Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Gracious Father, send now the Holy Spirit to bring us your comfort through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In the June issue of Reader’s Digest, Cristina Beitz writes, “After my husband and I were married, my in-laws offered to pay for our honeymoon. Visions of Hawaii or Mexico came to mind—not quite. They told us we were heading to Disney World. Not only that, but since they’d always wanted to go, they were coming along. Turns out, my mother-in-law’s two best friends also wanted to go to Disney World, as did their three kids, not to mention my sister-in-law and her husband. I can’t say a lot of honeymooning went on.”
In the same issue and unnamed source wrote, “After a long drive to Canada, border patrol agents asked my father the name of us five kids in the back. Dad was so tired that he drew a blank. The brief lapse resulted in Dad being hauled in for questioning. After convincing them that he hadn’t kidnapped us, he was released –15 hours later.”
Then there is this story from Bishop Benhase’s weekly e-letter. “In 2006-2007, comedian Louis C.K.had a short-lived, 13-episode show called Lucky Louie. The concept of the show was how he and his wife, Kim navigated (or didn’t) their working-class jobs, their marriage, and parenting their young daughter. In an episode called Flowers for Kim, Louie andKim arrange for their daughter to stay with friends for the weekend so they can rekindle their lost romance.
With their daughter away, Louie comes home and bursts into the kitchen ready for romance. He tells Kim he has a present for her. She beams and then he unveils a bunch of red roses. Her face falls and you can almost see her heart drop. She calmly reminds him that she’s never liked red roses, as she’s told him so many times before. And yet, he persists in getting her red roses. His mood now changes and he says: ‘Well, you can still thank me for giving you the roses. Why won’t you even thank me?’ Her reply is, ‘Why should I thank you for giving me a gift you know I don’t like?’ He feels he should be rewarded for having been gracious in giving her a gift. She contends he doesn’t listen to her or care about her feelings, what she likes and doesn’t like. Surely, all married persons can relate to this scene, painfully so,” observes Bp. Benhase.
Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, life is harder than we might have thought or anticipated. Occasions or events in life can be darn hard, as exemplified by the stories I just shared. We look forward to a wonderful European trip and get stuck in the airport for hours and hours. We take our car in for a little maintenance work and it seems a second mortgage might be in order. We go to the dentist with a little pain and horror of horrors. Not only will it cost in the thousands but the procedure, well, it ain’t going to be pretty. It is going to really hurt. Must life be so hard?
As we listened to today’s gospel from St. Matthew, did we find ourselves recoiling in disbelief? For the most part, Jesus’ words to us are rather dark, are they not? What did He say? “How much more will they malign those of his household! Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Did we want to cover our ears? Isn’t Christianity, isn’t following Jesus supposed to make our lives better and more pleasant? Life is hard enough without taking on something that seemingly will make it harder. What kind of faith is this that Jesus is talking about?
Aside from sometimes being difficult to understand, one of the challenges of the Christian faith is that it is not always roses, your favorite piece of pie, or a moonlit night in Hawaii. Where is the so-called Good News, as it has been called? The fact that the Christian faith does not always sound like good news is made even more difficult to swallow because of the culture in which we live. We have come to expect immediate relief or satisfaction. See this doctor, take this pill, go on vacation, and all our troubles will fade away.
Peter Hitchens in an article entitled, The Fantasy of Addiction, (as posted by Kendall Harmon) makes this incisive and disturbing observation about our need for immediate relief, call it gratification. “It was the triumph of the Christian religion that for many centuries it managed to become the unreasoning assumption of almost all, built into every spoken and written word, every song, and every building. It was the disaster of the Christian religion that it assumed this triumph would last forever and outlast everything, and so it was ill equipped to resist the challenge of a rival when it came, in this, the century of the self.
The Christian religion had no idea that a new power, which I call selfism, would arise. And, having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside. In free competition, how can a faith based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot? That is what the “addiction” argument is most fundamentally about, and why it is especially distressing to hear Christian voices accepting and promoting it, as if it were merciful to call a man a slave, and treat him as if he had no power to resist.”
Over the years individuals have tried to sand down the profound and sometimes edgy dimensions of the Christian faith. There is the prosperity gospel, for example. This is the belief “among some Christians that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. This doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy. Its proponents include Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin. The prosperity gospel has been criticized by leaders from various Christian denominations, who maintain that it is irresponsible, promotes idolatry, and is contrary to scripture”(Wikipedia).
Hear this. The Christian faith has never been a faith to avoid what we like to call reality. It is reality and in that respect it is not escapist. Let me say that again, the Christian faith is reality.
