Proper 7, Year A
Matthew 10:(16-23)24-33 - link to NRSV text
I have a workshop that I do from time to time called "Speaking the Truth in Love: Practical Skills for Reconcilers." People often come to it expecting (especially if the conference booklet didn't have room for a longer description) lots of material on rhetorical strategies, on things you can say to try to get people to listen to one another.
I don't cover much of that in the workshop because I think there are two related skills that are more foundational, if not more important, than having ideas about what kinds of words you can use. If you can't do these things, it will undermine the effectivenes of what you say; if you can do these things, you'll find it easier to figure out what to say, and you'll be better able to mean it as well.
The first skill is to be as fully present as possible in the moment, in one's skin.
The second skill is to be in touch as fully as possible with God's love. You want to be really knowing and experiencing that God loves you extravagantly and unconditionally.
I know ... it sounds very Southern California-ish of me to say that. But I don't think I say that just because I grew up in L.A., and where I'm going with that is most definitely not the kind of "pursuit of the perfect mellow" that leads one to be complacent rather than confronting the world's woundedness and injustices. I actually got the idea from passages like this Sunday's gospel.
As I blogged about last week, Matthew's community was experiencing serious persecution. It would be decades before Christians would be persecuted solely "for the name," that is, because they identified as Christian, but Christians in Matthew's time were getting in trouble for the same kinds of reasons that Jesus and Paul got in trouble.
They believed that only God could claim the kind of power over others that so many others -- the Emperor and his agents, the pater familias or family patriarch whose word was law in the family, the man who believed that purchasing a slave gave him the title of "master" -- and so they proclaimed Jesus' teaching, "Call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). Their belief that God was calling every person -- male and female, slave and free, of every nation -- led them the build a community in which women and slaves were received as human beings with agency to make their own decisions and gifts to offer the community -- and they didn't ask anyone's husband, father, or owner for permission to do so. They built pockets of community living into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many onlookers, and that threatened to undermine the order of the Empire.
And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators, to be flogged, or worse. I can imagine that being betrayed by those so close would wound as deeply as any physical punishment.
So what's Matthew's word to his community, the one thing he wants them to remember when something like that happens? It isn't something they're supposed to say, some particularly compelling case they should make to their accusers or to the authorities. Matthew specifically says they shouldn't worry about that.
What they need to hold on to, more tightly than anything else, is how very much God loves them.
This is good advice for anyone living into Christ's reconciling ministry.
Sooner or later, if you're a part of that ministry, you'll find yourself making contact with very deep wounds, and wounded people, like all wounded creatures, are liable to respond to any overture out of pain, confusion, and anger. A person who comes back at them with more of the same is only going to speed up the spiral of violence, with disastrous results.
What we want to do in a situation like that is to be present and loving; that's the only way to disrupt that spiral of violence. That's very hard to do, though, when someone is right in front of you either threatening violence or saying something that would normally provoke a "fight or flight" response -- something that's sure to happen eventually if you're trying to be an agent of healing where the world's wounds are. In a situation like that, we're understandably tempted to withdraw -- to "check out" mentally if not remove ourselves physically -- or to strike back, or both. I think part of what makes those temptations particularly strong is that contact with another person's deep wounds often reminds us of our own wounds and vulnerabilities that we've tried to forget.
That's why reconcilers must remind themselves moment to moment to stay grounded in God's love. Remember just how much and how unconditionally God loves and values you, and you won't be thrown off-center by anyone's attempts to make you feel as worthless as they do. Remember just how powerful God's love is to heal, and you won't have to flee from things that remind you of your own vulnerabilities and wounds. Remember what God's love looks like in the flesh, in the person of Jesus, and you'll know how to respond. Keep in touch with that love in the core of your being, and you'll be able to respond with authenticity and with love no matter what you're faced with.
Don't worry about what to say. Don't worry -- full stop. There's a reason that Martin Luther King called the result of nonviolent resistance "beloved community." It is the community of those who know, who proclaim, and who embody the Good News that love is the fundamental, powerful, and inevitable Word through which the universe was made and lives, and for which it is destined. We have seen that Word made flesh in Jesus, and we see it embodied among us. That can't be stopped by violence; bringing violence to bear against God's love only creates more opportunities for God's love to disrupt the spiral of violence and build beloved community.
Thanks be to God!
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Thank you Dylan,
Good insight into the roots of violence.
King's witness of non-violent "soul force"
makes his legacy of such enduring importance. God's love means so much more
than the images of sentimentality from our culture.
Posted by: Steven Hagerman | Jun 16, 2005 3:53:07 PM
Thanks for the persuasive logic that being fully present in the moment and in awareness of God's love is our calling and blessing. I've been toying with various figurative flight mechanisms, or at least ostrich-like avoidance fantasies in response to feeling like I'm about to walk through a small church mine-field. This helps bring things back into a joyful and yielded focus. Hope you're feeling better now.
Posted by: Debbie Nothdurft | Jun 17, 2005 1:31:32 AM
I guess that from the point of view of Ishmael and Hagar Abraham would hardly be nominated for Father of the Year. It's interesting that the only things we know about the father of Judaism, Islam and Christianity with regard to his actual fathering is that when pressured by his wife to choose between his two sons he chose Isaac and sent Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness to fend for themselves and later when he perceives that God has asked him to acrifice Isaac he is ready to do that.
An alternative way of viewing Abraham's action in the case of Isaac is that he wanted to allow the boy to achieve mature masculinity, so he sent him into the desert to live by his own wits and his own connection with God. This worked and Ishmael prospered.
Jesus also calls us into the wilderness, away from the safety of our parents home. The truth is that the warm nests which nurture children poisin adults.
Then again the warm nest is sometimes also poisin for the child. A kind of false peace is achieved through a conspiracy of silence in abusive homes. When someone speaks up quite often the first result is not anything like peace.
Posted by: MontanaPastor | Jun 18, 2005 4:47:17 PM
The movie "Crash" does quite a fine job of dramatizing the spiral of violence you write about.
As one reviewer puts it, “the characters in the movie show us a harsh reality — no matter how good we see ourselves to be, we all have it in us to behave badly, to let anger, fear, or misunderstanding take control over us, and to treat others in ways no one deserves to be treated.” The movie shows how an interaction with one person has the potential to infect that person’s next interaction with someone else. A black insurance representative denies the claim of a white police officer in one scene, for example, and so the white cop then vents his anger on the next black driver he pulls over. From one scene to the next, characters collide and every interaction in the movie is colored — for good or ill — by every other interaction with every other person.
What little redemption is achieved in the movie is only accomplished by those who set aside the need to perpetuate, who find ways by force of will or by sheer happenstance, to break the cycle. Jesus' call to consider God's love for us as the driving force for our treatment of others is an option outside the scope of the movie, but not outside our scope or that of the gospel.
Posted by: Jed | Jun 18, 2005 5:23:44 PM
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