This is my sermon from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, July 23, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service.
The scriptures of the day are:
Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I have left the reading of the lessons in this recording because I think it is better to hear scripture at times than it is to read it. If you would rather not hear all of the readings, the Gospel procession begins at 7:50 and the sermon itself begins at 10:38.
Reading this, it would be easy to think that with quicker communication, division could’ve been avoided. But faster communication doesn’t mean better communication, as the past few decades of ecclesial conflict have shown. We find plenty of ways to divide from one another even when we can generally communicate immediately. You might even argue we find more ways to divide…
The healing of Anglican-Methodist division requires an honesty about our differences and our history.
Last month, the Episcopal and United Methodist bishops who lead the bilateral dialogue between the two churches issued a letter commending A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, a draft proposal for full communion. The proposal builds on several decades of ecumenical discussion aimed at healing a division that dates back to 1784. “The needs and concerns of the post-Revolutionary missional context,” as A Gift to the World calls it, gave rise to two solutions that, as yet, remain incompatible. Each is directly associated with a dynamic figure who definitively shaped his church’s future story: John Wesley, the prophet, a man of zeal; and Samuel Seabury, the priest, a man of patience.
For years I coasted, tightening up my accent whenever I traveled to New York or when I spoke with a colleague from Massachusetts or Maine, which I frequently had occasion to do at work. Sometimes, when I drank too many glasses of wine, my accent slipped in, my vowels becoming swollen and elongated. Years passed. When I wrote short stories, they were set in cities like New York or, worse, they were set nowhere at all, and my characters were accentless and well traveled, like a bunch of newscasters from the Midwest.
I’ve often shared with people that I think it’s imperative to prefer people over any ideology. Mark Clavier unpacks a number of the reasons why I say this in his latest for Covenant:
I think it’s the rare saint who can both feel passionately about a cause and resist treating others badly. I’ve known a few and respect them all the more for it. But ordinarily there’s something about our fallen nature that makes it hard for us to champion an idea or sentiment and still treat everyone with moderation, respect, and love. In fact, the nature of causes is such that they dispose us to downplay the failings of our allies while exaggerating those who oppose us. And if you seem to have betrayed the cause, even devoted pacifists begin to reach for long knives.
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.
Good thoughts on some of the political goings on in the UK:
BY NICK SPENCER
Some will claim that Tim Farron’s resignation yesterday shows that Christians in the Britain can no longer hold high political office. It doesn’t. What it does show, however, is something potentially more worrying: the decay of liberalism.
“I sometimes hear the view that the world’s ills are due to religions. Some people have that view. I do not agree with that view because atheist regimes have done a good job of oppressing and murdering people too. It is true that Christianity has got some dark moments. And it’s had some dark moments in Canada. Dark moments of various kinds. But I don’t think you can put that down to a religion. I think you can put that down to human beings behaving the way they unfortunately sometimes do – whatever religion or non-religion they may happen to have.”
Does the presidency of Emmanuel Macron – a centrist who wants to overcome the left-right divide – show signs of being influenced by Ricoeur?
I find it helpful, in answering this question, to think back over some of the things that have been said in Paris recently about that connection. Olivier Abel, a former director of the Fonds Ricoeur, has made some particularly interesting observations. He suggests that the first place to look for a line of influence is in Macron’s political rhetoric.
“He draws our attention to Macron’s very deliberate repetition of the phrase et en même temps (“and at the same time”) as he announces plans to do two seemingly incompatible things such as liberalising the labour market and protecting those in the most insecure positions.
“For Abel, this rhetorical scheme sits comfortably with Macron’s Ricoeur-inspired ethics of responsibility. He says that Macron continually strives to integrate, into the process of devising political initiatives, a reflection on the way a proposed initiative will impact on vulnerable people.
“Abel uses Ricoeur’s borrowed term, ‘practical wisdom’ to capture the skill involved in this type of policy formation. And he would certainly see Macron as someone with that skill. I think that Abel is right about this.
“Marrying yourself is the wrong answer to many modern problems, but the problems are real. In our time, happiness is the mark of true value in life. Everything rises and falls upon it. Happiness is identified as whatever form of personal contentment an individual can find in life. These women have rightly understood that contemporary Western culture lies about the magic of marriage. We cannot expect to find this elusive notion of happiness fulfilled in some other person doting on us. But then where do we find it? For these women, shaped by the individualism of our age, the answer has been to look inside the self. It is an understandable but tragic turn.”
I’ve been blessed with many such moments. It’s one of the benefits of spending as much time as I do in the outdoors. Light always seems to be a vital element. My memory of Tryfan is matched by a stunning sunset in the Blue Ridge Mountains that painted the air beneath a carpet of clouds a fiery gold, but also by a walk through the English countryside when a ray of light pierced dark, foreboding clouds to pick out a small village from the surrounding gloom, and a spectacular morning spent sitting outside my tent watching the sun rise above Geirangerfjord. I’ve previously written about other encounters on Cadair Idris in Wales and on the Laugavegur Trail in Wales. To taste moments of such delight is the reason why I walk.
Delight: it’s an idea that has consumed me now for more than 10 years. My first encounter with natural delight — during a walk in Ivestor Gap in the Shining Rock Wilderness — changed my life. Because of that experience, I ended up leaving my parish ministry in North Carolina to move to the United Kingdom. Since then, I’ve gone out into wildernesses and the countryside with increasing regularity, spending as much time as I responsibly can soaking in the natural world and learning how to delight. If the good Lord should choose to save me, then he will have done so through delight.