Monday, February 21, 2011

An Eye for the Beloved Community

These are notes for my sermon on
Matthew 5:38-48
I hope I preached it better than I wrote these notes.

Long Epiphany
An extra long look at Jesus and an extra long sermon on the mount.  This text is practically never preached.  But it is at the heart of some of the most effective Christian lives in the world.  And the most effective Christian communities in the world. 

Jesus continues his revision and expansion of the law with “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you . . . do not practice violence when confronted with evil.”

The rule “lex talonis” was an advance in ethical understanding that limited escalation of violence.  Where it is not practiced - wars ensue and suffering increases exponentially.  The Hatfields and the McCoys.  Mafia wars.  Sophisticated lasar targeted bombs exploding on mud huts.  How does it end? 
Escalation happens in more personal venues, too.  Dear Abby letter from the guy who left his laptop out on his desk in his open dorm room.  Someone hid it from him, supposedly to teach him a lesson, but actually they might have just been being mean.  So he filed a police report, pressed charges, got the hider kicked out of school, fined and put on probation.  And now the hider is mad at him and turning his classmates against him.  Yeah.   Great revenge!  

Getting revenge - Doing to others worse than they’ve done to you is deeply engrained in human beings.  Some say it’s a byproduct of evolution.  In her book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong begins by writing about our "reptilian brain," the one that is still present underneath the more developed brain. The "reptilian brain" is responsible for the fight/flight response in animals.

Some argue that it is a necessary part of life when danger is near and a quick response is necessary.

I’d argue, to the contrary, in increasingly complex and interrelated communities, and that the dangers we face now -   loss of political cohesion, economic dysfunction, environmental damage, or just plain mean people messing up our emotional health - these are dangers where fight or flight is the wrong response.  Wrong as in ineffective and the kind that will get you killed. 

If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, what do we end up with but a village of blind, toothless people. 

So it isn’t true that, Jesus is inviting us to consider embracing a life that is riskier and more foolish.  It is just that it is counter to our very basest instincts for survival. He is outpacing our reptilian brain with a call to the highest and best within us, to raise our sights and join him in creating a more compassionate world.

I think this has personal as well as global implications.  But let’s talk about the global.  before we talk about taking Jesus seriously in our own community - let’s talk a little about how non-violence figures into larger changes in the world.  Mahatma Ghandi used non-violent confrontation to acheive human rights and political independence for India.  Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement he led practiced non-violent protest even in the face of violent resistance.  And the United States was delivered from a future of apartheid.   Egypt is undergoing huge changes as the result of non-violent resistance to a violent regime.  Huge.
     Last week a Palestinian doctor put a human face on the cost and the possibility of peaceful resistance.  His story is sort of heart breaking  but hopeful.  Kind of like Jesus’ own story is heartbreaking but hopeful.  The doctor spoke several places in Champaign Urbana, about his effort to respond non-violently to the Israeli occupation of his land.  His story is all the more compelling because the targeted shell from an israeli tank tore through his apartment in Gaza and killed three of his children - daughters.  His response has been to write, speak and form a foundation dedicated to the rights and education of women and girls.   I heard him tell Steve Shoemaker, “Of course when we are attacked, we become angry.  We should be angry.  But what that anger motivates us to do - about that we have a choice.  And violence is always the wrong choice.  I choose to address the injustice in a way that takes us forward to a better place.”  I encourage you to read his book, “I Shall Not Hate” as a way of understanding that part of the world better. 

As Christians, we need to be praying for and standing with and using our considerable power to shape public opinion in favor of people like that.   I think it matters what we bother to understand and tell people is important to us. 

But I don’t pretend that our Jesus’ vision applies directly to our political situation.  We have power. 

I think that our challenge, to love our enemies and resist hatred and violence comes much closer to home  -  that is in our response to mean people and ugly behavior that we encounter day to day, at our jobs and in schools and in our extended families. 

Our challenge is to not become hateful when people are hateful to us.   To figure out and live out Jesus’ better way with our neighbors and co-workers and church brothers and sisters.    This is often messy and difficult.  But it reveals the kind of person we are.  And I want to tell you a little story:

When my family moved to Oklahoma City, my father worked for a man I found morally repulsive.  He owned this huge insurance company, which he ran like a tyrant.  He was bad to people.  Little things, like sexually harrassing the many women who worked as low level clerks.  Discriminating against people of color.  And being hugely, obscenely rich.   He and his family lived in a huge Oklahoma huge mansion, with servants and expensive everythings, which he shared only with other, equally obscenely rich folks.  And he made my father’s working life miserable.  I hated him.  Because he was wrong in every way I could see.  And here’s what my mother did:  she baked bread and took it to his family.  Not all the time.  But often enough that it completely ticked me off.  I used to rail at her, “Why are you being nice to those people?  Why are you treating them like human beings?  They don’t treat us like human beings?  We are nothing to them.  Don’t do something “friendly” for them.  They don’t deserve it.  They don’t appreciate it.  They have everything!  Don’t give them our bread!”  But she disagreed.  She said, “Oh, I don’t think they have anything as good as my homemade bread.” 

Now - if I was making this up, the end of the story would be that the horrible evil man called daddy into his office one day and said, “You can have the resources you need to do your project.  And I’ve decided that women deserve a fair shake around here.  And you can hire that African-American assistant and pay her a decent wage.  Why don’t you and Lou come over and help me decide which charity to give a million dollars to.”

That didn’t happen.  Here’s what happened:  This guy flew his family out to Aspen, on their private plane, to ski one winter.  And he got in a hurry to get back and make more money, so he bullied  the pilot into taking off in some very bad weather.   And the plane disappeared in the mountains.  After several days, his spoiled rotten children had to hike out of the mountains.  His wife was paralyzed and spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.  And the big boss guy was killed.  Froze to death in his private plane. 

And my mother, who had practiced Jesus’ way, was in a position to minister to them as a friend.  And they needed a real friend.  Just like they didn’t have homemade bread.  The didn’t have many real friends. 
I, on the other hand, was left with a dark and ugly and hateful heart, in need of some deep repentance and grace and healing.   The vehicle of the healing came with Jesus’ words, “If you love those who love you, what do you want, a medal?  Everybody can do that.  If you greet those who greet you, how does that make you special?  I have something better in mind for those who follow me.”

The last line of this scripture sometimes trips people up - it gives them an easy out.  The NRSV translation is “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Well, of course we say, that’s impossible.  Nobody’s perfect, least of all me.  But that’s not the best way to translate what Jesus said.  His words mean something more like, “Become (in the future tense)  make your journey be in the direction of - completeness.  (Perfect here means completed.)  Just as your heavenly Father’s love encompasses everyone - the good and the bad, the just and the injust - so you are called to practice loving both friends and enemies.”  It’s not about them.  It’s about the image of God that is in you.  Be like God is. 

And that’s not impossible.  It’s hard.  But it’s not impossible.  Jesus showed us that.  There is a way.  He is the Way.  Let us walk the Way of love and mercy that he sets before us. 

No comments: