Sermon / June 18, 2017 / Fathers Day / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / Matthew 9:35-10:8
There are people who study church growth for a living, and one of the things that these people have talked about recently is what they call the “feminization” of the church. Statistics from all over the country show that it is mostly women who attend church and who power lay ministries. I’m not sure this is completely true at Grace, but it is true in general. Researchers conjecture that since the 1970s, churches have embraces values and practices that draw more women than men – things like spirituality groups, pastoral visitor programs, and sermons that emphasize the love of God rather than the majesty of God.
I think there’s something to this, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. If we look at the whole arc of Scripture, it can give us some context, and maybe this Father’s Day we can begin to look at men, God, and church in a different way.
The Scriptural story is populated, largely, with men. The fingerprints of kings are all over the Hebrew Scriptures. We are so familiar with the stories of famous kings – Saul and David and Solomon – that it’s easy to forget that the Israelites were not always ruled by men. When the Chosen People infiltrated the Holy Land many hundreds of years before, they were organized tribally, and then, as the population grew, by an informal system of judges. Judges were both men and women who emerged into leadership by virtue of their wisdom and experience. People went to them for resolution of conflict, for questions about community affairs, and for personal guidance. Judges were believed to represent God’s sovereignty and God’s care, and they had tremendous authority. The system worked, at least for that time and place.
But eventually, the Israelites thought they needed something bigger and better. Some elder men (note: no women) went to Samuel, who was in effect the last judge, and they demanded a king, like other nations had. They wanted a king because they thought kings were heroes who did great things that would bring Israel to greatness. They wanted to run with the big dogs.
Samuel knows it’s a mistake and he talks it over with God. And God says, “Sam, don’t take it personally. These people aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting me. Give them a king – but make sure you tell them what they’re in for. Kings will run roughshod over you. They will tax you. They will send your sons into war and they will force your daughters to be their servants and concubines. You will be slaves to the king. Don’t say I didn’t warn them.”
And so Israel got its first king, Saul. He was psychologically disordered and jealous of his power. It was a disaster from the start. The kingship rebounded somewhat with the reign of David. But despite all his great gifts, he fell from Grace when he seduced – or more likely, raped – the wife of one of his commanders and was called to accounts. His reign never really recovered from the scandal. After a period of terrible civil strife, his son Solomon succeeded him. He too was a man of many gifts – but he too fell from grace because he had a taste for foreign (i.e. pagan) wives. The kings also co-opted the prophets, “company men” who supposedly spoke for God but who sometimes spoke only on behalf of the king and his cronies.
The kings waged some successful campaigns against hostile neighbors, and they centralized worship in Jerusalem. They gave Israel some glory days. But all in all, their failure to deal effectively with the threat of foreign superpowers as well as their lack of fidelity to religious values and to justice brought the country to its knees.
The Bible records the partial history of two patriarchal religions, Judaism and Christianity. And I think it’s fair to say that we live in a patriarchal culture. I wonder how well patriarchal societies work for the men who run them. This is my point: Patriarchal societies privilege men, but they also sacrifice men.
The way boys are socialized worries me. When girls don’t do well in school, the incorrect assumption is often that they are “not smart enough.” When boys don’t do well, they are thought to be “not trying hard enough”. This cultural pressure on boys to perform and to be always more than good enough – much more than good enough – starts early in a boy’s life and is thought to be normal and natural for a boy. The word “perform” can haunt a boy his whole life through – academically, socially, physically, professionally, and sexually. This accounts for the selling power behind Viagra and Cialis: the assumption that man is expected to perform, and that a man wants to perform, in every way, until he takes his last breath. This is crazy.
When I served at a parish in Connecticut, we had a family service at which the clergy gave children’s sermons. A little like our family service here, except that the kids were older…into their teenage years. One Sunday, I was talking with the kids about how important it is to know the difference between cultural values and Christian values, and I asked the kids if they had ever felt the pressure of a cultural value. And one little boy, about 8 years old – he was just tall enough for his head to clear the top of the pew – said, “Yes, I feel pressure to have more muscles.” Now this was a little kid who should have still been enjoying his blanket and his Mommy’s lullabies, and there he was every night worrying about his physique when his head hit the pillow. There is the power of a cultural value.
