Each time their question was, “Do you feel that you have been rehabilitated?”  Each time he tried to tell them what he thought they wanted to hear.  “Yes, I’ve been rehabilitated.”  “Yes, I’m ready to rejoin society.”  And each time he was denied.

But this last time, he’s a little wiser.  He’s had a lot of time to consider it, and it seems like his hope is waning.  He just decides to talk.  To be honest.  When they ask him if he’d been rehabilitated, he says that he doesn’t even know what that word means.  That he knows what they think it means, but not any real meaning for his life.  He goes on to say:

“I look back on the way I was – a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime – I want to talk to him.  I want to try to talk some sense into him.  Tell him the way things are.  But I can’t.  That kid’s long gone.  This old man is all that’s left.  I gotta live with that.”

His reflection has led him back to the point of inflection – the moment when it could have gone either way.  If only we could see those points as clearly in each moment as we sometimes do in retrospect.

But that is part of the message of Christ that we’re called to live into.  The way it gets lived out in our own experience is largely through the practice of living in Christian community.  We are drawn to church – not because we have to check in and sign the attendance sheet.  We don’t come here to “pay our dues”.  We come here because we know that we can do more together than we can alone.  We know that while our faith can live in solitude, it truly grows in community.  Through the shared contributions of each faithful person, our faithfulness as a whole is bolstered – not just for ourselves, but for all of us, together.

I know it can be tough sometimes to get up on Sunday morning and get your act together and make it to church.  Sometimes a story in the newspaper that grabs you can tempt you to stay home a little longer.  Sometimes that “one more cup” of coffee sounds really appealing.  I know it, because I have those days, too – days when the temptation is strong.

But each day that we get up – each day that we hold on to the commitment to living our faith in the best way we can – each of those days all come together to add up to a life of faith that is more meaningful than any one day’s choice.  And it’s not just about coming to church – I think that’s a huge part of how we go about sculpting our lives into the broader picture of “faithfulness” – but it’s a part of little decisions we make each day.

The first two lessons we read today – from First Kings and from Romans – are about another seemingly small thing we can do that ends up meaning more than we think.  Prayer is a small thing.  To a degree, very often it’s just words.  But more than words, prayer is about intention.  It’s about choosing how we’ll focus ourselves – what will earn our attention.

In First Kings, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and says to him, “Ask what I should give you.”  In response, Solomon praises God for the many ways that God had blessed his father, David, and he asked that God bless him with wisdom and understanding to lead the people.  Solomon is commonly remembered as wise, and stories are told about his wisdom – but what we tend to forget is that this defining character of his story started with a simple prayer.  It started with a focused intention.  It started with a humble desire expressed to God.

Later, Paul reminds us that our prayer doesn’t need to be perfect.  Even in our shortcomings, the Holy Spirit intercedes with “sighs too deep for words”.  That’s one of my favorite phrases in the Bible, because it reflects my own experience of prayer so beautifully.  I can say words until I’m blue in the face.  And I do.  More often than I’d care to admit, my prayer is as much senseless blathering as anything else.  But it’s in that blathering that my focus and my attention turns to God.  It’s less about the words I say and more about striving for a deeper relationship with God.  When I get past my words, I’ll sometimes feel that sigh that’s too deep for words – and that’s where the real prayer begins.

But it all starts with a simple decision.  A decision to turn our attention toward God.  A decision that could go the other way, and very often does.  But once we do really turn our attention to God, we have planted a seed – a seed that can grow beyond the simplicity of the moment.

Later, in the story of The Shawshank Redemption, Red is released on parole.  Like others who have gone before him, he found that prison changed him in ways that made the outside world make less sense than it used to.  The inhumanity of incarcerated life made it hard for him to claim – or even understand – his humanity once he could.  He confesses that sometimes all he can think about is how to get back to prison – to a place and a situation that for all its problems, is at least a place that he’d come to understand.  At least it was a place where he didn’t feel so alone as he did on the outside.

The camera shows him passing a pawn shop.  He sees a row of guns sitting in the window, and once again he’s faced with a moment where his choice will shape the rest of his life.  One of the guns could take him back to where he was before.  But he looks past them a sees a compass.  Instead of going back, he decided to go forward in a new way – a new way that would lead him to true liberation: liberation from living in fear.  He says that he knew it was time to “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

In Christ, we are called to get busy living.  God speaks in the language of life and the language of love, and in each moment we have the choice to speak that language with God, or not.  It’s just a moment.  Just a choice.  But it could mean so much more.  Amen.