The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
We were a little late to the game, but Jeremy and I finally saw the Broadway show Hadestown a few weeks ago. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a modern retelling of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Cliff notes: Orpheus falls in love with and marries Eurydice. She dies shortly thereafter. Grief-stricken, Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring her back to the land of the living. Hades, the god of the underworld, allows it on the condition that Orpheus not look back as Eurydice follows him out of the underworld. If Orpheus looks back, Eurydice will return to the underworld forever. As the trip from the underworld to the land of the living progresses, Orpheus gets more and more skeptical and uncertain that Eurydice is still behind him. At the last minute, he can’t take it anymore and turns around, to see her standing right there and doom her to an eternity in the underworld.
The thing about the show that stood out to us was, even though you know how it’s going to end, it was done so well that you’re still crushed at the moment Orpheus turns around.
If only he knew what we the audience knew – Eurydice was there all along. You just needed to trust that she was. If only he knew he could.
57 years ago today, an Episcopal seminary student named Jonathan Myrick Daniels was arrested along with several others after taking part in a Civil Rights protest in Hayneville, Alabama.
After being jailed for 6 days, Jonathan and 3 others – a Catholic priest and two Black teenage girls – were unexpectedly released. Aware that they were in danger, four of them walked to a small store. As sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales reached the top step of the entrance, a man with a gun appeared, cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side and took the bullet intended for her. He was killed instantly.
Today is his feast day.
What made this privileged white man from New England leave the comfort of his life and join the civil rights movement was the call of Martin Luther King, Jr to come to Selma to secure for all citizens the right to vote. And he found the conviction and inspiration to do so in the song of Mary, the Magnificat: Daniels said, “ ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”
I don’t think it is without meaning that the feast of the Virgin Mary is celebrated tomorrow.
Daniels knew, as MLK had told those who joined the fight for civil rights, that he would not necessarily see the fruits of his labor. He knew that walking the treacherous road to justice did not guarantee that he would see the promised land. What he did know was that he had to trust that God was right there behind him. Keep going, and don’t look back. Don’t let your doubts make you lose sight of where you’re headed.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab did not perish.
By faith, God’s people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises.
By faith, Jonathan Daniels stepped in between a young Black girl and an angry white man with a gun.
And as the letter to the Hebrews says, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” MLK, Jonathan Daniels, and countless others lost their lives before seeing the better world they were fighting for.
I think that’s a concept that’s harder and harder for us to grasp.
In a world of guaranteed results and instant gratification, to commit yourself to an action, a cause, a certain path, and not have the payoff makes it foolish to justify the effort, to think it’s worth it at all.
To live for God’s promise and not receive what is promised… it can make God seem far off and not close by.
Like maybe God doesn’t actually keep God’s promises.
And when that happens – when we go from doubt to mistrust – we get blinded from a bigger picture.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Jesus tells of the division that will occur when we follow him – division even within households, with mother against daughter and father against son.
It’s no accident that Jesus puts the family at the center of the division that he brings. The household was the fundamental building block of society in his day. In proclaiming that he brings division, and that division will threaten the household and fracture families, Jesus shows us that his mission is not to maintain the status quo or validate human institutions, but to trample them with God’s radical will. God’s dream for this world threatens the stability of all the structures we hold near and dear. And the less we trust in God – and each other – the more division we see.
And where this leaves me is to wonder whether this division is prescriptive, or descriptive. Has Jesus truly come to bring division? Is that truly God’s mission and dream for us? Or is division simply the inevitable result of Jesus’ mission? Is division what Jesus wants, or is it what he knows will happen when people choose to follow him? The text itself suggests that the division Jesus brings is the result of the purifying fire he brings, that his radical challenge of the status quo and existing societal structures will naturally sow division among his followers. Division is not the wind in Jesus’ sails, but it follows in his wake. And I must ask: does this make it any better? Whether division is God’s intent for us or not, the fact remains that it is a natural byproduct of our faith; how is that good news? And perhaps an even more difficult follow-up question: Does this mean that when division begins, the gospel is actually at work among us?
I think the answer might lie somewhere in an inventory of our own inner workings, how large our capacity to trust really is, how wide-angle of a lens we look through. Are we Orpheus, less and less trusting of what we can’t yet see, or are we Jonathan Daniels, trusting in a goal that might stretch beyond our life’s horizon?
How can I be sure that the promised land will arrive one day? How can I trust you’re right behind me, God, when there’s no proof until we get there?
How can I follow you when I can’t be sure I’ll ever know if it was all worth it?
By faith others before us have walked this road of holding the long view – of working for a reward their descendants will enjoy. A great cloud of witnesses whose inspire us to keep going.
It’s worth noting that these ancestors in the faith are not people who necessarily succeeded at what they set out to do, or received the promise God made — and that we do not see their efforts as futile. We don’t look down on them as examples of what not to do. We see them as models of inspiration and sources of energy for us.
So what if that was you one day?
What if that was all of us?
What if we’re meant to live lives that will bear fruit we will never taste?
What if God’s purpose for us is to join the great cloud of witnesses who point the way to a horizon we won’t live to reach?
These are questions we don’t think to ask in our instant-gratification, guaranteed-results world. But they are the questions Jesus asks of us.
We may never see the glory of the world God dreams of. And yet we are invited to live for it. There will be division; there will be times when God seems far off instead of close by and right at our backs. But with our capacity to trust, with our capacity for faith, that won’t be the end of the story.
So isn’t it worth it to try?