Sermon for Lent I
Scriptures: Genesis 9:8-17 • Psalm 25:1-10 • 1 Peter 3:18-22 • Mark 1:9-15
Sermon for Lent I
Scriptures: Genesis 9:8-17 • Psalm 25:1-10 • 1 Peter 3:18-22 • Mark 1:9-15
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 28, 2018
Scriptures: Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28
Image Info: Carving of Three Faces with four eyes, Llandaff Cathedral
Below is the sermon audio from both the 8 AM and the 10:30 AM service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 29, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service.
The sermon from the 10:30 service begins at 5:05, following the sequence and gospel.
The scriptures for Proper 25A are: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1 • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 • Matthew 22:34-46
Image Info: Title: Love Lets Go of Power
Notes: Tile from Peace Wall in Hamilton, New Zealand
Date: late 20th century
Country: New Zealand
Image info: Title: Kiss of Peace
Notes: Refers to Psalm 85:10 — “85:10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
Artist: Cameron, Julia Margaret, 1815-1879
This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 1, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service. To start at the gospel reading, go to 2:05. To go directly to the sermon, go to 4:30.
The scriptures for Proper 21A are: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-9; Philippians 2:1-13 ; Matthew 21:23-32
Jonah as Endymion
This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, September 24, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service.
The scriptures for Proper 20A are: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Image information: William Blake–To Annihilate the Selfhood of Deceit and False Forgiveness.
This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, September 17, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service. The audio includes the sequence hymn and the Gospel reading. To start with the sermon itself, begin at 5:19.
The scriptures for Proper 19A are: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
The seventeenth century Anglican Priest and historian Thomas Fuller once wrote, “It is the worst clandestine marriage when God is not invited to it. Wherefore, beforehand beg his gracious assistance“ (Fuller, The Holy State, 172 ). While Fuller called those marriages that are not undertaken before God to be the worst form of clandestine marriage, his comment may strike many modern readers as odd, given that we are so far removed from the question of clandestine marriages. But it was not always so.
Indeed, at various points in the medieval period, the Church and society struggled with the question of what constituted marriage. The two main schools of thought were consent—favored by many scholastic theologians—and consummation, favored by many laity. Because the Church emphasized consent, and—at least in the West—upheld the fact that the couple are themselves the ministers of the marriage, there arose a problem with what were called “clandestine” or secret marriages. Marriages that were not witnessed by anyone (other than a priest). Indeed, such marriages were so problematic, and continued to be performed in England up through the 1700s that they became known as “Fleet Marriages” because they were so often performed by unscrupulous priests serving time at Fleet Prison, who would perform a wedding for the right price.
While there were times when clandestine marriages were pursued for reasons that a conscientious observer might have found ethical, they were a source of abuse wherein people could be married secretly, have sex, and then one party—the man, let’s be honest—could then deny the marriage had ever taken place after having taken advantage of a woman, often of a lower social or economic class.
While the reading of the banns of marriage—not often done in the United States at all, but still, I understand, done occasionally in England—may seem no more than a quaint custom, and the charge in our wedding rite that “if any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace” (BCP 424) may be more confusing than not (mostly because clergy don’t explain it), they stem from the same concern that gives us our double consent formula: a desire to avoid abuse. In the case of the banns, the concern was to avoid bigamy. In the case of the double consent, it was to avoid forced marriages. In both cases, the desire was to avoid the strong imposing their will on those with less power or a lower social standing.
What does any of this have to do with us today, in our culture of falling marriage rates, widespread cohabitation, and changing sexual mores? I submit it may be of interest because we in the Episcopal Church may have an opportunity to at General Convention next year to approve a supplemental liturgy that enshrines something very much like Clandestine Marriage.
The Task Force for the Study of Marriage recently offered its report from its last meeting. In it, they discuss all hot button issues related to a gender neutral marriage rite, whether or not to amend the Book of Common Prayer’s wedding service prior to a full revision of the Prayer Book etc. In addition, however, they indicate they will be putting forward a resolution to authorize two supplemental liturgical blessing rites. One, The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, is intended for use in dioceses and parishes of The Episcopal Church that exist in places where the legal jurisdiction does not have legal same-sex marriage. But it is the second of these proposed supplemental rites to which i want to turn our attention, “The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship.” It is this rite that I believe entails a revival of Clandestine Marriage, and with it, possible abuses.
