Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 6, 2014
In the Name of God: cosmic creator, ascended Christ, and enabling Spirit. Amen.
The few verses from Matthew that comprise our Gospel lesson today follow the story of John the Baptist sending his followers to Jesus to ask if he is indeed the One – the promised Messiah, the Christ. You may recall that Jesus did not go into an extensive defense of his identity (frankly, it’s likely that he was still sorting it all out himself) nor did he launch into a diatribe about how John really should know better than to ask such a question. Jesus simply responded to their inquiry by telling them to report what they had experienced of him – to tell John what they had seen and what they had heard.
The blind now see, the lame are walking, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have heard good news. These were signs of the Kingdom Jesus had come to build. They were the proof that he was, in fact, the Promised One. The One sent by God to bring all of creation into wholeness and holiness.
John’s message had been one of repentance. He had lived a strange life – living alone in the desert eating grasshoppers and honey – a wild one, really – yet he was a powerful figure and had many disciples. Jesus, on the other hand, loved to be with people – he loved the intimacy of a shared meal with close friends and he seemed to have enjoyed big picnics and parties.
John’s ministry did not pose the same kind of threat to either the political authorities and certainly not to the religious authorities that Jesus’ ministry did, however. There seems to have been some competition at times – not necessarily between John and Jesus, but among their followers and the community in general.
They were so different from one another and their messages and lifestyles often seemed to clash. John was criticized for his austerity, Jesus for his extravagance. John talked a lot about sin and repentance; Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness and love.
These two messages are not mutually exclusive, however. In fact, it’s impossible to have one without the other. But in various religious traditions, even within the Christian tradition, sometimes sin and the utter chasm it creates between humanity and God is the message that is stridently proclaimed, while other branches of the Church stress the unconditional love and acceptance of God for all of creation. Both can have detrimental and lasting effects.
Those of us who were raised in the former kind of ethos – the murky muddy mess of the sinful nature of man – have a hard time letting go of the message that we are not worthy of God’s love and consequently have a very difficult time experiencing it. Those of us who were raised with an understanding that we are loved no matter what may find it difficult to admit our shortcomings and need for repentance and forgiveness.
To the first group Jesus says, “The flutes are playing and you refuse to go to the divine dance.” To the second group he says, “There is reason to mourn and you refuse to be real about it.”
As Episcopalians, people of the via media, or the middle way, we acknowledge and live into both of these realities – the reality that the world around us and within us is broken and the reality that there is healing and transformation because God loves us – each and every one of us.
Saint Irenaeus, 2nd century Bishop of Lyon is quoted as saying, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The glory of God is a human being fully alive. I’d like to suggest this morning that it is in the mingling of repentance and forgiveness – the willingness to admit and mourn our brokenness on the one hand, and the willingness to dance to the music of divine, unconditional love, on the other hand, that we are most fully alive.
In my experience, young children get it – just like Jesus suggests in our Gospel lesson. They seem to understand that admitting wrongdoing isn’t the end of the world. Making bad choices does not mean they are bad people. They are much more willing to say, “I’m sorry” than we adults who would rather save face by defending ourselves. And they are quick to forgive and get on with the game, rarely, if ever, holding grudges. They are often the ones most fully alive to what is real: human beings screw up and God is there to forgive.
In just a few minutes we will have an opportunity to confess to God and to one another – and we will remind ourselves – that we have not always gotten it right. We have made mistakes. We will ask for forgiveness. We will do our best to believe that forgiveness is possible. With God’s grace, we will do that with humility and confidence. And then we will gather around this table – this table that represents and holds the most precious gift God has ever given – the gift not only of forgiveness, but also the gift of new life mysteriously and unconditionally offered: divine love in bread and wine.
A few weeks ago, as I made my way down the communion rail with the paten, I came to a little girl. Her hands were raised and she was jostling a bit between her brothers and her parents. As I placed the bread in her hand, I said the traditional words: “The body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” She looked up and responded, “I love you, too.”
Oh, that we would all have that same kind of experience today – an open and honest exchange with the God who loves us, the God who wants to heal us, the God who offers forgiveness, the God whose glory is tied up with the likes of us. May we be fully alive to this good news – ready to approach the God who says, “Come!” “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens; I will give you rest. 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.