Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
February 24, 2019
Prayer for Deliverance from Slanderers
A Song of Ascents.
In my distress I cry to the Lord,
that he may answer me:
‘Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.’
What shall be given to you?
And what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war.
The Psalmist writes, “I am for peace but when I speak they are for war.” A clergy friend connected me with a podcast called “Invisibilia,” and they tell this story from a dinner party a few years ago: It was Washington, D.C., in the summer time, and friends gathered in a backyard. It was a celebration with food and wine and the stars above, eight folks gathering around for dinner. It was about 10:00 P.M., they looked up and there was someone there with them: a man stood with a gun outstretched, pointing at one and then another and demanding money. They were there in the backyard; they didn’t have anything on them and they were staring at this gun as threats were raised and tensions were escalating and as they were telling this story it seemed like someone was going to be hurt, and soon. And then one of the friends that was gathered around there said to this man, “We’re here celebrating; would you like a glass of wine?” And he said, “Yes.” And when he tried it he said, “That’s good wine.” He put the gun away and then he took some cheese and in a couple of minutes he asked if he could have a hug, and they did. They gathered around and they hugged him and then he walked away with his glass of wine. And they went back into the house and they closed the door and they sobbed because they thought they just had witnessed a miracle. And I would say, of course, that they had.
There are many times when words of peace are met, instead, with war. There are many times when graciousness is trampled and cruelty reigns, but sometimes, sometimes miraculously something shifts. Sometimes, even though the world is shouting violence, even though you have known nothing but cruelty, even though violence is here and it feels like the only thing is to respond in kind, sometimes kindness befuddles. Sometimes a response of love unsettles; sometimes a word of peace at the right place unlocks a miracle, where even for an alien in Meshech, sometimes you can speak a word of speak and they can respond in peace as well.
The Scripture today is a picture of the Psalmist in a place of persecution, hearing lies all around, even imagining retribution, picturing the arrows and glowing coals that will come upon their enemies. And even after all that, somehow naming, “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak they are for war.” I can name some of the saints in our recent history for whom I would name this phrase, these words of peace that were met instead with retribution. Throughout the Scriptures, faithful people of God have gotten themselves kicked out of towns, thrown out most of the time. The Israelites just wanted to go on their peaceful way until Pharaoh at first said, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” before having a change of heart and sending the chariots chasing them to the Red Sea. The Prophets spoke good words that seldom went over well with the kings. Jeremiah got himself thrown into a cistern; Daniel faced the lions. And, of course, Jesus, Jesus was thrown from his hometown for proclaiming freedom to the prisoners, setting the oppressed free. Jesus was asked to leave when, after freeing a man from spirits and sending those into the herds of swine, it was looking a little frightening for those who were left behind. Jesus was followed by threats of death until, no matter his words of love, he met his death on the cross, even as his death was not the end. And it is noteworthy that in each of these cases these words of peace got a reaction.
We can think of peaceful words like really sappy sayings. “Peace” on a t-shirt is more of a decoration than a slogan. “Peace” as a sentimental ballad, without a particularly catchy melody, “peace” as something we promise to children but doesn’t seem real in a world like ours. And so, how can something so gushy cause controversy in the first place? It is likely because we misunderstand just how difficult words of peace can be to hear. The Lectionary this week, the Gospel is words of Jesus, “Love your enemies and do good to those that hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who harm you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This last bit feels like something we may have heard, something we would tell the children, but the rest is very hard to imagine. I have heard stories of pastors, after preaching this text, that the sermon so enraged parishioners that they left the church, and I believe it. I, who know these words, find them profoundly uncomfortable. I, who hate to admit, have those quiet corners of my heart where grievance lies and sometimes when I read the newspapers, louder chambers. Loving your enemies is not a simple thing. Jesus is about the only one, perhaps ever, who can proclaim these words wholeheartedly without being a hypocrite, because to any other person you cannot simply say, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” without the addendum, “And let me say I’m still working on it.”
“Do good to those who curse you?” The Psalms reflecting the humanity which is exactly what you would expect of us have a remarkable number of songs to God asking God to, among other things, “Cut out the tongues of liars,” “Utterly destroy the cities of their enemies,” and occasionally pass down some gruesome violence onto our enemy’s children for good measure. This is a remarkably human prayer to God and one that, if we have not found ourselves in that place, it is perhaps because we have not discovered the reaches of horror that humanity is capable of, the reaches of pain and violence that we can unleash upon one another. Make no mistake, the Scripture contains within its stories of those who have suffered profound wrong, profound love and have witnessed horror. And so these songs of justification of anger, of waiting for God’s justice to finally make it right, these are songs of faith: trusting unto God the vengeance you wouldn’t trust yourself. Are you going to speak into the midst of that, “Do good to those who curse you?” Words of peace, if real, are not easy to hear and if we hear words of peace and feel self-assured or self-righteous, it could be that we have not thought hard enough of where we have nestled our grievance away. Words of peace are not sentimental, and yet there are times that they somehow miraculously change something.
