Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church on July 12, 2021:
One of my pastimes during this past month has been listening to a podcast series done by storyteller Jeff Wright. In it he re-tells Homer’s Iliad, which is about the Trojan War in ancient Greece (yes, I know I’m weird).
To me it’s fascinating to hear the old tale told in contemporary language, which makes its power and vividness even stronger than I remembered from my college days when I first read Homer’s classic.
There’s a scene near the beginning of the series that has stuck in my mind ever since I heard Wright tell it.
It happened on the tenth day of an epic celebration on Mount Olympus for the marriage between a mortal and a sea nymph. Thanks to Zeus, the guests were having a very good time, with unlimited quantities of the finest food and drink.
Then, in the middle of the party, there came an ominous sound: three loud, slow knocks on the door.
As Jeff Wright explains, knocks like this are never a good thing.
Zeus dropped his dinner fork and looked stricken. The groom, seeing the fear in his eyes, asked him what he was afraid of. “There are forces in the universe even more ancient and powerful than the Olympic gods,” Zeus replied.
The door opened and in came an uninvited guest: a woman who walked deliberately to the head table, reached into her cloak, and handed the groom a present: a golden apple engraved with the words “For the Fairest.” Then she left the party with a smile.
Though the apple seemed like a nice-enough gift, though not very practical, it was bad news indeed. That’s because the woman who gave it was Eris, the Goddess of Discord, who delighted in stirring up misery and conflict. Sometimes she caused small-scale mayhem at family gatherings such as weddings and reunions, and at other times she brought about monumental tragedy. (That golden apple, for example, started a competition between Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera that led to the ten-year Trojan War.)
When I first read the Bible passages assigned for this Sunday, this story of the Goddess of Discord came to mind, especially in relation to the passage in James 3: 1-12:
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
It’s obvious that both the ancient Greeks and the members of the fledgling Christian communities in the first century struggled with two similar questions: why are human relations so fraught with conflict? And how can we deal with those conflicts once they inevitably arise?
For the Greeks, the answer was to blame Eris, the Goddess of Discord, who was even more ancient and powerful than Zeus. For the early Christians, it was to ruefully acknowledge that the human tongue can both bless and curse and that it is exceedingly hard to tame its fire.
Today, of course, we’re still dealing with these issues. You could argue, in fact, that the problem of poison spread by tongues has been amplified as never before thanks to the Internet and social media. And even if you don’t spend much time in the digital world, that poison still spreads through many other channels. We live in a fractured world of tribal politics, increasingly distrustful and resentful of the people on the other side of the divide.
A study done by the non-partisan group Facing History & Ourselves supports this conclusion. As Democrats have moved farther to the left on issues, Republicans have moved farther to the right, leaving a much smaller slice of shared values. As a result, attitudes have changed not just about politics, but about human relations in general. In 1960, for example, 4 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party. In 2019, 45 percent of Democrats would be unhappy, and 35 percent of Republicans. And those numbers are probably even higher today.
Among the reasons given for this growing divide are the growth of political activism in both parties and the increasing prevalence of in-group bias, meaning the tendency to form your political opinions based upon what your fellow group members believe, not rational evaluation. Another factor is that most of us live in a media bubble tailored to our opinions. As the Facing History and Ourselves organization puts it: “Spending time in a political echo chamber can make it easier for negative feelings toward members of the other political party to develop.”
Or, alternatively, we can blame Eris, the Goddess of Discord. Either way, the result is the same: increasing polarization.
How can we bridge those gaps? Greater Good Magazine has a helpful list of recommendations for how to have better conversations with people who disagree with us. They include:
Listen to their story. Focus on building a relationship of trust before wading into hard issues. I think of a friend, for example, who’s having a remodeling project done. She’s making the effort to get to know the crew, who almost certainly voted in a different way than she did.
Try not to take everything personally. By doing so, you leave some room for grace to do its work.
Be receptive, not defensive.
Lean into discomfort. Be fully present and be sure you’re listening as much as speaking.
Set norms to create a safe container for hard conversations. These might include a pledge to be civil and respectful and to honor confidentiality.
I think it’s interesting that this list of secular recommendations blends quite well with what Jesus tried to teach his followers. One of his most powerful parables, for example, is of the Good Samaritan, who came from a group of people who were despised and looked down upon by the Jews of his day. In praising a Samaritan who acted with compassion, Jesus reminded his followers that goodness often comes in forms we don’t expect, including from people whom we consider our enemies.
It’s not easy to follow the peacemaker’s path these days. So much in our world encourages us to be angry, resentful, and bitter. But maybe we can start by seeking understanding, by listening, and by not hanging out with the Goddess of Discord more than we have to.
Because there’s another person who’s knocking on our door as well. Maybe you remember that old painting of Jesus in a white robe knocking on a wooden door. I remember that picture hung on the walls of every Sunday School room in the Lutheran church I grew up in. It’s a sentimental image in some ways, but it’s also a truthful one. We can choose whom we let in. We can let in the Goddess of Discord, or the Prince of Peace.
I know which one I’d like to have at my dinner table. How about you?