The Task force states in their report that The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship is proposed for use under two circumstances:
They state that the use of both supplemental rites will contain conditions for use that reflect the conditions for use of the marriage rites, by which I assume they mean that one party must be a baptized Christian. I don’t think they could mean that the couple would need to sign the Declaration of Intention, since the very design the second supplemental rite would negate what is intended by the declaration.
I will leave it to others to hash out those liturgies referred to in the report of the task force that have already received, and will doubtless continue to receive much attention. My purpose here is to sound what I believe to be a necessary alarm bell about this supplemental liturgy. I do so for a few reasons:
First, it would enshrine in our liturgy the blessing of a union that is not marriage, but which nevertheless intends what marriage intends, save for the condition that it is not marriage. If our debate about same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church over the past few decades has taught us anything, it’s that the terms of the debate hinge on what marriage is, and whether it can and should rightly be expanded to include same-sex couples.1 Those who have argued for some other union for same-sex couples have always been a minority, and in the terms of the unfolding life of the Episcopal Church, I think even those who hold that position would have to admit that the debate has passed them by. In other words, if something looks like marriage, and functions like marriage, we are best off conceiving of it and discerning it in terms of whether or not it does in fact constitute marriage.
It is more than a little strange that at a time when the bulk of the Episcopal Church has accepted same-sex marriage, we would consider authorizing a rite that, even though it claims to be blessing a union that is “unconditional and lifelong” is precisely predicated on the condition that the couple avoid the obligations and duties of marriage, and likewise are deprived of the legal protections due them within their relationship. The very justification from the task force is self-refuting: claiming something as unconditional while starting the precise conditions. The authorization of such a rite is a revival of clandestine marriage precisely because it is a revival of a relationship that looks like marriage that is invisible to the community, embodied by the state, when the state is the only entity that can provide appropriate protection to the parties of the relationship.
It’s difficult to know precisely what sort of situation is envisioned by the Task Force when they write that about avoiding the “merging of property, finances, or other civil legal encumbrances, in order to protect against personal and familial hardship.” I recall a number of years ago that there were some bishops who sought permission to have their clergy officiate at marriages using the BCP rite, but without a civil marriage license. The stated reason then was so that couples would not be required to give up their Social Security upon marrying.
Honestly, discussing whether or not Social Security requirements might not actually be as burdensome as some think, or pointing out that adults can perfectly well protect their assets legally when they decide to wed without avoiding marriage, might be begging the question. Assumed in a discussion that does that direction is this: It must be ok for the church to salve peoples consciences as they seek to circumvent laws intended to apply to people living in particular relationships. In other words, I would question whether the prior assumptions that make such a rite conceivable are even ethical for Christians.
That question of ethics is one of communal or social ethics. On the side of personal ethics and morality: should the church bless something that is not marriage, but which all parties conceive on the personal level to be like marriage, avoiding only the social cost, which could therefore entail a sexual relationship outside the bounds of marriage.
Let’s be real: It’s not only the elderly who are discriminated against by our governmental policies when it comes to marriage. Look around your own family or community and I bet you can find examples of couples who have postponed marriage so that their children wouldn’t lose medicaid (or whatever local equivalent) coverage. I suppose it makes sense that we would be thinking about the elderly, given the makeup of The Episcopal Church, but this solution is not a solution at all. To use the meme inspired parlance of our day, this is weak sauce.
If you sense some sarcasm, it’s because this proposal does nothing to deal with the inequities of the system, and instead doing what comes easy to Episcopalians and crafting a liturgy to make us feel good in the midst of injustice. At least, we must think it’s an injustice, or else it really is completely unethical to offer such a liturgy.
Which brings me to the second scenario envisioned: that of undocumented immigrants who are uncomfortable—for obvious reasons—with applying for marriage licenses. These two scenarios really are an odd pairing. In the first, pains are taken to say that the couple does not want marriage. In the second scenario, I imagine the couples would say unequivocally that they do. Unless one assumes, as I do, that they actually do want marriage in both cases, but are avoiding real or perceived penalties.
