God is in the Details – Br. Jim Woodrum
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Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
A favorite story of mine about the founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, is from his childhood. His biographer M. V. Woodgate writes: “When he was a little boy, he used regularly to read a text every night in a little testament his mother had given him, and one night he was found by his nurse lying on the floor in his night clothes, with the little book clasped in his hand. His nurse and the governess both told him to get into bed, but he lay silently there, and at last they brought up his father, who called him to sit on his knee and tell him what was the matter. The little boy pointed to his text for the night and his father read, ‘Thou, therefore, endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’ (2 Timothy 2:3). Then he said, ‘The floor is hard, so I must sleep on it.’ ‘Yes, Richard,’ said his father, ‘but there is one thing harder which the soldier has to learn, and that is obedience; so you go and get into bed.’ Young Richard Benson had a fascination with soldiers and had inherited a love for Jesus from his mother, both of which would last throughout his entire life.
In the gospels we see that Jesus had a special love of children and he had many things to say about them. In Jesus’ day children, like women, were chattel; personal property. If you were a boy, you gained dignity at adulthood, but if you were a girl, you would always be a possession. This was not so for Jesus and he welcomed all children into his loving arms and encouraged his disciples to do the same. In Mark’s gospel we read: People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Now, even though Jesus loved children and ascribed to them dignity and worth, He recognized they were immature and in need of guidance. In today’s gospel lesson according to Matthew we hear Jesus speaking about immature faith in regards to the Law. He says: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” He was noting that children could be finicky. We know this to be true especially when children are tired and in need of a nap. They turn up their nose at any suggestion that might help. The religious leaders of the day turned up their noses to the truth Jesus was proclaiming and He was bringing this to their attention. They wanted asceticism, but the life John the Baptist was suggesting was too hard. They wanted to be included, but Jesus entered fellowship with anyone who came to him and there was nothing special about that. There was just no satisfying their pious appetites and they were on the verge of a tantrum.
As they saw it, the way to love God was by the knowledge of God’s Law and following it with no exception. They toiled hard to learn the law, follow dietary restrictions, make the appropriate sacrifices in the Temple, and didn’t do anything that might be considered work on the Sabbath. You loved God by keeping the Law, and by doing so, God would love you. But what if you were uneducated, poor, or sick? What if the only thing you had to eat didn’t meet kosher standards? What if you couldn’t afford to make sacrifice in the Temple? What if you had to work on the Sabbath in order to provide for your family? If you didn’t have the means to know and keep the Law, you were considered unworthy of God’s love and favor.
Jesus had a different take. It wasn’t that the Law was unimportant, but that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” People were flocking to Jesus and He was restoring their relationship with God and each other, therefore bringing them to a new understanding of the Law. You may recall a story later in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is being questioned by a religious leader. He asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ The spirit of the Law was love, not legalism. People were trying to win God’s love through means they could never accomplish and they were tired.
We hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I think Jesus is saying that fulfilling the Law does take work, but if you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself, God will be in the details! And the place we can start is in our own heart. It’s hard to love God and neighbor when we are constantly trying to attain an impossible standard ourselves. Life is hard and to be honest sometimes the poorest person we know is ourselves. Perhaps this is where we find Paul today in his letter to the Romans: tired, exasperated, frustrated. He writes: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” As our Collect for the day says: “Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united with one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord….” Let it begin with me, as the 12-step slogan puts it. I think it is much easier to have love and compassion for our neighbors when we recognize our own need for love and compassion.
And let’s be honest, this may be hard some days. Recently we were visited by a middle school group from Vermont and were hosting a question and answer session here in the Chapel. One of the young people asked, “Why are the only images of Jesus in this chapel ones of him on the cross? There are no images of him risen.” It was just before Compline, so the risen Christ we see in the stained glass wasn’t visible. I think answer is that we are all His children and He ascribes dignity and worth upon us by loving us no matter how immature our faith at any given moment. His arms are wide open and when we can’t handle the burden, He will take it for us. That is Jesus’ good news. It made me think of that line in the Psalm that says: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Indeed as we raise our eyes to the stained glass this morning, we can see images of the risen Christ, illumined by the sunlight on this beautiful day!
Later in his life Fr. Benson wrote: “It is, however, the heart which must teach the intellect to know God by loving him, not philosophy which can teach the heart to love God by knowing Him.” The yoke Jesus lays on our shoulder is one of grace and his burden is one of love. If we take up this yoke, God will be in the details!
- Woodgate, M. V. Father Benson of Cowley. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953. Print
- Mark 10:13-16 NRSV
- Matthew 22:36-46
- Psalm 30:5
- Benson, R. M. Further Letters. 1881.
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I posted this to FaceBook, because I want my family and friends to read it, too. Thanks for this very significant sermon. May God be with you.
St Camp DeWolfe Long Island is a “Benson House” Named after Fr Benson maybe?
Having recently heard a sermon contrasting John the Baptizer with Jesus which offered interesting, but incomplete, contrasts, I found this sermon exactly what I need to complete the heard sermon and to present the perspective of child like behavior.