The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton
rector and pastor
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’ve been battling allergies all week which has left my voice fairly raspy, which can often and easily lead to an annoying, hacking cough, which can leave what I have to say difficult to discern.
The good news is, because of all that, this will be a shorter sermon than usual. Let’s just say that there will be just a slight disturbance this morning in the balance between Word and Sacrament. We’ll try to make it up next week – or, not as the case may be.
Today’s gospel passage is often used as an illustration of sacrificial love. Jesus is clearing speaking of the sacrifice of his life on the hard wood of the cross, which many a preacher (myself included) has used to demonstrate the nobility inherent in the sacrifice of people like soldiers or fire fighters or police who are often in situations where they place their own life in peril to save the lives or homes or loved ones of perfect strangers.
There is, undoubtedly, great nobility in those professions. There is even greater inspiration in stories of ‘accidental heroes’ – you know, heroic efforts by innocent bystanders who come upon a situation of great danger and respond, more by instinct, to run into a burning house or dive into frigid lake to rescue a perfect stranger.
While those are magnificent illustrations of sacrificial love, this is not going to be a sermon about that kind of nobility. I want to talk this morning about the nobility of knowing when not to help – about those situations when, to intervene is exactly the opposite of what is necessary or required in that particular situation.
As I was searching my files for an illustrative story, I came upon this story of ‘The Moth and The Cocoon.’ It goes like this: A man found a cocoon of an emperor moth. He took it home, so that he could watch the moth come out of the cocoon. One day, a small opening appeared, and he sat still, watching for several hours, as the moth struggled to force its body through the little hole. Then, it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. It seemed to be stuck. Then the man, in his kindness, decided to help the moth.
So, he took a pair of scissors, and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then emerged easily. But, it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the moth because he expected, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the little moth spent the rest of its life, crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.
What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle, required for the moth to get through the tiny opening, were God's way of forcing fluid from the body of the moth, into its wings, so it would be ready for flight, once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle. By depriving the moth of a struggle, the man deprived the moth of health.
Now, am I saying that if, given the opportunity, we should not try to help someone in distress? By no means! I am concerned, however, that some people take the message of this particular gospel passage and apply it to their own lives – or worse, the lives of others – in the wrong way.
Some people, for example, practice what I call, “sacrificial parenting.” They are so hell-bent on not being their parents that their children literally want for nothing. They never learn how to work to earn that something special that ‘all the other kids have.’ They don’t ever have to defend themselves on the playground or the playing field because their parents advocate for them on the sidelines. Indeed, they don’t have to think at all.
One of our granddaughters is playing girl’s softball this year, and her parents report that it is absolutely appalling to see some of the other parents yelling at the refs about a call, or arguing with the coach to get their kid up at bat when that’s not what’s called for at that point in the game. God forbid, their child should learn that life is sometimes not fair!
My point is this: Sometimes, struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were allowed to go through our life without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to allow another person to struggle a bit before offering to help. Sometimes, the best help we can offer is not to rush to help. To stand back a bit to wait and watch to see if the person can work it out him/her self; and if they can’t work it out, to offer the least amount of intervention so as not to diminish that person’s sense of accomplishment or heighten the lesson that person needs to learn.
Years ago, I had this insight as I watched a new mom on the playground with her young son who was just learning to walk. She had his fat little fingers wrapped around one of her fingers as he toddled his steps. She would work her finger out of his grasp and then hold her hands back as he toddled and then wobbled and then crashed. He would cry and whimper as his mother brushed him off and got him up again, only to repeat the scenario.
At one moment, when the mother pulled her hands away, she had her arms out like this – and I thought – she looks just like Jesus on the cross. And it came to me that that’s exactly what God in Christ did – spread out his arms on the hard wood of the cross, offering us the free gift of grace, not that we might be perfect and never fall into sin, but rather, that we might learn to walk the path of liberation offered to us by Jesus.
Sometimes, the greatest sacrifice we can make for another is to simply let them live their lives – to let them fall and rise on their own steam; to risk failure in the name of love and to find a measure of success for themselves by the grace of God.
You know, sort of the same way I’ve made it through this sermon. Amen.