I want to suggest that the hero/king pattern we see in the Old Testament is still reflected in the way we bring up boys. Boys are catapulted by school age into a system that demands that they be winners, dominators, and over-achievers. The suffering and loneliness that creates have to be well-hidden because boys – big or little – don’t cry. Kings do not weep. Maybe that is why we see so many teenaged boys and young men who are emotionally and spiritually blocked and who have to drink or drug or sexually assault someone or pick up a gun in order to feel alive.
And when young men get out of school and put their noses to the grindstone, they sometimes pursue a lifetime of hard labor that may not be anything like a vocation, a true call to soul-satisfying work. And they pursue that labor so diligently, with so much muscle and sweat, that they become slaves to the king. No one can just be a guy anymore. Everyone’s got to be a hero. Owned by their owning power, men can feel tyrannized by partners or wives who are caught in a vortex of acquisition and a life of performance on demand. These are men who are strangers to their children because they are strangers to themselves. And because men’s lives are so frenzied – with no quiet or play or rest, just more and more activity – they can never catch up, at work or at home. Living this way doesn’t give anything but moments of passing satisfaction. It gives, more often, a sense of failure or even transgression, the feeling that somewhat even being a hero is not good enough. Your resume may be shining, your bank account may be full, but your hands are somehow empty.
This is a recipe for a broken heart. And men with broken hearts don’t want to come to church. They are just too exhausted to put on that suit and tie one more day and kneel down to one more god.
Jesus showed us another way to be a man. One of the first things he did, as we see in today’s gospel, was to form an alternative community of men, the disciples. And he refuses to be a king. When people try to force a crown on him, he literally runs away from them. Not only because he believed that God was the true king of Israel, but because he had a way of understanding the world that set him free to live his life with meaning and joy and purpose and without domination. And he began to get the strength to do this when he had the guts and vision to reject the values of his culture and his religion that were life-denying.
This is why we always see Jesus in trouble when he goes home. Home represents the set of values we grew up with, the status quo of any culture. Jesus’s family and old neighbors were never happy with him, because they thought his ministry represented a rejection of them. They thought he was dangerous. And he was.
Have you noticed how many of the stories we have about Jesus show him interacting with men? And Jesus is never intimidated. He strides right into any situation, and he meets it head on with his tremendous confidence in the healing power of God. He takes on God’s very identity as loving, compassionate Father. He is always confident of the simple presence of goodness in the world. He never backs down. And that is the true masculine power: the power to be a healing presence to others because as a man you stand within the invincible power of goodness alone. Jesus so completely internalized his own divine sonship that he is able to give it to others.
We forget that the form that God’s love comes to us in is, mostly, forgiveness. It’s especially hard for men to remember that, maybe because our culture forces men to live in such unforgiving ways. But inside every “Mad Men” is, I think, a sad man, who longs for healing. If coming to church is for anything, it’s for that: to let yourself become someone who – like all of Jesus’s disciples, men and women – brings the transforming power of God’s love to others by letting it come to life within themselves.
Which means that you have the moral courage to let yourself be forgiven for capitulating to the paralyzing power of success; that instead of being a slave to the king, you use your strength to make conscious choices about your life; and that you have the soul power to live a life of wholeness with the people you love. This is what the church is for. Let people call you crazy. They called Jesus crazy, too.
So, if you see a glimpse of yourself in anything I have said, if you are a broken-hearted guy, remember that Jesus was broken-hearted too. His heart was broken on the cross by some Roman soldier who knew Jesus was probably already dead, but who was trying to be some kind of hero by jamming his sword into Jesus’s chest. And from that came the blood and the water that would become food for the world. That’s why we call it the “sacred heart”.
Your heart is sacred, too. God made you. Jesus redeemed you. He set you free. You are free.