Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hit Me on the Other Cheek Why Dontcha

This is a working draft of my sermon for tomorrow.  I use Walter Wink's scholarship for much of the biblical analysis.

Every once and a while I am struck with the absurdity of the task of preaching.  We are to take these ancient texts from a time centuries removed from us, in a language few have dared to master, in cultures that none of us can claim to really fully understand and to somehow grapple meaning for our lives based on these relatively obscure references. 
It’s not that I don’t think that the practice is valid, far from it.   But I do wonder if sometimes we water down individual sections of text so far that it fits with whatever anecdotal story your preacher has gleaned from their life, or more likely from some lovely story they have read in an email forward. 
I am feeling this because of so many circumstances that have occurred in the past week, the protests in Egypt and the Middle East, an encounter with a biblical professor, and an interaction in a coffee shop with a foreigner.  The world that we live in is getting smaller and smaller and yet our understanding of each other and each other’s cultures are not keeping up with our shrinking world.  And if we who have all of this technology to assist us as we encounter each other don’t understand our neighbors who exist in real time, how do we have a chance of understanding what our biblical ancestors were really meaning, especially, if we don’t take the time to learn and understand what is going on in the text?  And yet these are the texts that we call formative for us.
The Biblical professor that I mentioned earlier was David Lose.  He told a story about being in his car one day listening to Christmas music.  The song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas came on and he started listening to the words of the second verse.  So he starts singing it to us, “so bring us some figgy pudding, so bring us some figgy pudding…”  And you know what he said next, he said, “I realized at that moment that I had no idea what figgy pudding was and I really didn’t care.  But I did know that I just liked that song because it made me feel good.” 
What does it look like when the state of affairs in our congregations looks more like singing a song that we know makes us feel good but we have no idea what it means?  What in the world is figgy pudding anyway?  Perhaps it means that if our own cultural norms and values are the only lens through which we see our little snippets of text then how could we ever understand the outcome of our strange little equations. Our moral deliberations on the Kingdom of God deteriorate into arguments that sound like, “the Bible says it, so I believe it.” But really most of us are sitting in the pews asking the churchy equivalent of, “what in the world is figgy pudding?”
And the only thought that comes to mind when hearing that statement is, “Really? If we were really Kingdom dwellers wouldn’t we all be called to live much different lives than we have deigned to live?”  Ah but Kingdom dwellers we are even if it is a split kingdom where we who are sinner and saint at once reside.  But I am getting ahead of myself in our story for today.  For a recap I will read pieces of the translated text from the Message,
38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”
 48“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

