Hope College Baccalaureate Sermon
Sunday, May 4, 2003
The Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton
Text: Matthew 10:34-39
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Okay, the first question of the morning is: who invited these verses to our graduation party? They obviously gate-crashed this invitation-only gala, showing up like brutes under the respectable cover of the Bible; ready to track in the mud, break the fine china, and gulp down the champagne. There are some things you just don't want to hear when sitting in church surrounded by your fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and other family members; things like Jesus saying that "one's foes will be members of one's own household." Take a look around you: behold your foes!
Now, Class of 2003, I want you to remember that most of you owe these people money. Parents, you need to realize that these young men and women now know more than you do - plus they're bigger and stronger. Jesus, in today's gospel text, said, "I have come to set a man against his father, and daughter against her mother." This is good news?
When faced with difficult texts like these, there is the temptation for preachers to take the stance on the early film comedian W.C. Fields, who when he was gravely ill in a hospital bed, amazed his friends by doing something they thought he would never do: leaf through the pages of the Good Book. When asked why, he answered with a straight face, "I'm looking for loopholes!" Well, I'm looking for loopholes in the scripture lesson this morning, because I just can't believe that Jesus has something against families.
The American family has enough foes already today, without religion becoming one of them. Unemployment, lack of education, homelessness, hunger and poverty are societal ills that are taking out a heavy toll on families. And when you add the common family traumas of alienation, separation, divorce, custody disputes, abuse, violence and even homicide, you can readily see that the institution of family is in a dangerously precarious position. The family household is often more like a war zone than a safe haven. And no one knows how to hurt each other the way that family members do.
Of course, members of broken families may torment themselves further by entertaining notions of what the "perfect" family is. Somewhere in Leave-It-To-Beaver-Land, I suppose, there is a family where before the delicious sit-down family dinner begins, a warm and sensitive Ward Cleaver comes home and is greeted at the door by a smiling, well-dressed and done-up June; he enters a house where nothing is out of place, the family dog brings him the paper, teenagers are respectful and everybody flosses. And yes, they go to church. Gladly. Every Sunday. Can't wait.
Call me jaded, but I just don't see that a lot. Granted, I don't live in Holland, Michigan anymore. But the truth is that some families fit the classic television image and others do not; some families have had to struggle with mental illness, behavioral disorders, hopelessness and fear, while others have not; some families are close and others are not. It's easy to see the problems of broken families, but close families can have their own set of problems that are not readily apparent. The principle danger that is present in close families as well as broken ones is the danger of losing one's true identity and purpose. Jesus knew how powerful families are in our lives, and if we listen closely to what he was trying to tell us in those disturbing words in the Gospel of Matthew, then you just might hear a helpful word of warning about the danger of giving your family total allegiance.
There are all kinds of bad interpretations of today's gospel text - and I don't know which one I like the best! If Jesus had intended to create a disposition of active disrespect for parents, then in a more rebellious period in my life, that interpretation would have delighted me. Now that I'm older and wiser - and have my own kids - I can clearly see the need for another view. Obviously, "bringing the sword, not peace" between family members could not have been Jesus' intent, since just a few chapters later in Matthew (15:4 and 19:18) he repeats the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers. Nor can it have been intended to sanction abuse or neglect of children. Just a few verses before Jesus recites that fifth commandment, he lays his hands upon the little ones brought to him and says that the kingdom of heaven is theirs (19:14). In teaching his disciples to pray, he acknowledges that if we as parents, even though we are immature, still "know how to give good gifts to [our] children", how much more, then, will God who is the perfect parent give unto us (7:11). To take today's text, then, as a call to destroy family loyalties would be as wrong-headed as to take any other isolated passage from the Bible to justify any action of hatred or violence against another.