My pastoral response to the two situation would be quite different. In the one, I’d say something like “it’s a hard decision whether to marry, and whether to bear the cost of that. I’d be happy to talk with you through the process, and recommend attorneys who could help you arrange things so that your families are reassured.” But I would not offer them “marriage-lite.” Nor would I want to officiate at a service for them without a marriage license.
In the later case, I would like to see some provisional authority granted to priests to officiate at weddings—again, not marriage-lite—for couples where one party is at risk of deportation. But I think we really should only see this as provisional and it should chafe to the point that we actively work to see that undocumented immigrants can legally marry. Why would I say this?
I understand that it has become popular in some circles to argue that marriage in the church and marriage in the eyes of the state should be divorced from one another. Often this is accompanied with a criticism of the clergy “acting as agents of the state.” But I think this understanding has things exactly backwards.
The state doesn’t recognize a marriage I officiate because I’m an agent of the state (arguably, they recognize it because a license fee was paid, but let’s put that to the side for the moment). They recognize it because the State recognizes that marriage is an institution prior to and independent of the state, but which must nevertheless be managed by the state because the law is nothing if not the way our community has provided for us to work together.
Because marriage is therefore prior to the state (as is the family unit), the state recognizes that the traditional marriages as envisioned and contracted in numerous religious communities, regardless of their particularity, fits the minimum definition of what the state considers marriage to be, and it therefore recognizes them. It’s not that priests and rabbis or imams or brahmans thereby become agents of the state, it’s that the state recognizes these communities as constituent bodies within a broader society, and marriage as a constitutive element of society as a whole. This is why I am thankful that I have never said, and will never say “by the power invested in me by the state of _____, I now pronounce you man and wife.” I will instead say, with the Book of Common Prayer “No that N. and N. have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder” (BCP 428).
All of that said, the role of the state is important and significant: the state ensures the rights of all parties in the marriage, both each member of the couple, and any children they have. Blessing marriages without civil marriage licenses, and thereby creating legally invisible unions, means that the state doesn’t easily know how to adjudicate between the couple when their union dissolves, when one party abandons the other, etc. This is especially true when there is common property. Marriage—civil, legal marriage—is a protection against the abuse of the less powerful by the more powerful. In heterosexual marriage, the less powerful are often women and children. Unless we are going to revive ecclesiastical courts, I don’t see how we can responsibly bless unions without the legal element.
If we had common law marriage in the United States, perhaps it could work.2 If we were a sectarian tradition that claimed unfettered loyalty from our membership, maybe it wold have a shot (but who among us would really want that?). But neither of those is a reality. The states are all too diverse in their marriage laws and less than a handful have anything like Common Law marriage. And if we have some people entering these relationships with the express desire not to be married, then even the laws in places like North Carolina that provide for marriage by reputation wouldn’t be a protection.
We are a church that has worked in and through culture. We cannot so easily shirk our responsibilities now. Rather than crafting liturgies for these situations, perhaps we should be crafting legislation that calls out the injustice to which we really ought to respond, and put the Episcopal Public Policy office to work lobbying for specific legislation.
Maybe, even more importantly, we should teach about these issues in our parishes, and get Episcopalians and other Christians involved in challenging systemic injustices that harm people in our society, that militate against the formation of stable families, and that prevent people from getting the support they need, whatever their age, stage of life, economic or immigration status.
I think that’s a much better idea than reviving legally clandestine unions. If we really believe these to be issues of injustice, we are obligated to challenge the status quo. If it’s just a matter of being inconvenienced, then perhaps what we really want is a marriage of convenience, even if we call it a “Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship.”
There has been a lot of talk about the rights and wrongs of various Civil War monuments in recent weeks. Most of the ones garnering attention were erected or have become artifacts and idols of what historians sometimes refer to as “The Religion of the Lost Cause.” The thing about this religion is that it has as one of its primary functions the sanitizing of the brutality inherent in the slave system of the South, the centrality that slavery had as an impetus for war, and even–oddly since it glorifies the suffering of the South on the one hand–the sanitization of the suffering endured during and after the war. Even as it lifts up the idea of the suffering south, the Lost Cause mythos has a tendency to knock off the rough edges, and make everything seem soft around the edges like the scenery of Gone with the Wind.
