Proper 6A Sermon (2002)

Proper 6 (June 12-18)
Texts: Matthew 9:35-10:23;
Rom 5:1-8; Ex 19:2-8a

A FATHER’S LOVE AND CHILD’S PLAY

In our second lesson today, St. Paul has what to our ears might seem an oxymoron, one of those phrases of words that don’t go together, like the infamous example “military intelligence.” St. Paul says that we can “boast in our sufferings.” “Boast” and “sufferings” don’t really go together, do they? Have you ever boasted in your sufferings? We might complain to whoever is willing to listen, but I’m not sure “boast” is the right word. In our context of modern life, it seems like the main goal in life is to have a comfortable life and to avoid suffering at all costs.

Karen Egan shared a newspaper column with me this week. It’s by Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, talking about something one rarely talks about in public, religion. He shares about how he was asked point blank at a speaking engagement about whether he is a Christian. Mr. Pitts confessed that he hesitated a moment because what passes for religion these days isn’t necessarily something to boast about, with people killing each other over religion and the terrible scandal rocking the Catholic church. He wasn’t feeling boastful about his faith.

Thankfully, he says, there is another standard for being religious, for being Christian, and he proceeds to tell the story of a Russian woman named Tatyana Sapunova. Mr. Pitts writes:

Two weeks ago, she was driving with her mother near Moscow when she saw a sign planted by the side of the road. “Death To [Jews],” it said. She stopped and attempted to tear it down.

That’s when the explosive device rigged to the sign exploded. The blast tore through her face, hands and legs. She is reported to have lost sight in one eye. Sapunova, for the record, is not Jewish. In fact, she was baptized a Christian. I have no way of knowing if she still follows that faith or, indeed, any faith.

I do know this: What she did speaks directly to what faith is supposed to be about — and too seldom is. These days, religion is a story of scandal or of somebody jockeying for political advantage. A story of warfare over land or the rationalization of suicide bombings.

For some reason, it’s seldom a story like this, seldom a story of someone motivated to stand with the outcasts like Christ among the lepers — a person compelled to do the right thing because it is the right thing. (1)

Do you think that Ms. Sapunova, that young Russian woman, has a right to boast in her sufferings? Not that she would. But do you think this is the sort of thing St. Paul was talking about? Someone suffering because she did the right thing?

Actually, I think that these words from St. Paul go together well with today’s gospel lesson. Jesus sends his disciples out with a holy mission: “teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Yet notice the reaction Jesus warns them about. They will not be welcome in every place. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;” he says, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then he tells them about being brought to trial for their faith, with members of families turning against each other. “…you will be hated by all because of my name,” Jesus tells them. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Suffering and endurance for the name of Christ; this is precisely what St. Paul is talking about, I think, when he talks about boasting in suffering.

But why? Why would we suffer in the name of Christ? Why would people hate us for bringing Good News about God, for offering the power of healing and life? Because the name of Jesus is connected with something that — when it comes right down to it — looks like defeat instead of victory. Let’s face it: Jesus’ suffering on the cross looks like losing out to suffering, certainly not like gaining a victory over it. Yes, our faith proclaims him as the Risen Lord, but he obviously did not bring the end to all human suffering. Not yet, anyway. Two thousand years later we are still looking to be able to boast in our suffering, to be able to claim a victory over it.

Yet St. Paul is talking about a hope that does not disappoint us. Even two thousand years later, I get the feeling that he would be talking in the present tense, that he would still be encouraging us to boast in our suffering. Let’s take a look again at the kind of power involved in the cross of Jesus Christ, a power which we believe comes from God. What kind of power is this? (2)

If two rivals are more or less at the same level of power as each other — let us say, two armies, or two tennis aces — then the result of their rivalry will be the defeat of one and the victory of the other, or in some particularly awful cases, the defeat of both, each preferring mutual destruction to allowing the other to win. This is the kind of victory we are used to thinking about, when one of the near-equals in such a fight wins over the other.

However, when there are not two nearly equal partners, as for instance when a young parent and a young child are playing tennis, we are in a different world. For the parent to play with the child as if they were near equals would be a terrible dereliction of parenting, for to insist on beating the child as if they were genuinely rivals would be to produce a rivalry in the child, a real stumbling block to the child’s growth. The more normal pattern would be one of two sorts: the parent teaching the child to win or the parent teaching the child to play. On Father’s Day, we have fond memories of dads teaching us to play games.

