In the presence of mine enemy
Week of Sunday June 26
Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
40 ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
As I work towards this Sunday, which is a Communion Sunday in my congregation, I’m thinking of pain. I’m remembering being with a small congregation of persecuted people, who came to communion in a paradoxical mix of pain and joy. Joy was for being together, and sharing and finding something of God in their community. Pain was from knowing and living their status of outcast, even in much of the church, and for suffering persecution.
We do persecution well in our age; with technological expertise. Facebook, SMS, and snide emails tear people apart with a savagery and effectiveness that exceeds a physical beating.
The energy required for determining who among the writers of such muck is simply sick, who is malicious, and who has a genuine complaint about someone in an organisation, is staggering. The pain caused to the recipients, and those to whom they are dear, is sometimes so severe that a straight out beating might feel preferable. The cost to the organisations of which they are a part, is enormous.
And that’s before the media get hold of it.
The folk I am remembering were also at risk of physical beating. You get beaten up for being gay, for being black, for trying to get out of a bikie gang, or merely for looking the wrong way. “The wrong place at the wrong time,” is not a cliché. It is a reality. People in our congregations live in fear.
I think we also live in a time when one of the reasons people are persecuted is, increasingly, that they are Christian. I grew up being told Christians didn’t get persecuted in Australia. This was never quite true. For their own safety, some of my older colleagues were being shifted out of country towns like mine, because of political extremists, even as I was learning this. This was Australia in my childhood.
My family lived in a manse which once had racist slogans painted on it. The windows were still coated with anti-terrorist film, because thugs had been smashing them by throwing tires and garbage through them, into the children’s bedrooms; that was only 20 years ago. Churches were being vandalised by extremists.
Today, all churches are being painted as stupid, right wing and dangerous. This is not just an ignorant media venting its reasonable disgust at the extremes and hypocrisy of some church leadership. Neither is it just religion haters like Dawkins and his “religion is child abuse” mantra.
There is something else more fundamental happening. We are seeing the development of a scapegoat for a frightened society adrift from its foundations. Society needs someone to blame.
We did this in Australia when we collectively dumped on Lindy Chamberlain, and we do it when we lock up refugees for unconscionable periods, and propose sending unaccompanied children off to Malaysia. We are more concerned about the well being of cattle.
If I did anything remotely like abandon a child, I would be instantly suspended from my parish by Synod, people would be ringing the government’s Child Abuse Report Line, and I would probably be arrested.
This is a huge and evil irony, because another aspect of the current moral panic in Australia is, of course, our concern about paedophilia, and the protection of children. It is a well founded concern, but...
recently, I was in my local police station to report a road safety issue.
A couple were there, distressed almost out of their minds. His “ex” had broken in, trashed their house, smashed up their car, destroyed the kid’s photos... This was the second time. They were living under constant threat. Why won’t you listen to us? Why won’t you do anything?
It was a busy night, and we all stood around uncomfortably as the man’s voice filled the reception area.
And then he cried out in great distress and shame, “Whenever she feels like it, she comes in here and says I’m perving on the kids, and you bastards are all over me in a flash. But you ignore what she’s doing to us.”
Three things struck me about that moment. His pain, the flash of recognition that went around the police station; there is a small plague of false accusation happening, and the gentleness of the constable as she said, “Yes Sir. It’s not fair, is it.”
Here’s my reading of our situation: Our current scapegoats have been driven about as far as they can be driven. People are getting sick of the inhumane treatment of refugees. People are getting wise to false accusations of violence and child abuse; it’s starting to hurt their own friends and family. A little sanity is creeping into the panic, just as it eventually did for poor Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, well before the finding of the jacket in the sand.
Call me paranoid, but I think as a society, we are building up a head of steam for a new scapegoat. And the church is doing very well as a candidate. There is obvious hypocrisy, and plain evil, in parts of the church. It is enough to justify a more general prejudice and then, the pinning of blame for everything.
A police friend told me they are under orders not to wear uniform on the way to work, or the way home. It is not safe for them, or their families. I still occasionally wear a clergy collar for some occasions, like funerals. I would never come home "in uniform" from the city on the late train; I can feel the hostility in Coles on a Thursday afternoon after a funeral. It is an obvious change from only a few years ago.
I have written this extended introduction, because when people come to the short reading in Matthew this week, they will often come as frightened and even persecuted people. Sometimes this is independent of their being Christian. It is also sometimes because they are Christian, and I think this is on the increase.
