The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 12, 2018
The Bible presents us with a lot of contrasts, at the level of individual lines and at the level of stories. Think of “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Or the story of Mary and Martha, two sisters, one devoted to getting all the work of the household done, the other sitting quietly, listening to the Word of God, and annoying the heck out of her sister. Contrasts are a helpful teaching tool, especially for a book about the encounter between God and humanity.
There are poignant contrasts in the readings for this morning. First we find the conflict between King David’s men and David himself, in how they treat Absalom, the son who has rebelled and started an uprising against his father. The soldiers are seeking revenge, the complete destruction of the rebellion, in order to secure the power of their leader. They glory in the humiliation and defeat of Absalom, in his killing. But David mourns over Absalom as his beloved son, and cries out in grief, that he wishes he could have died instead. The soldiers thought they were defending their king, and promoting his cause, and they were, but what happened was, tragically, also the opposite of anything he could ever have wanted. Rather than triumph, at this moment when his reign is re-established, when the future of his regime is secured, instead he effaces himself, sets aside his own claims, his royal identity, and asks only for death. The cost of human victory is often like that—when what we achieve is held up against what we have lost, we are shown to be so helpless, so frustrated by circumstances beyond our control.
In the Gospel, again we see a dramatic, and frustrating contrast, this time between Jesus’ true identity and the way He is recognized by those around Him. He is the Messiah, God’s own Word, the bread from heaven, but His neighbours know Him as Mary and Joseph’s son. He was that boy they watched growing up, getting into mischief, breaking out in pimples, being human. They think they know Him, of course they do, they know everything they need to know about Him. They’ve got Him all figured out. But He tells them that He is the one who will lead them to know God, the mystery at the back of all Creation. How is that possible?
It can be so hard for us, to know someone in a different way, once we have gotten to know them as one thing. When I was fresh out of art school, I taught art and computer science, if you can believe that, for a couple of years in an elementary school. Sometimes small schools are very desperate. Anyway, there was a little boy I soon came to know as a troublemaker. He was disruptive, eager to attract attention, and, it seemed that he was obsessed with violence, in his drawings, in his play with other children. Before long, I began to write him off—that’s Matt, there he goes again, doing what he always does, and that’s who he was, for me. Our interactions got more and more difficult and stressful. I really dreaded the class sessions he was in—I didn’t know what to do. Until, one day, I was thinking about the things I loved (which was church, mostly) and the things I was having such a hard time with every day at work, and how far apart they were. I wanted to see if I could bring those two very distant, very contrasting things closer together. Could a little of the peace I found in church come with me, into the classroom? So I decided to pretend that secretly, unknown to anyone but me, Matt was Jesus, right there in the class. It changed my whole attitude to him. I listened to him, I tried to enjoy his presence, to learn about him and value him, for what he was, to stop dismissing him, for what he had been in my limited experience, as his teacher trying to get him to do something, to be a certain way, to make my life easier.
When we make other people into means to our own ends, pawns in our game, we are denying the image of God, the immortal soul, in them. For David’s men, Absalom was an obstacle to be gotten rid of; but, for David, even though Absalom had risen up against his father, causing strife in the kingdom and dividing their family, he was still a beloved son. When we look at other people with our very human, very limited knowledge, we can miss so much of the truth they carry, as children of God. The people of Nazareth knew Jesus only as the beloved son of Mary and Joseph; they did not see how he could be the one to lead the rebellion against the powers of this world, against death itself. The greatest contrast is always between our finite understanding and God’s own self, so infinitely creative and so truly free that God can best be described, as Jesus so often did, in paradoxes, riddles and jokes, proverbial smacks upside the head that remind us, over and over again: you think you know, you think you’ve got this put tidily in some box? Think again. It’s something else entirely, something you could never have expected.
Thanks be to God. That we can grow, in our understanding of others, when we approach them in humility. When we open ourselves to listen and learn from them, we can come to know the unique bit of God that is revealed in them. When we let God teach us and feed us in them. Paul sums up what that looks like, the possibility of a healed relationship to those we may have written off: we can speak the truth, expressing anger but not seeking vengeance, doing honest work, treating others with tenderness and mercy, connecting to them and giving of ourselves. It is a vision of life abundant, contrasted to the death we were so ready to deal out, in our ignorance, our quickness to judge and condemn.
Thanks be to God, that we ourselves have not been condemned, written off, as we surely could have and probably should have been. We can be disruptive, eager for attention, negative attention if that’s all we can get. Obsessed with violence, in one form or another, whether it’s violence against our enemies, or the violence of self-hatred and self-destruction. We can all be at our worst. God has chosen, and it’s a crazy, crazy idea, but this is what we’ve been told, and I’m going with it, God has chosen to know us in a different way, to care for rebels as beloved sons and daughters. To come and be with us, listen to us, rejoice in us, to learn us by heart. To see each of us, so helplessly ordinary and stuck in ourselves, and to discover a miracle, to look on us with the infinite love of a parent for a child. To grieve for us and what we do, but even more than that, to die in our place, that we might live. David couldn’t do it, but God could. “No one can come to me unless drawn by my Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Thanks be to God.
VBS prayer for Sunday:
Loving God, we give thanks for the gathering of children, young people, and volunteers for our Vacation Bible School this week. Bless their time learning together, help them to have fun, to make good messes and great music. Give our VBS leaders energy and patience. Help us all to know how thankful you are whenever we welcome a child in your name. May it be joyful, may it be safe, may it be a light of your love to the world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.