This is a reflection on a different sort of monument, the sort that highlight the rough edges and brutality of that suffering.
In 1996, when we buried my maternal grandma in the cemetery at North Fork Baptist Church in Big Pine, Madison County NC, I went looking through the grave stones. One stood out to me as having a deeper story:
How, I wondered, had Emeline been married to two different men? I thought it was likely that she had been widowed, but it still seemed noteworthy that she had married two men with the same family name. Later, as I was doing genealogy research, I learned a bit more of the history.
Christopher S. and Ephraim H. Buckner were both sons of Absalom Buckner, who was something of a patriarch of the Buckner family in the mountains. Born in 1800, it seems that he was the first Buckner to make his home and raise his family in this part of the mountains. He and his wife Elizabeth had eight children:
Joseph Hardy (1834-1864)
Christopher S. (1841-1864)
Ephraim H. (1846-unknown)
You might notice a common death year among several of the sons: 1864. Absalom–even though he was in his 60s by the time the war came–along with Joseph Hardy, Christopher S, and Noah enlisted in the Confederate Army. Joseph Hardy and Noah were captured at the Cumberland Gap and both died at Camp Douglas in Chicago Il. Their names are memorialized in another monument, marking a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Wood Cemetery where the remains of the more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Douglas–sometimes called the “North’s Andersonville,”–were removed to after the war.
Though I’ve not yet been able to visit Oak Wood Cemetery, I’m thankful for the ability to see the plaques up close. Because of that, as well as register of deaths from Camp Douglas available at Archive.org, I was able to confirm that Joseph Hardy Buckner and Noah Buckner rest here:
But this doesn’t explain what happened to Christopher. Unfortunately, this may not be an answerable question. His name isn’t on the death records at Camp Douglas, and there’s no death record anywhere that I have yet found. An old family bible simply has a note next to his name: “Never came home from war.” A few years after the war Emeline married his younger brother Ephraim.
I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like for those words to be someone’s epitaph: never came home from war. What did his wife, mother, brother, and father think? I once read an article about another family that had lost a son in the war–the mother set a place at the table for him every night until she died.
Since Joseph Hardy and Noah didn’t have similar notations, I assume the place of their deaths were known, if not their final resting place (I’m not sure if anyone would’ve had the responsibility of letting the family know, especially once the bodies were moved after the war).
These monuments show a deeper truth of the war: the suffering and loss it brought. The most recent figures, released in 2012, revise the number of combined war dead upward to approximately 750,000, or the equivalent of about 7 million (a little over 2% of the population) today. But war dead tell only a partial story. The National Park service estimates that the Union sustained a total of 642,427 casualties have been divided accordingly:
The Confederacy is estimated to have sustained 483,026 total casualties, including:
That’s a whopping 1,125,453 total combined casualties of the war–when the total population is only estimated to have been about 25 Million–at about 4.5%.
All of this demonstrates the depth of the effect the war had to have had on local communities. one story that demonstrates this has stuck in my mind for years.
I came across one story during my college career that highlights the brutality and deep woundedness of many communities following the war. It struck me then because it concerns the very county my ancestors above were from, Madison County NC. Madison county went by the nickname “bloody Madison” for a while after the war, a name it unfortunately earned. In his book “Victims: A True Story of the Civil War” Phillip Shaw Paludan retells this story (I first read it in Welman’s The Kingdom of Madison, but the testimony of the mother concerned was enough to bring it up in this newer book in a Google book search):
This personal sense of righteousness spanned the Civil War era and frequently overwhelmed whatever regular due process might have required. During the war a group of soldiers moved into Shelton Laurel and surrounded Nance “Granny” Franklin’s home. The widowed mother of four sons, she had to watch as the troops opened fire and killed three of her boys. She tried to stop the killings but only succeeded in just missing death herself when a bullet clipped off a lock of her hair. The soldiers left, but revenge lurked awaiting its chance.
After the war it came. A few miles away from Shelton Laurel, men were trying to rebuild Mars Hill College, and masons and carpenters from the region came to help. One day one of the bricklayers got to telling war stories to some students. He told of being in on the Franklin killings and recalled something sort of amusing: “Usually I can knock a squirrel out of a tree at seventy-five yards, but I took aim at that woman, almost close enough to touch her, and all I did was shoot off a piece of her hair.”
