Character Choices

sunset-sentinelsImage “Sunset Sentinels,” jch …. Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time …. Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-26 ….

Thursday brought an opportunity to redirect this week’s sermon. I was at an early-morning appointment for tire rotation and oil change, in the customer waiting area, my laptop open, trying to do some work. Another customer sat down, turned in my general direction, and thanked anyone who would listen for voting for a particular political candidate, whose opponent was described in terms too vulgar to repeat here. In an instant, I knew two things: 1.) that I was being baited, and 2.) that I needed to say something. I chose to respond in an unexpected way.

It would be impossible to replay the 30-minute conversation for you, but its movement went something like this. I expressed my disappointment that such a conversation starter was being introduced into a customer waiting room. I said that I am an independent voter, that a problem in America far greater than voting Republican or Democrat is the movement toward immediately assailing the integrity of opponents rather than addressing issues and solving problems. Then I was accused of a number of things, including being a lawyer, reading fake news, and being unpatriotic. Along the way, I managed to get in a comment about this kind of conversation being unproductive, that all it did was make others in the waiting room wonder if they should be dialing “9-1-1” into their phone keypads, or moving toward the door. He smiled, and said something like, “Well, I am between the door and you, aren’t I?”

The conversation ended differently than you might expect. When the time came for me to leave, I approached the man, and extended my hand. As he grabbed it for a handshake, I said something not particularly well thought out, like, “I hope you will consider that being patriotic means listening to your opponents and treating them with respect.” My pulse had quickened in the way that it does when I’m under stress, and I probably would not have liked my blood pressure reading at that moment. But it seemed to me I had a choice between one way and another, and this way of relating was the right thing to do, that avoiding a polarizing reply was the best strategy for real discussion and influence.

Never have the words of our gospel text seemed more important and practical than they do today. When Jesus extends and focuses the sixth commandment “You shall not murder” by saying “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” I see a judgment not in some distant future, but a judgment with implications for the health of our communities here and now. When Jesus says, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” I see fire not in some underworld pit of lava, but the fire of violence near to the surface in so many places across our country. Choosing to avoid vengeful, polarizing conversation seems the best strategy for productive conversation and lasting influence.

Today’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Testament records a portion of Moses’ farewell speech to God’s people. He has been their leader from before the time they crossed the Red Sea. Through 40 years in the wilderness, he has watched over them. He is within sight of the Promised Land, but knows that he will die before he enters it. He attempts to sum up all that he has tried to model and teach, and it comes down to a decision: turn your heart toward God, rather than away; do what it takes to receive a blessing rather than a curse; don’t select the path that leads to death, instead, choose life.

For Moses, choosing life meant living according to the law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Presbyterian Christians have another law-like document, what we might call a “behavioral covenant” for working together, even when we disagree. It contains principles, like:

  • Treat each other respectfully so as to build trust, believing that we all desire to be faithful to Jesus the Christ;
    • we will keep our conversations and communications open for candid and forthright exchange,
    • we will not ask questions or make statements in a way which will intimidate or judge others.
    • Learn about various positions on the topic of disagreement.
  • State what we think we heard and ask for clarification before responding, in an effort to be sure we understand each other.

Living according to a behavioral covenant like this isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially when emotions are running high. But if we can calm our minds and quiet our hearts, then I think we will see that choosing laws like these is the way to life.

Valerie L. is the daughter of my Springfield colleague Allison L. This past year, her senior year of high school, Valerie wrote a paper that relied on the work of researchers Jedediah Jenkins and John Gottman to explain how arguments affect the brain. “…When we fight, our neurons inhibit the ability to learn new information, instead diverting their function to focus on information retrieval. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and when our heart rate reaches a certain threshold, our brains enter a mental trap of repeating their own arguments, leaving no capacity for reasoning …. The whole concept of argument is ironic because while we are trying to persuade the other party that we are correct, amidst all the shouting, neither party is neurologically capable of learning new information. Hostile argument is not productive.”

Valerie, through Jenkins, quotes Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk and author, who wrote about the importance of first admiring enemies for their good qualities as the only hope for constructive discussion: “In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate our own peculiar truth. Love, love only … this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives … we have no access to truth.” Our young Presbyterian theologian advises, “… truth is often messy and people are fragile …. The only way to access truth effectively is through love, even if that means loving one’s enemies.”[1]

I could preach a longer message, but I don’t think that I could say it any better. “Truth is often messy and people fragile … The only way to access truth effectively is through love, even if that means loving one’s enemies.” And if we do not demonstrate the love of Christ, then who will?

 [1] Valerie L., “Love of Our Deluded Fellow Man,” Facebook profile of Allison L., 20 May 2016, accessed 11 February 2017.

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~ by JohnH1962 on February 12, 2017.