I don’t know if it’s true in Chicago, but in New Jersey almost all of the mom and pop stores sold what was called a “dream book.” These books were designed to help you win the lottery. When you dreamed something at night – say a cat – you’d look up in the dream book and it would have a number that you should play the next day in the lottery. If you dream of a cat play number 42. The amazing thing was that these books kept selling even though there didn’t seem to be any correlation between the winning number and one’s dream. Maybe that is an example of the human tendency to believe there must be an answer somewhere. Hey, I read it on the internet, it must be true! Of course for believers the book we turn to for answers is the Bible. The Word of God is the revelation of God’s presence in the world. However, unlike the one-to-one correspondence of the dream book, the Bible requires some interpretation, some explanation to understand what it is telling us. For example, let’s see if we can unpack the meaning of the line by St. Paul to the Romans: We know that all things work for good for those who love God. We have to read that text very carefully otherwise we might hear it meaning that all things “turn out” good for these who love God. We know that isn’t the case. Jesus loved God and he ended up crucified. St. Paul loved God and he was beheaded. Our patron whose feast we are celebrating this weekend, St. James, loved God and he ended up martyred. So the text does NOT say, those who love God have good things happen to them. Rather it says, everything, good things and bad things, can, in the plan of God, become the source of blessing when we live in the love of God.
Let’s see how that works during a time of the coronavirus. Since the Bible does NOT say, since I love God only good things will happen to me I understand that the suffering that we are going through during the pandemic works for good because of our love for God. Some of the ways the six months of the pandemic have worked for good in me include: teaching me humility since my plans have been completely upended by a microscopic bug; forcing me to spend time with the men of my community; providing the opportunity to learn how to bake bread; having the chance to connect with my family on a regular basis; producing in me a sense of the providence of God that this is happening when it is – even ten years ago we wouldn’t have had zoom and the other technologies that enable us to keep connected with one another; giving me an attitude of gratitude for the doctors and the health care workers and the delivery drivers and researchers and so many others who have worked so diligently to mitigate the harm done by the virus; a feeling of appreciation for the people of St. James who continue to reach out to one another even though we are separated from one another.
However, we shouldn’t be Pollyannaish about the pandemic. It is a terrible plague and has wrought great harm. So much loss, so much grief. Besides the sheer numbers of those dead because of it there are many who are experiencing financial disaster because of the shut-down of the economy. So we should in no way belittle the suffering this horrible plague is inflicting on the world. What St. Paul wants us to understand, what the Bible wants us to understand, is that even the worst things that happen can work for good. Because of the love of God Good Friday led to Easter Sunday, death to resurrection, the cross to a crown. The real message of the Scripture is no matter what, we must throw ourselves into God’s loving arms.
A story: One day a farmer’s son ran up to him. Father, I have some bad news. Our horse has run away. Bad news, good news, answered the Father. Who can say? Some days later the son ran to see his father. Father, I have some good news. Our horse has returned to our corral and brought with him seven wild horses. Good news, bad news. Who can say? Some days later the son had to be carried into his father’s presence. Father, I have some bad news. I was trying to tame one of the wild horses and I fell and broke my leg. Bad news, good news. Who can say? Some days later the emperor’s troops came marching into the village to draft all the able-bodied young men to fight the emperor’s foreign wars. Since the farmer’s son was laid up with a broken leg they let him be and marched on. Good news, bad news. Who can say?
“All things work for good for those who love God.” Did you notice the word “all” is echoed in the parables Jesus tells about the treasure buried in a field and the merchant searching for fine pearls. Both parables conclude similarly: “the person sells all that he has a buys that field;” “the merchant sells all that he has and buys the pearl of great price.” We have a hard time with that “all.” When the negative things in life pile up we don’t see them working for good perhaps because we haven’t thrown our all in the lot of God. We hedge our bet: love of God and a happy family; love of God and good health; love of God and financial security. We tend to present a set a pre-conditions, expectations of what we should get as people who love God. The Bible says we’ve got to trust God completely to make everything work for good. So the scriptural lesson is bet the rent money on God. What St. Paul is really saying: go big or go home for the love of God.