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Of Trauma and Tenderness

Rev. Dr. Monica Maher
Sun, Jun 21

Texts: 1 Samuel 17:57-18:5; Mark 4:35-41

It is wonderful to be back in the United States and to be here at First Church with you, to be able to gather together in beloved community during this moment of city-wide and national tragedy, to be in a space of soul searching, grieving and justice-making.

It is also a great blessing to join in the joy of baptisms on this day, June 21st, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, the First Day of Summer and Father´s Day. In the Andean Highlands where I live, today is Inti Raymi, Kichwa for celebration of the sun, the biggest festival of the year. On this day last year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador began to implement our four-way covenant with them.

So, there are many reasons to embrace this day as an auspicious opportunity, to listen for and follow the movement of the Spirit, the Spirit of Justice and Peace, the Spirit of New Life, present among us, surprising, holy and free.

I begin by offering you two questions posed by young people from communities in Latin America.

The first is from Doris, a young woman in her 20s, who was in a workshop on non-violence which I facilitated for an inter-racial group of women in a very poor community outside of Quito, Ecuador. In the middle of an exercise on non-violent communication, Doris suddenly stopped everything, turned to me and pleaded with great urgency, “Porque soy violenta? Why am I violent? I did not receive affection as a child; could that be why? Please tell me! I want to be non-violent. Why am I violent?”

As we listened more closely to Doris, she shared with us that: at 7 years old, she began working, before 12, she was living on the street, at 14, she became pregnant, by force, from a much older man. She married him, as many victims do to erase the social stigma in a country with the highest adolescent pregnancy rate in South America. After bearing her husband 4 children, he abandoned her. As a single mom today, Doris works full time at a fast-food restaurant for $360 per month to support her kids. They often yell at her when she gets home, exhausted. She wonders why she usually yells back. Porque soy violenta? Why am I violent?

The second question comes from a young man, Tomás, of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the highest homicide rate in the world. Death threats are given to members of rival gangs but also to boys who refuse to join any gang. Kids learn to be tough in order to survive, not to feel in the face of ongoing trauma and death. Colleagues in ministry interviewed adolescents who live in Rivera Hernandez, the worst neighborhood in San Pedro Sula where gun violence is a daily occurrence. During his testimony, Tomás turned suddenly to the interviewers and asked his own question of them,

“Que es la ternura? What is TENDERNESS? Is it something you are born with? Or, something you learn? Please tell me.”

Porque soy violenta? Y Que es la ternura?
Why am I violent? And What is tenderness?

The authentic yearning for life and healing amidst trauma, palpable in Doris and Tomas, has touched me deeply. I have sat with their questions in prayer, questions which point to the reality of our radical collective intimacy, questions with power to transform our experience of each other and of God.

Violence, trauma, tenderness, issues of concern to youth in Latin America, issues of concern to us in Boston today, especially poignant in light of the senseless mass violence at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday and the tragic violent death of Jonathon Dosantos in Dorchester on June 10. Violence, trauma, tenderness, themes that emerge in our Biblical texts. On this Sunday when our nation confronts the pandemic of systemic racism and gun violence once again, AND honors and celebrates fatherhood, our lectionary readings highlight aspects of masculinity not often made visible, encouraged or supported by mainstream culture.

Amidst descriptions of military conquest and killing in the Samuel reading, an unusually intimate connection between two men is also portrayed. Jonathon bares his soul to David, dropping his armor, the shield over his heart ,and declaring his love. Stripping down, he gives to David his robe, sword, bow, and belt, his weapons, symbols of status, becoming completely vulnerable. Later in 1 Samuel verse 20, Jonathon and David say good-bye to each other, cry and kiss. Traditional Scripture scholars hold up these texts as an example of brotherly Christian love and friendship. Some modern scholars assert the texts as a Biblical foundation for marriage equality, an issue upon which we await a Supreme Court decision in these days. No one disagrees that the relationship between Jonathon and David is marked by profound emotional and spiritual bonding. Deep intimacy. Exquisite male tenderness.

Male sensitivity and vulnerability are also revealed in our Gospel reading, the well-known story of the disciples in the boat with Jesus. Told in all three Synoptic Gospels, the account describes the men as acutely afraid of imminent death. Although professional fishermen, familiar with the Sea of Galilee, and its sudden, fierce winds, still they are caught off guard and overcome by fear as the winds rage and Jesus sleeps.

Upon awakening, Jesus shares his spirit of peace, quieting the storm in the sea and the troubling in their souls. It is an intimate moment, an immediate, caring response to their fear. Peace, be still. At once, calm returns and the disciples are deeply changed, amazed at Jesus power... clear, decisive yet infinitely gentle, tender. Although they had witnessed many miracles before, still the disciples are shocked, left in awe.

Amidst the storms of life, how do we remain open to the surprising power of God? How do we experience the sudden Spirit of Love, of Peace in places and in ways we least expect?

In March, I went to a men´s prison in Honduras to lead a meditation workshop. The 20 who attended responded positively and expressed the desire to continue, which they did the following month. Then, the local Mercy team with whom I collaborate offered a Trauma Healing workshop to the inmates, part of the Alternatives to Violence Program.

My Honduran colleague who led it relates that the men shared tales of participation in mass violence. She was stunned by how horrible the stories were, left with a sorrow and shock almost too deep for words. Speechless. But then, something started to happen to her that shocked her more than the barbarity of the testimonies.

A kind of power overtook her as she listened to the unimaginable accounts, and she was overcome by what first began as a small energy within her heart and then filled her whole being with an overpowering sense of ternura, an amazing, exquisite tenderness for the men. She could clearly see them in a continuing cycle of aggression, as victims of violence who continued to repeat it as perpetrators, in an ongoing flow of trauma and pain, a deep river of suffering with its own very strong momentum.

In the depth of the violence and injustice and collective brokenness, she unknowingly, involuntarily accessed goodness and light directly, in herself and in the men, part of an amazing power far beyond them.

The families of the victims in Charleston have witnessed to us this same power in the face of brutality in the last few days. I have been so moved, as you must have, by their statements expressed in public in the courtroom to the perpetrator. They have offered us our sermon this weekend with these prophetic words:

We are the family that love built. There is no room for hating.
Hate will not win out.
God forgives you. I forgive you.
Repent, confess, turn your life to the one who matters most…Christ.
May God have mercy on your soul.

Family members said their reactions reflected the legacy of love left behind by those killed.

Phillips Brooks has said, “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.”

A recent study on violence carried out by the government in Ecuador reports that 6 out 10 women have experienced male violence. The statistic is higher, 7 out of 10, within the evangelical Christian community. The study asserts that 90% of male perpetrators are victim-survivors of childhood violence. 80% of women in violent relationships are also victim-survivors of childhood abuse.

As a church congregation in Ecuador, we are trying to break the cycle of systemic, intersectional violence and to create an inter-generational momentum of peace, a collective wave of loving justice.

We join with you at First Church in this work on non-violence and social healing. We pray for God´s blessing to demonstrate, through our presence and actions, that amidst brutal hatred and extreme trauma the strongest power is that of infinite love, that of exquisite tenderness, arising as a transformative force when we least expect it.

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