The Semitic (biblical) mind, unlike many modern minds, knew about the power of allegory and emphasis in speech that allowed them not to take everything literally. The inability to make this distinction has created a lot of trouble in modern history, even today. - allegorical speech: apocalyptic literature, lake of fire, the 144,000, 7 seals, etc.- emphatic speech: present polar opposites in order to emphasize stark differences, eg. "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Mt. 5:38) = if taken literally, would result in an eyeless or toothless society. Or "If your right eye or right hand causes you to sin, cut them off and throw them away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go to hell." (Mt. 5:29-30) = Jesus would find it quite strange if persons took this literally.
The emphasis in today's text is on loyalty to God, and that takes precedence over any other loyalties - even to family. The early Christians discovered this bravely, as many of them were forced to choose between following their families or following Christ. In modern times, many Christians - even in this assembly - have had to take stands against segregation and racism, sexism, materialism and homophobia - even when it has resulted in conflict and sometimes ostracism from their families. e.g. "You believe what?"
All of us in this assembly have learned a lot of good things from our families of origin, and we gather here this morning to celebrate that. But if we were to be as honest as Jesus demands in today's scripture - and not make idols of our families - then we'd have to admit that it would be foolish of us to emulate everything that we've learned from other family members. For no one is perfect - only God!
What then, do we do with this difficult text? Certainly, it offers us an opportunity to reflect upon who we really are, and what we were intended to do on this earth. For the point that Jesus wants to make is: your sense of "family" is too small! Unless we can get beyond the understanding that it is my family, my clan, my ethnic group, my race and my nation that is most important to me, then there is no hope for the world in which we live, and there is no hope that we can grow individually into the persons that we were created to be.
A young man applies for a position in his local school system. He wants to teach, and feels he can make a positive difference in young peoples' lives. He wants to give something back to the city system that prepared him well enough to make it through the tough college that he just graduated from. Receiving his application, the receptionist looks it over to see if everything was completed, and then notices that he missed an important section of the form. "I notice here at the top that you didn't check one of the boxes under 'Race'", she pointed out to him. His light skin normally would have moved her to check the appropriate box for him, but there was something about his dredlocked hair and thick lips that threw her off. "I see that you wrote 'Human' in this section, but we really need your race." "Yeah, I know," he answered. "I wrote it down." "No, you see," she insisted, "you need to check something here: white, black, latino, pacific/asian, native american; or you can write in a race if you like." "I did," he answered. "It's human. The race is human."
Science can teach us more about the essential oneness of the human family than many of our churches and religions can bring themselves to do. In Race: The Power of an Illusion, a three-part PBS series shown recently on the biology and genetics of human beings, overwhelming scientific evidence was presented to show that the popular notion that human beings belong biologically to a thing called a "race" is a myth. The idea of race is social construct, a modern concept that was useful for the purpose of highlighting differences for the sake of power and domination, but it is not biologically real. Scientists cannot find any genetic markers that are particular to one "race", and absent from another "race" of humans. In other words, there are no genetic markers that define a race.
For several hundred years, we have used the visual differences of skin color, body shape, hair form and eye shape to classify people into 4 or 5 groups we call "races". But why not 54 or 55 races? Who gets to decide? As one microbiologist put it, "We have a notion of race as being divisions among people that are deep, that are essential, that are somehow biological, or even genetic, that are unchanging; and that these are clear-cut distinct categories of people. But, genetically, human beings are not very different from each other." In fact, human beings are among the most similar of all species. Only one out of every 1,000 nucleotides that make up our genetic code is different, one individual from another. Penguins, for example, who display little difference visually, have twice the amount of genetic difference, one from another, than humans. And fruit flies? Despite common exterior features, ten times more difference. Any two fruit flies may be as different genetically from each other as a human person is to a chimpanzee. Humans are remarkably similar.
Racially speaking, of the small amount of variation in our genes, there is apt to be as much difference between a black person and another black person, as between a black person and any other human being. Or in other words, no human organ of a black, white, Asian or latino person can be shown to be different from the organs of any other human of a different so-called race. From a scientific point of view, then, to speak of "race" is nonsensical, unless one wants to refer to those 6.3 billion beings living on this planet who all can trace their mitochondrial-DNA lineage to one woman, a common "mother", who lived between 150,000-190,000 years ago in eastern Africa.