In that last sentence you will notice that the wording has changed.  In the NRSV is says to be perfect like your father in heaven is perfect.  This is not a watered down version of that text, it is actually much closer to the cultural understanding of perfection from that first century world.  It actually means to show no partiality.
In fact there are quite a few cultural nuances that are going on in this text that one would not meet at first glance.  If one were to read this text without knowing some of those nuances the idea of the Christian doormat would be reinforced.  These are not texts on becoming subject to your persecutors, rather they are texts about standing up and resisting evil non-violently.
"Whoever strikes you to the right cheek, turn to him the other."  In first century culture people did not initiate contact with their left hand.  The left hand was considered  unclean and therefore the right hand would be the hand of choice with which to strike.  But if one thinks about the physics of this event it doesn't quite match up.  If you took your right hand and tried to lay a punch on someone's right cheek it wouldn't work.  If you were being struck on your right cheek you would be being hit with the back of the hand.  A sort of backhanded slap.  The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance.  In the first century, the people most likely to be back-handed were slaves, women, children, and people considered somehow "lesser" than their Roman overlords.
Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult it is just the opposite.  If someone backhands you on the right cheek, lift your head back up, turn your cheek and expose the left one as well.  You have dignity as a human being and you shouldn't let someone else take that away from you.  Don't hang your head and accept servility.  Stand there with head held high.  That way, you are defining your own self and not letting someone else define you as "lesser."  This is how to resist evil non-violently. 
"To the one wanting to sue you and taking your tunic, release to him your coat also."  The coat, or outer garment, was sometimes used by the extremely poor as collateral for a loan (Dt 24: 10-13).  If the coat was used for collateral, it had to be returned to the person by nightfall so they could sleep in it.  The next morning, however, the person's creditors could come and get it again so the situation that Jesus has described is one in which a destitute peasant is getting pestered to the point of being sued for their underwear.  Remember that Jesus is still preaching his sermon on the mount reminding many of these people who are poor and perhaps destitute.  Being poor would have been the lived experience of many in his audience.  
If you're getting sued for your underwear, give up the dang coat.  So go ahead and walk around naked if you have to. 
However being naked was shameful in the first century world.  Not only would the person exposed be considered shamed but also the person who witnessed the nakedness was shamed as well. So  giving your "coat also" is confrontational. This exposure is meant to expose a corrupt system.  I imagine the man standing in front of his oppressor saying, "You can't take my coat;  I give it freely."
This is not exactly what you would expect if you read this text through our own lenses.  For if we did that we would probably all be praying for the ability to be perfect Christian doormats being satisfied with the places that we have been put in our lives.
This is the stuff of a Man who would have us know that it is not any person that defines who we are allowed to be in life.  God gives the gift of life and we are subject to no oppressor.  “Perhaps this is what Martin Luther understood, as Gutenberg did not, that the mass-produced book, by placing the Word of God on every kitchen table, makes each Christian his or her own theologian—one might even say his own priest, or, better, from Luther's point of view, his own pope.”  Postman
This is the stuff of a man who would speak out against an oppressive reality and tell us that he had a dream that one day the color of our skin will not define the content of our character.  This is the stuff of a generation of young people who would cry out in the streets of Cairo for reform of a repressive government in the face of job scarcity and skyrocketing food prices. This is also the stuff of our neighbors to the east who have jobs that look just like our own and families that move and breathe just as ours do.    As the people of Wisconsin wade through the complexities of labor unions and fiscal imbalances  may they stand up in the spirit in which Christ embodies.
 As Christ suggests, our wellbeing is wrapped up in the wellbeing of others.  To oppress another is to suppress that which God has made, we are suppressing our God made selves.  Sometimes standing up to your oppressors IS loving your enemies.
In the next verses the Message translation says,
 43-47“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Now at the risk of having you all stare back up at me with your best, “what in the world is figgy pudding faces”  I would like you to take a moment of silence and reflect on what it is in your life that you would need to change in order to live out your God-created identity.  You who are kingdom subjects what would it take to love your enemies, to let them bring out the best in you, not the worst, to pray in the face of adversity, what would need to change?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sermon Salt and Light

There is a children’s book called, “The Old Turtle and the Broken Truth.”  It is one of my favorite books.  The story is of a people who throughout their generations had held onto a piece of the truth which looked like half of a broken heart with writing on it.  They believed that with this truth came much happiness and power.  So they held it close and struggled not to lose it.  Over time wars were fought over this piece of the truth. People began to feel fear and anger towards others who did not possess the broken truth as they did.  Over time all of creation seemed to suffer as each peoples struggled to keep the truth for themselves. 

But one day a little girl came to the old turtle. She had traveled very far - she had crossed the Mountains of Imagining, and the River of Wondering Why, and had found her way through the Forrest of Finding Out. And when she had grown tired, she had ridden on the backs of animals or the wings of birds, and they had helped her find her way.

Finally they came to a great hill in the very center of the world. From there, the Little Girl thought that she had never seen so far, or seen so much beauty. With tears in her eyes this young girl approached the old wise turtle and asked why the earth was this way?  Why is it that the broken truth had caused the earth to be so bruised and the people to be suffering so?

The old turtle answered her by telling her that the truth that the people possess is only part of the broken truth.  It is because it is so close to the whole truth that it has such beauty.  And it is the lost portion of the truth that is needed to make us whole again.  He asked her to pay attention to the small truths that surround us every day.  They may be in a breeze and they are silent as a snow or as gentle as a rain.

