A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 27, 2014 (Proper 12, Year A)
As a young parent there’s nothing quite like dropping your infant off for the first time at daycare and hearing blood-curdling, gut-wrenching screams as you walk out the door. To that point you’d been a pretty good parent. Attentive, loving, doting even; you spent over an hour figuring out how to properly install the car seat; you stayed up all night when he had that terrible virus and you encountered bodily fluids you never even knew existed. You’d experienced depths of love you couldn’t have imagined before you had this child.
But all of this is washed away the moment you hand your child over to a stranger for the first time and walk away. You feel like you’ve just sold your first born for a pittance. And yet wracked with guilt, you walk out anyway with guttural screams of abandonment ringing in your ears.
There’s a phrase for this: separation anxiety. But it’s never really clear who’s suffering from it more acutely — you or your child. Because everybody at the daycare center knows that the child will stop screaming at the precise moment you’re out of ear shot. He’ll settle down and have a great day. But even so, for those brief moments, a child does experience the sheer terror of abandonment — and lets everyone within a five-mile radius know about it. At one level this is perfectly understandable — his or her entire world has literally just walked away; everything that’s familiar and comforting has, like Elvis, left the building. (Hopefully this hasn’t been your experience with the nursery here at St. John’s, by the way).
But while we may not kick and scream and pitch a fit when we’re separated from people or things we care about, we are all still subject to separation anxiety at various points in our lives. The end of a relationship, graduation, loss of a job, an empty nest, downsizing to a smaller home, the death of a loved one. These all lead to forms of separation anxiety and at the heart of separation anxiety is fear. Fear that we will never be reunited with something or someone we care about. Fear of abandonment. Fear of the unfamiliar. Fear of change. Fear that things will never be the same.
A lot of what fuels our actions in life is the avoidance of separation anxiety. We hunker down or fail to take risks or live in fear of what others will think. And that’s really no way to exist because it sucks the joy right out of your life.
But guess what? We don’t have to live that way. Faith helps us throw off that living paralysis because we have been given the ultimate assurance — that whatever separation we encounter in our lives, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Think about that for a moment. God loves us so much that he sent his only Son into our world not just to hang out or enjoy the fruits of his Father’s creation or to brag about his divinity, but to be hung on a cross. God loves us so much that he sent his Son into our world despite our infidelity and fickleness and foibles. God loves us so much that he literally gave of himself — his own Son.
That’s the power of the incarnation and that’s the power of God’s love for not just humanity in general but for you in particular. And if that doesn’t drive out fear even in the darkest of days, even in weeks where the news brings us a seemingly endless cycle of violence and tragedy, even in moments when we want to give up, I’m not sure what will.
And when we take separation anxiety out of the equation it all points us toward the Kingdom of Heaven. In our gospel passage Jesus rips off five parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in rapid-fire succession. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and a net. Yikes. If he’d loaded all these parables into a Super Soaker we’d emerge from the encounter completely drenched. Granted, Matthew likely lumped all these teachings about the Kingdom into one section — I can’t imagine Jesus stood up and unleashed this torrent of parables on his hearers all at once. And if we were to take them parable by parable we’d be here all day.
But one thing I’ll say about these parables is that they point us to the small things. Like a mustard seed or a bit of yeast, small acts matter. And if you think about it even Jesus started small. He didn’t show up and start building institutions and endowments; he called a single disciple and then another and another and then started telling stories to small groups of people. His message, like that mustard seed, continued to grow but it started on a tiny scale. And even in what I like to call his rock star stage when the crowds were swarming and pushing in on him, it’s important to remember that Jesus was only speaking to a very small region of the world; one he could get to by foot or by boat. Which makes the miracle of the message and the abundance of the Kingdom that much clearer.
And I think this also offers us hope that even when we feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges we, too, can start small in our response. And the kick-starter may just be remembering that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Because if the fear of death is the ultimate driver of separation anxiety — and I believe it is — the good news of the Christian faith is that death no longer has dominion over us. Because whether we live or die, we are alive through faith in Jesus Christ.
And there is such incredible freedom in that isn’t there? I mean just listen to Paul’s words again, words that are often spoken at funerals but really should be read much more often: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And we don’t have to do anything to earn this. Not matter what we do or fail to do, God’s not going to abandon us. God’s not going to leave us to scream it out at daycare. There may be days when we do some screaming, or want to, but God’s not leaving our side. Ever. For eternity. Until the end of the ages. And that, my friends, is the best news of all.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck