Sunday, February 20, 2011

Living More Deeply

This would have been a much more superficial sermon without the gift of friendship I enjoy with Rev. Kathleen Lambert. Her encouragement and support, and the permission to use her story in this sermon, are just a part of why she is a gift from God. I also relied heavily on the scholarship of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, and of Scott Hoezee of The Center for Excellence in Preaching.

When I think of nonviolent protest, and the dangers and rewards, I of course think of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the thousands of brave men, women, and children who marched with him in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I also think of the important, ongoing work of groups like SoulForce. But my heart remains with the people of the Middle east, who as you read this are bleeding and dying for that most basic human desire, freedom.

May they live to see their dream fulfilled.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading today has quite a history. The whole idea of not resisting evildoers, of turning the other cheek, has for centuries been used against oppressed people, has been used to keep abused women and children in dangerous relationships, has been used as an excuse to do nothing when confronted with violence against others, has been used to convince others to become a “doormat for Christ.”

Really? Is that what Jesus is saying here? Or could it be that this passage is one of those places in Scripture where a poor translation, and a few hundred years of misinterpretation, has taken its toll?

First, let’s look at the issue of translation. Where the New Revised Standard Version quotes Jesus as saying, “Do not resist an evildoer,” it’s translating from the Greek, “antistenai,” which is better translated, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” And in the context of the sentence just before, it makes perfect sense to read it this way!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” When this law, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” was first recorded in the book of Exodus, it was nothing short of revolutionary in that it functioned as a limit to how far revenge could go. The idea might have been to keep life from looking like a Quentin Tarentino movie. If someone killed your cow, you couldn’t burn down their barn. If someone hit you, you couldn’t stab them. If someone insulted you, you couldn’t kill their family. A person could do just enough to repair his reputation, just what it took to save face, and no more. One’s retribution could not go further than matching the original offense.

Remember that we talked last week about how Jesus, in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, is taking all-too-familiar laws and sayings and intensifying them, radicalizing them, making them personal and extending these teachings into almost every area of life.

Jesus is saying, “Look. Moses said that if you need revenge, you can have it, but don’t go over the line. I say put revenge aside. You have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of person do I want to be? A critical, cynical person, who refuses to forget even for a moment that old so-and-so owes me a buck, owes me an apology, owes me an invitation to dinner, owes me a phone call? So self-absorbed that I’m forever calculating what I’ve got coming?’ If you’re following me, that’s not going to cut it.”

Jesus' basic call in Matthew 5, and it is nowhere more obvious than here, is the call for us to be what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called "surprising people." Instead of being like so many others in this world--people with chips on their shoulders, people always spoiling for a fight, folks forever hauling each other into the People's Court to settle silly disputes that just a little understanding and honesty could resolve in ten minutes, we are called to live more deeply.

If I may play off of a quote by C.S. Lewis, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas. Most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone. Then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who do not have to face circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing.

It is a sad but telling feature to our lives that we tend to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves. We assume that no one else in the world faces precisely the dynamics we face. What we see through our own eyeballs and what we feel inside our own hearts are not shared by others because nobody has ever been hurt the way I have been hurt. No one has an enemy as pernicious and cruel as my enemy. Others can turn the other cheek but I am going to hit back before I get destroyed. Others can be loving and forgiving but I am going to use the good sense God gave me and be wary and defensive.

But we are called to live more deeply. To walk in that place where Jesus has walked before us. Jesus had the worst enemies ever and endured a hatred he could never in a million lifetimes have deserved. And despite enduring the worst that those enemies could hurl at him, he still managed to rasp out in a moment of agony: “Father, forgive them—they know not what they are doing.”

And if life consisted of just the petty, the superficial, if the worst thing that anyone ever had to endure was getting cut off in traffic or being ignored by a receptionist or having to wait on hold, then what I have said thus far would be enough. Play the piano, pass the plate, don’t forget to dance, what’s for lunch?

But as Christ calls upon us to live more deeply, we must recognize that the problems that we, and others in our lives and upon this planet, face, are all too often far more than mere inconveniences or insults to our dignity. To treat all situations as equal is to, and this is just one example, return to the horror of telling a battered woman or abused child to “turn the other cheek” and remain in a deadly situation.

The examples Jesus uses in expanding upon “Do not violently resist an evildoer” are telling. Each of the three scenarios – turning the cheek, giving your cloak as well as your coat when sued, going the extra mile – were things done to the powerless, the poor, the enslaved. These were things done by powerful people, in a system which gave absolute power to those with wealth and position and birth.

“…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” according to some of the scholars I’ve read, Jesus is describing an act done by Masters to their servants and slaves. It was always done by hitting with the back of the right hand across the right cheek, and was not at all an act of random violence or of fighting among friends or enemies. The blow was about asserting status, rank, privilege and power over the other. It had to be done properly, to demonstrate that the master had control of the slave. The slave must obediently stand facing you without external coercion. You must strike only the right cheek; and only with the back of the right hand.

If this is correct, then by turning the left cheek, the slave renders the master powerless to continue the violence, and does so without lifting a finger.

“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” Peasants did not sue one another, so this, too is about the privileged abusing the poor. Since peasants quite literally only owned the clothes on their backs, being sued for your coat was being sued for the only thing you owned - except for your underwear… which, in those days, was a “cloak!” Perhaps the idea is to publicly expose the shame which allows someone with wealth and privilege to take away the only thing a poor person owns! Give him your underwear. Let him explain why you are naked.

“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” Soldiers were allowed to conscript civilians to carry their packs, but only for a mile. However, this was no minor inconvenience for anyone who worked and fed their family day by day. Walking a mile with a heavy pack and then back again would mean missing that day's labor, and therefore that day's food for the family. Perhaps going that extra mile not only exposed to the soldier the injustice he was committing, but it saved some other poor laborer from missing a day’s work as well.

We carry away from this some very important lessons in twenty-first century America. First and foremost, don’t be part of a system, and don’t act in a way, which forces others to turn the other cheek, to give us coat and cloak, to walk the extra mile. Live more deeply.

Next, we must recognize that there are times when the truth must be spoken to power in a way which exposes the evil and corruption inherent in their systems. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in the protests breaking out across the Middle East. Change has come, and is continuing, in places like Yemen, Egypt, and in Libya and Iran… the change comes with a price as those in power use their police forces and armies to injure and kill the protestors. Yet as it did when people endured police dogs, fire hoses, and dynamite bombs in our own city in the 1960’s, the change comes.

And we must carry away something which, perhaps, cuts “closer to the bone,” if you will. We must learn to recognize when those offenses committed against us are petty, and when, by confronting the offender in love, we can bring a level of healing, restoration, and growth to both parties.

My friend Rev. Kathleen Lambert was asked, when she was being examined by the Committee on Ministry for ordination in her Presbytery, to describe a time when my faith was challenged or shaken.

She says, “I told them of a time when I was serving as an associate pastor with a senior pastor who was condescending to me and humiliated me in general, but once even in a worship service… he came right over to me yelling and pointing his finger at me… I was left with a feeling of being so reduced and so confused about what I should do next. How was I as a Christian woman and a subordinate to handle this situation?

“That night I prayed and prayed and prayed. I was up till 4:00 in the morning wrestling with this. Then a peace came over me as the answer became clear. As I prayed for him, as I began to imagine hope, my anger melted away and I saw a way for both of us to be restored.

“It occurred to me that he treated lots of people this way. The other associate, who was a man, his wife, his children, the church secretary, and the youth group. And nobody stood up to him. Surely, we were all afraid. And maybe, nobody ever told him that he scares people. Maybe he didn't even know how much he was hurting people.

“It became clear as day to me, that God was giving me that peace that surpasses understanding so that I would have the confidence to help him to be restored. I needed to say something to him, not just to stand up for myself, but to give him the freedom from the evil that possessed him and caused him to hurt so me and so many others.

“The next day, I explained to him how I felt from his treatment of me. I told him that I felt humiliated, like I had been slapped across the face. I told him that he was making unreasonable demands on me. I told him that I wanted to work it out. I was willing to go the extra mile. But that I would not accept being treated like that any longer.

“Then I drew deep from the well of divine confidence and told him ‘and so we have a problem.’

“Then I was quiet.

“He was quiet too. Then he said, ‘thank you. No one has ever showed me such dignity. No one has ever given me my humanity. Thank you.’

“That was the story I told to the chair and vice chair of the COM and that what I learned that day was how to handle confrontation. And it has changed my faith in a profound way.

“I am no longer afraid of confrontation, because I know as a Jesus follower, there is another way to handle it. A way that restores both people.”

Our reading ends with Jesus telling us to be perfect, in the same way that God is perfect. That word, “teleios,” could mean complete, as in brought to its end, finished, or wanting nothing necessary to completeness, and it could mean mature, full grown, adult.

The most obvious meaning is the latter, “mature.” But let’s not set that first idea aside yet. When Christ calls on us to live more deeply, he calls us to the maturity that brings depth, but he also calls us to that journey towards perfection, toward God's perfection. Toward restoration. Yes, restoration between ourselves and our fellow Christians, ourselves and our fellow human beings, but it cannot end there, because that makes Christianity little more than a social activism club.

No, to live more deeply, to walk this faith journey in the footsteps of Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is to strive to reconcile all of humanity with their loving Creator. To live more deeply is to love extravagantly – not the emotional, internal, felt “love,” but the difficult, dirty, inconvenient love. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people we don’t particularly like. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people who kind of scare us.

We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God's creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God – eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the peace and flourishing joy of all.

This is living more deeply.

1 comment: