Facing up to Matthew 10 after a bewildering week

It’s been a somewhat chaotic and bewildering week, this first week in a new parish. I am someone who needs the external environment to be ordered and aesthetically sympathetic. So moving into a new office and trying to order the office space while simultaneously beginning to respond to what seems a myriad of priorities, has taken its toll. However, how can it not be so? I would not have it any other way! For in the midst of the challenges and competing demands, I have also experienced a deep communal empathy and goodwill supporting me.

In a new situation it’s hard to identify what are immediate priorities and what can be left on the back burner for a while. Harder still is to distinguish between the priorities of the external environment and those habitual anxieties that are always a part of who Mark Sutherland is when facing new situations and the yet-to-become-known. Yet, again, I have found a warm and tolerant, if watchful, welcome from others,  both parishioners and particularly my wardens and the small staff team at the nerve centre of the parish’s day-to-day functioning.

***

So, as I now sit to put my mind to the task of the upcoming sermon for this Sunday I am very conscious of the fact that it takes time to learn the frequency of communication with a new community. The old frequency that worked so well in my last post at Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, does not seem quite right for St Martin’s, Providence.

My intention was to rise early on this Saturday morning and get to grips with another of those astonishingly provocative gospel passages, which Matthew seems to specialize in. I have setup for myself as small working space, literally under the eaves of our early 1800’s house, which a designer friend of mine back in Phoenix described as rustic colonial. It’s a small room in the attic, which a previous owner had furnished in the style of a grandchildrens overspill play-sleeping space.

So, I sit in my dolls house-like space and my first encounter is not with the profundity of my response to Matthew 10:24-39, but a tussle with the cordless keyboard that won’t sync with my laptop. After calming down a bit, I begin to reflect on the process of synchronizing. And my mind returns to the process so uppermost for us at St Martin’s, i.e. making our way through a time of transition into our new future together.

What is transition? The best definition I can come up with at the moment is an analogy between the cordless keyboard – PC synchronization and our situation of transition at St Martin’s. Transition is an anxious process as we engage in the process of waiting and watching to see if our broadcast frequencies will be mutually recognized, registered and synchronized so to enable us to continue to move forward into the new phase of what God is dreaming us into becoming.

***

The Evangelist Matthew offers us the most Moses-like image of Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is authoritatively commanding and exacting – a Jesus who does not beat about the bush and with true Yankee pragmatism just comes out and tells his disciples not to expect a smoother road than the one on which he is travelling.

This is provocative because we tend to fall into a frame of mind that says that because Jesus did the hard stuff then we can expect a smoother, less painful ride.

Matthew’s Moses-like Jesus is no accident. Matthew and his community were in that painful transition following their expulsion from the synagogues. The image I have is of the Jewish followers of Jesus moving to less salubrious premises and opening the first storefront churches, literally across the road from the synagogues. Of-course they don’t cease to be Jewish, and they bring with them their Jewish theology of Jesus as the new Moses who had come not to abolish, but to complete the Law. Locating Matthew and his community within their religio-political context, helps explain Matthew’s Moses-like image of Jesus and his provocative tone, so reminiscent in places of the exacting tone of the Torah’s[1] teaching.

Matthew writes for a community that is struggling against powerful discrimination, if not persecution. In this context there is little expectation of a cushy ride and the Christians of Matthew’s community had their own unique experience of the cost of discipleship. A cost they paid in the day-to-day experience of contesting the centers of power around them, and clearly from today’s gospel text, between them.

***

Each Sunday, the lections we hear proclaimed comprise the conversation God is seeking to have with us as a community. To better hear this invitation to conversation we have to adjust for context. Matthew’s context is not our context, though the themes governing human societies across the ages are depressingly repetitive.

The purpose of the preacher in the liturgical assembly is to offer a response to God’s invitation to conversation from the community side of the line. This involves a sometimes complex, twofold process. The preacher attempts to translate between the original context in which a piece of scripture arises and the contemporary community setting. Yet, at the same time the preacher, while translating from one historical context to another needs to allow the timelessness of God’s conversation to be heard within his or her own community.

