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Sermon for 10/28/14: Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude:
I once had a truly terrible date. I had been seeing this guy long distance for a while. We had met through mutual friends and gone on a few dates with them, but since we lived in different states the majority of our relationship was conducted through letters and phone calls. (Yes, this was before the internet). So this was our first “real” date. He had planned all kinds of fun things for us to do – except that there were a few problems. His plan to take me hang gliding fell through when we couldn’t get a lesson slot, so we decided to fly kites instead. We went to a local kite shop, where my date purchased a “stunt kite” – the kind that is supposed to do loop-the-loops and other tricks. When we got to the beach he had trouble getting his kite in the air, so I offered to throw it up for him. Well, over and over I’d throw this big heavy kite up and it would come crashing down on my head. So after I’d had enough of this, we decided that he’d just run to get it in the air, which eventually worked. So then I just stood beside him while he made this stunt kite go. Well, the kite required a lot of manipulation and I was slightly behind him and before I knew it –wham- black eye. He apologized profusely and suggested we give up on the kite flying and take a nice walk on the beach instead. It was very cold near the water and he was eager to make it up to me for the kite incident, so he gallantly offered me his jacket, which I put on -but I had trouble with the zipper.
He told me it often got stuck and offered to zip it up for me. He tugged and tugged and suddenly –uppercut to the chin. As you might suspect, I was getting a little suspicious by now and thinking of hightailing it home as fast as I could, but he was so sweet and so apologetic and so sincere and clearly as upset as I was – so instead I did the only other sensible thing I figured I could. I married him.
Well, 26 years later it seems as if my story has worked out pretty well, but it might not have. Because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the bumbling mistakes we make when we’re too eager to please – and malice masquerading as concern. And we so desperately want to believe that it’s care rather than cruelty. And, let’s admit it, it’s flattering – the idea that someone is so smitten with you that they can’t control themselves when you’re around. How else do you explain the popularity of the songs, “Every Breath You Take,” and “Obsession”? This kind of possessive love seems so appealing – until it occurs to us that “Every move you make…I’ll be watching you” may not bode well for a
Except with God – because the God who watches over us, the God who numbers every breath we take, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves is faithful and without deceit. We need not mistake God’s desire for us for irrational obsession. We need not dread God’s passion – as long as we don’t confuse God’s love with human desires – and as long as we are not blinded by the fears and false friends that keep us from recognizing our God.
Losing the ability to discriminate between friend and foe – between true disciple and deceiver -is the primary fear expressed in the letter of the saint we know as Jude, who we remember today. The letter of Jude is considered to be one of the oldest books in the New Testament, with some suggesting that it was written by one of the brothers of Jesus – but we don’t know if that’s true. The letter has no salutation, so we don’t know if he was writing to a specific group of people. In reality, all we really know is that this letter was authored by one of the earliest Christians. Which is why it’s particularly interesting to consider the subject matter of Jude’s letter. It’s not about the themes we hear in other epistles. It’s not about the building up the body of Christ. It’s not about how Christians should live together. It’s a warning. “Do not fall in with false disciples,” he says, “lest you be thrown into ‘the deepest darkness’ with them.” Do not abandon your morals for worldly gain. Do not be a scoffer, a flatterer, a malcontent. In short, do not forget who your God really is.
The man who allegedly traveled with Jude, the disciple whom we call “Simon the Zealot,” is not known for worrying about his Christian identity. As with Jude, we don’t know much about “not-Simon Peter” Simon, including why he’s called “the Zealot.” Some sources argue that the appellation is really a mistranslation of the word “Canaanite,” and that instead of describing who he is, the word simply identifies where he was from. Other traditions hold that Simon belonged to a radical anti-Roman, Jewish political group called the zealots – but historical evidence makes that unlikely. So we’re left with the obvious; Simon was
called the zealot because he was filled with zeal for Jesus.
And that seems like a good thing – a thing for us to emulate. But taking a look at scripture might make you wonder. The word zeal first pops up in Psalm 69, in which the writer is bewailing the loss of all that is important to him and the insults and slander he has undergone for God. “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” This psalm is quoted in the gospel of John in reference to Jesus’ destruction of the marketplace in the temple. So, as far as we can tell from the Bible, religious “zeal” is not a good thing. Zeal, in fact, can be very dangerous.
Which is precisely what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel. “The world hates you,” he tells them, “just as it has hated me…The world will persecute you…just as it persecuted me.” Jesus is telling the disciples that they no longer belong to the only world they know. That they have been chosen by Jesus for something beyond that world. And that their endurance of the world’s hatred is somehow sacred, because it makes them like Jesus. The disciples are to understand that their Christian identity is intimately related to their submission to persecution. That the world’s zeal in oppressing them is proof that Jesus belongs to them – and they belong to him. And that belonging to Jesus carries a high cost. Zeal for him might easily consume them.
Sigmund Freud postulated the theory that people use psychological defense mechanisms to deal with emotional pain. Projection occurs when a person unconsciously disowns one of their own intolerable feelings by attributing it – projecting it – onto someone else. When presented with something that doesn’t seem to have specific characteristics – what we call a “blank slate” – people will generally project their own unacceptable thoughts onto it. Figure out someone’s projections and it will tell you a lot about that person. Figure out an institution’s projections and you might find out what it really stands for.
Today we commemorate two of Jesus’ disciples about whom we know very little. They are, in essence, Christian blank slates – so it’s particularly interesting to consider what we have made of them with what little we know about them. For example, in traditional Christian iconography Simon’s symbol is an axe – and Jude’s is a club. That’s because, according to the legends the church has created about them, they fought for the Lord – and, by axe and by club, they died for the Lord. Zeal – either their persecutor’s or their own – consumed them. As the song says, “It’s a thin line between love and hate.”
I don’t know about you, but I find it can be easy to step over that line – especially when it comes to my God. Because there is nothing that angers me more – nothing that offends me more – nothing that makes it more difficult for me not to hate – than those who persecute others in God’s name. And this is especially true when they are people with whom I share a faith, with whom I share a household, at whom I look in the mirror.
It seems that everywhere we look we see atrocities; children being kidnapped and tortured for wanting to read; people being killed for the color of their skin; bombs killing entire families who did nothing more than decide to spend the day at the beach. Perhaps the reactionary fear that can be read into the letter of Jude is not so implausible after all. It has become far too easy to see only “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions.” It has become too easy to wish for an almighty, victorious God who rules in might – who will dispense justice against such individuals. It has become too easy to allow our zeal to consume us.
But that is not who we are. We are not the children of a God of hatred. We are the children of the God of love. We are the children of the God of peace. But we have to fight for that peace – not against other people, but against ourselves. We have to fight for the peace that is within us. We have to fight for the peace that is buried under our fear. We have to fight for the peace that can overcome the zeal that wantonly consumes. And we can do this – we can do this by trying to live by the example of the one who by his flesh breaks down all dividing walls and who by his death proclaimed peace. We can, like Jude, have faith in a love that is both passionate and compassionate. “Keep yourselves in the love of God,” he writes,
“look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ…and have mercy” on others – as God has mercy on us. AMEN.
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