11 July 2013

Called to Speak the Gospel Truth: Being Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves (Reprise)

The gospel for tomorrow is both challenging and consoling. In case you have not seen it yet, it is Matthew's account of Jesus' counsel about needing to be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents in a situation which is literally tearing Matthew's community asunder. When (not if) people are brought before political and religious leaders Matthew reminds them of Jesus' teaching, "Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you that speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." Jesus then tells them that Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child, children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name (my powerful presence), but whoever endures to the end will be saved.

Now I have heard homilists and others trivialize what is being taught in this reading. One deacon I know (not in my parish!) once said he never prepared homilies because of this text; he preferred to allow the Holy Spirit to speak through him! Years ago I heard an undergraduate theology student try to use this text as a justification for his unprepared presentation on the meaning of a text. It didn't go over very well. Nor should it. As Christians committed to ongoing conversion we should know that speaking rightly with the power of the Holy Spirit comes only after long experience of God's compassion and forgiveness. It is only God who can teach us wisdom in our inmost being, only God who can create a clean heart in us, only God who can put a steadfast spirit within us, only God who can open our lips so that our mouths may proclaim his praise. This doesn't happen in a day. It comes only after more extended time spent in the desert (for instance) listening to and grappling with the Word of God, allowing it to become our story as well, struggling with the demons we find there while we come to terms with and really consolidate our identities as daughters and sons of God in Christ.

I recently heard a story that illustrates the dynamics of Matt's gospel. Though it is not a recent story (sometimes being a hermit means I don't hear these things when they happen), in it people are asked to confess their inmost hearts as they are brought face to face with a world which sometimes seeks to destroy them. Matthew describes in his gospel. In such a confrontation Jesus asks us be simple as doves and shrewd as serpents. He asks us to have to have done the long, demanding heart work that prepares us to be prophets and mediators of the Holy Spirit --- people with a heart of compassion and forgiveness intimately acquainted with the mercy and love of God and committed to being one through whom God speaks to change the world and bring the Kingdom. This is not about not doing our homework or being presumptuous; it is about becoming the people Jesus sends with pure hearts and a shrewdness which disarms --- like turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and so forth would have done in Jesus' day. (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves)

The story is that of the Amish school massacre in Nickel Mines, PA. I would ask that you check out the following video as Bill Moyers tells the story. [[Released from anger and bitterness, but not from pain. Forgiveness is a journey. You need help from others. . .to not become a hostage to hostility.]]

The responses to the story, as Moyers notes, were diverse. Mainly people were awed, some thought such forgiveness could only be a kind of planned show and other suggested the church told the Amish to do this rather than accepting it as the natural expression of a deeply ingrained and authentic spirituality. Others who had failed to draw the important distinction between forgiveness and pardon or release from consequences, argued the forgiveness was undeserved, illegitimate, and imprudent. (cf Jacoby, "Undeserved Forgiveness." Jacoby has another, similar op ed article on Cardinal Bernadin's decision to minister to a serial killer when Bernadin had only 6 mos time left because of the cancer he struggled with.)

What Moyer's account indicates but is unable to detail sufficiently in the above brief video is the extent of the acts of forgiveness and the real reconciliation that occurred as the Robert's family were repeatedly visited by Amish and in turn came to assist with the injured children (who in fact asked why they had not yet visited their families!). (One child continues to be very severely disabled and Roberts' mother comes each week to read to her, sing to her, and sometimes bathe her. The Amish remark on the blessing her presence has been, and of course it has served similarly for her.) At every level Amish and English (especially Roberts' own family) worked to rebuild relationships and shared their mutual grief. Forgiveness, real forgiveness recreated a community that had been shattered by the killings. It was not naive and did not simply avoid or suppress emotions but it made the painful and healing process of moving forward into a "new normal" possible for everyone. The Amish had prepared, not for the tragedies themselves exactly, but for the hard work of reconciliation by long habits of the heart, as Bill Moyers affirmed. But the picture they also give us is one of people who are indeed simple as doves and shrewd as serpents --- just as Christians are called and empowered to be.

If you haven't read the book, Amish Grace, please do so. I admit I read it last night and was in tears practically the whole evening. I don't think I can remember another book or story that has so broken or broken open my own heart nor convinced me how elemental our desire and need for forgiveness or for being people who truly hand on the ministry of reconciliation we are called to be (2 Cor 5:17-21) really is.