Imagine my position. I am preparing my first sermon to be preached here at Emmanuel. The first sermon my parents and sister have ever heard me preach. I turn to the lectionary in eager anticipation-what will today’s Gospel be? Some lovely parable like the Good Shepherd? A healing story? A resurrection story? I open my bible to Matthew 10:16-33 and instead of some “nice” Gospel lesson, I find this passage that talks about Beelzebul and families rising up against each other. Faaaantastic. No matter how hard I tried, this passage would just not be manipulated into being a happy one. This Gospel reading is dark and full of fearful imagery.
As you may have guessed when you heard the Gospel read, this tenth chapter of Matthew is one of those passages that was written for the early, persecuted Church. Jesus is sending his disciples forth into the world and is warning them that not everyone is going to be thrilled with the good news the disciples bring with them. While their journeys may be filled with success and joy, they will also be filled with rejection, fear, even violence. As I meditated on today’s strange lesson, it occurred to me that this complexity, this mixture of joy and fear, light and darkness is an appropriate topic for today’s Christian life.
For years I thought that to be a Christian meant I had a responsibility to be happy all the time. I also thought being a Christian meant I had to wear dresses with puffy sleeves and lace collars-but that’s a topic for another time. As I discovered, and as I’m sure you have, being a Christian did not mean an end to unhappiness and it certainly did not make me any nicer. While we seek to grow to be more like Christ, and while we find joy in God and in community, we continue to face death, pain, and our own limitations.
From the very beginning of our journeys as Christians-our baptism-dark and light imagery has been linked together. Baptism is meant to represent our death with Christ and then our new, resurrected life with him. In the early church, and in some churches today, a person being baptized would shed his clothes, be led into a deep pool or river and then his whole body would be shoved under the water, and then pulled out of the water three times. Baptism is not just about getting wet–baptism is about drowning-about experiencing a taste of Christ’s death and then experiencing the shock of the resurrection. Now, we are not going to drown sweet Spencer today, don’t worry! But as Chuck pours water over his head, Spencer will join Christ in his death and resurrection-dark and light bound together.
Scott and Casey, Spencer’s parents, know something about the ways in which the darkness of life intertwine with the light. This happy, healthy baby was born nearly two months early. Scott and Casey waited anxiously at the hospital for weeks, watching their baby boy struggle to learn to breathe, suckle and swallow on his own. Their joy was bound up with their fear.
They are not the only parents who have experienced fear in the midst of the birth of a child. Even the birth of a healthy baby can be a fear and awe inspiring moment. In honor of Father’s day, I asked some of my friends who are fathers, what went through their minds at the birth of their children.
My friend Scott, who has two children, wrote this poignant response about the birth of his younger child:
I think you know that we had Kate at home. She dropped into my hands, and the measure of fear was horror…along with an unimaginable joy. I didn’t see it coming at all. In a moment I knew that my own happiness would be forever bound up with hers. It was like her life flashed before my eyes. Who knows what contributed to making this one just such a moment. . . . I just knew in a frightening way in that moment that I would always be vulnerable because I was crazy about her. Something in this showed me how the things that are really most frightening are another side of the things most precious to us.
Scott hits the nail on the head, doesn’t he? Being a father, or mother, or child or spouse or friend immediately puts us at risk of utter vulnerability. When we love, we risk rejection, death, change. We open ourselves to feel pain. And as Christians, we are called not only to love our friends and family, but we’re called to love the world.
Today when we affirm our baptismal vows, Chuck will ask us two questions that relate to this invitation to love the world. First he will ask us: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Next he will ask: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
No pressure, right? I have a hard enough time respecting the dignity of people who insist on going 40 miles per hour on the stretch of 250 between Crozet and Charlottesville.
In all seriousness, these questions invite us to experience the pain and darkness of the world. If we are called to seek justice and peace, that means we are called to learn about those who experience war and injustice. We are called to be in communion with those who are neglected, abused, unloved. I have a double confession to make: First, I subscribe to Oprah Winfrey’s monthly O magazine. Second, though the magazine often has hair-raising stories about the way women around the world suffer, I often skip over these articles and rush to read the feelgood articles about books or makeovers. I find it too painful to enter into the stories of suffering women. I would rather keep a safe distance.
I imagine I am not alone in this aversion to the world’s pain. How many days did it take you, before you couldn’t bear to watch any more coverage of the Tsunami victims. How many of us avoid looking a homeless person in the eye? How many of us are going to rush out to buy any of the spate of books being published about the genocide in Rwanda?
Encountering these situations makes us feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable, guilty.
Thankfully, we are not called to be in communion with those in pain alone. Today, after Chuck asks us the questions about loving the world, our response will be, “I will, with God’s help.” The same God who transforms death into life, The same God who knows no darkness, will help us. Through prayer, we will remember that our responsibility is not to solve the world’s problems, simply to open ourselves to them.
When we become a little more comfortable with pain and darkness-our own and the world’s-we become more open to the awareness of the fullness of God’s love for us and for the world. God loves humanity, loves us, at our poorest, most violent, most victimized, most wretched state. This knowledge of God’s overwhelming, intense, unreasonable love for us is what can give us the courage to face darkness in the world.
For we know, because of God’s love, darkness is never the end of the story. God is in the business of spreading light into every dark corner. As we open the dark places in ourselves to God, we will be transformed. Who knows-perhaps one day soon God will even use us to bear light in someone else’s dark corner. . .