The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 14, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law…
Does this sound familiar in this presidential election year? Maybe even like your family? Sure sounds like mine. Maybe some of you are in a similar situation – my political opinions have been at odds with those of the rest of my family since I was about 17. Mostly we just avoid the topic – or I do, anyway, knowing that they all think so differently from me. But every now and then one of my brother’s baiting emails is too much for me to stomach, and so I lob something back. Neither of us manages to convince the other, of course. We’re just too different to even have a useful conversation, and so I go back to ignoring the emails.
This is something like the state of our nation these days. It doesn’t seem that anyone is having a conversation that leads to greater understanding – just bitter debates that drive us ever further apart. Black Lives Matter vs. the cops. Family values people vs. transgender rights and gay marriage. Zionists vs. Palestinian supporters. Red vs. blue. And so on and so on.
So it’s maybe a little comforting to hear Jesus say it’s just always gonna be that way. This divisiveness is nothing new – it’s always been part of human relationships. But it doesn’t make it any easier, or the pain of the divisions any less. Sometimes the weight of what we can’t say to each other is so great that the rest of our relationship is too strained to go on. And it’s not likely to improve once November is done.
I was struck by the pain of such divisions a few weeks ago when I watched the movie ‘Spotlight,’ one we showed here in our summer movie nights. ‘Spotlight’ is about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting of the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic archdiocese. The Boston Catholic community is tight-knit, with friendships and connections between people rooted in school and family for generations. So even though news of abuse cases was beginning to sift out decades before, it took an outsider, the new Jewish editor of the Globe, moved there from Miami, to ask the questions that led to the exposure of the scandal. One of the hardest things for the reporters to come to grips with in the movie is their own complicity in allowing the abuse to continue, and the complicity, as well, of others they trusted. Deep friendships are strained and nearly broken as the hard truth begins to emerge – the truth comes at a cost, of relationship and of personal faith. And yet the truth has to be spoken in order for healing to begin, for the victims, for the priests, and for the whole system of silence.
That kind of division was a natural result of truth shining out – division stirred up by the breaking in of the kingdom of God, showing the darkness more clearly. But sometimes division doesn’t feel quite so productive. It sure doesn’t in our current political climate, when the divisions seem entrenched, and the truth remains a matter of disagreement rather than certainty.
Perhaps part of the difference is in our self-perception. In the case of the political differences between me and my brother, each of us is sure we are right. We are not able to convince one another or learn from one another because we think we already possess the truth. And probably each of us does possess some of the truth (I’m sure I have more of it than he does). But we aren’t ready to really hear the other, because we’re too afraid to let go of our ground. Those who are voting for Trump in this election can’t imagine why anyone would vote for Clinton. Those voting for Clinton feel equally dismissive of those voting for Trump. Neither is ready to hear what the other is saying, or to see and recognize the reality of the other person’s life – the mix of anxiety and anger and personal history that goes into forming our hard-baked opinions. We each want to control the other and bring them to our point of view – and to control and maintain our sense of security in our own assumptions. And so the truth has a hard time coming to light.
In the story of ‘Spotlight,’ on the other hand, the reporters didn’t simply point fingers and vilify the priests they accused, or the bishops and cardinal who covered it up. They realized that they themselves were part of the problem – as one editor says in the movie, ‘A guy leans on a guy, and suddenly the whole town looks the other way.’ They realized that they had to risk a whole set of assumptions they had lived with all their lives, and risk relationships with friends and family in the process. Rather than controlling the outcome to make themselves feel safe or look good, they find themselves unleashing a truth that incriminates everyone – all the while trusting that that truth would set all free. It is a vast lancing of a wound, and the wound must bleed and drain before healing. That kind of truth-telling is scary work.
This is where the cloud of witnesses comes in handy. Our Hebrews readings the last few weeks have been extolling the paragons of the faith, who persevered throughout hard struggle to live into the promise of God’s kingdom. Without receiving the certainty of reward, they lived lives of courage and endurance, believing that God would bring about the good news. At least, that’s how the author of Hebrews tells it, beginning with Abraham and Sarah and working his way through Samuel and David and the prophets. There are some strange byroads on the way there, however, with Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, each of whom has a rather terrible story attached to them – bloodthirsty, self-serving, even idolatrous people, many of them. And yet somehow even despite that, they are our ancestors in the faith – examples like in other parts of scripture of the least likely people being chosen by God as witnesses of God’s work in the world. None of them real paragons of any good behavior or righteousness, or anything to emulate in any practical way. Yet we remember them all the same – and they now bear witness to our efforts to live out God’s truth in the world.
I’m sure that Gideon and Samson and all the rest of them operated with a pretty healthy sense of self-righteousness. That’s not the example I think we should take from them. But that cloud of witnesses reminds us that we don’t have to be perfect or get it entirely right to be part of God’s work in the world. In fact, we’ll probably get it wrong. But we don’t have to be so afraid. We have a race to run just as they did; we may not see the final answers any more than they did. And the final full consummation, the great inbreaking of God’s kingdom and the sorting of who is right and who is wrong and what needs to be redeemed, none of that is in our control at all. In our own imperfect, half-blind, compromised way, we too are part of the cloud of witnesses. And we do the best we can.
So in this time of great divisions – this time one of so many times throughout history – our job is not actually to win the race. Difficult as it may be, God’s call for us may not be to correct our brother or to prove our point on Facebook. Instead our call is just to run. Which means to open our eyes and see; first, to see ourselves with clarity and insight; to confess and stammer out what we ourselves have done and left undone of God’s work in the world. And then, to measure the world around us with God’s truth, taking risks in order to pursue the revealing light of God’s truth, with all that it will make visible. We see how we have stumbled, and then we pick up and keep running anyway, ‘looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,’ who shows us the way. The cloud of witnesses has always done so – we too take our part in the race, and trust that someday, it will be done, and the reign of God will have begun.