"Politely looking away", expanded

June 22, 2008
Pentecost 6A, Proper 7
Matthew 10:24-39

O God: help and govern us, whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your lovingkindness. Amen.

A friend of mine in seminary used to often proclaim that she was “politely looking away”.

When someone said something inopportune or socially inappropriate, she would “politely look away”.

When someone sneezed particularly loudly, my friend would “politely look away”.

If someone had food stuck in his or her teeth, you could bet that if she noticed, my friend would be “politely looking away”.

We always laughed at her pronouncements. If I were entirely honest I would admit that we occasionally even engaged in behavior that encouraged her pronouncements. But, they were never over anything serious. They were, however, signs of my friend’s discomfort around violations of the dictums of polite society. Like most of us, her parents taught her about what was polite and what was acceptable and what was not. Like most of us, she rejected impropriety as it had been taught to her. And like most of us, she became uncomfortable when she was faced with those inevitable occasions of impropriety.

It’s often important to uphold the standards of polite society. We live around a lot of people in not a lot of space. And that’s as it should be. We are social creatures and we all need some measure of community to ensure both our emotional and physical survival. But, if we didn’t have some norms for appropriate ways of interacting with one another, society could quickly become intolerable.

For example: If you’re at a party, and someone you’ve just met drops food on their shirt, they’re probably embarrassed enough. You’re probably better off “politely looking away” than doing anything that may add to their embarrassment.

Or: When a teenager on the New Jersey Turnpike cuts you off at highway speeds, it’s hard not to get angry. But it’s usually more appropriate to just “politely look away”. If you try to rectify the situation, it’s entirely likely that you’ll create more problems than you’ll solve.

But what about those other times? What about those times when the social rules by which we all have been raised are less clear about the ideal course of action?

What if you suspect a coworker of behaving inappropriately? Is it better to “politely look away” then? It’s almost certainly easier, but is it better? What if that impropriety involved the abuse or harassment of another? Is it even okay to “politely look away” then?

And what if you are the one being harassed or abused? Could you “politely look away”? If you did, how would it affect the wellbeing of your soul?

When we “politely look away”, we are usually just trying to “keep the peace”. But, one of the great misunderstandings of the Christian movement is that we are, or at least should be, a peaceful people. I think that’s a big mistake.

In our gospel lesson this morning we hear Jesus say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

They are challenging words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” They seem to stand in defiance of everything that we tend to believe about Jesus and the church. Is this the same Jesus who calmed the raging sea by saying “Peace! Be still!”? Perhaps, but it’s also the same Jesus who grew angry and turned over the tables in the temple. To randomly label the Christian movement as one of peace is not a full picture of all that we are called to be.

God’s call to us is far greater than a call to “keep the peace”. We are called to speak truth to power. In his paraphrase of this morning’s text, Eugene Peterson says this:

“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul.”

I do believe that we are called to avoid violence in all of its forms, but that should never be mistaken for the idea that we are called to avoid all conflict. Too often, Christians have been “intimidated” and “bluffed into silence” in the face of conflict or discomfort. In our efforts at being good Christians we have “politely looked away”. Too often, still, that kind of “politely looking away” means looking away from the injustice in the world.

It has been a persistent problem in the church. In just the brief history of the American church, we can point to countless examples of occasions when the church has “politely looked away” in the face of injustice. Through the ravages of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia and heterosexism, and xenophobia, the church has too often first encountered these issues while “politely looking away”. Too often we have been concerned first and foremost with “keeping the peace”.

We become blinded by our desire to be “peaceful”, and we forget God’s call to “do justice and love kindness”.

Later today, we will baptize Colette Lorraine Hom. Baptism is a bit of a strange time in the life of the church. As we welcome our newest members, we are filled with joy and anticipation of the new Christian life that is to be. Often so much so, that our joy can cloud the gravity of the promises that we will make in the presence of God and one another.

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

These are not, on their own, peaceful tasks. They are difficult to achieve, and they can almost never be achieved by “politely looking away”. They involve digging in. Getting your hands dirty. Challenging yourself.

When we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, we don’t offer any exclusions on the basis race, gender, or economic status. What would it mean to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” when confronted by a beggar on the street? What would it mean to “seek and serve” the Christ in the person of the coworker who is abusing another?

When we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people” we don’t qualify our promise on the basis of sexual orientation or national origin. How might we “strive for justice” for the day laborers who wait outside the train station each day in the hopes of finding work? How would our community be different if we committed ourselves to “striving for justice” at the expense of whatever internal prejudices we might be harboring?

It’s a difficult thing, this Christianity. We’re not just called to go to church on Sundays and to be people “at peace”. A lot is asked of us. Today we’ll be asking it of Colette and her sponsors, but we’ll also be asking it again of ourselves. The promises that we make will be much more than “politely looking away” for the sake of “keeping the peace”. In fact, we’ll be promising NOT to “politely look away”. We’ll be promising to jump in, head first, and fight.

It won’t be easy.

But we will, with God’s help.


Anonymous said…
Ouch? FYI I would in fact tell someone if they had food stuck in their teeth. After a while. You can only look away for so long.