The Feast of St. Agnes
Today the church tells the story of Agnes. The story of Agnes is a dark story, and Christians have been telling it for 1600 years. Agnes was a beautiful girl who attracted many suitors, though she rebuffed them all because she wanted to remain a virgin, and be faithful to God alone. As a result, Agnes suffered a cruel death which violated her sexuality. She was twelve years old.
So what are we to make of this story? The early church Fathers praised Agnes’ courage and chastity, and remarked upon her name, which means ’pure’ in Greek and ‘lamb’ in Latin. In the Gospel reading for today Jesus encourages us to ‘become like children,’ and perhaps what is important to us in Agnes’ story is the exemplification of a certain kind of innocence and purity of heart that Kierkegaard describes as ‘willing one thing’.
The significance of Christmas is not that it’s a birthday. The significance of Christmas is that God becomes flesh and blood. The significance of Christmas is that God becomes Jesus; and everything changes. Everything changes when Jesus comes, and we need to remember that.
In the time before Jesus comes (the time of expectant waiting) God is distant. God deals with his chosen people – the Israelites – by imposing rules, laws, and commandments through intermediaries, like Moses. In the time before Jesus comes, God doesn’t even show his face.
“Hello!?” “Is there anybody out there!?”
Being lost is terrible. In the wilderness, it is particularly distressing. When we are lost in the wilderness, every leaf and tree looks the same, we become increasingly bewildered, may wander in circles, and wonder whether we have passed this way before. And though few of us, perhaps, have been lost to the extent of being life-threatened; most of us, I suspect, can identify with the feeling of being uncomfortably lost. When we realize we are lost our hearts race, or sink. We feel confused, and very frustrated. Depression sets in. We get anxious; and – if we are all alone and it is getting dark – progressively, hopeless. Being lost is terrible. Being lost makes us want to cry out: for help, for recognition; to let somebody – anybody! – know we are lost. “Hello!?” “Is there anybody out there!?” And how much hope does a response bring! Somebody is out there! Somebody knows we are lost, and will find us! A response is the answer to the no doubt innumerable prayers that have been uttered; the answer to the deepest longing of our heart: We are found! The wilderness is the place we get lost, but the wilderness is also the place we are found.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Many of us may have been asked this question, and maybe we’ve asked this question. We ask it to inspire children and young adults to dream, to give them hope, and to open their eyes to a world of possibilities. We ask this question to make young people aware of the freedom and responsibility they have in forming their own identity. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But, we also this question to set limits. To make clear that though faced at times with a dizzying array of options and possibilities, one cannot do everything. One must choose what one wants to be, and that always means not choosing something else. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
It’s Not Good to Be the King (It’s Better to Be a Servant)
Kings and their kingdoms may lead us to think of the figureheads of a constitutional monarchy, symbols of leadership without actual power. Kings and their kingdoms may lead us to think of the kings of legend and fantasy; or, we may think of feudal kings, endowed with divine right, their hierarchical kingdoms ruled absolutely, and often tyrannically, by the king. Kings and their kingdoms may lead us to think of these things, all of it sounding to us the empty, outdated, unfair political remnant of a bygone age.
The freedom we enjoy in this country is hard won. Men and Women fought and are fighting for this country so we can be free. Fighting so we can be free to govern our lives as we wish; fighting so we can be free to live the lives we choose.
This is not the kind of freedom Jesus promises. The kind of freedom Jesus promises does not depend on us doing what we want, or living the lives we choose. True freedom of the spirit, as Jesus provides it, is having peace when we can’t do what we want. It’s being forgiving when people get in our way, and we can’t live the lives we choose. It’s being loving when we are disappointed, and even hurt by other people. True freedom of the spirit is being able to meet the conditions of our lives consistently, no matter how agreeable or disagreeable, no matter how good or bad other people behave, true freedom of the spirit is being able to meet the conditions of our lives consistently, with peace, with forgiveness, and with love.
Jesus uses the image of masters and slaves, as much as any other, to characterize our relationship to God, and to the world. For us, we may not be so quick to identify with the image of masters and slaves as Jesus’ first hearers were. Yet, many of us, I suspect, know something about being a slave; that is, we know something about being owned, being bound, being controlled by something other than God. Perhaps it’s wealth that we are owned by, as Jesus suggests. Perhaps we are slaves to obsessions and compulsions; addictions, in a word, that dictate what we do, where we go, and who we associate with. It may be that pride is calling the shots, or maybe lust is your master; it might be greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, but we don’t have to specialize.
One of the great strengths of the Christian faith is that it does not shy away from the fact of pain and suffering. We worship a crucified Lord. We worship a God who knew pain.
Jesus says we too will have pain, and none of us probably need reminded of that. What we might need reminded of is that Jesus promises that our pain – much like the pain of childbirth – our pain will be turned to joy. “So you have pain now,” Jesus says, “but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” We don’t just worship a crucified Lord; we worship a resurrected and ascended Lord. Our faith is the assurance that though we will have pain – and all of us have, and many of us do – though we will have pain, our faith is the assurance that there is hope, and there is resurrection. When we see Jesus again, and we will, our pain will be turned to joy.
The metaphor of thirst is used throughout the Gospel of John to characterize the believer’s relationship to the spirit. Whoever comes to me, Jesus says, will never be thirsty, for, “Out of the believer’s heart”, or as the Greek renders it, out of the believer’s belly, “shall flow rivers of living water.”(1) Yet, Jesus himself cries from the cross in his final hour, “I thirst,” suggesting, perhaps, that this side of the grave our deepest longing – our thirst – for wholeness, for union, for belonging, will not be quenched.
If you have ever experienced jealousy, and few of us are exempt I imagine, then you know how imperialistic an emotion it can be. Rooted in comparisons, jealousy drives our attention away from what is good and positive in our own lives, and forces us to focus instead on what we what we lack, on what we desire but do not have, or, on what we do possess and are afraid to lose. It might be the attention and affection of another; or, someone else’s success, health, wealth, a beautiful home, a devoted partner, a dream job, a white-picket fence. Jealousy drives our attention to some privilege we see or imagine others enjoy, which, because it is lacking in our own lives, suddenly appears, in the time of jealousy, essential to our happiness and well-being.