Sermons from Emmanuel: August 20, 2023
Sermons from Emmanuel Church, Dublin, New Hampshire: Sunday, August 20, 2023
Proper 15, Year A (RCL): Reverend Abby VanderBrug
In the year 1630, John Winthrop and a group of people known as the Puritans left England for America. Their new society, a theocracy, a government ruled by religious ideals and leaders, was built on a number of strong principles – Here’s 2 of them
- Predestination - the Puritans believed that God had decided who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, but the Puritans believed people could never be sure where they were going. And so to ensure that you were on the right side of that decision, one had to live one's life striving and trying to guarantee this decision. You couldn’t stray because that might make God change God’s mind about your decision.
- Piety, or religious acts – going to church, praying, memorizing Scripture, being devoted, moves God to bless you. There is some direct relationship there - you do something pleasing to God, God gives you back something good.
While these are not principles that I chose to live my life by, and create some theological problems, they made sense to this group of people at this time. They especially made sense to Winthrop, who had just given England the middle finger - the whole reason they left was because he believed that England did not go far enough to reform the church and so he was going to take these people,, and go be a place he believed followed God the “right way” - had the right beliefs and practices - which he believed in turn would make God bless this group of people in abundance, and ultimately prove to England that he was right.
What these principles did was create a society that was highly controlled and one where it was pretty easy to tell who was in, and who was out - who followed the rules, who didn’t - who was doing it ‘right’, who wasn’t. Conformity was the key to success for and dissent was not tolerated.
It sounds kind of crazy to us, but it didn’t sound crazy to them, especially to John Winthrop. And it worked pretty well for him, people fell in line, they had order and structure and a lot of church, life was hard, but mostly going according to plan, until a woman named Anne came to town.
She was from England, her father a clergy man, and she had the radical idea that God talked to her and told her, assured her, that she was among the elect (on the good side), which Puritan beliefs would argue that’s not possible. Her job in the community was a midwife, so she’s in these women’s homes and starts telling people ‘hey listen, God talked to me’ and because she was the daughter of a clergyman, she could quote scripture like nobody else. So people started showing up to Anne Hutchinson’s house for Bible studies that are invigorating and interesting and this really upsets Winthrop - someone is stepping out of line. He can’t have that in his community, he can’t risk people not conforming to the doctrines, it would threaten the“.” whole thing, and so he brings Anne to trial, finds her guilty and exiles her from the community, the ultimate punishment.
I couldn’t help but think of Anne this morning when I preparing this sermon. The Canaanite woman, 1600 years earlier, a woman who was gentile, not jewish, an outsider, whose voice did not belong there. The disciples complain ‘can someone just send her away?’ Even Jesus, the figure who has been preaching love and hospitality for some time now, says “she’s not on the list of people I’m interested in.” It’s a pretty harsh comment and if I’m honest, a reaction from Jesus that I really struggle with, especially when he refers to her as a dog. It just doesn’t fit in with my understanding of who Jesus is. At our Bible Study on the back porch this week, after we read all of the readings, the overwhelming sense from our group discussion of the readings was “yeah, that’s complicated. Good luck with your sermon.”
In modern day, school is starting, and I also couldn’t stop thinking about how even though I think we’ve come a long way from Puritan society (if you can’t tell, I’m refreshing all my first lectures), we still have a desire to know who is in and who is out. I think part of what made Puritan society compelling was that it was very clear what you needed to do, what you needed to believe, in order to belong. And to belong, to be part of something, to be included - we all want that.
If you don’t believe me, talk to a student about to embark on 9th grade and I bet they’re wondering “am I going to fit in?” And worried about where the sport teams, or friend groups they’re part of line up on the social hierarchy.
This theme of belonging, the question of to whom the faith and miracles and love is for is in all of the readings this morning. Who belongs, who has access to Jesus, and what does that belonging get you? But there isn’t really a clear answer. Sure, Jesus reacts a lot better to the Caananite woman than John Winthrop reacts to Anne Hutchinson - Jesus actually finally hears her, and can sense her faith and ultimately heals her daughter, which is what she came for. Much better than Winthrop who throws Anne to the Wilderness.
Our lectionary group was right - this is complicated and his reaction to the Caananite woman is complicated. And, could it be that Jesus - and therefore our faith - is more complex and mysterious than we want it to be? Could it be that the answer to the question of ‘who belongs’ and ‘who gets to be healed or heard by Jesus’ is more complicated than we think, or more complex than we have an answer for.
I ask because if I’m honest, there are people whom I do not want to belong in the Kingdom of God, there are people whom I do not believe are worthy of that mercy. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m a little like Winthrop and think - that the theology I have, that the way I practice my faith - is the ‘right way’ and other people are wrong.
It’s so easy to demonize people or to ‘other’ them these days - and more and more I think we’re creating circles of community where everyone looks and thinks and does, like ourselves. It's disappointing to myself to admit that, but I am willing to admit it, because I trust Jesus can do something with it.
So I don’t have an answer to this complicated passage - and the complicated question of who deserves God’s mercy, and whose voice Jesus hears, and how we react when something our beloved Jesus does gives a really complicated interaction - But I take heart in these words.
My kid said to me the other day, “mama, why don’t you just worry about yourself.” Lucky for me, it’s not my job to decide who gets what out of Jesus, and it’s not my job to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.’ Those are all above my paygrade. That is not my job. No one asked me to be in charge of that.
My job as a Christian, as far as I understand it, is to seek healing in all the places I can - including myself, to be the most whole, source of love and light, as I can be - and to want that for everyone else. The rest of it - who gets what, whose in, whose out, who Jesus listens to - I have to learn how to let that go to take Paul’s side, remembering his words in the letter to the Romans this morning “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
I am probably not right about everything, and maybe don’t know as much as I think I know - I am messy and complicated and so is everybody else – and God can work with that.