The Rev. Anne Largent Smith

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7A), June 22, 2014

Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Anne, Stockton, California

Text: Matthew 10:24-39

The first summer after I moved here to Stockton, I worked as a hospital chaplain at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. I was training there as part of my preparation for becoming a priest. It was a hard summer for me, not least because I had responsibility for offering pastoral care in the Pediatric ICU (the PICU) where I encountered children and families suffering acutely. One of the toughest of those turned out to be Damien.
Damien was six years old, tall for his age, lank, with chocolate skin. He’d landed in the PICU after falling into a swimming pool and nearly drowning. Damien’s parents were both there initially, his mother with another man who might have been her husband, and his father seemingly unattached. There were a few other family members in and out; Damien had a couple of older brothers.
It had been Damien’s father’s turn to have Damien, but it seemed his dad had left him with his grandmother, and that’s where he had been playing near the pool with no companion close by. Damien was listless, though sometimes he seemed conscious—his eyes seemed to rest on the cartoons on the TV in his room. His father exuded a frenetic, agitated energy, and was very concerned to clear himself from blame; he kept insisting he hadn’t done anything wrong. The tension among the adults was palpable.
After Damien’s first day at the hospital I no longer saw the father. He had gotten into an altercation with security and had been banned from the hospital building. Hopelessness and despair gradually wore Damien’s mother down. Each time I passed through the PICU the room seemed quieter—fewer visitors, less activity. Damien didn’t stay in the ICU all that long; though his condition was critical, his medical needs were not actually intensive. He was moved to the regular pediatric unit, still lying listlessly in bed. The one visitor he seemed still to have was his grandmother—whether she was the one who’d been watching him at the time he fell into the pool, I never knew.
And then Damien died, and I was angry and deeply saddened, because he had been alone. Grandma hadn’t happened to be there at the time, and the rest of the family seemed to stay away. When I checked in with the nurses at their station, they seemed a little angry and sad, too; it’s one thing to deal with children’s pain and suffering and even death day in and day out, but to see a family so divided and distant was a difficulty they were especially troubled by. We waited, and no one came. Damien’s family had failed him. Beloved child of God, left alone in the end by the hurting, helpless people into whose care he had been entrusted.
There was nothing to say and really only one small thing I could do. His body needed to be transferred to the morgue. Would I walk with the nurse as she took him there? His blanket-wrapped body lying in a little red wagon looked for all the world as if he were asleep. We were able to walk through the halls without alarming people that way; down two floors and around to the opposite wing of the building. I don’t recall much conversation, only presence. My presence to Damien and this nurse; her presence to him as well. The hall outside the morgue door was empty of people, though cluttered with things. I knelt by that little body, and I prayed over him, and blessed him, sign of the cross on his forehead. My grief felt overwhelming to me. It was not right that he should die alone. It seemed to me that his family had failed to do the thing that was most important: love him until the end, so that he could know himself as beloved.
I had strong feelings about what Damien’s family should have done for him. I suspect that the values I judged that situation by are the same values so many of us feel are violated when we encounter today’s gospel reading. Recall that Jesus says this:
“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.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:34-39)
These are difficult words. They speak to the very difficult circumstances the early church experienced as Christians. And in our day, in our culture, our sense of familial loyalty and obligation causes us to bristle at the idea that God could ask anything less of us than to love our family members until the end, to ensure that they know themselves to be beloved. We expect the kingdom of God to look different in many ways from the world we’re living in now, but we assume the family will be left intact. We aren’t looking to change everything about the status quo.
We believe it’s our God-given duty to care for each other. We suppose that love amongst family members is a reflection of God’s love for us, so that a parent’s role with a child, for example, is idealized as that of unconditional-love-giver. And children are then expected to understand obedience to and cooperation with God as essentially the same thing as obedience to and cooperation with their own parents. And suddenly family relationships become a sort of idol; we care for them as though that were the most important thing we could do for God.