What we are listening for is the original voice of Jesus in the context of his ministry of preaching the expectations of the Kingdom of God around 30AD. Jesus’ voice is communicated to us through the filter of Matthew and his community’s interpretation of that voice around 80AD. Yet, rather than dilute Jesus’ message, Matthew’s witness clarifies it further, making it more accessible to us as we translate it out of his context into ours in 2014AD.

***

I am attempting to fulfill the purpose of being the preacher while still being new to many aspects of my community’s context and experience. Going-back to my earlier analogy with electronic synchronization, I am feeling my way towards the best frequency that will sync my words with my new community’s experience – a process of hit and miss taking time and requiring patience on both our parts.

I don’ t feel I am able to address the St Martin’s community in anything other than the most generally applicable of terms. I engage with Matthew’s context and the way he witnesses to the earlier context of Jesus. Then i try to translate out of Matthew’s context into that of the community of St Martin in Providence RI, l attempt to identify and translate the core timeless elements of God’s communication with us through the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 10:24-39.

In translation this is what I read :

  • There is a right order in relationships, which is often inverted in the world. We are not better than God. It’s enough for us to be like God, but not to allow our own sense of self to supplant God’s place in our world nor allow our lives to trespass apon the lives of others.
  • Conflict is everywhere and we cannot expect to be insulated from it. Yet, the danger never derives not from the negotiation of conflict. It comes from the fear and consequent avoidance of conflict. This is what makes us retreat and hide.
  • It is fear itself that colors our picture of the world. Our need for courageous engagement in the world no matter how difficult and painful this can be, must not give way to an attitude of hiding and keeping our heads down.
  • We have to continually expose the lies and subterfuges that we rely upon to make a convenient accommodation with abuses of power and systems of injustice. Our easy accommodation with violence masking abuses of power, systems of injustice, and scapegoating only unconsciously reinforces our sense that there is much to be afraid of. Giving-in to fear makes us even more fearful. Examples of the way we do this lie in our inability to get a grip on the abuse of guns for violent ends, in the steady and continued rise in drug addiction at home, fueling the grip of violent criminality and the evils of corruption south of the border in Mexico. Other examples lie in the way we as the most privileged nation on earth maintain our economic advantages.
  • Social systems structure our relationships with one another along the lines of class, race, gender, sexual identity, and family. In each of these spheres there is a hierarchy for the exercise power that gives to some more power and to others, less. The rich have more power than the poor, whites have more power than blacks – and here I stress that black and white are concepts that sometimes have little to do with race or skin color. Class is the real determinant of privilege. Men have more power than women, husbands than wives, parents than children. A patriarchal view of heterosexuality is privileged to the specific disadvantage of homosexual and transgendered persons.

Jesus promises to shine the light of truth into our everyday lives exposing the way we collude with one another in the maintenance of social relations that mask the disparities in privilege and the exercise of power. We should not be lulled by Jesus’ identification of violence with possible death. By lulled I mean, that thinking which says because our lives are not in danger this text does not apply to us. Every moment of every day many people’s lives are in danger of death through myriad forms of violence . Unless we protest we cannot escape being implicated in the maintenance of a society that preserves a sorry status quo.

***

With time I trust that my incorporation into the life of the St Martin’s community will afford me more insight into the particularities of the conversation God seeks with us.

Jesus tells us that the path of discipleship is not a path that avoids exposure. Exposure leads to division and conflict, sometimes in the spaces where our most intimate human relationship are lived-out

The most significant part of Jesus’ teaching  lies in his exhortation for us to firstly:

  • To live without fear, or more accurately to refuse to let our fear limit our courage for living.

And secondly:

  • To let ourselves become found through the privileging our relationship with God. His means to give up our perpetual assertions of self-interest and potency. We do this best when we are able to let our concern for our neighbor come before our own self-interest.

For those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

[1] The Torah or the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures comprise the Law and traditionally have been ascribed to the authorship of Moses.


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