One of the students took this story with him when he went back home that weekend to Shelton Laurel. He told it to James Norton, who was Nance Franklin’s brother, and Norton offered the student a five-dollar gold piece if he would point out the bricklayer. The student identified the unsuspecting veteran, who retold his story. When he finished, Norton announced, “That was my sister you shot the hair off of, and one of her boys you murdered was named James after me.” He pulled a revolver from under his coat, shot the bricklayer in the stomach, and ran away. He was soon arrested, and trial was held in the neighboring county.
Nance Franklin rode through the mountains to testify on behalf of her brother. her descendants remember the testimony vividly, and the jury and spectators at the time were moved, too. Especially memorable was her answer when the judge asked, “Madam, you tell us that you sent your young sons out to fight and kill and be killed. Did you bring them up for that sort of thing?”
“I brought them up as Christians,” she answered. “I told them always be good boys, tell the truth, and be honest. But I told them something else. If you’ve got to die, die like a damned dog with your teeth in a throat.” The jury decided that the victim deserved killing. James Norton went free (Paludan, 21-22).
The Home Guard had killed her sons, her brother killed a veteran of the Home Guard after the war. Blood paid for blood. And so it went after the war to such an extent that it shaped the politics of the county for decades after. My mother can remember when people carried guns with them to vote because tensions were so thick. The short hand I was once told is that, generally, the old Republican families in the mountains had been Unionist, while the old Democratic families had been Confederates. And yet, it can’t be that simple. My mother’s family were Republicans from a long way back, but there were four men in one family who fought for the South and three didn’t make it back home.
Two of those men are my direct ancestors. My great grandfather Elbert was the grandson of Christopher S. Buckner, who never came home from the war, and his wife Julina, was the granddaughter of Joseph Hardy Buckner, who died at Camp Douglas.
At any rate, when I think about monuments that speak some truth about the Civil War, I think about that monument at Camp Douglas, with those names inscribed on it, and that grave stone, with the names of two husbands: one who never came home, and one who picked up and raised his brother’s children as well as his own.
To those monuments, we would be well served to add monuments to the experience of the Black Americans who endured slavery and nonetheless made this nation their home–out of necessity yes, and with great burdens–but to the benefit and enrichment of us all. As I read recently, we Southerners are a big mixed up family, with white and black cousins and neighbors afraid to see themselves in each other because of a shared history that too often has divided and continues to divide us. It’s time to put up some new monuments that help to highlight those truths, and that help to bring us together rather than glorifying the things that separate us. As Michael Twitty writes:
“I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family but we are a family. We are unwilling inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption” (The Cooking Gene, xvii).
This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, September 3, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service. My notes are below as well. The audio includes the sequence hymn and the Gospel reading. To start with the sermon itself, begin at 3:39.
The scriptures of the day are: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Sometimes it would be helpful if Jesus would give more detailed instructions. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It’s a rather difficult concept for us, and we have the benefit of hearing the instruction on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s an important command, we know that much.
We even have a hymn that reinforces it: “Take up your cross the saviour said, if you would my disciple be; take up your cross with willing heart, and humbly follow after me.”
We know it’s an important command. We also know something of what we must do to keep it. We can’t be crushed by the weight of the cross, we have to bear up under it. We also have to be willing to get down off of it. We can’t spend our time nailed to it, frozen.
“Get down off your cross” was just the advice hospital chaplain Debra Jarvis gave to a patient she knew. Jarvis believes that the role of a hospital chaplain is to “comfort, clarify, and confront.” I think that’s part of every pastor’s job description, but the timing is more acute for a chaplain. It’s fair to say telling someone to get down off their cross falls into that “confront” category.
The background is important. As I heard Jarvis describe this a few days ago on one of the interview programs on NPR, she recounted an occasion when she encountered a patient she hadn’t seen for a year or so, a woman who had undergone cancer treatment. She was back for her annual check up and had just learned that her tests came back showing “no evidence of disease.” This was happy news, and the woman’s adult daughters where there with her, so I’m sure they were excited and relieved to hear the news. But once the woman started talking to chaplain Jarvis, she started recounting her cancer experience in great detail, even though Chaplain Jarvis had seen her frequently during that six month period. Once the woman started going, her children looked at each other and excused themselves to go get coffee. That’s when Jarvis told her: get down off your cross.