As the old turtle sent her away old turtle said to her "Remember this also, Little One. The Broken Truth, and life itself, will be mended only when one person meets another - someone from a different place or with a different face or different ways - and sees and hears… herself. Only then will the people know that every person, every being, is important, and that the world was made for each of us."

As she went Old Turtle placed something in the Little Girl’s hand that had been saved for a very long time.  The Little Girl looked at what Old Turtle had given her. It was a kind of stone, a mysterious, beautiful stone. It was lovely to the touch, and it made her feel good just to hold it.

She squeezed it tightly, and then tucked it away for her journey. And as she traveled back through the Forest of Finding out and the Mountains of Imagining she thought about the people that she would be bringing this word of truth to.  But when she got home the people did not recognize her.  She spoke of this world of small and simple truths but the people did not understand her meaning.  She explained about the broken truth and the need to make it whole but the people did not believe her.

Then the girl knew what she must do.  She climbed to the heights of the tower where the broken truth was kept and she fit it together with the stone that the old turtle had given her.  It was a perfect fit and it read on the one half “You are loved,” and on the other, “and so are they.”
The people looked.
And looked.
And looked.
Some frowned.
Some smiled.
Some even laughed. 
And some cried.
And they began to understand.
And slowly, as the people met people different from themselves, they began to see…. themselves. 

Isn’t it funny how Christians go around claiming to be right?  One denomination always pointing to the sliver in another denomination’s eye while totally ignoring the log stuck in their own denomination’s eye.  We argue about who is in and who is out while Jesus is off in the corner reminding us in a still very small voice that he really does love all people.  No wonder that we get a reminder that salt can lose its saltiness.  After a while God’s unconditional love starts to look a little tattered with all of the conditions that WE attach to it.

We often forget that it is not our job to convert the whole of creation to our idea of Christianity.  Our call is to be generous with our lives.  We are the salt and light of the earth.  That we are Christian should be good news to the world regardless of our neighbor’s faith or creed.   We are to be no less generous with our lives if our neighbors are Christian, Jewish, atheist, addicts, Muslim, Buddhist, immigrants, agnostic or Baha’i.  We are simply meant to shine our light; the Holy Spirit does the rest.

Recently I was approached with a statement that began like this, “You Lutherans….”  You know something good is coming after you hear a pronouncement like this. “The problem with YOU Lutherans is that you have lost your spirituality.  You preach that you don’t have to live a Christian life and that everyone is going to heaven.”

That is quite a statement coming from someone who has never actually heard a Lutheran preacher.  But I actually learned something about myself by being confronted with that statement.  And it was not that I actually preach these things, because I would describe this as a blatant misinterpretation our spirituality and theological proclamation. 

But central to my own spirituality and proclamation is that first God loves us and then God goes to work in our lives.  Jesus says that one’s life is not to be determined by friend or foe but by God, who relates to all not on the basis of their behavior or attitude toward God but according to God’s own nature, which is love. God does not react, but acts out of love toward the just and unjust, the good and the evil. God is thus portrayed as perfect in relationships, that is, complete: not partial but impartial. God’s perfection in this context is, therefore, love offered without partiality.

I always think of the story of the prodigal son who had lived a life that was anything but holy where it says, while he was still far off, his father ran out to him, through his arms around him, and had a party.  God is always running to us, no matter where we are, how we are, what we have done, where we have gone, the just and the unjust alike, and throws his arms around us and loves us.  Then once we are in God’s grasp, that’s when God goes to work on us, making us into the people that he has created us to be.

God’s love is not conditional.  If you follow my commands, then I will love you unconditionally.  No, it is because I have love for you, I am making you over inside and out.  I am fashioning you into the person that you were made to be and my law is being written on your heart.  We are to be salt of the earth and a light to the world.  We are to go out there and love impartially.  We are to remember that we are loved, but so are they.  And as God’s light bearers we get to share this word.