Sermon: “Good News for the Rejected” October 5, 2014

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for the Rejected” (Matthew 21:42)
October 5, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was in middle school in the early 80’s I used to enjoy going roller skating. It was so much fun spending hours on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon skating with various colored lights flashing as the DJ cranked current hits by bands like The Police, Hall & Oates, and of course, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (“I love rock ‘n roll, put another dime in the juke box, baby…”).

Once an hour or so the lights would dim, except for a few lights shining on the revolving disco ball, and the DJ would announce in a deep resonating voice, “This is a couples-only skate, couples only. If you do not have a partner please clear the floor. Couples only…” The next thing you knew a classic power ballad by Journey (“Open Arms” or “Faithfully”) has started and couples would begin skating around the rink, hand in hand.

During the couples-only skates I would either watch or if I still had some quarters in my pocket, head over to play Pac Man or Donkey Kong. I never had the courage to ask a girl to skate with me. Why? Fear of rejection. Of course I was not the only one watching or playing arcade games during the couples-only skates.

The fear of rejection is something that all of us experience, and at times it can be paralyzing, as San Francisco based therapist John Amodeo describes:

“The fear of rejection is one of our deepest human fears. Biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen in a critical way. We’re anxious about the prospect of being cut off, demeaned, or isolated. We fear being alone…On a cognitive level, we may be afraid that rejection confirms our worst fear—perhaps that we’re unlovable, or that we’re destined to be alone, or that we have little worth or value. When these fear-based thoughts keep spinning in our mind, we may become agitated, anxious, or depressed.” (http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/03/17/deconstructing-the-fear-of-rejection-what-are-we-really-afraid-of/)

And unfortunately in our lives sometimes the fear of rejection is realized.

Some are rejected before they are even born, or rejected as infants or toddlers. Some experience the pain of rejection from “mean girls” in middle school or from not making the team in high school. Many high school seniors endure the pain of rejection letters from colleges they had hoped to attend, or felt pressured to attend.

Others experience rejection when not being hired for a desired job or when turned away by someone with whom they have fallen in love.

Others experience rejection later in life, sometimes even at the hands of members of their own family.

Throughout our lives we do our best to perform well so that we will not be rejected. We would much rather receive a standing ovation than be booed off stage. And this continues in every season of our lives, as Shakespeare famously wrote in his comedy As You Like It:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II, vii, 139-166).

Some people endure the rejection of their parents—a couple illustrations … In his novel, Jordan County the great Southern writer Shelby Foote describes what it was like as Mrs. Wingate, a wealthy widow rejects her pregnant daughter, Esther, and her son-in-law Sturgis even as they are together at the dinner table:

“The three of them would sit at meals, Mrs. Wingate at the head of the table, the two young people halfway down the polished walnut that reflected them foreshortened on its surface like two ghosts, facing each other yet seldom looking at each other, any more than they looked at the older woman at the head. Esther was more swollen every day with the unmistakable burden which her mother continued to ignore, and Sturgis was like a hostage held in an enemy camp or a recently captured animal crouched in a cage and darting sideways glances, uncertain whether it is about to be fed or be eaten” (90-91).

In the powerful 1955 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s epic novel East of Eden James Dean plays Cal Trask, who throughout the film tries again and again to win the favor of his father, played by Raymond Massey. At one point in the film Cal simply tries to give his father a hug, but his father will have none of it. He stands stiff as a board as Cal continues to try to hug him. “Cal!” his father scolds him, “Cal!” Finally Cal, in response to his father’s continued rejection, let’s go, and as he moans incoherently he turns away and stumbles out the door.

The truth is every one of us wants the same thing that Esther and Sturgis and Cal wanted: acceptance.

As I was growing up one of my favorite songwriters was Billy Joel, and in a song often played at wedding receptions he sings about acceptance:

I said I love you and that’s forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are
(from the song “Just the Way You Are” on his1977 album, The Stranger).

Throughout scripture we see that even God was no stranger to rejection.

In the Old Testament the Israelites wanted a human king like all the other nations, and so the Lord told the prophet Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).

And as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke about the coming Messiah, Jesus was “despised and rejected by others” (Isaiah 53:3). In the Gospel According to John we read, “(Jesus) came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10).

Throughout every stage of his earthly life Jesus was rejected.

Jesus was rejected even while in Mary’s womb, so he was born in a barn. He was rejected by his own neighbors and members of his own family and was called “Son of Mary” instead of “Son of Joseph” because people rejected him as illegitimate. In predicting his impending suffering and death Jesus warned his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed” (Luke 9:22).

And yet Jesus did not reject others. In fact, the very people who were used to being rejected—lepers, demoniacs, notorious sinners, tax collectors, on and on—were the very ones accepted by Jesus. When they tried to give him a hug, Jesus hugged them back. In short, Jesus accepted the rejected.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus, citing Psalm 118 (verses 22 and 23), asks the following question: “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’”? (Mathew 21:42).

The cornerstone is the most important stone. The late biblical scholar R. T. France observed that the cornerstone “is probably to be understood as the highest stone in a corner of the wall, which holds the two sides of the building together. It is thus both conspicuous and structurally indispensable” (The Gospel of Matthew, 815).

What about you today?

My guess is that each and every one of you has experienced rejection. You each have your own stories of being rejected by others, and you could tell me those stories in vivid detail, because being rejected is something you never forget.

And in addition, perhaps some of you have never been able to accept yourself.

These experiences of rejection tend to stir up an even greater fear of rejection—the fear of being rejected by God.

The gospel is good news for the rejected, because on the cross Jesus, “the stone that the builders rejected,” became the cornerstone, and on the cross Jesus, “sans everything,” was rejected in your place, and his death is the mortal blow to the fear of being rejected by God.

The death of Jesus on the cross in your place means you are accepted by God—as we pray in post communion prayer: “Eternal God, heavenly father, you have graciously accepted us” (The Book of Common Prayer, 365).

In every stage of your life—from infant to whining schoolboy to middle school student at the skating rink to adult to second childishness—regardless of how many times you have been rejected by others, regardless of whether or not you accept yourself, you have always been and will always be accepted by God “just the way you are.”

This kind of acceptance could only be “the Lord’s doing” and it is truly “amazing in our eyes.”

Amen.