February 19, 2017

Better Than Getting Even

(Psalm 119:33-40; Matthew 5:38-48)

The passage we read this morning from the Sermon on the Mount, portions of which we have been reading over the past few Sundays, is one of those passages that make us wonder whether Jesus is really serious when he says what he says. I mean really… Do not resist an evildoer? A mugger, a purse snatcher, a thief? Really? If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other cheek as well? C’mon. Give to everyone who begs of you? Everyone? Who begs? Think of New York, where you cannot go out of building without tripping on someone sleeping on a doorstep with a cup of change in front of them? Please! Tom Long, of Emory University, in his commentary on this section of Jesus’ teaching says, it boggles the mind to think about living out this example literally in contemporary society. Imagine a Christian in New York City who got up one morning and decided to do what Jesus says here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the amount. This person would be broke, homeless, and in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital before noon!1 The passage raises for us some questions as to how we are to read scripture and how we are to conform our lives to the ideal described there. There is so often a disconnect between the life we are called to live by scripture, and the life we live out day by day. In this vein, Greg Cary of Lancaster Theological Seminary suggests that most of us in the church try to explain away Jesus’ words in one way or another. We suggest: – Jesus was setting forth a set of values to which his disciples should aspire. They are impossible but that’s the point. By striving toward them, we live better than we would otherwise. -Jesus’ words throughout the Sermon on the Mount reveal the impossibility of human righteousness, preparing us for the advent of grace. – Jesus was speaking to his disciples as individuals. In our modern world, with its complex relationships, global economics, and violent military threats, his advice simply does not hold. [In other words this was okay in the first century for personal relationships but it doesn’t hold water in the complex global community of modern life.] Jesus offers pragmatic advice to empower oppressed people. When we cannot force people to treat us justly, we can expose the injustice of the situation. When striking back will only get us hurt, confront the aggressor without retaliating. Gandhi did this. Martin Luther King, Jr. did this. Mother Theresa did this. But we are not made of the same stuff. We are not Mohandas Gandhi, or Dr. King, or Mother Theresa. We have to live here in Ohio day after day, year after year, in a place where those who don’t look after themselves end up last. It’s the survival of the fittest. Jungle rules, you know. In the boardrooms and business meetings in this town, the caricature of naïveté is the suggestion that all we have to do is be nice to one another, and hold hands and sing Kum Bah Yah, and everything will be all right. But on the street we know anyone who lives that way, who does not assert themselves in an aggressive, pushy way, will be left behind. You can’t survive in business and turn the other cheek. You can’t maintain super power status as a nation unless you out-arm and out-spend your enemy. And what with all the people working scams on the street from Mexican caballeros singing on subway cars, to shell games in Times Square, to the pitch on 14th Street of some poor young kid who sits at sidewalk level in the cold with a makeshift cardboard sign telling a hard luck story about being pregnant and can’t go home, and “this dog is my only friend, and all that…” you’d be broke in no time giving away all your loose change and dollar bills. The only logical conclusion is that Jesus lived at some higher level of existence than we do. How else could he have come up with such an illogical set of suggestions for living? So we rationalize, “You have to forgive him. He got carried away sometimes. All compassion you know, all gushy about the goodness in people’s hearts, all soft in the middle about that little spark of God in everyone. We have to forgive him that. It doesn’t pan out in real life. And we all know Jesus was half divine, half human anyway. Not like all of us.” What’s interesting to me is that the scripture that Jesus quotes as he preaches these impossible measures of forgiveness and pacifism and openness are actually practical attempts to be more tempered, more rational and controlled in responding to injustice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…” Jesus begins. It sounds vindictive, but in reality it was meant to be a check on unbridled retaliation, a law meant to balance retribution. It was known as lex talionis, and it comes from Exodus 21, and Leviticus 24 and Deuteronomy 19. The rage of an offended party, we all know, can get the best of a situation. If someone harms someone we love, our instinct is to lash out with a vengeance ten times greater in degree than the offence suffered. So the law was established that if we lose an eye, we cannot exact a punishment greater than that received. We’ve heard of Mutually Assured Destruction. Well this was mutually limited retaliation. So…“only an eye for an eye, only a tooth for a tooth.” It may have been a step in the right direction I suppose toward more civil behavior, but Bill Coffin speaking about lex talionis exposed its weakness. The problem with a world in which retribution is kept to an equivalent level, he said, is that eventually you have a land of blind and toothless people unable to see or chew their food. No, Jesus said, not an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth… If someone hits you up the side of the face, expose his bullying by offering the other side of your face as well. If someone takes your coat, give him you cloak as well, he needs it more than you do. And as if that weren’t enough, Jesus continued, don’t just love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Make everyone your neighbor, and love your enemy. Pray for them while you’re at it. This is God’s way, he said, this is what God would do. Just look… the rain and sun fall on the righteous and the unrighteous, the good and the bad. And the one who is neighbor to enemy, sees things not from a human point of view but from God’s point of view, and from God’s point of view we are all God’s children, God’s family, God’s own. Jesus describes for us a higher way, a way that breaks the cycle of violence and stops the endless retribution. And what he teaches is hard. It doesn’t come naturally, but with practice one can master it. We cannot and should not try to explain away Jesus’ difficult sayings. Like it or not, difficult or not, impossible or not, they are an imitation of the ways of God; and getting us closer to God was what Jesus was all about. Jesus teaches us, to love our neighbors and our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to give to the one who begs. We think this is wasted energy. That it’s naive, it allows evil to go unchecked in life. Our pride is at stake, our honor, our self-worth. But in God’s economy, no good act, even no good act that goes unpunished, is wasted. Maybe Jesus was ahead of his time in describing what meteorologist Edward Lorenz calls the Butterfly Effect, the idea that the beating of a butterfly’s wings on the Atlantic coast can enter the chaos of atmospheric motion in such a way that it’s effect can lead to a tsunami in the Pacific. The smallest and most imperceptible of things can sometimes have large and momentous consequences. When we turn the other cheek, when we give to one who begs, when we love our enemy, we do something the consequences of which we cannot immediately measure, but it is something noticeable enough that the created order moves just a little bit, a little closer to God, each time it happens. Jesus, in the end had the audacity to suggest that we be perfect. “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he said. Easier said than done! The word he uses, teleios, is the same word that he says on the cross at end of his suffering, just as he dies, “It is finished,” teleios. And it means perfect, perfected, completed, finished, done. What is it like to so lay hold of God that you are finished and complete and perfected like this? Well, if someone strikes us on the right cheek, offer them the other as well and show by that action who has stood the higher ground. If someone takes our coat, offer our cloak as well and show by our exceeding kindness that need trumps possession every time. Give to those who beg… I know, but just try it, and be patient with what happens next. There are worthwhile lessons to be learned from giving and not receiving in return. Give simply because it is a discipline close to the heart of God. Giving is, in fact, what God does most, and most of us give God very little if anything back if the truth be told. Love your neighbor. And love your enemy. Pray for those who hate you. I commend this on personal experience, in fact. We cannot do it just once and be done with it. We must take it on as a commitment… to pray for one who hates us. Over time as we pray for that person, something most assuredly happens. We change, even if the other person doesn’t and because we change the dynamic in the relationship changes, as well. The power of the person who hates is undone. And the nature of the relationship becomes different. Jesus put it this way, if we love those who love us, what reward do we have? Even the Gentiles can do that. I know, you’re all still skeptical. We’re not sure that Jesus really was serious about our living up to this. But I believe he was deadly serious about it. So deadly serious that he died for this belief. Love your enemies, pray for them, if someone takes your coat, give to them your cloak as well. It was a lonely figure he cut on that cross. Stripped nearly naked, his coat and cloak taken from him and bartered over by soldiers. He died without a friend to save him, blessing his enemies in the midst of his agony, praying for those who were putting him to death, because they did not know what they were doing. He put his life and his body where his teaching was. In fact his teaching was his life, and that was where he put his body. And if we are to follow him, we must struggle imperfectly toward the perfection that he described, when he urged us to be complete and finished, even as our heavenly Father is complete and finished and perfect. I do not think that we have yet conceived the full possibility of what God can do when we allow God’s intentions for us to override the way of the world around us. Howard Thurman the great African American teacher and preacher writes of the time after he was dean of the chapel at Howard University and while he was still pastor of an integrated and multi-cultural congregation in San Francisco. He was invited to St. Louis to speak at the 1952 Methodist national student conference. He traveled by train, as people did in those days. And he went to the Jefferson Hotel for breakfast, fresh from his arrival at the station where a delegation met him. After breakfast he was led off to the morning conference which he addressed. At noon he was brought by his hosts back to the hotel for lunch. And as soon as they sat down the waitress filled their glasses and left. “Presently,” Thurman says, the chairman [of the delegation] was called away from the table by the manager of the hotel who said to him, ‘You brought this man in here for breakfast this morning and I said nothing about it. He had been overnight on the train and he was your guest speaker. But his presence in the dining room violated the agreement that your organization made with this hotel, that you would not require us to feed or house any Negro delegates to this conference.” There was a heated argument and finally the manager said, You may take him up to your room and be served there, but we can’t serve him in the dining room. Thurman said, “I could not accept their hospitality under those circumstances.” He had lunch instead with a student friend at a nearby hospital cafeteria. At the lecture that evening, [Thurman writes] I told the students what had happened, and what their church had committed them to. “The time will come,” I said, “when you are in the same position as the men who made this commitment on your behalf. When that time comes I want you to remember this experience. Thurman was met at the train station leaving St. Louis that night by Harold Case, then president of Boston University who said to Thurman, … if the time ever comes when we can take some firm, even dramatic action to show that the incident that had happened here is not our desire or in keeping with the true genius of the Methodist Church, I want you to know that you can depend on us to do it. A year later, Dr. Case asked Howard Thurman to meet him in Los Angeles for a meeting at which he invited Thurman to become the first African American to be the dean of the chapel at Boston University, a Methodist school. It was not an easy decision for Thurman, turning the other cheek, even for a complement like that. But it was an appointment that would prove to have the grace of God in it. Thurman, by living his life with integrity after the manner of Jesus, did something better than get even, he loved his enemies, and forgave those who persecuted him and he became the finest dean of the chapel Boston University had ever had. He was perfect. There is no question in my mind that Jesus was very serious about this business of turning the cheek, and giving to those who beg from us, and praying for our enemies. It is a serious business, and a very difficult business as well, and we might dismiss it as impractical or impossible were it not for the fact that God’s kingdom will come on the gentle beating of wings such as that. In fact, exactly that. Amen

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