It is a very small step from invading houses that grow drugs on your turf, to invading the houses of those who have been speaking out against drugs. Where I live, church folk sometimes think twice about being visible as church.
We need to read Matthew 10:40-42 in the context of the whole chapter. There we see the 12 disciples sent out on a mission that we often, and correctly, interpret as our own. They were sent; we are sent.
And Jesus said, ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. ’
We take this as a reference to the lived experience of Matthew’s community. We even say that if we are not being treated in such a way, it questions whether we are really telling the Good News. The Good News of society is subversive. We can expect it to attract attention, and unpleasant attention. If they have called Jesus the Lord of the Flies (10:25) how much more we can expect them to malign us!
This will cut into families, warns Matthew. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother...” (10:34ff) John Petty reminds us this week of the good Roman parents who worried because their kids had “run off to join the Christians!” There are people in our pews who are in this situation. I know folk who were thrown out of their family for joining a church; of wives beaten up because the minister visited; friends sneered at and ridiculed by their family because they go to church.
Matthew relays a number of exhortations to his congregation as he addresses their experiences of persecution. Read these verses in full. It’s tempting to skip over the verses quoted in an article like this. After all, we know them.
As I began to list them off, I was struck by the sheer emotional force of it all.
And by the ambivalence! There is no easy comfort here. With encouragement like this, who needs someone to pick on them! To live is to suffer, says the first of the Four Noble Truths. To seek to live for a truth is to suffer more.
...shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town...
... 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you...
... ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!...
...‘So have no fear of them... 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows...
... ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven...
... 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
At the end I find myself feeling this list is almost more stick than carrot! I also feel in myself the potential for a kind of proud anger and resentment; Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town... they’ll get theirs!
These verses alone would outline a grim, teeth gritted, kind of faith. As I struggle with my fears, the final verses of the chapter are where I find encouragement. There is comfort here when I feel the weight of life, and my powerlessness.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (10:40) It sounds like the gospel of John.
The disciples, and I, go as authorised envoys of Jesus, and of the Father. When I visit, when I speak, when I witness, I do so with God’s authority. This is not to be treated lightly. If I claim the name of Christ in an un-Christ-like way, my shortcomings will be sheeted home to God and, perhaps, visited back on others of God’s people.
But even if I am unable to go far, if I have an ordinary job here in Adelaide, or little children at home, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward... and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous”
As Bill Loader puts it,
Ordinary people get the same reward as the high flyers ... Matthew uses the language of reward not to incite our consumer imagination, but to evoke an image of God's favour. Matthew wants us to believe that it is just as rewarding to be on the supporting side of these ministries as to be exercising them. We don't have to feel we have to do everything ourselves! Paul would say, it is OK to be part of the body; you don't have to be a foot if you are a hand.
Bill goes on to say
Many people could feel disenfranchised by all this talk about apostles and ministry in Matthew 10 until we reach [the] final verses. Caring within the community is also ministry.
These are the verses about us; the little ones. The early church apparently spoke of themselves in this way. “Little ones” were not just children. They were the ordinary people without the power.
42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
“Whoever” means “whoever among us”— even me! The simple act of caring for each other, and loving each other, gives us the status of the apostles. We become a Peter and a John, or a Paul or a Prisca, or a Tabitha— one of the names of the Faith.
Like them, there will be times we will also suffer for our faith.
Petty says, “In chapter 25, at the separation of the sheep and the goats, even the smallest act of help for social outcasts will be seen to have cosmic import.” (My emphasis)
As my friend Tony says of these verses, “In the end, our theology really does not matter. It’s what we do that counts.” Even the smallest cup of water is a cup of water for the Christ. It has cosmic importance; not because it saves us, but because it is a cup of water for the Christ. It is an act for the Kingdom, for the righting of all things, and for the bringing of the whole universe to what it is made to be.
So as we gather this Sunday, in our pain and sorrow, and in our fear, let us take heart. For we small people, we “little ones,” are counted among the apostles. We can’t sing Robert Stamp’s song in church any more because the imagery is too gender based, but he understood. We are the people of a peculiar privilege.
Elders, martyrs, all are falling down,
Prophets, patriarchs are gath’ring round
What angels longed to see now (we have) found:
God and man at table are sat down.
God and man at table are sat down.
As the Iona Liturgy says
you prepare a table for us
offering not just bread, not just wine,
but your very self
healed and blessed,
so that we may be filled, forgiven
and made new again.
You are worth all our pain
and all our praise.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.