Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
I struggled with this week’s Gospel.
And not simply because it is lengthy, and complex, and full of stuff I’d rather not deal with—like not bringing peace but a sword.
At first, I latched onto the part that says, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered…nothing secret that will not be known” and I thought…well, that is what’s happening…what has been happening…so much is being uncovered…revealed…becoming impossible to ignore…all of the stuff that we keep promising we’ll deal with “someday” health care, economic inequality…racism…immigration…climate change…is now coming to the surface…and demanding our attention.
I even flashed back to a sermon I preached almost 3 years ago…when I quoted the words of Adrienne Marre Brown who said, in an essay titled, Living through the unveiling, “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.”…Rereading her essay now, is convicting for how little progress we have actually made, and bracing in how she articulates a way forward. “we must,” she says, “increase our collective tolerance for truth…learn how to hold the full breadth of our emotions we feel upon hearing the truth…deepen our connections to each other…and engage in radical resistance and radical futuring.”
Now that sounds like something I can work with and if that was what Jesus had said today, I might have had less trouble…but it’s not what he says…or it’s not what I heard…see what I heard, and what I kept getting hung up on was, the words: “have no fear,” “don’t be afraid.” For the longest time, I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t get past the fear. And I finally realized, its a framing problem.
Are you familiar with framing? It’s a concept made popular several years ago by linguist George Lakoff. The easiest example of it, that Lakoff loves to use is this…Don’t think of an elephant. Whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant. (I know this is risky because now you’re all thinking of elephants and not thinking of the sermon), but that’s the point. Lakoff says, every word evokes a frame…the words and concepts that are associated with it…by negating the frame—telling you NOT to think of it—I’m actually invoking the frame. When Jesus says, “so have no fear of them,” where I go…and I think where most of us go is…I’m suddenly more afraid than I was before. And because he goes on and tells me all of the things I’m NOT supposed to be afraid of—not just secrets uncovered, but those who kill the body, and the one who can kill body and soul…and all of the conflict that this is going to generate… —the more fearful I became. And fear is not the place to preach the gospel from. Fear never brings good news…at least not directly. Fear makes us do dumb things…tragic things…things we regret…like casting out the child of a handmaid because we’re afraid they will usurp our child’s inheritance…like not speaking out or standing up when we encounter injustices…Fear sends us into fight, flight, or freeze mode. And for awhile I was frozen in the face of this gospel, just as I am often frozen in the face of the onslaught of overwhelming news…the reality that keeps being revealed…the unveiling of deep systemic problems that confronts us afresh every morning.
As I was looking for a way out of my fear box…a way to creatively reframe this whole gospel passage…at some point my eyes fell upon my copy of the three volume graphic novel biography of Representative John Lewis, called March, which chronicles Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement from the Nashville Lunch Counter sit-ins, to the Freedom Riders, to the Selma to Montgomery Marches, and I started rereading them.
In March 1958, Lewis met Jim Lawson, who was in Nashville leading non-violent training workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In November 1959 they conducted their first “test” sit-in at a local lunch counter. Did you catch that…March 1958 to November 1959…they trained for a year and a half before they did a first test sit-in. And they continued to train throughout the whole course of the Civil Rights movement. They trained, they prepared…they took turns playing the various roles of protestors, instigators, resisters…”There may be a black person playing the role of a white person, or vice versa,” says Lewis in March. “We tried to do everything we could to test ourselves, to break each other’s spirits. We tried to dehumanize each other…because we needed to see how each of us would react under stress.” They first learned themselves, and then they trained others…This work, this training, was vital, and it was ongoing…The most important lessons they learned were how to protect themselves, how to protect each other…how to survive…And how to “disarm our attackers by connecting with their humanity.” “The hardest part to learn,” says Lewis, “to truly understand, deep in your heart—was how to find love for your attacker.” (March, vol 1. p 80-82).
“Love, love only,” wrote Thomas Merton, “love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth.” [Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Classics) . The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
And getting there takes time…that takes energy…that takes commitment. It takes daily, ongoing, practice. If we are going to engage in any kind of radical resistance, or radical futuring…if we are to actually move closer to a more just…a more equitable…a more healthy and wholesome world we are going to have to commit to doing this for the long haul…practicing, and training, and learning how to love one another in our delusion…we have to learn how to love one another OUT of our delusions…OUT of our denials…out of our sin…
I want to image that this is what’s going on in the Gospel today. This isn’t a one time—last minute reminder to “not be afraid” before he sends us out into the midst of wolves…to either strike back as wise serpents, or be devoured as innocent doves. I’m choosing to imagine that this is one of many frequent reminders…after another in a long string of training sessions…where they’ve been pushed and tested…where they’ve explored (in a safe, brave environment) what their limits are, and what their depths…where they’ve discovered their shadows and their gifts…where they have come to know…in their heads…and hearts…in their bodies…and souls…how deeply they are valued…how passionately they are loved…how no conflict they will ever face could ever shake them because they know that the God of love is with them…that the love of God is in them and that their task is to see and try to reveal that in every person.
Jesus can talk to them about fear, because they’ve been with him long enough that have no need to fear, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We have no need to fear…we have only to learn how to love. We only have to commit to the daily, ongoing work of love that opens the door to truth…that “increases our collective tolerance for truth”…the work that enables us to hold the full breadth of our emotions upon hearing the truth…the love that allows us to deepen our connections to each other…even as we need to call each other out…to speak the truth…the love that makes it possible to engage in “radical resistance and radical futuring”… that will be needed to make real and lasting change…