It’s been a year,” said the Rev. Natalie Hanson, meaning it had been a year since Chautauquans gathered for worship in the Amphitheater.
“It’s been a year,” she said, referencing COVID-19, the anger, meanness, gun violence and national division. Matthew, the Gospel writer, was writing to a community that was also anxious and under stress.
“Have any of you lost someone to COVID? Have you seen a store close or a small restaurant not make it? Do you have doubts about the future?” she asked the congregation.
Hanson preached at the 9 a.m. Thursday, July 1 morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her title was “Jesus vs. Jesus.” The scripture texts were Matthew 10:34-36 and Matthew 11:28-30.
These verses are in the middle of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus had been preaching, teaching and healing; he had raised a child from the dead. He was sending the disciples out two by two to encounter the real world.
“In all the little towns that Jesus preached in, no one built a megachurch,” Hanson said. “Some people said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ The first bloom was gone, the honeymoon was over, and life was getting real.”
Matthew’s community in Asia Minor was going through hardship. Families were becoming divided as some left the synagogue to be Jesus’ followers, while others stayed behind.
Hanson said that most of her problems are “First World problems” like how to use Zoom or order from Uber Eats. Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, 2020, both she and her husband, Paul Womack, tested positive for COVID-19.
It was a mild case and “annoying, because I lost my sense of taste and smell the day before Thanksgiving,” she said.
But as they listened to the news and heard reports that people could feel good for five to seven days before the bottom falls out and they end up on a respirator, they looked at each other with tears in their eyes.
“We did not know how to react,” Hanson said. “What could we count on, what was certain, what could we depend on?”
Hanson read the book of Matthew from back to front and came upon Chapter 11 first. Jesus tells those who are listening that they should lay down their burdens and follow him and he will give them rest.
“We can’t translate the phrase for ‘my yoke is easy’ directly, but it means that the yoke is good and kind and beneficial. We can all breathe again,” Hanson said.
But in Chapter 10, Jesus says he is not coming to bring peace, but a sword to divide families.
“People’s hearts are pierced and families are set against each other,” Hanson said. “Jesus brings division and hatred. And Jesus tells the people that if they do not pick up their cross and walk with him, they are not a real part of his crew.”
Who is Jesus? The loving Christ or the divisive realist?
“We look around and see neighbors not talking to neighbors, families who can’t speak to each other,” she said. “Southern Republicans say Democrats can’t be Christians and Northern Democrats say Republicans cannot be Christian.”
Hanson continued, “The United Methodist Church is heading toward schism because we can’t agree on who is welcome in the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus, she told the congregation, “is speaking the truth. There are two Jesuses — one who invites us to come and rest and one who brings the sword. Which is the real Jesus?”
Jesus is not a savior in a fairy tale, but in the real world. “It is not fair to Jesus or the Gospel to try to explain away the differences or blunt the edges,” Hanson said. “We are in the real world and the real world is tough; the real world is not rational.”
In literature this is an oxymoron, when two things can be true.
“Jesus was just being honest, intentional, to say, ‘I know the way of the world,’ ” Hanson said. “He set us up to wrestle with the text and come out in different places and argue about what is the truth.”
She told the congregation, “We have to break hearts and communities. If we can’t walk with that cross, then we are not quite in the Kingdom of God.”
Hearts are broken, but at the same time there is joy. The truth is both/and, or but/and.
“We have a divided world, and Jesus was speaking to it all. It is hard sometimes, but rest is certain. Alongside the challenge, God is with us and we will be OK,” she said. “And remember the last verse in Matthew when Jesus said, ‘I am with you always until the end of time.’ Thanks be to God.”
The Rev. George Wirth presided. Claudia Twist read the scripture. The Motet Consort, featuring the Rev. Debbie Grohman, clarinet, Barbara Hois, flute and Willie La Favor, piano, played “Larghetto” and “Vivace” from Sonata in C major by Johann Joachim Quantz. Joshua Stafford, Jared Jacobsen Chair for Organist and director of sacred music, led members of the Motet Choir in the anthem, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” by J. A. Freylinghausen, arranged by Paul Christiansen. Stafford played “Praeludium in D Minor, BuxWV 140” by Diethrich Buxtehude. The Gladys R. Brasted and the Adair Brasted Gould Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services and chaplains.