3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Mr. Ian C Mackenzie
As a lay preacher, one of the greatest concerns I have, particularly in the absence of the priest, is current affairs. I don’t want to be the one people turn to for spiritual guidance in the event of a catastrophe. That being said, I did give serious consideration to going online and paying $30 to become an ordained Minister with the Universal Life Church. They would have sent me a diploma, a collar and a business card; however, I don’t believe it would have helped with my search for an understanding of my faith, or preparing for today.
Knowing I was officiating the service this morning, over the past week I have been looking at the news, social media, and overnight tweets from the President through different eyes. I spent hours praying that the world would be incident-free, that our church would not burn down, that war would not erupt in the skies over Syria, and that a terrorist would not drive a truck down a sidewalk killing or injuring those enjoying the spectacle of Sail Boston. It is fair to say that I have known more relaxing weeks.
Sadly, my week began with news of the heartbreaking death of Nabra Hassanen; a 17-year-old girl who was beaten to death with a baseball bat while walking home from a mosque in Virginia, where she had been praying in observance of Ramadan. Her broken, lifeless body was later dumped in a lake. Two days later, somebody set fire to a memorial erected in her honor in Washington, DC. According to legal standards, neither of these acts constituted a hate crime, although given the prevalence of anti-Muslin sentiment, I cannot understand why.
I cannot see, nor can I accept, that this was simply an act of road rage. To me, it was yet another example of hate and intolerance that sadly reached a devastating end-point.
Reflecting on her death, I searched for answers to the questions, “Why, as people who celebrate the life of Christ, do we allow environments of hate & persecution to flourish?” and, “Why have we established a threshold, a tolerance for words and actions that celebrate and promote our capacity for cruelty and inhumanity?” My attention was drawn to Matthew 10:36, and I couldn’t shake it. Matthew 10:36, “And a man’s foes will be they of his own household.”
I first came across it in the mid-eighties when studying the trial of two Australians who were executed for shooting prisoners during the Boer War. Decades before the Nuremberg Trials, they admitted shooting the prisoners, but argued that they were following an order from Lord Kitchener that all prisoners were to be shot. Despite the fact that evidence would later prove otherwise, Kitchener denied ever giving such an order, and they were sentenced to death. While being escorted to a firing squad, Harry “Breaker” Morant asks for the epitaph, Matthew 10:36, “And a man’s foes will be they of his own household.”
On a personal note, I always thought it would also be an appropriate epitaph for my father. He was a good and gentle man who fathered five sons. Four of us have been arrested at least once, two of us accidentally burned down a national heritage building, and only one of us has a college degree. He laughed off my suggestion, thinking the words “They always meant well” would be more fitting.
Matthew 10:36. It is a jarring verse, as are the several verses that precede it. Abandoning your parents and forsaking filial love are not concepts that sit comfortably with my understanding of the Gospels. Much like the story of Jesus upending tables in the temple, this passage is the Jesus nobody wants to know. But I don’t think Jesus is trying to be shocking here, in part because these aren’t his words. He is actually adapting words from the Book of Micah (in the Old Testament). Although I cannot speak for him, I think he is simply stressing the true cost of discipleship, and telling us that sometimes practicing your faith means standing in opposition to political or social beliefs of family and friends, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
Being a Christian should require more of us than baptism, communion and regular attendance for ten months of the year. I say ten months because we’re New Englanders, and we don’t really come to church in July and August. Being a follower of Christ needs to be a commitment to stand up for what our faith tells us is loving, kind, and compassionate, no matter what the cost.
As a nation, our history is littered with periods of social persecution of the poor, and attacking those who are different. Native Americans, African Americans, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, Communists, the homosexual community, Mexicans, illegal immigrants, refugees, and now Muslims are all groups that have faced persecution and lived in fear. None of them would have been rejected by Christ, and this is his calling to us in Matthew’s gospel.
Speaking or standing in opposition to the views of family and friends in Christ’s name takes courage. It is a discipline that is not for the fainthearted. It is easy to look at the disciples and believe we could have been one of them, but is there enough evidence in our daily lives to support that belief?
How many of us paid enough attention to the murder of a Muslim teenager to remember her name? How many of us thought of the pain and suffering her family, friends and members of her mosque endured? Yet if Nabra Hassanen had been a member of St Paul’s and she had been murdered on her way home from confirmation class, I am certain that we would have reacted differently.
All of us share a journey of faith and all of us are imperfect. The joy of being part of this congregation is that we get to share our journeys and collectively overlook our imperfections. We come together not to be judged, but to be accepted, because within these walls we are people first. Our race, our accents, our political leanings, our employment, our sexual preference, our social standing, and our fear of making coffee for fellowship hour are irrelevant. Being a member at St Paul’s is a personal connection with each other, and through that a connection with God.
We have no control over yesterday or the past, but today we all get to reset to zero. Today, through Christ, we all get to draw a new line in the sand and collectively commit to making today a little better than yesterday, for everybody, particularly the weakest among us and those who are persecuted. We are never going to be perfect and we are never going to draw level with the love of Christ, and I think that at the end of the day he can accept that. After reflecting on Matthew’s gospel, I believe that Christ just wants to bear witness to the fact that we are trying harder to live a Christian life today, than we did yesterday. Amen.