Those could be some pretty harsh words, and it helped that Jarvis herself had an experience with cancer. What she noticed in this woman, was the same thing that makes her nervous about using the term “survivor” to identify people who have had cancer and have gone into remission. She sees it as, in some cases at least, subsuming a person’s identity in the experience of the disease. In this case, she recognized that the woman was stuck. She was retelling everything that had happened to her in the present tense as thought it was happening to her right then. She was alienating her family with her inability to move ahead. Chaplain Jarvis recognized she needed to get down before she could move on.
The woman in Jarvis’ story had become defined by her disease, even as it was in remission. She had become trapped, nailed, to her cross. But we know from Jesus that our crosses aren’t meant to define us. New life is. Just as Jesus isn’t defined by or in thrall too the cross–he’d still be dead if that were the case–instead, we know Christ is Lord because of the power of the resurrection.
We now have an idea of what one type of cross might be: serious and possibly terminal illness. There are many others. As one commentator pointed out–you don’t have to go looking for crosses to bear. In the course of life, plenty will find us.
And often they’re not the things people jokingly–or perhaps not so jokingly–refer to as their crosses to bear. No, our crosses are those experiences and situations or maybe even relationships that threaten to make us collapse under their weight, or leave us feeling like we’re drowning, to leave us stuck as surely as if we were nailed to them.
The thing is, I think we often hear Jesus’ words as a challenge, as assigning burdens to us. But crosses always come. they always threaten to crush us, leave us stuck being defined by them. Sometimes we even climb up on them, martyred to whatever tribulation swamped us.
But Jesus’ words, as always, are words of healing, of exhortation. They come after his rebuke of Peter. Can we discern a cross that Peter must bear? I submit to you it is his inability to spare his beloved friend and Lord the pain of the literal cross. One of Peter’s burdens will be his powerlessness to prevent Christ’s execution, and his inability to remain faithful during the trial. Peter had a choice: be defined by his powerlessness. Be swamped by despair, or bear up under the weight, and put one foot in front of the other to follow Jesus, and be his disciples, and a martyr to the hope of the gospel, to life rather than to the crosses he collected, to despair and hopelessness.
We know what it looks like to not bear up under the weight. We have the counter example of Judas, who became a martyr to the despair of a cross built by his betrayal.
Christ too had his crosses to bear before going to the Cross. Consider his anger at the money changers, or at the religious leaders who separated others from God. Consider his agony in the garden, where we see his apprehension and fear of the cup from which he must drink. Jesus had to bear these crosses and more–his mother’s grief and anguish–to the cross. But in so doing, he is defined not by death, but by resurrection.
[wounded healer, vs. wounded wounder]
What are those things that threaten to drag us down. The things that paralyze us? The things that would define us, but circumscribe us so that we don’t flourish and become who God desires us to be? I’m sure we all have something that has left us feeling powerless. Something that we grieve over, and maybe obsess over. We have to stand under the weight of them. In some cases we need to climb down off of them, because they’re preventing us from being who we’re meant to be, and we can’t move forward, we can’t follow Jesus unless we climb down or stand up, and bear our crosses, not as burdens that drag us down, but as a testimony that we have found the power to move forward, because of the one whom we follow. We can bear our crosses, because he bore his. We are not defined by ours, because we are defined by what he did on his, and by his rising to new life.
–We need to carry our crosses, so that we don’t end up crushed, or nailed to them.
–When we carry our cross, and follow Jesus, we’re not alone. That’s good news.
July 9, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Audio: The audio is from the 10:30 service. Since I only use notes, the sermon as preached varies somewhat between services, and from the text.
“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matt. 11:25).
This saying of Jesus’ has been seen as enigmatic by some interpreters because of the strand of thought relating to knowledge being purposefully hidden by God, or people’s eyes being made unable to see. As is often the case, Jesus is turning several common expectations on their heads with his teaching. And turning them on their heads not only for ancient people, but for us as well.
First consider the positive elements of the statement: God is revealing something to infants. Not literally infants–or at least not solely to literal infants–but those who share something in common with infants. Later in this gospel after all, Jesus will tell Peter that the truth which he confesses in calling Jesus the Son of God is the fruit of divine revelation.