It’s easy to begin to operate this way, because we feel certain that family is very important. Our love for our families motivates our choices in all other aspects of our lives. We judge actions that help families to cohere as righteous, and actions that cause family disunity as unrighteous. That’s why back at the hospital in Sacramento I could rush to judgment of Damien’s family based on my assessment of their failure to cohere.
Because family has such a high status in our society, we don’t notice how uncritical that rush to judgment can be. In reality I only understood Damien’s family slightly. Most of the factors that likely brought about their situation are cause for compassion, not judgment. But we rarely learn what drives people in such situations—we rarely bother to ask with any real curiosity.
While our families can reveal something about how we and the divine relate to each other, families do fail. Family falls short of fully reflecting the love God has for us. No icon can tell the whole truth. What Jesus has to teach us about the family reflects the limits of the metaphor. He calls God Father, and we learn that the love and care human fathers offer at their best is an image of God’s love and care for humanity. He calls his followers brothers and sisters, and we understand a little more how intimate and deep are the bonds that connect us as Christians. And he turns his mother and brothers away, and we learn that our obligations to our families are not so comprehensive as our obligations to God.
The bonds we share as parents and children and brothers and sisters are at their best deep, comforting, supportive, and a reflection of divine love. It is certainly possible for God’s love to be communicated to us through these relationships, for God’s care for us to be received practically from the hands of our families. That’s part of why it makes so much sense to us to think that God wants families to be united.
But God’s love is in fact different, and our need for God is in fact greater. Our culture, our biology, and our intellect and emotions promote primacy of place for family, but families are human, and their purposes are human. The real and perceived function of families as a place of nurture and security undoubtedly make them important. But they do not make them most important. When family is what is most important, family becomes a false god.
Perhaps our need for nurture and security are at the very heart of our reasonable but misplaced attachment to family. However close or remote God may seem to us, God’s perfect mystery will always be beyond our understanding. And so our ability to trust God alone to protect and provide for us is limited by our fear that we won’t be taken care of. And we are very afraid. In chapter 10 of the gospel of Matthew, as elsewhere, Jesus reminds his followers that the very many ways we try to calm our fears by grasping our own security and meeting our own needs will all ultimately fail, but God’s love will never fail. God’s love is the only completely reliable thing; it is therefore the only power which truly prevails for us. Naturally in the course of our lives we seek our own security, but all means besides God are transient, ephemeral. Secrecy cannot save us; self-negation cannot save us. Power, wealth, status, possessions cannot save us. Mutual care and friendship cannot save us. And those most basic and essential allegiances established by virtue of our birth into family relationships, as much as we may value them, cannot save us. Any of these things may be used as a means of grace, assuredly; but they are not grace itself.
We would be happy to trust in our own efforts to care for ourselves and our loved ones. We would be content if we could amass enough wealth and possessions to meet our needs. We want to slip into complacency and close our eyes to the frailty of our efforts; we just want to be left in peace. But Jesus comes to wake us from our complacency and get us to invest in the real source of our security: God.
Jesus invites us to recognize God as our true source of love and security. And the corollary to that invitation is an invitation to entrust our family members to God, too. We can’t save ourselves, and we can’t save them. But God can. And trusting in God’s love allows us to let go of our fears. And stop all that work we’re doing to try to ensure nothing goes wrong. It’s counterintuitive and uncomfortable. Painful—it can easily be painful. But to acknowledge God’s perfection and the lesser status of the family does not constitute failure. It simply reflects the truth.
We will fail. Difficult things will happen. We will have to entrust each other to God’s care when they do. We may even find ourselves with a Damien in our lives—with conflict and pain so horrific it seems we will not be able to bear it. Each of us will have to find our way.
But remember that God sent Damien a little red wagon, and a nurse, and a chaplain. Grace was there. God was there. God was present to that little boy even when his family could not be. And with those final acts of love and blessing, God received Damien into God’s care forever. God stands ready to do the same for each of us, and that is the best, the only, hope we have. That at the moment our lives at last seem to be lost—at that very moment, in God, they are found.

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