Sermon by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Text: Matthew 10:24-39
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s gospel is one that I have preached many times, always from a personal point of view. Because my baptism led to a serious breakdown in my family relationships, I have a tendency to take this gospel literally. So when Jesus says,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
– That resonates with me. My father in particular was very upset and barely spoke to me for years – I love my father dearly, and miss him very much especially on Father’s Day, but he had a very hard time with my baptism – and my mother could not understand why I would do such a thing. Worse, my choice caused a rift between my parents because while Mom didn’t get it, she was willing to accept my baptism, but Dad was not. He viewed Christians as the enemy, and for good reason: his side of the family came to this country following World War I, when Russian Cossacks brandishing long swords with huge silver crosses hanging from their necks would gallop on horseback staging pogroms – terror raids – on my ancestral village, killing all the Jews they could find and burning shops and homes. Mom’s side of the family came here from Austria and Poland just before the Holocaust. Remember that many (not all) Christians in Europe at that time were complicit in that atrocity, either by participating in it or by simply staying silent. My parents had their reasons to strongly object to what surely seemed to them like my defecting to the enemy.
So that’s how I always read this gospel. But in our current time, I was shocked to find that it hits me differently now. On the surface level, this gospel could be speaking of our society today being at war with itself: our president’s supporters vs. the rest of the country, republicans vs. democrats, or, most dangerously, white vs. black. But there’s a deeper meaning: Jesus speaking of social division as part of painful birth into new life. What is normal and natural in a healthy society – family relationships intact, deep love and respect between parents and children – Jesus says will be destroyed at the point of a sword – his sword! – and that what will replace the natural world order is a new one, an altered world that defines family and society differently. Jesus is clear: the way to reach this new Promised Land is by prioritizing our relationship with him above all others. This means that we must travel with him to Calvary, carrying our crosses. The gospel closes with Jesus saying that that we must lose our lives – and he means that we must lose our lives on the cross – in order to save them.
People who have had near or actual death experiences and who return to life often describe traveling through a tunnel with a light at the end of it. That tunnel is a portal, it’s a birth canal, if you will, a place that is dark, tight, uncomfortable and painful, but which leads to an expansive new world, fresh life that is very different from what we left. Think of the shock of how we all arrived in this world – the womb in which we gestated doesn’t in the least resemble where we are now. Jesus is telling us that a world as different from this one as our world is from the womb awaits us, but the portal that leads to it, the birth canal, is the cross itself.
Throughout our lives, we are offered choices. Often the choice is whether we will voluntarily take up our cross and follow Jesus, or whether we will reject it, which we can do of our own free will. It’s normal to try to run from sacrifice or suffering, but sometimes we know that Jesus is offering us the privilege of binding our suffering to his, yet still we say no. Then, following those moments of rejection, we are often given another cross we are forced to carry, this time with no choice in the matter. In the marvelous Christian classic The Imitation of Christ, the author Thomas a Kempis puts it this way:
See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend . . . Go where you will, seek where you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the (Royal) road of the Holy Cross. . . If you bear the cross willingly, it will bear you and lead you to your desired goal . . . If you bear the cross unwillingly, you make it a burden . . . but you must needs bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will certainly find another, and perhaps a heavier.
Our world has such an unwanted cross right now – the COVID-19 pandemic. Could this be the result of us casting off the crosses that Jesus freely offered us, the ways we blithely ignored our responsibilities to our sisters and brothers in the human family, allowing greed, rampant social injustice and disregard for truth suffocate our society? I am not saying that we made this killer virus, we most certainly did not – but we have created many other types of contagion that we have made little effort to contain. Yet this cross, like all crosses, is also a portal, just like Jesus’ was at Calvary.
These days we think of a portal as a frustrating, usually dysfunctional part of a website that should enable us to accomplish something, like apply for unemployment benefits, that hardly ever works, but the traditional meaning is that of a door or a gateway through which to enter a new space. Often, a portal leads in one direction only – once you go through it, there’s no going back, no way to return. That certainly is true of our time. Last month, The essayist Arundhati Roy published an excellent article called “The Pandemic is a Portal.” In it, he says,
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and our hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, ready to imagine another world.