Societies have "thought" race into existence, which leaves open the possibility that societies can someday "unthink" race out of existence. What would that world look like? Dare we try to envision that? What would you, personally, gain by that possibility? What would you lose? If your identity is so enmeshed in being in a particular family, clan, ethnic group and nation that cannot imagine belonging - really belonging - to an expanded version of your family, clan, ethnic group or nation, then you will lose a great deal. You will lose an identity, but an identity that needs other less-valued persons - namely, outsiders - to buttress it.
Differences - real differences - are here to stay, and are obviously part of God's beautiful creation in all its variety. But what would it mean to gain an identity that so identifies with those who are different - those outside of family - that one incorporates them into the circle of love that was previously only extended to "families"? It would mean that one is getting closer to the vision of Jesus, who in today's very strong words warned his hearers on maintaining an allegiance to individual families that limits their allegiance to the human family.
One day a little girl came into a hospital to visit her grandfather. She felt moved to go into the chapel and write a prayer before she left. She wrote: "Lord, please help a little boy who fell off a house. And please help a lady whose daughter is not only blind but is very sick. And also help my grandpa to get better." The little girl who wrote this prayer has, at such a young age, successfully emigrated from the me-me-me solar system, bounded on the west by an "m" and on the east by an "e". She prayed first for a stranger who fell off a house, next for a stranger with a blind, sick daughter, and last for a member of her own family, her grandfather. She has embodied the Spirit of Christ that drives human beings beyond themselves to reach out to others.
Jesus knew that the inability of groups to move beyond their own parochial concerns will inevitably lead to more conflict in the world, despite the seeming peace that one achieves by limiting oneself to one's own family. Do you know what that looks like? It looks like the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, northern Ireland, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and countless other places where persons have substituted the love of family, clan, race and religion for the love of God - even in our own beloved nation.
And yet, every generation or so, God raises up among a people a prophet who points the way out of the hell of ethnocentrism, bigotry and conflict.. Three months before he was felled by an assassin's bullet, Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words in a sermon:
To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour, and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and thus our victory will be a double victory."
What would it mean for you personally to live more and more into the growing consciousness of the one human family? It means that you become free. We are all created in the image of God, and that means that "we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God." (Book of Common Prayer, p.845) This tells me that the purpose of faith is to make human beings free. Bad religion binds people up; good religion sets them free to be the persons they want to be, and were created to be. All of us want to love, for instance, but because of our sin we are bound up, and cannot do it on our own power. We need to be freed up to love, create, reason and live in harmony with others!
Personally, I had to latch on to that notion of freedom here, because when I first came to Hope College I experienced this place more as a churchly ghetto - a kind of prison - rather than a place of freedom. Do you want to know how I rebelled? I decided early on that I was just going to be me, rather than what I thought others wanted me to be. "Wild Bill" Hillegonds, the Hope College chaplain when I was here, was a wise though slightly unorthodox spiritual mentor for me, and ultimately a very important person in my life, once told me to my chagrin that I was "really different". Why did he have to tell me that? This was not good news, at least for this African American easterner who was still trying to figure out a way to sneak in a game of tennis on Sunday without the church police running me out of town for profaning the Sabbath. The problem, quite simply, was this: I didn't fit here, and the more I tried to fit in the worse I felt. The opposite was also true: the more I tried not to fit in, I felt even worse than before. So what I came to, following the good example of my college chaplain, was to grow comfortable with being me in whatever setting I happened to find myself in. I was a bona fide member of the human race, and that identity followed me everywhere from being active in the Black Coalition (remember, this was the seventies!) to the Emersonian fraternity (are they still around?).
I had already known God before I came here, thanks to Young Life and the good Christian upbringing of my parents and grandparents. But what I hadn't known yet was me. Hope College was the best laboratory for this misfit you see before you to find himself that he could have ever found. 27 years later, I'm privileged to be able to say to this institution publicly, "Thank you."
Let no one define you! You are you; a gifted member of the human family. It's a rather large one. Take another look around you: behold your family!