This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-22.
I find the story of St. Agnes quite troubling. While some of the details are hazy, it seems clear that she was a young woman – maybe twelve or thirteen years old – in a Christian family, while Christianity was still illegal in Rome. Denounced to the authorities, probably by a young man frustrated at her refusal of marriage, she was subjected to various indignities and eventual martyrdom.
There are lots of aspects of that story that we could explore, but the one which caught my attention was the idea that for Agnes, as for so many of the early martyrs, this was a contest about who was in control. Who gets to decide what I do, and what happens to my body? (In particular, who gets to decide with whom I have sex?)
A third-century Roman woman might seem like an unlikely poster girl for bodily autonomy, but you could read Agnes’ absolute refusal to bow to personal or state pressure in that light. Of course, she was killed for it.
Today’s gospel reading hints at similar tensions in the Christian experience. “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…” It’s an expression that conveys a great deal of vulnerability. When the sheep and the wolf eye one another, it’s not usually the sheep who experiences control of the situation.
And yet I have a hunch – formed over many years of pastoral conversations – that we don’t like to think about that very much. We like to frame our understanding of the world as if we are n control of our lives.
But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control. God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.
And so we have a tension between taking advantage of the scope we do have, and making the most of it; and accepting the constraints which shape our lives. The Christian martyrs have heightened that tension in an incredibly pointed way; making choices which showed how brutal and how extreme the forces which control our lives can be. And in doing so, making the most incredibly powerful challenge to those forces, by saying that they are not ultimately the most important thing. Some things are worth dying for.
Here’s the thing; Agnes, in her refusal to budge on her commitment to Christ, unmasked the wolfish brutality of her society. In surrendering even her life to it, she refused to compromise with it in any way; and the extraordinary thing about that is the way her death became a catalyst for change. Even heartless Pagan Rome, which had seen so many brutal deaths, began to sit up and ask if this was really necessary. It was a turning point in the persecutions.
But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us. I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control. We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place. We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.
This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way. Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances i about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency. (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there). And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.
And that’s before we even touch on questions of mental illness or other, less tangible, constraints on our lives.
But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to preserve the illusion of being in control, is that it means that the constraints on our lives go unnamed, unacknowledged. The wolves, if you like, are allowed to stay camouflaged.
How many people don’t talk about poverty, because they are ashamed to admit that they don’t have economic freedom? How many people don’t talk about addiction, because they are ashamed to admit that a substance or an activity has come to rule their minds? How many people don’t talk about family situations in which they feel trapped, because they are ashamed to admit that all is not well?
And yet wouldn’t there be a freedom, even a reclaiming of power, if we could collectively look those wolves in the eye and acknowledge them?
And if there is any sin in any of these things, wouldn’t being able to be honest with ourselves about what is going on, be the first step to setting it right? Or if there is any injustice, any oppression, at work in what we experience, isn’t being able to be honest about that, the first step to being able to challenge it?
What I’m suggesting is that the illusion of being in control of our lives can get in the way of our own best interests. It can get in the way of our psychological well being. It can get in the way of our social well being. It can get in the way of our moral well being. And it can get in the way of our ability to recognise those things which are wrong, and work to put them right.
If Agnes had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things. It might not have been, on paper, a bad outcome; and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it.
But by refusing to do that, by looking the wolf in the eye and not flinching, she refused to compromise who she was. Maybe one of the things she offers us as her legacy, is the courage to accept our own vulnerability, and to take a fearless inventory of the powers which shape our lives, knowing that none of them have the final word.