In college when I was a devotee, so to speak, of the far eastern religions one aspect about them that attracted me was that they appeared to offer the possibility of escaping reality, more specifically of escaping pain and suffering. The concept here is known as detachment. As a Buddhist, in particular, one was to strive to become detached from the world, become detached from those attachments which make one vulnerable to pain and suffering.
For example, there are our relationships with others; these are attachments. Being in relationship with others makes us vulnerable to pain and suffering, right? I recall one day, when I was living in Baltimore, feeling as if I had gotten to this Buddhist place of detachment, when suddenly I saw an old girlfriend walking down the street. The old pain and anxiety immediately returned. Detachment is as improbable as deciding we can do without air.
From a Biblical perspective we first find an example of escapism from reality in the fall of Adam and Eve. “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:4-6a). It is a short leap to conclude that sin is just that—an attempt to escape reality.
The unabridged Christian faith, however, tackles the hardness of reality head on. We have only to think of the cross. There are no shortcuts to changing the hardness of reality. Indeed, it is exactly in those hard places that we so often find Jesus.
Those of you on Facebook may have seen a recent post about me on the diocesan Facebook page by Canon Frank Logue. Here is what the post said, as recounted by Frank. “One Sunday afternoon in 1996, my heartbeat was going 160 to 180 and I didn’t know if I would die now, or now, or now. The doctors tried treatments that did not work. I went to get an ablation. Many were praying for me and I was afraid. I had read Psalm 22 and something from Jeremiah that morning. My wife Emily pointed out that the psalm for the lectionary that day was Psalm 91. We found a Gideon’s Bible and read it and I was at peace. It no longer mattered whether I lived or died. I knew God was with me. Perfect love casts out fear.”
In Psalm 91 we hear, for example, “Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, 10 no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” These are words were written by King David, who had seen more danger and trouble than most. St. John tells is in his first epistle (4:18) that: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.”
Why is it? Why is it that we often find Jesus (perhaps it is the other way around) in the hard places of living? Yes, we can say it is because He loves us (“are you not more worthy than a sparrow,” as we heard in today’s gospel), but I suggest to you it goes deeper than that. Yes, Jesus comes to us in those hard places because He loves us, but even more, indeed essentially, He has been and is in those hard places. He has overcome the hard places in living.
The author of the Book of Hebrews puts it this way: “[We] see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering” (2:9, 10). Jesus is the pioneer, our pioneer.
What does a pioneer do? You remember Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. A pioneer blazes the trail. He shows the way to go and where to go safely. How does Jesus put it? In John 14: 6 He tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). So whatever suffering or challenge we may face, we need to realize that Jesus has already been there blazing the trail for us so that we can safely reach our destination, safely reach home. If we doubt that Jesus has known suffering, re-visit Mel Gibson’s film The Passion.
It should comfort us, knowing Jesus has gone before us. I am reminded of a John Michael Talbot song.
“You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way .You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand. You shall see the face of God and live.
[Refrain] Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest.
If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown. If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed. If you stand before the pow’r of hell and death is at your side, know that I am with you through it all.”
When Jesus tells us “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” He is not being mean or exacting a harsh demand. Rather, He is telling us a fact of reality. Mom or dad or child cannot go before us into these hard places. Sure, they can hold our hand so to speak, but they cannot be in that hard place with us. When I thought I was about to die from a rapid heartbeat, yes, blessedly Emily was there with me. She told me to read Psalm 91. However, it was Jesus; it was God who took the paralyzing fear away. Depression, addiction, and chronic pain are glaring examples of where people who care for us cannot be in that hard place with us, but Jesus can.
These words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, (1917 – 1980) killed by a right wing death squad during the Salvadoran civil war, after appealing to them to stop killing their brothers and sisters, are poignant and edifying: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Jesus has cried for us. He knows our pain.
In Isaiah 40:1 we hear the Lord God speak these words through the prophet. “Comfort, comfort my people.” Yes, the words we hear from Jesus in this morning’s gospel are hard sayings. In truth, though, they are tools by which we can increasingly come to know that comfort. Underneath them is the greater reality of God’s love for us, of Him so loving us that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus, to be crucified, so that we might have eternal life. The cross is a powerful, poignant reminder that Jesus indeed has gone before us into those places of fear, loss, pain, and death. He is there to comfort us when no one or nothing else can. He tells us in the words of the King James Bible, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter (i.e., the Holy Spirit), that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16. So then, the next time we go through hardship, the next time we suffer lost or pain, remember to reach out to Jesus for His comforting presence. This is good news, real news that we can share with others, who likewise are and will be looking for comfort themselves during times of deep difficulty.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.