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.


The Rev. Anne Largent Smith

Sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Anne, Stockton, California

June 15, 2014: Trinity Sunday, Year A

Texts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
Years ago I worked for a massive corporation that periodically got employees together for training events. One of them be sexual harassment training. And one of the first questions we were asked in the training was: “Are you a hugger?” To my surprise, about half the room self-identified as huggers. The rest of us did not.
That was an enlightening moment for me. I hadn’t particularly thought before about how varied people’s comfort levels are with physical proximity and contact in spaces like the office where I worked. I hadn’t particularly realized how much clearance I liked to give people and how hesitant I was to use touch in the workplace. It made a lot of sense upon reflection. All our different contexts and experiences meant our comfort levels were widely various, and we all had different ideas about what a touch might mean.
So in the Episcopal church when we gather for worship, there is always a moment when we are invited to exchange the peace. This community has its particular way of passing the peace, and other church communities have their way. Some people move around, some stay in place. People say different things—just “peace,” or “The peace of Christ,” or “God’s peace,” or even “Good morning”—and they may shake hands or offer a hug or not touch at all. And I have known some people to kiss, on the mouth or the cheek or even in the air.
I myself have come a long way from identifying as “not a hugger.” As far as touch goes, I try to do whatever is comfortable for others when passing the peace. We’ve all been on one side or the other of an unequal exchange where one person expects a hug and the other doesn’t, right? I just do my best not to invade people’s space.
And that’s just hugging. I have had some surprises where kissing is concerned, too. I have a friend who always kisses on the cheek, but I always forget and am just trying to give her a hug. And then like many children I was made to kiss my grandparents when we greeted them. I remember not liking my grandfather’s tickly mustache. But I also remember that gesture becoming a special way of expressing love for my grandparents, and later for my mother too. And I have even on occasion given a kiss to a parishioner who proffered one, and to people over whom I have prayed.
So it turns out that negotiating touch and communicating through it is pretty complicated. No one would argue with me on that, and yet here, smack in the middle of the liturgy, we issue an invitation to do just that. To negotiate a greeting of some kind, and to communicate something through it. And one of the reasons we do that has to do with ancient instructions like the one Paul gives at the end of this letter to the church at Corinth, to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”
I suspect that we all have different ideas about what we’re communicating.  A lot of us will have stories about mishaps. And a few of us will have been really thoughtful about what the exchange of peace represents.
I once was part a congregation in which certain members were angry with certain others. One person there began avoiding certain people at the exchange of peace because, as he explained to me, he believed if he was angry with them he couldn’t be sincere in wishing them peace. He thought it was disingenuous of him to make such a gesture of friendship when he did not feel friendship for these other people. Needless to say, his relationship to them did not improve.
I’m glad he told me his thoughts on not extending the peace, though, because I realized that for me, passing the peace in the liturgy, whether verbally or with a handshake or a hug, doesn’t actually have very much to do with me at all. When I offer the peace, what I mean to do is pray that God’s peace would be upon each person that I greet. And that means I can sincerely exchange the peace with anyone, friend or enemy, because I truly do wish for everyone to know God’s peace.
In fact the holy kiss Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthian church has very little to do with reflecting any individual’s positive feelings about the others in that congregation. The church at Corinth was fraught with conflict. Various factions in the church claimed to have more authority than others; their divisions placed their unity as a community at risk. And Paul wants very much for these Christians to realize how central their unity is to their identity as followers of Christ. He exhorts them to love each other, to be patient with each other, and to be humble. He wants them to model themselves after Jesus, who never forgot that he belonged to and relied upon God.
And Paul isn’t asking the Corinthians simply to change their minds and their behavior. This is not an exhortation to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get the job done through sheer will and effort. It’s not an admonition to “Don’t worry, be happy.” What Paul wants the Corinthians to realize is that they have been made a new creation! That they are something different now because the Holy Spirit is in their midst, and the Holy Spirit will bring about transformation among them that they cannot accomplish on their own. The Christian community is a miracle, and for Christians to behave as if it isn’t is for Christians to deny the very power that gives us our identity.
Several times in his letters, Paul uses the analogy of the body to describe the miracle of our unity in Christ. He emphasizes that we’re all different—unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We’re not all eyes, or ears, or hands, or feet. Everyone has a part to play. But when Paul describes the Christian church as being like a body, we must understand that we are uniquely connected. That what happens to the eye matters even if you’re a foot; that an injured hand matters even to a healthy ear. And that no part is better than the others, and no part can say it doesn’t need the rest.
The body, with all its various parts, is a whole, a unit, and in Christ, so are we, the church. It may seem like we can choose at any moment to disassociate ourselves and choose not to be a part of the community anymore, but in fact we can no more separate ourselves from the body of Christ than our ears can jump down onto our shoulders, slide down our arms, and run away down the street.
We often think about our membership in the body of Christ in terms of whether we go to church, or how much a part of the community we feel, but the fact is that there’s something far bigger happening within this body. Whether we choose to participate matters, but even if we don’t, we are still bound together. We are bound together by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit present among us, linking us inextricably to one another. And we need one another. We need the gifts of the Spirit that each person brings into this body. We need to be a place where those gifts can find expression for the sake of God’s purposes for the world.
That’s wholeness for us.
This is what Paul wants the church to realize: that they are as mutually dependent upon and connected to one another as the various parts of the human body are. That miraculously in this world where relationships are broken and estranged so easily, we are united in Christ. We are in relationship even when we need healing, and we move forward by God’s grace with mutual love because that is how our brokenness is redeemed and repaired.
Maybe on this Trinity Sunday the church’s understanding of the triune God can help us understand how deeply connected we are in Christ; how close the relationship is that we’re invited into. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three persons; they are individual and complete. And God is one, and so the three are also one. There is unity within the trinity, and mutual indwelling, and yet God is three and yet one.
We who are made in God’s image and formed into the body of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit are also joined together so that though many persons we are one. And that moment when we turn to one another to pass the peace is a moment when we recall this profound connection. Whether we’re greeting a spouse of forty years or a stranger we’ve never laid eyes on before, our offering of peace is in a way an acknowledgment of our unity with each other.
So while we bring all our human emotions and the tendencies and habits that we’ve developed with each other, yet in Christ, by God’s grace, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we enter a radical new relationship with each other where we recognize ourselves in each person we greet and pray that the God of love and peace be with every person just as we hope that the God of love and peace will be with us ourselves.
There’s a mystery to being the body of Christ just as there’s a mystery to God’s Trinitarian nature. We may not understand it or feel it, and we may still be learning how to inhabit this space together, how to know whether to hug or shake hands, how to understand our unity, but we are still in it. We are in the mystery of God’s love here, if only we knew how much. Remember this profound love we share, and our profound connection, as you encounter each other today, and always.