Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 29:15-28+Psalm 128+Romans 8:26-39+Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Good things come to those who wait. Or so they say.

When last we encountered Jacob, he had had a mountaintop experience, dreaming of a ladder with angels going up and down and God telling him that he would have descendants without number and land beyond measure. And he called that place Beth-el – House of God.

This happened when he was on his way to find himself a wife. Much as Abraham had told Isaac that he should not marry a local girl, Isaac said the same to Jacob and sent him off to the land of his kin to find a woman to marry. Our reading today skips over the part about Jacob arriving in Haran, his family’s ancestral home, and meeting Rachel, his cousin, at the well. You may remember that Abraham’s servant found Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, by a well, and now Jacob does the same. (The next time you hear the story of the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus at the well, remember this theme!)

Laban, Rebekah’s brother and father to Rachel and her older sister Leah, was a shrewd man. Jacob was young and a strong, good worker. Given that he only had two daughters to help keep the flocks, having another man around seemed a pretty good thing, so he asked Jacob what wages he would ask to continue to stay in Haran. Jacob wants Rachel and offers to work for Laban for seven years rather than to ask for wages. But, as our story goes, Laban was not going to have his older daughter shamed by having the younger marry first, so he tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, the eldest. His marriage to Rachel would have to wait another seven years.

Yes, good things come to those who wait, and for Jacob, Rachel was a pearl of great price. He would give fourteen years of his life, laboring away for her.

Treasure hidden in a field.  A pearl of great value. A net that brings in a load of fish. Yeast that makes simple ingredients expand beyond imagining. Once again, Jesus is using images of all sorts to try to describe to his followers what God’s reign looks like.

And what it looks like is the best thing you could possibly imagine. Something you will spend your life searching for, working for, relentlessly pursuing.

Our country recently lost two giants of the Civil Rights movement. They sought an elusive pearl of great price – true equality, equity, and freedom – for African Americans in this country.

C.T. Vivian was, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., “the greatest preacher ever to live.”[1] The New York Times headline following his death last Friday at the age of 95 called him King’s “field general.”[2] Dedicated to non-violent resistance, Vivian was himself the victim of brutal assaults as he pursued justice for people of color across the South. And yet he was not the one out front, the one whose name so easily comes to mind. His pursuit was diligent and unrelenting all the same.

They say that good things come to those who wait.

John Lewis was a different kind of leader than C. T. Vivian. Where Vivian and King used words to paint soaring pictures of hope, Lewis unflinchingly pointed to the injustice under which Blacks in this country have lived for 400 years. The leaders of the movement, including Dr. King, asked him to tone down his words on the steps of the Capitol in 1963’s March on Washington. At the age of 23, the toned-down version of his speech included these words:

By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.[3]

Lewis was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966. His 45th arrest came in 2013 when he was 73 years old, protesting immigration policy. Perhaps the most indelible image of John Lewis was his resolve in the face of a phalanx of Alabama State troopers as he led the initial march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

Many leaders of the Civil Rights movement did the talking but let others take the beatings. Lewis did not shy away from certain violence, because he had his eyes on the prize. The pearl of great price. The treasure in the field.

Jacob worked 14 years to marry his beloved Rachel. C.T. Vivian and John Lewis devoted lifetimes to pursuing fullness of life for Blacks in America. They made progress, but they never saw the dream truly fulfilled.

Good things sometimes come to those who wait.

But why are we making human beings wait for that promised “liberty and justice for all?” In that speech on the steps of the Capitol, Lewis said:

We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.[4]

No, good things might not always come to those who wait.

The kingdom of heaven is like this:

A place where we all work 7 years, 14 years, a lifetime in pursuit of the pearl of justice and dignity for all human beings.

A place where we give all we have to find the treasure in the field where our Black neighbors have equal access to jobs, health care, and wealth acquisition.

A place where the tiniest of seeds, planted and nourished, can finally complete the work so faithfully carried out over decades by C.T. Vivian and John Lewis.

Neither of these great men lived to see the fulfillment of their dream although Lewis was encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement and the persistence of the protests in recent months following the killing of George Floyd. The good things may not always come to those who wait, but they do come, because God’s reign will not be denied.

In the end, the truth of the matter, in the words of St. Paul, is that these two men were beloved of God.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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. (Romans 8:31, 25, 37-38)

Beaten, persecuted, imprisoned multiple times yet never abandoned by God. And neither are we. And neither are those on whose behalf Vivian and Lewis suffered so much.

A couple of years ago, John Lewis wrote a note of encouragement on Twitter:

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.[5]

Good things may come to those who wait, but more often than not, the waiting requires diligence and hard work. And maybe some good trouble. Just ask Jacob. Just ask C. T. Vivian. Just ask John Lewis.


[1] https://www.democracynow.org/2020/7/20/remembering_ct_vivian_civil_rights

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/ct-vivian-dead.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/john-lewis-and-danger-gradualism/614512/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html

ASEPSermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas