The sermon for week February 23, 2014
In 7th grade I pushed a kid named Larry down the stairs. I donít remember Larry doing anything particular that day. I just saw my opportunity, and I took it.
One of my bullies growing up was Larry. He was a big gorilla. He was two years older than me, but he was in my grade. He was one of those kids who really could drive to his 8th grade graduation. He just didnít like me for some reason, and from 4th to 7th grade, I was a target.
Maybe I was fed up, but that is still not a good reason for what I did. I pushed him down a flight of stairs. Sadly it took me until that moment, as Larry was in mid-air with a look of terror on his face, to see him as a human being. Here was a child of God with fears and dreams and hope and a life all his own with a family I donít know and a worldview I donít understand. And I had done him harm.
And it took that trip down the steps for Larry to see me as the same. He never messed with me after that. In fact, the next year, Larry and I became good friends.
I find it hard to believe Jesus in his teachings today. Donít resist an evil-doer? Turn the other cheek? Jesus! I did all that for 3 whole years with Larry, and what did that get me? More bullying! Surely you had sociopaths in your day, Jesus. You know, those people who take pleasure in other peopleís pain. Iíd met my share of them by elementary school, surely you had to have met a few while you were on earth, Jesus. Following this teaching is not very practical, not in the sense of getting ahead in the world or doing what comes naturally. I love what you have to say, but this just sounds crazy!
An eye for an eye is still a revolutionary idea. It seeks to curb the tendency to unlimited private revenge. It is calling for restraint, just a simple tit-for-tat. The problem with this model is that the cycle never ends.
New Testament scholar Walter Wink can help us see something far different in todayís scripture. Strange as it may seem to us, Wink sees Jesus' words as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression. Now this is tricky because we have to know something about the culture in which Jesus lived.
In the culture of first-century Palestine, a person's left hand was used for what we might call, well, bathroom functions. I know it's not pleasant to think about this, but it meant that you'd never strike a person with your left hand. And if you were superior to another person, you would strike them with the back of your right hand, never with the palm of your hand for that would mean you'd see them as an equal (Boring 194). So now this is the picture Jesus is painting: If someone strikes you on the cheek, it will most likely be with the back of their hand, for remember Jesus is talking to victims here so your oppressor will not see you as an equal. He's likely to hit you with the back of his hand. If you turn your face to the side, you force your oppressor to hit you with the palm of his right hand and see you as an equal--even your oppressor won't use his left hand. Some things simply weren't done. Jesus wants us to see an almost comical situation here. The oppressor's hand begins to swing but is caught in mid-air because he doesn't want to treat you as an equal by hitting you with open palm.
The same humorous resistance comes in giving up your shirt when your oppressor asks for your coat. This isn't a case of giving an old coat to Goodwill. Jesus is talking about something completely different here. It's likely that someone asks for your coat in repayment of a debt (Borning 193). You owe your oppressor something and since you have no land and very little money, your oppressor asks for your very coat. Now in Jesus' time there were very clear restrictions about the repayment of debts. You could not leave a debtor naked at sundown no matter what he or she owed. It simply was not to be done. It violated decency and good order. Jesus sets up another strategy of resistance: If they ask for your coat, give them your shirt, too. There you'll be standing half-naked; they'll be forced to deal with this new reality you've set up. "No, no! No, no!" they say, "I don't want your shirt. Put it back on!" They might be so disarmed that they'll return your coat as well.
Jesus is not telling people to remain victims but to find new ways of resisting evil. "Love your enemies," Jesus said, "do good to those who hate you." This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., to kneel down with many brothers and sisters before water hoses and snarling police dogs. Many people thought he was crazy. "Only violence can fight violence," they told him. But the authorities and the oppressors didn't know what to do with this kind of resistance. They knew the power of violence; they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn't seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and demanded to be seen as equal and as fellow children of God.
"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." And don't be too impressed with yourself for being good to your friends. Anybody can do that, Jesus says. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even Gentiles do the same. ďJesus reminds us not to retaliate "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return."