I heard an expert on social psychology, Chris Hopwood, talking about what is going on when someone dramatically changes the social expectations around them, especially around threats of conflict. He used the phrase, “Complementary behavior.” Complementary behavior is we reflect back what we have received from someone else. So if someone is smiling and cheerful, we do the same back. Or if someone is cold or hostile, we do the same back. In game theory, it’s called “Tit for Tat,” a strategy in certain types of games where you show back to someone what you see in return, and we do it a lot. As we seek friendships, if someone is smiling or pleasant we usually return the favor in small talk, and we may respond to aggression in the grocery store line by pulling a cart a bit more aggressively. And when the situation gets more, gets more heated, by responding to anger with defensiveness, by responding to cruelty with viciousness and it is by far what we are used to, that we often just hope that in the midst of conflict we can dare to stay proportionate, that if someone gets called a name they don’t slug someone else in return but instead have a witty retort. Complementary behavior means that we match a tone in return, and sometimes we mix up the rules, if we do something totally different in return, the situation can change.
When we think to the story of the dinner party, how offering a glass of wine somehow changed the rules so that the man was no longer threatening, he was a guest. The switch, this change is called “non-complementary behavior,” when someone breaks the rules of engagement that we have come to know. When they respond in the tone not where they were addressed but instead they do not reflect the coldness or even the vitriol. Instead, they resist the pull to react in kind but instead react with something new. And the experts agree this is incredibly hard to do. When we witness those we have known who have risen to the status of modern day saints: The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, those who revealed through non-violent protest the seriousness of their cause and action, not through violence but through showing the work of peace to the face of cruelty. It is tempting to relegate this to the realms of mere sainthood, the claim that if we are unable to travel through time to participate in a movement that grows in its perfect through its hindsight, then here in the messy present there is no call on our life. And yet we know these situations occur more frequently than we can name. The challenge I face in my life is not that I lack the ideal situation that requires my non-complementary response, because the internet is right there with people that are both clearly wrong and being a jerk about it. And yet, I am just baffled by the stories you hear where someone is in the middle of a lot of hate on Twitter and there in the middle of a conflict at 140 characters, as things are escalating somehow they saw something on their page that reveals their humanity, as something shifts as the story plays out, and then they contribute to their GoFundMe page.
In a more concrete way we are working within these forces every single day in ways that are large and small. From strangers in the streets to co-workers, family and friends, goodness knows in our political world and in our community. We are every day enmeshed in this world of interaction where we have found our way through and will make our choices of how we will respond. We can be silent, or perhaps hide; we can participate in this escalation where one thing leads to another and on and on and on, or we can try to follow this seemingly impossible path of peace, where you are present and clear and loving. I want to name just how vulnerable it is to respond to something less than what you have received. There is a reason that in general in game theory they say that if someone is aggressive, you are aggressive in return. There is a risk in changing the pattern, for if you turn the other cheek you very well may get clobbered more than once. Your kindness may be accepted as a gain or even be shown as evidence of weakness. Even extending compassion to another, seeking to see their side, there is no guarantee it will be shown in return, and you can be left there and vulnerable, you can be harmed. There is no guarantee that the person will find their own humanity in their response. There is a cost to laying aside the anger of your own assurance and respect, a sense that a wrong was done to you and not okay, and what if you forget that fact, get lost on the other side of the story? Sometimes it can feel like too big of a risk, for what does the Psalmist say after the words and lies and slings and arrows finding themselves in a land that doesn’t try to understand? You can be for peace but when you speak it may still be that they are for war.
But I am grateful and amazed that this is a road that God can offer: an impossible path that Jesus sets before us and that sometimes miraculously we experience the grace to follow. For we know what the road of escalation can mean, how cruelty can be met with cruelty, how violence can be met with violence, how escalation can continue and if no one changes we know where that road goes, and how sometimes miraculously something can change. For if there ever is to be peace, if there ever is to be hope, if there ever is to be understanding, if we ever are to be closer to the truth, if we are ever to be nearer to justice, if we are ever to witness that perhaps God has a miracle even here. The Psalmist cries out that lies surround them, that anger feels like arrows and like coals and yet manages somehow, even there, to speak for peace, if given the grace to speak for peace even in the face of war.
We are called to this place, this line where war and peace meet, where justice and mercy meet, the line where God’s truth and God’s love meet. We are called to this place and invited, sometimes miraculously by grace that we couldn’t have mustered on our own, not to echo back the sounds that around us and not to reflect back hatred for hatred, despair for despair, not to harden our hides to the harshness around us, no matter how long we have had our dwelling among those who hate peace. We are invited into this place, seeking to follow God’s way, and the prayer that God might take our words and open up a door to a new way, to a new kingdom, to a new promise. I pray only that God might teach us the way to such a miracle as this. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.