“They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this. Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was to be considered the greatest.” – Luke 22: 23-24
If all has gone according to plan, I’m spending a good portion of this day, as well as parts of Thursday and Saturday, sitting in a tree stand near Petersburg, WV. Deer hunting each year is something I value and enjoy for a variety of reasons: time spent with my father, sunrise and sunset over the ridge lines, closing the connection in my own awareness, as a person who eats meat, of what exactly is involved in putting meat on my plate and the expanded awareness of nature that comes from sitting and noticing the brilliant color of a male cardinal or the rich smell of leaves and dew and sunshine. But as an introvert, hunting also serves as a retreat from the challenges, trials and joys of community – interacting with other people.
Most of today’s scriptures contain stories and allusions to the imperfections of human society. The Psalmist calls out to God “to fight against those who fight against me” and laments “I hear the slander of many . . . they conspire against me.” During the Passover meal at which Jesus institutes the practice of Communion, the disciples opine and contest over two extreme and freighted questions – who will betray Jesus and who is the greatest among them. In the midst of prophesying Immanuel, Isaiah also tells of an intervening time when outside powers will humble the people of Israel, destroy the fields they have cultivated together and leave them reliant on very basic, unprepared food – curds and honey.
In this holiday season there is a structured expectation of more intense community – after working sometimes long hours with colleagues we schedule additional holiday parties and include not only colleagues but other family. In my family and that of my spouse, we bounce from house to house and meal to meal over the space of several days, seeing much the same cast of characters again and again. Even in our church community, we often hold extra services, meals, get-togethers. All this ramped up community has the potential for joy – catching up on stories from the past year, holding a new baby for the first time, meeting people central to a co-worker’s life and understanding them the better for it. The compressed and sometimes chaotic times together also potential pain – the horror of not remembering names from last year’s work gathering; a disagreement buried under a shallow truce reawakened by a new slight, real or perceived; the creeping doubt and pressure to aggrandize that comes from even the most well-meant stories of the successes of a sibling, a cousin, a grandchild, a colleague. Add to all this the society and often self-imposed expectation that from Thanksgiving to New Year’s we should experience only a solid run of joy and goodwill toward each other and a holiday full of community in full Christmas cheer can seem as fraught and exhausting as traveling the I-95 corridor.
For me then, a central question of these passages is how we find our way through to emerge not just with sanity, but also the strengthened sense of community that many of us hope will emerge out of the holiday season and life in general? Do we call on God to smite those with whom we disagree? Do we back away completely and opt out of the parties?
There are several, perhaps dangerously trite responses from these scriptures that nevertheless hold some truth. The Psalmist and the writers of Thessalonians return repeatedly to the good news prophesied in Isaiah – God is with us. Jesus preaches the attitude of service to his disciples, perhaps clarifying that “God with us” does not imply “and against you.” And the practice of communion, likely included in “the traditions we passed on to you” (2 Thes. 2:15) is a powerful symbolic practice of both a focus on God with us and an argument that there should be more that unites us into one body. But however deep, those often seem removed from the reality of holiday communal cheer (including of course that agreement on scripture is hardly a characteristic of most of the groups that gather.)
So we all find our ways to operationalize those deeper truths. I go hunting as a time to recharge my introverted cells for the intense socializing to come and often find myself taking walks around a relative’s back yard when I need introverted space. I do the dishes or clear tables, less as a discipline of servanthood and more as a way of keeping myself engaged in community by other means if I’ve grown bored or defensive about the conversation. If I’m living up to my own aspirations, I focus on having at least one meaningful conversation with someone where I leave it with greater knowledge and appreciation for who they are and what they hope for in life. And maybe that connection is a bit of the kingdom of God that Jesus promises to confer on his disciples, even along with the tribulations that he speaks of to Peter in the verses following today’s passage in Luke.