July 14, 2019
“The Force of Offence”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Mark 14:27-31
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
I wrote an article for a local newspaper many years ago. The article was a response to the claim that mainline pastors were all pacifists. Pastors like me were those who called governments to adopt pacifism as a policy. My view was a bit different, so I shared it.
I believe we need to live in peace, churches need to be a sanctuary, but I also believe pacifism is not a practical or pragmatic foreign policy. To call upon leaders of governments to adopt pacifism is a misunderstanding of power and statehood. The paper was happy to run this article.
I got a call the day after the article ran. The co-chairs of the presbytery’s peacemaking committee would like to have a chat.
The next day they came to my office. I was new to the presbytery so part of the reason for their visit was to see exactly who I was. More to the point, was I the crazy, warmongering, militant rightwing pastor they believed I was from the article. The doves had come to see if I was a hawk.
It took about ten minutes to realize that while I certainly was crazy, I was neither rightwing or militant. What unfolded was a long conversation about the church and responsibility. What should we say and do when a government is violent, when it engages in military action?
Surprisingly in the course of our conversation we found a great deal of common ground. We both valued peacemaking, the need to defend the broken and discarded. We were not as opposed as one might think.
But then, we diverged. My pragmatism was seen as unacceptable to the prophetic need to speak against military action. The co-chairs needed to denounce as unacceptable my belief that a church is a place where opposing views can come together. For them the church was called to take a stand, chose a side.
They didn’t invite me to join the peacemaking committee; but, we did part with a sense of mutual forbearance. The church was big enough for both of us.
Near the end of our conversation, one the chairs, Deb, said, “I am called as a pastor to be a prophetic voice.” The inference was, are you not so called as well? What I said was, “prophets are put to death. You only get to play that card once. Might want to make it count.”
I was a lot pushier in my 30s. I would still say the same thing, but I would say it differently. In terms of speaking prophetically, I would say this: it is easy to pick a side; it is very difficult to keep opposing views together. What is more: I see the church as being prophetic when we are a place for people of opposite views to stand together, a place where profound difference is balanced by friendship.
The New York Times last week ran a terrible photo on their front page. The photo was of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande. The father was lying face down in the muddy water and the young child was lying lifeless on his back. Heartbreaking.
There should be in all of us a profound desire for compassion when we see such terrible things. And I am sure we are all the same in our desire for compassion. Yet, where we are not the same is in what form our compassion takes; we will not be as one when we consider what our compassion calls us to do and to say. Here there is diversity across a pretty wide spectrum. For some the photo is a clear mandate for open borders. For others it is clear call for constructing a large wall. The same image can lead people to see very different directions.
It is easy to pick a side; it is very difficult to keep opposing views together.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle or stumbling block we find in the attempt to balance opposition is the force of offence. When we get offended we are tempted to discard the one who offended us. I am pretty sure that the idea of open borders is offensive to some people here and I am pretty sure that the idea of a large wall on our southern border is offensive to others.
About twenty years ago I returned to San Diego for a visit. Unbeknownst to me my mother reached out to some of my childhood friends and we ate dinner together. It was a delightful surprise. All of sudden we were all twelve again. With just a few awkward exchanges we slipped easily into the rapport found in endless summer days playing catch at the end of cul-de-sac.
As the evening moved forward though a great difference emerged. The San Diego I left was no longer; my friends were describing a whole different place. After we left California there were a number of very controversial initiatives that divided people. One of the most divisive was over language, or the exclusion of the Spanish language. As my childhood friends spoke of “them” and how people needed to speak English and stay in their place, when they said we need to stand up to the invasion, I realized I was no longer part of the “we.” A common childhood did not lead to a common future.
This happens. It happens in families and friendships and churches. And when it happens, there is a risk of offence. We not only disagree, we also have disdain. We not only lose solidarity, oneness and community, we also lose respect. If I had lived in San Diego with my childhood friends, I am sure there would have come a moment of temptation to not be good friends. We would have been tempted by the differences to discard, to distance, even develop disdain. At some point our difference would have met the temptation and force of offence.
In our passage from Mark today Jesus speaks of this moment. Jesus says, you will all desert me tonight. And they did; they all fled when Jesus was arrested. I don’t want to give away the ending, but Peter will not only flee, but deny he even knows Jesus. And Judas of course will sell him out.
They all desert Jesus. True. But the word Jesus speaks is not just desert, like an act of cowardice or fear. It’s not just that they ran away. The word Jesus says in Greek is “skandalizo”; it means to be offended, to lose faith, to reject with a sense of disdain. It may be better understood if we translate the claim of Jesus as this: tonight, you all lose faith in me; you will think less of me because you will be offended.
“Skandalon”, the offence, and the power of offence, is a theme that runs through the whole gospel. The Pharisees were always getting offended by what Jesus said and did; John the Baptist was scandalized by how Jesus ate and drank. The people of Jesus’ home town were so offended when he spoke as a prophet they tried to kill him.
Kierkegaard said, the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is offence. He said this because when we get offended, we lose faith in people. When people offend us, we no longer trust them, we don’t want to be friends with them. Jesus told his disciples, tonight you will take offence, you will lose faith, you will want to discard me. And he was right.
Offence has such power. Of course, we give it the power. Offence is always a choice. Nobody bends our nose when we get offended; we do this ourselves. People can say very offensive things, do very faithless acts which cause harm and injury. But they cannot cause offense. This is our choice, our own power.
Again, Jesus is telling his disciples tonight you will choose to reject me, to think less of me, to lose faith in me. And they did.
Jesus implies this is part of life. This happens. We get offended; we lose faith in people. Sometimes it’s a change that offends; sometimes it’s failed expectations or misperceptions. Whatever is though we are tempted in our offence to leave people aside, to distance ourselves, to cut ties.
This week we risked a moment of offence here at the church. There was an event held on the front lawn. The event was a fundraiser for the legal expenses of families seeking asylum on our southern border. Mostly, though, the event was about the treatment of children on the southern border. We were asked to host an event to build solidarity for compassion for children and we did.
The risk was that the event could become a partisan rally. If the event became a series of speeches denouncing the president or the policies of the government, then we would have been seen as choosing a party or a partisan perspective.
There were about ten speakers in total. All who spoke were asked to steer clear of partisanship. This was organized to say, we all need to stand up for the kids on the southern border. And this is what it was. Senator Diegnan said it very well. He waved his hand across our front yard where fifty young children were running and playing and said, what if it was one of our kids in the holding cells in Texas? What if they came and took your infant from your arms?
Our mayor spoke to this. He spoke about how the immigration issue changed for Metuchen when Roby Sanger was detained and incarcerated for 10 months. Perhaps the best moment of the event though was when Roby spoke to the crowd. This was not partisan, this was personal. What did we do when it was our friend? We acted. So, what if we imagine these are our children?
Two of the speakers did not respect our request. The ACLU representative spoke against the administration and its failures. That was not the spirit of the event. And one politician made pointed comments. I wish they had not done this. That was not the purpose or spirit.
The chances are very good such comments may and will cause offence; this could upset the delicate balance we seek. We want to be a place of dialogue not monologue. We want to stand together in our divergent views, not demand you take our side.
Some would say, this is why churches should not be the place for such an event. The risk of offence. Yet, I believe just the opposite. Because it was here, the focus, the energy of the community stayed in the common ground of compassion for children. The image of the children suffering on the southern border transcended politics when the mayor called Roby forward; the prayers of the rabbis to offer dignity and care to children may have been lost in another venue with partisan shouting. On our front yard the agenda wasn’t a government policy; it was a desire to care. Perfect? No. Better? Yes.
I am not sure I have ever gone a year without someone taking offence with something I said, something I wrote. It could be I am very offensive person. I can tell you I have no confidence in the desire to offend, to be shocking. The provocative is a cheap attempt at change. Real change doesn’t come from offence; real change in our heart, in our congregation, in a community comes when we rise above the temptation to be offended.
When we risk the perils of listening to those who completely disagree with us, then we have a chance at freedom and wisdom.
I don’t have to tell you how tempting it is today to discard people who offend us. The people who want open borders will be tempted to discard the friend who wants a wall. When Mark told the story of the disciples losing faith on the night Jesus was arrested, when he told this story, he knew the temptation to lose faith in each other. We do this; we get offended.
In this place, in this worship, in our friendship defying difference, though, we do something else. In our common compassion we become a place where we stand together in our difference. We find faith in each other as we transcend the force of offence. This is what a church can be. Let’s be such a church together for our community. Amen.
- Isaiah 53:1 - 6
- Mark 14:27 - 31