Will we be able to pass through this pandemic, will we willingly allow our old world to die on this cross so that we can emerge into a new one, never to return to the old? So far, the evidence cuts in both directions: “no way” and “yes, we can.” On the “no-way-will-this-lead-to-a-new-world” side of the ledger is the undeniable fact that many of us seem to be losing interest in the pandemic even as it continues, merrily crowding on beaches or outside of bars or at indoor gatherings, casting off our masks, and resuming all kinds of activities that we know are still dangerous, The virus hasn’t changed – it is still just as virulent, and there is no cure or effective treatment or vaccine as of yet. This behavior is no more than us trying to lay down this cross of our own volition.
On the “yes-we-can-create-a-new-world” side of the ledger, we have for the first time in western history, not only a national but a global movement to finally address the scourge of racial injustice. The pandemic helped expose the moral and mortal rot of systemic racism that was there all along, but from which we averted our sight because the political and economic costs were too great a cross for us to willingly bear. Now that calculation has changed, and this cross has become a portal that is enabling us to enter into a reconfigured world, one that is closer to God’s kingdom.
From God’s point of view, recreating the world this way isn’t new; the Bible shows us that God has molded people and entire nations into new ones before. The Hebrews lived as slaves in Egypt for nearly 400 years before they were liberated in the Exodus. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mizrahi” which means “constricted,” “squeezed” – the word has the sense of a crucible, placing something under pressure to be transformed. During that 400-year-long squeezing, the Hebrews picked up much that they would retain after they left Egypt – like a national identity that was forged through story-telling, much like Egypt, and they even learned how to embalm the dead (Jacob was embalmed) and make objects like the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle: Israel’s Tabernacle and later Temple were both laid out just like the Egyptian temples they left behind.
But there was much else that Israel had to leave behind in Egypt as they passed through the portal of the split Red Sea. They needed to abandon idol worship: no more pantheon of a thousand little gods based on natural phenomena like animals or planets, now they were to worship the one true God in their new world. No more kings who were considered divine, like the Pharaoh – now they entered a new world in which it was the chief priest who was to wear a crown but where their king would be required to write out his own copy of the Torah.
There were many dead carcasses that needed to be left on the back side of the portal of the Red Sea, but we know that the new nation of Israel did not embrace their new world without many setbacks – so many that they were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years making what could have been a three-day trip to the Promised Land. They kept trying to go backwards through a gate that was now locked shut: they did things like worship the Golden Calf – which symbolized a return to Egypt – and chose fear over faith by believing spies who reported that the Promised Land was filled with giants and fearsome armies. As a result, God would not let any of the men over 20 years old at that time to reach the Promised Land – they all were condemned to die in the wilderness except Joshua and Caleb, who wholeheartedly embraced the journey despite personal cost, fear, and risk. Only those two had freely and completely picked up the cross – and yes it was a cross, even back then – and followed God into the Promised Land.
How are we going to emerge from our place of constriction? What will we insist on dragging with us through the portal of the pandemic? Will we return to our golden calves as we recite a false narrative glorifying the past while trying to return to a world that never existed? Or will we heed Jesus’ call to follow him to Calvary, the gateway that he promises will save our lives for eternity? What kind of society, what of kind of world do we want to partner with God in molding in this time of squeezing? What are we willing to risk? Conflict? Money? Our lifestyles? Power? Can we follow Jesus despite our fear and uncertainty about what lies on the other side of the door? The big question is: Will we willingly receive this cross from Jesus’ hands? The late Canon Edward West of the Cathedral once said that we know we can trust Jesus’ hands, because they have nail holes in them.
May we find the strength to pick up our cross, and follow Jesus to and through Calvary, emerging at the resurrection that awaits us on the other side.