In the first case, teaching the child to win, the parent is going to adjust him or herself to the level of the child’s strength, and gradually play with the child harder and harder so that the child’s strength and skill level grow by practice over time. The parent is never going to humiliate the child by beating them unduly easily, but nor are they going to let themselves be beaten, because what they want the child to do is to want to win, and that means having the competitive edge constantly sharpened.

In the second case, we have a parent teaching the child to play. This will mean, as in the first case, being a sparring partner for the child at the level of the child’s strength, but also learning the even greater skill of actually being able to lose without patronizing the child. This way the child gets to experience the satisfaction of winning and at the same time learning that he or she doesn’t have to win — learning that the game is about playing, an end in itself, and for that to be possible, rivalry must have its limits; it must be capable of being suspended for a higher cause.

I hope that it is clear that the modeling of desire which the parent is engaged in in the second case is a far richer one than that modeled in the first. And the key to it being far richer is the parental ability to lose in just the right way. That, I would like to suggest, is the real meaning behind Jesus’ self-giving up to death. He was able to lose to those who had to win, so as to enable them, by not having to win, to be able to play.

What I would like to suggest is that this “being able to lose” is the result of a far greater power than the power of beating a close rival. God’s power is the power of being able to lose because God loves us so much that God wants us to be able to lose as well, not so as to humiliate us, but so that we might be set free from the compulsion to win in order actually to enjoy playing.

Now, I suggest to you that Jesus of Nazareth, incomprehensibly to those surrounding him, went voluntarily and with considerable freedom to his death in just this way, losing to the human need to survive by creating human victims, by making losers, in order to show us that no one ever need create victims in order to survive again. This survival business doesn’t need to be about who wins and who loses. It can be about playing the game in a way in which we find that everyone can win, that no one has to be made the loser. God’s power of life survives even our worse attempts to make losers out of our rivals. Jesus survives our worst on the cross, coming to us as our Risen Lord with just what we need: forgiveness. The power of forgiveness is precisely the power of giving up our debts and rivalries with one another so that we may be reconciled to work together, to more than survive.

And, per Jesus’ warnings in today’s gospel, we shouldn’t underestimate the radical nature of trying to live out this forgiveness in a world bent on winning and losing, on keeping and paying back debts, most especially those that gain vengeance on those who harm us. We must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Rather than this being an instruction about prudence, as it is usually made out to be, I suggest that this is what acting out forgiveness in the world looks like: it looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply destabilized by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you. (3)

This past week we shook our heads once more in an unexplainable, senseless act of violence: the man who walked into the Conception Abbey in Missouri and killed two of the Benedictine brothers. Yet, perhaps even more incredibly, this is what the preacher said at the memorial service for these two fallen monks: “When brutal deeds are enacted, it calls for heroic and radical forgiveness,” he said. “Such acts of violence as happened here on Monday could only have come from someone in desperate need of help. Hatred, anger and an unwillingness to forgive only keep us crippled and bound by the evils that surround us.” Unwillingness to forgive is what keeps us crippled. That’s why God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ brings such healing.

Our Risen Lord comes to us once again this morning in this holy meal, offering us that forgiveness for healing and life. Yet he also feeds us with the power of loving service that gives us what we need to side with the losers of this world in order to show God’s victory over our need to make losers. He feeds us to serve those in need, even if it means taking on their suffering — which is truly the kind of suffering worth boasting about. It is the kind of suffering that Tatyana Sapunova took on, for example, when she stood in solidarity with those who hate the Jews. It is supremely the kind of suffering our Lord took on for us, so that we might truly learn to play the game of living together in our Father’s world. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, June 16, 2002

Notes

1. Leonard Pitts, “‘Are you a Christian?’: It’s sad if one hesitates to reply,” Milwaukee Journal-Times, June 13, 2002, page 19A.

2. The following several paragraphs are based on an as-yet unpublished paper [now published in On Being Liked] by James Alison, entitled “Re-imagining forgiveness: victory as reconciliation.” Two of the key passages cited in this paper are Rom. 5:7-8 and Matt. 10:16.

3. Once again, I owe this insight into reading Matt. 10:16 to James Alison in the above paper.

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