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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Be the Grown-Up

Sermon by the Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney, Dean of Bloy House
Theological Education Sunday, 2/13/11
Matthew 5:21-37

There is a wonderful character in children’s literature who some of you may know. Her name is Amelia Bedelia, and she has for generations delighted young and old with her antics. By occupation Amelia Bedelia is a live-in domestic who dresses in the traditional black and white garb of a domestic down to the little white hat. What makes Amelia so wonderfully entertaining to small children is her naivete. She is a very young child in an adult body, and she approaches the English language with the same kind of naivete one might expect from a two or three year old. So if one asks Amelia to draw the drapes, she will take out a pencil and paper and draw a perfectly lovely set of drapes. If one asks Amelia to dress the chicken, she will find the request somewhat odd, but in the end she will sew up a small outfit just the right size for a four pound bird and put the chicken in the pan fully attired. If one asks Amelia to dust the furniture she will ponder this for a while and then when she finds dusting powder in the boudoir of this rather old fashioned home, she will carefully cover all the furniture with a lovely fine coating of dusting powder.

I believe what enchants children about Amelia Bedelia is that by the time they have reached kindergarten their understanding of language is hugely more sophisticated than hers. They know that you don’t really dress a chicken when someone says dress a chicken. They know that language is frequently not supposed to be taken literally…that understanding communication is way more complicated than just knowing what a handful of nouns and verbs mean. I think young children are delighted with themselves when they meet Amelia Bedelia, because they are so much wiser even at the ripe old age of four or five or six, than she.

But it is amazing how often in our lives as adults we forget what we have learned as small children. Learning the lesson about how language works is work that continues on in our lives even though we may at times be tempted to forget it. I remember my own experience of going to seminary, reading Paul Tillich for the very first time and saying to a friend that despite the fact that I could tell you the meaning of every word in the sentence I had just read, I still had no idea whatsoever about what the sentence meant! Indeed as the dean of a seminary, I believe that much of theological education is about learning how to hear and think about God …as adults not toddlers. It is important work, and it is work that cannot be left to only those preparing to be priests and deacons if the church is to survive. Just as children must learn to decipher the language of their birth to participate fully in their world, we too must learn to decipher the language of faith to participate fully in our own spiritual world. That is part of why we have worked so hard at Bloy House to encourage lay participation in theological education in this diocese.

What I believe Jesus is trying to do in today’s Gospel is teach his people not to come at scripture as small children, but as thinking responsible adults. He pushes language to the limits to try to help get people past the absurdity of thinking literally so that they can learn to hear with a different kind of ear; the same kind of ear that allows a five year old to close the curtains when you ask them to draw the drapes rather than to take out a crayon and paper. Jesus wants us to hear what God’s commandments are about, not just to spit them out of our mouths like randomly received fortune cookie fortunes. He wants us to learn how to think like a grown up about very grown up problems in the world.

Very early in parish ministry Bob and I learned that, for all of us, thinking like a grown up about spiritual matters does not come naturally or easily. As we would in our first years of functioning as leaders of a faith community face the kind of conflicts, concerns, and conundrums that had everything to do with being in community together, we would often find that everyone in the story, us included, made face value, immature, knee jerk responses to complex, difficult, paradoxical situations. Our family mantra after a little while came to be, “Remember you are the big person in the story.” We reminded one another to think and speak and act like a grown up. And that is precisely what we needed to do to grow in our vocations. It is also precisely what our parishioners had to do to grow in their vocations as well. It is precisely what our confirmation kids had to do to decide if they were ready to make a mature affirmation of faith. It is also exactly what made it possible for wise, disciplined, grown up protestors in Tahrir Square to respond as they did. And how the world was changed as a result!

In the Amelia Bedelia stories what always saves Amelia’s job is that just when her employers are at their wits end with her, she hands them the most beautiful luscious lemon meringue pie fresh out of the oven and all it made right with the world. They then learn to adjust their language to speak to her in a way that she can take literally. And I fear that for much of the history of organized religion that has been our fall-back position. Rather than grapple with the difficulties and complexities of the life of faith, we have resigned ourselves to just speaking literally. To pretending that there are easy, clear cut, black and white answers to all the complex ethical and moral questions we face in our lives.

It is against just such a diluted superficial infantilized approach to religion that Jesus reacts in today’s lesson. Instead Jesus suggests to us that we must think very deeply about what happens to everyone in the story when divorce happens. We must think about not just what we are allowed to do by a strict adherence to the law, but we must think beyond that to how the lives of all those involved, the fabric of society, the nature of trust, the definition of marriage and family are potentially deconstructed and reconstructed by the decision to divorce.

Jesus want us to think about what it means to live in a culture of animosity, incivility, disrespect, and violence if we want to truly understand the larger message of the prohibition against murder. He wants us to remember that our religion counts for nothing if it does not touch the way we relate to one another, the way we care for one another, and the way we honor one another as joint participants in the imago dei, the very image of God.

Jesus stood over and over again over against the worst within religious culture. So much of what religion does to people at its worst is infantilize them…treat them as if they are incapable of moral action and ethical lives. Much of what religion does is shape its direction as prohibition as if we were all small children constantly preparing to place our hand on the hot stove. Instead Jesus cajoles his audiences into “being the big people in the story”. Big people are people who attend to their moral compass. Big people are people who listen to the story of faith with an ear to how it affects their own lives and the lives of others. Big people are people willing to act and willing to be held accountable for their actions. Big people are people who know that the comes when you have to choose for yourself what your life will say and mean, and who recognize that at the end we will stand as accountable adults before the great judgment seat of life to answer for those choices.

So to each of us, Jesus says, don’t be like Amelia Bedelia, a child in a grown up’s body. Be the grown up, the big person, in the story. In your work life when people are being petty and immature, be the grown up in the story. In your home life when people are acting irrationally out of fear or anger, be the grown up in the story. In your civic life when forces work to create the illusion that everything we face is simply about black and white decisions, do not be duped, be the grown up in the story. In all that you say and all that you do strive to the back breaking hard work of the mature life of faith; listening respectfully, thinking rationally, owning one’s own emotions, intervening constructively, and engaging humbly on the life stages which Christ has given you.

In just a few weeks the high school age youth of St. Mark’s will have the opportunity to decide if they are ready to make a mature affirmation of faith before the bishop…if they know themselves to be ready to do so in an act full of meaning and integrity. I would hope that in your hearts, in your own interior castles, those of you who have lived your lives of faith up into your adult years would find yourselves in your mind’s eye standing with them, repeating those vows of our baptismal covenant and choosing once again for your own lives to be the clear thinking, learned, theologically formed and informed, thoughtful big people of God. For if we cannot show our young people the way forward in life, who can?

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