June 25

Making Sense with Matthew

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 10:24–39

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The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley:

Good morning, Marsh Chapel! It is so good to be with you and back in Boston. Our deep thanks to Bob, Jess, Karen, Jonathan, Scott, Justin, Heidi, and Chloe for the invitation to preach and the hospitality here at our beloved alma mater. It’s been a few years since we’ve lived in Boston and served on the staff here, but we are still connected, even across the distance; that is what community can do. 

Wooh, Soren, we just really won the lectionary lottery for this summer preaching series on Matthew and the Costs of Discipleship, huh? Swords, slavery, sin, separation from family. Soren, how do you think about how to deal with difficult biblical passages? 

The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler:

For nearly a decade, I’ve had the privilege of wrestling together with difficult sacred texts with Jewish colleagues at Hebrew College. And for the last five years, I’ve navigated difficult Christian texts as the instructor of Hebrew College’s Introduction to Christianity course. I’ve learned that we navigate difficult texts best when we do so openly and in community and in dialogue with one another.

It is out of those shared commitments that I flew into Boston last Sunday to participate this past week in a concurrent meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews (the ICCJ) and the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR). The ICCJ is the umbrella organization of over 30 national Jewish-Christian dialogue organizations. Founded as a reaction to the Holocaust, “the ICCJ and its member organizations world-wide over the past seven decades have been successfully engaged in the historic renewal of Jewish-Christian relations.” In recent years, the ICCJ and its members have promoted Jewish-Christian dialogue and provide models for wider interfaith relations, particularly dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

“The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR) is an association of centers and institutes in the United States and Canada devoted to enhancing mutual understanding between Jews and Christians. It is dedicated to research, publication, educational programming, and interreligious dialogue that respect the religious integrity and self-understanding of the various strands of the Jewish and Christian traditions. [Its] members are committed to interreligious dialogue, the purpose of which is neither to undermine or to change the religious identity of the other, but rather seeks to be enriched by each other’s religious lives and traditions.“

The gathering of approximately 150 people, from over 20 countries, was hosted by the Boston College Center for Jewish-Christian Learning and Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership. The conference theme was “Negotiating Multiple Identities: Implications for Interreligious Relations,” and, of course, our meeting coincided with the national holiday of Juneteenth.

There were plenary sessions and academic lectures, interactive workshops (which included shared text study), various opportunities for critical engagement with the arts, and excursions across the city for deeper learning. Marsh Chapel was one of several sites around the city that hosted conference participants this week. 

As I mentioned, there is much in Jewish and Christian sacred texts that we choose not to read often or altogether skip over in the regular cycles of our appointed weekly readings. One workshop I attended titled, “’By the Waters of Babylon’: Intersectional Readings of a Classical Biblical Text” focused on Psalm 137 and shared several new multi-media resources on the themes of exile, homecoming, retribution, and justice from an international digital Psalms project, Book of Psalms: Calling Out of the Depths, hosted by the Miller Center at Hebrew College. Together my colleagues Dr. Andrew Davis, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Boston College, and Rabbi Or Rose, Founding Director of the Miller Center at Hebrew College, explored their shared study of the Psalms and their engagement with this Psalm and others with classrooms of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish students in the BTI over the last several years. We read together the full text of Psalm 137 in Hebrew and in English, and after the second reading of the Psalm, a participant in the workshop, an elderly Jewish woman who has been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue work for more than 50 years exclaimed, “I never knew the last two verses of this Psalm!” She had sung other parts of the Psalm in different Jewish liturgical contexts, but not these final two verses, which are translated in the NRSV as

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

These words are never set to music. The workshop participants wrestled with the value of these words. The leaders of the workshop shared various rationalizations of the text, including by Augustine, that the author of these words must not have meant them literally. Nevertheless, on their face, they are quite terrible. At best, these final verses give voice to the experience of rage in the midst of oppression. The workshop leaders attempted to contextualize the likely context of the authorship of the Psalm, but ultimately concluded that a literal enactment of the exclamation of the Psalm is inconsistent with the other values and commitments espoused by Jewish and Christian communities. In short, our sacred texts are the products of particular people and contexts. Sometimes we simply don’t understand the full context of the text, and sometimes, the texts themselves are just problematic.

I raise this because I think that today’s passage from Genesis merits at least a bit of attention today. Had it not been the chapel’s summer practice to read all four lectionary texts, I would likely have omitted the Genesis text from the liturgy today. In any event, in our Genesis text, our author recounts God as condoning Abraham’s decision to cast out his wife’s slave, Hagar, and the son she had born for Abraham. Sarah’s ownership of Hagar and Abraham’s sexual access to his wife’s slave are, perhaps, issues for another day, but we have in Genesis today, a recollection of God affirming Abraham’s decision to cast out Hagar so that her son cannot inherit from Abraham alongside Abraham’s other son, Isaac. The heroization of Abraham in the Genesis text is at one of its lowest points in today’s text. It seems that the author can find no other satisfactory reason that Abraham would agree to cast out Hagar and their son than that God reassured Abraham it was a good idea because God would bless and multiply Ishmael’s offspring and make of him a great nation?! This is not a flattering depiction of the divine, and Abraham is not winning any points in my book with his decision today.

But the rest of the pericope recollects God coming to the aid of Hagar and Ishmael when their water had run out, and Hagar was certain that her young son would perish. God’s mercy is on full display in the latter portion of the pericope, but that doesn’t make the former portion any less problematic. As a United Methodist, I read scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. Tradition and experience tell me that the text’s characterization of the divine in the initial verses of today’s passage in Genesis is either simply wrong, incomplete, or perhaps asserted for some other narrative purpose. Plain readings of hard texts do a disservice to the complexity of the tradition and our own religious experience, which brings us to the Matthean text today.

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley:

What a difficult set of readings for these times, and what a difficult set of verses to make sense of in Matthew. Here in Matthew 10, we find ourselves in the midst of the instructions from Jesus to the disciples as He sends them out to travel from place to place, proclaiming the good news, healing, and casting out demons as they go. These logia, these sayings gathered in Matthew 10 partially echo bits of Mark and Luke, but their compilation here and their full content are unique to Matthew’s gospel. Matthew finds it useful to collect these teachings and present them without significant commentary, leaving us to make sense of them. And they make about as much sense smushed together as sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, a noncanonical gospel in which the narrative of the gospels are left out in favor of a series of sayings, such as  “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”

The point of sayings like these in Thomas, and like our passage in Matthew today, is to get them, faith seeking understanding, the goal is the contemplation of them; they are constantly elusive, or troubling, or astonishing, but there is also something powerful about them, there is something about the eternal to them, and they invite constant return.

You might feel some of these passages in your bones in these days. I know I do. After all, this is a time of division and polarization. You might have friends or family or former classmates or colleagues you can’t talk about politics or faith with any more; or maybe you can’t as often without conversation devolving into conspiracy theory or conflict; or maybe you can’t really talk at all.

It’s also a time of disaffiliation in our own United Methodist denomination. Across the United States, and to a much more limited extent around the world, some of the most conservative churches of the denomination have left the denomination. I have heard texts like our gospel reading today used to justify these departures. I have heard interpretations of passages like Matthew 10 in these conversations along the lines of, isn’t Jesus saying, with verses about hating your family, and division, and persecution at the hands of religious authorities, speaking straight to our moment and endorsing disaffiliation? Isn’t a text like Matthew about holding fast to a pure, unadulterated, gospel that must be preserved, defended against constant attack? Isn’t this text all about leaving?

When hearing interpretations like these, and the swirling disinformation amidst disaffiliation, I am reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Krister Stendahl, Lutheran Bishop, Harvard Divinity School Dean, and New Testament Scholar. One of the last things he wrote was a short essay, titled “Why I Love the Bible.” I assign it every year in my introduction to the New Testament class. Stendahl says he loves the bible because “The Bible is about me, and the Bible is not about me.” Stendahl first loved the Bible because it was about him, it spoke to him, it formed his faith and the way he worshipped and prayed and the hymns he sang. It was personal. But then, Stendahl learned to love the Bible because it was NOT about him.

“This was the time when I was naïve and arrogant enough to identify with the people I read about, or whose writings I read…. It was about many other things—in the long run, much more interesting things. It was about many things in many distant lands, from many distant ages…. Now it spoke to me from a great distance, of centuries and cultures deeply different from my own. And it began to be, just by its difference, that the fascination grew, that it had a way of saying to me, there are other ways of seeing and thinking and feeling and believing than you have taken for granted. And it just added to my love—for love is not just fascination. When I short-circuited my reading in those earlier days of having it just be about me, I slowly learned that this was a greedy way to deal with the richness of the scriptures.” (Stendahl 2007, xx).

I love the Bible, and I love wrestling with difficult texts because I am honest about their distance. The Gospel of Matthew, written perhaps in 80-90 CE, emerges from real crisis. Both what becomes Judaism and what becomes Christianity emerge in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The Gospel of Matthew vividly shares collective memory about this cataclysm, and those who compiled, circulated, and told these stories about Jesus did so with real risk in mind and communal memory.

Some Christians around the world are more proximate to experiences like that today, but here in the United States, this is simply not the case, despite disinformation to the contrary. Hear it from this Christian, United Methodist Pastor, Christianity is not under attack in the United States in 2023. Living in a religiously pluralistic and democratic society with folks who disagree with you, and facing consequences for your speech in public is not religious persecution. Not getting to censor public libraries, public schools, and other public goods does not mean you are being silenced. Jesus and his disciples knew real persecution, and those who first circulated our gospel today some half century later knew what could happen from a violent empire. Why is the constant appeal of a persecution narrative so appealing, any evidence to the contrary? The story of Christianity and the cross makes meaning out of loss, finds power even in its powerlessness, and finds a way to make community even when faced with suffering. These are some great building blocks for theology that can help us find meaning, power, and community today. But the lens looks different when our backs aren’t against the wall, to paraphrase Howard Thurman. These building blocks can be built out of true, to craft a theology that thinks that losing is winning, and that being under threat means you are somehow blessed. Then there is incentive to overlook whether you might be backing some folks against a wall, or to flip the script so that you are always the persecuted, faithful remnant, constantly on defense against the world. 

Because I love the Bible, and notice my distance from it, I have freedom to find proximity to it again. Matthew calls us again to contemplate these teachings.

The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler:

Jen, I think Thurman’s own reading of the Bible, his love of it, his distance from it and others’ commentaries on it, and his ability to find proximity to it offer a glimpse of understanding the Matthean text today.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of convening and moderating a panel discussion about the life and work of the Reverend Howard Thurman, the distinguished African American preacher, writer, educator, and pastor, who played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement and who was a groundbreaking interreligious and cross-cultural leader, a leader that the Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill is fond of describing as one hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago. Together with three Thurman scholars, my colleagues Nick Bates, the recently appointed Director of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground at Boston University; the Reverend Dr. Shively T. J. Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University’s School of Theology; and Rabbi Or Rose, we screened a recent brief documentary about Thurman and discussed Thurman’s work and legacy. On Friday, Or published an article in Patheos reflecting on the panel and the long relationship of his mentor Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Thurman and other Christian religious leaders.

Or writes:

“I first learned of Howard Thurman some years ago from my beloved teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (d. 2014), founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement. Long before Reb Zalman (an informal title he preferred) emerged as a modern Jewish mystical sage and international religious figure, he began an idiosyncratic spiritual journey that took him from the more insular world of HaBaD-Lubavitch Hasidism into dialogue with an array of practitioners from the world’s religions.