But what characteristic of infants could Jesus be commending? There are a lot of things we could say about human infants, but if we look at human babies and reflect on what makes human babies distinct from other mammals, I think we can come close to what it is that Jesus is commending to us as his disciples.
The basic truth of our infant existence is that we are utterly dependent upon others. Defenseless little people whose heads are much too large, limbs are much to weak, and whose balance is initially nonexistent. Other mammals walk within hours or days, the length of time it takes us to walk, let alone become self-sufficient is measured in months and years.
But if we can stretch the idea of knowledge to include not only consciously acquired information, but “hard-wiring,” then we can see that infants are acutely and instinctually aware of their vulnerability and dependence. All the default settings of little humans are wired toward connecting with momma, and daddy, and the other family members they’ve heard in utero. The sense of smell is heightened and the smell of mom and the direction of milk is impressed upon those little psyches, as is the instinct to suck, or to cry when hungry, or wet, or confused.
Basically, we come into the world instinctively knowing nothing so firmly as our need for someone else.
I believe it’s precisely this sense of need that Jesus finds to be missing from the wise and intelligent of that age–and often our own.
If we consider who was considered “wise” or “intelligent” in the ancient world and in the context of first century Judaism, it was precisely those people who had committed themselves to study of the scriptures, or who had been educated. We can relate to this, I believe, since we still, despite some differences, consider education to be a marker for both wisdom and intelligence, if not things that completely overlap.
For Jesus to thank the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise and intelligent, he’s offering thanks that those who have been educated are having a harder time seeing things for what they are than those who have not been. Even though he says “thank you” I half wonder if thanks is the proper term for the sentiment Jesus is expressing in the first part of this statement. I don’t think Jesus particularly wants the wise and intelligent to continue–ironically–in their ignorance. But he does want them–he wants us–to come to grips with the limits of our own ability.
It is precisely those who are considered wise and intelligent who are acting, in a negative sense, like children: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds'” (Matt. 11:16-19).
In other words the inability of the learned to discern the work of God that is before their eyes–and their propensity to decry it–is a testament against the viability of their wisdom. In effect, their wisdom, being false and deceptive, has become foolishness, while those who are not expected to be wise, but who recognize their dependence, have had the truth revealed to them.
This demonstrates that when Jesus praises the “hiddenness” of the truth, he’s overturning other common expectation. Many apocalyptic teachers–those who spoke about the last things that were to occur–taught that knowledge of these last things was hidden from everyone who lacked specialized knowledge or revelation. In contrast, Jesus tells them that they will find their rest–an eschatological term–in him. In other words, God has “hidden” the truth in plain sight, and is available to everyone. Those who would see it only have to cast off the assumptions that prevent them from seeing it. As one commentator put it:
“children have not yet received any schooling; they still have to be initiated into the world of adults. The smallest of them are called by Jesus, who is Wisdom incarnate, to come to him … and learn from him. They are particularly suited for his interpretation of the Torah, while the wise and the intelligent are hampered by the knowledge that they already have” (Weren, Studies in Matthew’s Gospel, 45).
“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. In other words, wisdom is proven by it’s ramifications. True wisdom is to recognize the truth of Jesus’ message and to see him for who he is.
This is good news for us. Far from being a strange and obscure command, to become like little children and enter the kingdom of heaven requires very little of us. It’s simple. As Jesus tells Martha when she complains about Mary: only one thing is needful. That one thing is the recognition that we need Jesus. This is the “better part.”
Jesus’ prayer continues as he says “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). The good news is that Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father, to reveal the heart and reality of God to us all. No one is left out. As one of the collects for mission in Morning Prayer puts it, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” (BCP 101).
To be embraced by Christ, to lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross is to recognize and to receive the revelation of Christ’s words, “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28, KJV, part of the “Comfortable Words” in Rite I, BCP 332).
What we find, in other words, is the good news that taking up the yoke of Christ entails a lessening of our burdens rather than an increase of them:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30).
Thank God for the grace of God to recognize that we’re never really any less dependent than we are the day we enter the world. We need one another, and more so, we need God. And thank God that in Jesus, we find what we need to carry on.