It's not very practical, not in the sense of getting ahead in the world or doing what comes naturally. I just wish I was that creative with Larry. I never figured out how to do that. I didnít love my enemy. I wanted to harm him. I might have had my reasons, but it is not in line with how Jesus reasoned. And it was Larry that went the extra mile. Larry requested to be my roommate on our 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C. And on that trip, as weíre having a late night conversation in our motel room, Larry said, ďI am really happy to be your roommate. I really canít remember why I hated you so much.Ē That was as close to an apology as I would ever get, and I cherish those words.
On the internet, I searched for stories to help illustrate these teachings, and I was flooded by so much good news. The mother who takes in the very person who killed her son. The Amish mothers and fathers forgiving the man who went into their school in Pennsylvania and shot their children.
Bob Skinner told me a story of a company retreat during his time at the Dana Corporation. Two veterans met: one American and one German. They found out they most likely shot at each other during World War II. Instead of instantly hating one another, as one would expect, this shared experience bonded the two men. So much so that when the American became sick, it was the German who drove him to the hospital. A glimpse of the kingdom and loving your enemy.
Jesus is preaching to those who have known the tragic wounds of ostracism and oppression. God loves and includes them. Yet this news today is good news for the oppressor as well. Going that extra mile, and loving your enemy means that the oppressor is included in Godís kingdom as well.
This is good news for those who feel like all this talk of inclusion doesnít include them. Godís kingdom is about reconciliation and restoration for ALL. Those who have been oppressed, and those who oppress. It is for the oppressor to repent of their ways, to think differently of those who they would treat as lesser than.
I think back to when I learned about the concept of privilege in college in my Womenís Studies class and my African-American History class. I felt so guilty, so awful. I never knew I was viewed as the oppressor. I never oppressed anyone in my life! And yet, I look the part. Iím a tall, straight white male, which gives me a lot of benefits in our culture. I am seen as the bully often times.
Now, I canít claim to know what it is to not be a straight white male. I know nothing of the leering looks women endure. I know nothing of making less per hour just because of my gender. I know nothing about being uncomfortable holding hands with my spouse in public, v.s if I was holding my same-sex partnerís hand. I know nothing of the plight of those who donít have my skin color; of being followed in a store, thought dumber, stereotyped, joked about, considered lesser than, or abnormal. I know nothing of the pain endured for generations in black America. Iíve always lived in a world where Martin Luther King Jr was always considered a hero and had his own national holiday, I know nothing about the history before and the struggle, and the animosity of the civil rights era. I donít know that pain.
But I donít have to experience it or even understand it to love another. I just have to listen. To sit and hear and attempt to understand. Simply hearing the story of another, one that is so different from how I experience the world, does wonders. It even changes how we view other people. It gives us a perspective on Godís world, and helps us see how other children of God go through life. It even might inspire us to go the extra mile ourselves. To help with the burden the poor carry. To champion our daughters and granddaughters and teach them that they have ďleadership qualitiesĒ instead of telling them that theyíre ďbossy.Ē And to try to resist using the phrase, ďPlaying the race cardĒ ever again. Instead, just try to listen despite your resistance to what the other is saying. Maybe itís even listening to pain that your bully is carrying. Or the pain of living through the civil rights era, both black and white recollections.
Or maybe it is simply realizing that weíre both oppressor and oppressed. Maybe youíre in a job that has an environment of expectations to work long hours that keeps you away from your family and friends. Maybe you have a boss who manages through intimidation and bullying. And when you get home, that feeling of being oppressed comes out by being short with your spouse and children. It is easy for the oppressed to become the oppressor. I wonder how to transform situations like that creatively and lovingly.
Now these teachingsÖ they donít sound all that practical at first. They are hard to live out. But they are life changing and world shifting. They are actions that end the cycle of perpetual violence. It takes creative thinking and thoughtful action. And the good news, is that it includes everyone. You and me both.
Love is a decision. It is not passive. It is an active verb. Jesus says: "love one another, as I have loved you." This is not a question, statement, or exclamation. Itís a command. It is our job as Christians to figure out how to love one another and love our enemy. This takes a lot of thought, conversation, and creativity.
To paraphrase Joni MitchellÖ we must look at love from all sides now. From give and take, to get over loveís illusions and recall that we donít really understand love at all. But Godís love surpasses understanding. And so must ours. Amen.
Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, commentary and reflections, Volume VII.I Abingdon Press, 1995. Pages 190-196.