“Among his earliest and most influential interreligious and inter-racial interlocuters was Dean Thurman, whom he first met in 1955, as a graduate student at BU’s School of Theology. By the end of that academic year, Reb Zalman lovingly referred to him as his ‘Black Rebbe’ (the customary term for a Hasidic master). In describing Thurman’s influence on him, Reb Zalman said that his BU mentor caused him to ‘redraw his reality map.’ To put it plainly, the emerging (already off-beat) Hasidic rabbi had not yet met a non-Jewish religious figure like Thurman, whose intellectual, pedagogic, and pastoral abilities he would come to admire deeply. In the ensuing years, Reb Zalman would meet several other individuals and groups, like the great Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton (d. 1968) and his Trappist community, who would further alter his perception of non-Jews and of non-Jewish religious traditions.

“Part of what impressed Reb Zalman so much about Dean Thurman, was the fact that his love and reverence for Jesus of Nazareth led him to conclude that all human beings are children of God, and that there are many ways—all imperfect—to live meaningful and conscientious lives in relationship with the Divine.”

Ultimately, I think that is what our Matthean text is getting at today.

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley:

That deeply personal and personalist claim that we are all children of God draws my eye to two other places in our gospel today. These are also at the heart of the gospel: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

And a verse after our reading ends (sometimes the lectionary limits our imagination), Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” 

Soren and I recently returned from our home conference, the West Ohio Annual Conference, the messy middle of United Methodism, which has always wrestled with politics, theology, ethics, in ways that represent the multiplicity of voices that occur when community gathers together. At this last annual conference, over 200 churches completed a process to leave the denomination, bringing our total numbers over the last year to about a quarter of our collective. But we also voted, for the first time ever, and albeit aspirationally, to welcome LGBTQ+ folks into ministry in our conference; such a vote would have been unheard of even five years ago.Over our days in a convention center in Dayton, we sat at several 10 person tables, over a hundred in the cavernous room. You never knew if you’d sat next to someone about to disaffiliate or someone in conference leadership, next to someone from the Appalachian foothills or the heart of Columbus. We met folks who represent the full spectrum of United Methodism there, and our conversations help me to make sense with Matthew.

On the day of disaffiliation votes, we sat next to an elderly white man in khakis and a polo shirt. He looked deeply grieved, and his tag identified him as a local pastor. Quietly, and carefully, in the breaks between votes, he told us that he was a pastor for many years in the Wesleyan Church. He joined the United Methodist Church, he said, even though his full credentials wouldn’t transfer and he would spend a lifetime pastoring part time and for lesser pay on the side because, “I wanted to be at a bigger table.” I wanted to be at a bigger table, and that’s why, he told us, even though many friends were disaffiliating and many churches in his rural part of the state were disaffiliating, he and his small, part time congregation held fast to the United Methodist church. “I want to be at a bigger table.” 

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Even the hairs on your head are counted. 

Another day, after historic votes on LGBTQ+ inclusion, we sat for the service of ordination and retirement next to an African American man and woman who were lay leaders at their historically black church in Dayton. The woman was a retired teacher, which she told us meant she had more time for work for the church and community. During the service, it is customary to stand for an ordinand or retiree whose name is called if they have influenced you. One of the longtime LGBTQ+advocates, a pastor of the conference and a partnered, now married gay man, retired this year, the same year that this vote was taken. I made eye contact across my table when we all stood for David’s retirement. “He is our brother,” she said quietly. 

We don’t know who will sit with us at the Lord’s table, but when I hear the verse about families divided, I hear it alongside these teachings, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, even the hairs on your head are counted,” and I think that following Jesus means that sometimes we might need to welcome folks that our parents might not like.We might end up at a bigger table than we expect. 

I’m not really sure I can fully make sense of these verses today, Soren, but maybe I can make some sense with Matthew. Logia like these aren’t meant for single use, single meaning only talismans, no more than other biblical or extra-biblical sayings you might find meaningful. To paraphrase a parable, They are like a lost coin found again, turned over in the hand to notice a new glint, a rough edge, a smooth face, joy and delight and intense focus all at once. 

Do not be afraid. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. 

I want to be at a bigger table. He is my brother. 

Let those who have ears to hear, listen. Amen. 

-The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley, Assistant Professor of New Testament Vanderbilt Divinity School

-The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler, Director of Recruitment and Admissions Vanderbilt Divinity School

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