Sermon: PENTECOST 3, June 25th, 2017
In the Name...
The late Senator Sam Ervin took pride in describing himself as just a “poor country lawyer” and he is alleged to have offered the following prayer at a lawyers’ luncheon. "O Lord, look favourably upon our profession and stir up dissension among thy people."
It is a fact that Jesus said a number of things which are difficult for a lot of people to accept, but, this morning's text about division in families must be one of the most difficult. After all, in other passages, Jesus affirms family unity, while honouring parents is enshrined in the Ten Commandments. So what's with all this "I have come to set this one against that one and so forth"
Well, it helps to remember that this quote is part of a larger theme from the Gospel on what it means to follow Jesus. He has already pointed out that anyone who wants to follow him and act in his name needs to be detached from certain worldly values. For example, his followers cannot be consumed with seeking status or position at the expense of others.
And, possessions, which are so important to so many, must not be the goal of our lives. It's not wrong to have things, even very nice things, but they're not what determine a person's worth, and if getting and having is a problem or an issue, then it's better to do without.
And, that brings us to Jesus' difficult saying today. Because, just as status and position can lead us to treat others as mere stepping-stones, just as material possessions can cloud our judgement, so too can relationships be a spiritual danger.
Now, Mankind was created to be social, to live in community. In Genesis, God says it is not good for Man to be alone and the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that to live in isolation one must be either a god or a beast. We need companionship, we need to belong.
Someone once commented that the great success of the TV series 'Cheers' was because it addressed this need – “The place where everybody knows your name.” Indeed, one of the harshest punishments any society can impose is exile or solitary confinement. Community, family, is a good thing.
But, like any good thing, it can be abused and that's what Jesus warns against. After all, he saw it abused at the very beginning of the beginning. Remember the story of the Garden of Eden? The details are really quite fascinating. God creates Adam and tells him not to eat from a couple of trees. When Eve comes along, Adam tells her what not to eat. But, Satan approaches Eve and creates doubts. It's really quite a long conversation they have and, eventually, Eve eats. So far, nothing new. But, it's the next part that's significant. It says that Eve then gave the fruit to Adam and he ate. Just like that. There's no argument, no discussion, no warning from Adam. Have you ever wondered about that? The speed, the lack of commentary. It's a very important detail.
Adam eats because he loves Eve. I'll say that again. Adam eats because he loves Eve and he's afraid of losing her and being left alone. He knows what God has said, but, he lets his fears get the better of him, and, so, instead of trusting in God's love, he commits a wrong act, a sin, the Original Sin, in fact.
And, it is to this that Jesus refers.
Don't we know people who are, or have been, in bad relationships? Who endure physical or emotional abuse, who are trapped by a poisonous mixture of love and fear? Who suffer because they can't imagine coping with the final breakdown of the relationship?
A few years back, a senior FBI official named Robert Hanssen was convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. His wife knew what he was doing. She didn't like it, she knew it was wrong, but, she kept quiet because she convinced herself that he might eventually stop. Maybe we know about addicts who persuade their families to accept their behaviour and even join in. "Well, if you really love me..." - fill in the blank.
And, it happens with God. In NY, we had a single woman in our parish who had been a frequent attender for years, but, over a period of time, she began to slowly disappear. Instead of weekly, we began to see her twice a month, then once a month, then hardly at all. You see, she found a boyfriend, who was a really nice guy, but, he was non-religious. And, so, she dropped out of church. She didn't want to risk losing him by appearing too religious.
It happens all the time. In order to keep in with a person, or be accepted in a certain group, we'll do things and say things which we know are wrong or we won't do or say the things which we know are right. It depends on the group. When I worked in real estate management, we used to boast about the number of evictions we did. Hey, I did one two days before Christmas. Can anyone top that? Bah, humbug.
A wise priest once asked, "Why is it that people try to appear worse than they really are and aren't happy with appearing as good as they really are?" "Why is it that people try to appear worse than they really are and aren't happy with appearing as good as they really are?"
Peer pressure. And never worse than when it's in the family context. It takes a certain strength of character to stand up to that. It takes a confidence about the future, a reliance on God, and a lack of fear in what may or may not happen if we refuse to give in. No wonder Jesus compares the pain to a crucifixion.
Actually, I once ran across a definition of “fear” - F.E.A.R. - False Expectations Appearing Real. False Expectations Appearing Real. Small wonder that the phrase “fear not” appears so often in the Bible. It's a word of assurance we need to hear from the highest authority.
Jesus knows that love is a good thing, but, he wants us to be warned that misguided love of other humans can be as damaging to our spiritual well-being as misguided love of things or of position. In all those cases we become blind to what really matters and especially to the relationship which is most important, the relationship with God as our Father and Jesus as our brother, and with each other as members of the Body of Christ.
May we have then, and follow, the perfect love which casts out fear and find our life in Christ.
In the Name...