Subversive Wisdom - Hafidha Saadiqah - SylvaniaUCC - Jan62019
January 6, 2019
Sunday, 6 January 2019
The Gospel lesson this morning is St. Matthew 2:1-12. Listen for what the Spirit is saying to the Church:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now that was an awkward situation. Three visitors go to Jerusalem hoping to see the new child king of the Jews; yet they find Herod, alive and suspicious as ever. They stare at each other, probably looking for the nearest exist. Herod ponders their query in his head: A NEW king in Jerusalem, a child at that?. His anger mounts. He stares at the visitors intently. His gaze slowly shifts to his chief scribes and priests, who are staring at each other, and at the ceiling and at the floor. His anger becomes white-hot, and his first impulse is to kill the whole lot of them; beginning with the priests and scribes who have obviously been keeping information from him. But, instead, he keeps his cool, because if there is a living credible threat to his throne, it lies not in his court, but out among the people he rules. So, he learns of the location of this birth, now he only needs to find this would-be-child-King and get rid of him. The three visitors are his best hope of securing his reign.
Discernment – possessing a shrewdness concerning multiple options - is not always easy, particularly when one’s life and sanity are wrapped up in the health of others. Where do my interests and rights begin and end with people I am in immediate relationship with, and, with those who are at a distance from me? When does your perspective and welfare overrule mine? What is the wisest thing to do when the way forward seems uncertain and already painful – for you? for everyone involved? Since the end of the 1st century in this Common Era, readers and hearers of this passage from Matthew have placed much confidence in the three visitor’s decision not to return to Herod’s palace giving him the name and address of this “new king.” As much as Bible historians and theologians – and us - can discern that Jesus’ birth indeed stirred up this level of political drama in Palestine is sketchy. Nevertheless, the story continues to hold great import for us who are faced with making as many wise decisions as we can; about our personal lives, our church, and our life as a nation, particularly in times of tremendous crisis. I think that the three visitor’s decision was a good one, reasonable at best albeit one made concerning a situation where they had no skin to lose.
The three visitors opted for conventional wisdom that says: shift the narrative where you can; admit nothing; make no promises, and get out as quickly as possible. Wise? Yes, but missing something; something like integrity with those who stand to be harmed in any way.
Conventional wisdom has its place. Sometimes it is best to stop, to say no more, and walk away. Yet, over the years, I’ve learned the logic, appropriateness, and power of subversive wisdom. In the early days of my ministry, when I was ready to throw in the towel, a wise man told me, “Oftentimes it is too soon to give up. Even so, do all that you can to finish well.” There is truth in that statement that I am still mining as a woman, as a black woman, wife, mother, friend, and minister. Homes, offices, even churches can be painfully dysfunctional places, and knowing what the necessary thing to do as a leader or parishioner is nothing but a mystery. Everyone has their perspective, their history, and, a role that they play or are assigned. While no group or family escapes the changes and challenges of being what they are, some are unhealthier than others. The chance of everyone emerging whole and strong takes tremendous effort. Yet, all it takes is one person to be the catalyst for turning pandemonium into stability.
In his book, Generation to Generation, the late rabbi and therapist, Edwin Friedman, tells the story of Harriet and her odyssey to being as emotionally healthy and available as she could be to her family. The story goes something like this. Harriet was severely distraught over the state of her family. While she was married with children, she essentially raised the them alone, as her husband was away from home most of the time. He was a financial miser and unyielding when she wanted to discuss matters related to the needs of the household and the children. Their children sensed the rift, and started to act out. Low performance and fighting in and out of school. Being disrespectful to her by refusing to do anything she asked. Harriet herself acted out increasingly by waiting on her children hand and foot and rationalizing their language and behaviors, and, acquiescing to her husband’s demands.
After a number of visits, Rabbi Friedman introduced Harriet to a strategy she had not thought of before. On the outside it looked like this: (1) she stopped waiting on her kids, (2) let the dishes and the laundry pile up, (3) she turned away from arguments, and (5) and she told her daughter, who needed braces, the real reason why she had none. Harriet then started spending her time pursuing something that interested her: voice lessons. Instead of spending all of her time worrying about her family, she started practicing her scales. When her family figured out what she was doing, they became enraged, and their acting out ramped up exponentially; trying to force her back into her assigned role. Nevertheless, Harriet was resolute. When the school counselor heard from Harriet’s children what she had been doing, she was counseled to stop distancing herself from her them. Harriet’s response? No. What she DID DO, was: (1) be clear about who she was, (2) stated her values and goals, and (3) stayed the course in living out her purpose, no matter what her family did or didn’t do. In time things changed. “In time” is the operative phrase.
As I worked through the Gospel lesson for this Epiphany Sunday, Friedman’s story of Harriet came readily to mind. It is an example of subversive wisdom, namely “defecting in place.” It’s similar in some respect to the dilemma faced by the three visitors at Herod’s palace. Where the visitors and Harriet did not engage in arguing and settling for the sake of settling, Harriet, unlike the visitors, stayed connected to her family. She refused to leave physically, mentally, or emotionally. She did not resort to acting as if their family was not in trouble. She did better: she attended to the enormous psychic shifts in her own life, knowing that she was the only person in the family who she could change.
Defecting in place is subversive wisdom. It’s subversive because it is “leaving without leaving, quitting without quitting. It’s about knowing what and who you are reacting to – language and behaviors, not flesh and blood. It’s knowing what you are advocating for. Leaving room for people to be who they are. And best yet, make room for them to find for themselves a way to come “home by another road.” Life is always subversive when we free ourselves from thoughts and behaviours that foreclose on our future. Even though our future is informed by our past, it is also subject to randomness and novelty. Your life and my life are still being written. It’s always destabilizing and healthy when a person takes responsibility for their life in the Spirit at home, at work, or in a congregation and refuses to disconnect from others when the road gets tough.
2019 holds marvelous things for you and me as individuals, and for us as a family of faith. Our futures will not materialize without dust and heat, know that for sure! But, while we are gazing intently at that big ball of ambiguity staring us in the face causing us great anxiety, why don’t we take the plunge and be motivated by a curiosity that unmoors and befuddles us – and stick with it until the fog lifts? How about donning an audacity that disturbs our conventional wisdoms and preferences? Can we defect in place together and allow the Spirit of God to work with, in and through us until we all can sense and create the lives and ministry our souls must have? There are no guarantees, but it’s worth a shot! We have nothing to lose but our chains to imagined fears.
Who knows what Euodia and Syntyche were at loggerheads over. Maybe it was about administrative logistics, the financials, or program planning for new initiates into the Christian community. Whatever it was, it was serious. And, I like to think that Harriet got it right like Euodia and Syntyche. They stayed together and worked it out. They worked through the differences in their perspectives, and chose to embrace subversive wisdom. And, I like to think that they chose to take Paul’s advice: “Beloved, [w]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable; if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Nothing else! And, in our day, I don’t think we can get any more subversive than that.
Friends, “What cheer? Good cheer! Be merry and glad this good new year!” Hold fast to each other in the bond of peace!
 Friedman, Edwin H. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. (New York: Guilford Press, 1985), pp. 114-117.