Feb. 19, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Epiphany: Psalm 119:33-40; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
The Rev. Deacon Marcia Tyriver
When I lived in Wisconsin, I had a white-haired deacon friend who said two things I’ll never forget, and the first was funny.
One Sunday he stood in the center aisle reading the gospel selection about the woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil demon.
He started out…”There was a woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil deacon…”
He stopped…started breaking into a giggle…and soon the congregation was laughing too…
He started again…couldn’t continue without laughing…to the amusement of the parishioners, who joined-into the humor of his predicament.
However, something he said at another time stunned me.
He said, “You know, Marcia, Jesus did not come to form a church. He came to transform us.”
Well, you might be thinking, “What about Jesus saying to Peter, ‘upon you, this rock, I will build my church”? (Matthew 16:18)
Bible scholars explain it’s very unlikely Jesus ever said that.
Instead, Matthew added these words later, after the Resurrection, for “churchly, perhaps even partisan interests”.
“Apparently Jesus never contemplated the formation of a new religion separate from Judaism.” (Interpreters’ Bible, 1951, p 450, 451)
Jesus did not come to form a church. He came to transform us.
There is a key to this transformation.
The key is so simple that we’re apt to be distracted from it.
The key is that God is love, and God loves all of us…forever.
With this eternal love as our base we have the Spirit to be transformed beyond our individual self.
Yes, we slip in and out of it, but we have hope and security in God.
We have a life-line despite hardship, wants, and suffering.
With our love-connection to God we are able to stand despite life’s threats, including standing against oppression.
THEN we can do what today’s gospel says.
“…turn the other cheek…”
“…walk a second mile…”
“…love your enemies…”
Some people say these parts of Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount” are the most important of his teachings…. and the hardest to follow.
We cannot do these things unless we are transformed away from some pretty ancient and primitive conduct.
… away from “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”
…away from reactions like retaliation, vengeance, revenge, anger, and hating our enemy.
To see the transformation for which Jesus came, look at him in his Passion and Crucifixion.
He gave his life for us because of love…
…so we could understand and learn from him.
He had no desire or need to retaliate.
He was separate from violence….. and separate from any struggle for power.
Separate because of his stance…the stance of turning the other cheek.
Because he loves us, and he understands us, he is able to forgive us.
You remember what he said, from the Cross, to the people who were mocking him and spitting on him. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
He understood they had no consciousness of being locked into what today we call the “reptilian” part of our brain.
He understood their need to scapegoat him.
They had no awareness that they were following primitive, knee-jerk reactions… reactions ingrained by centuries of social culture based on violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice.
Jesus came to the world to change this.
He was completely outside this contagious dysfunction.
In his Passion and Crucifixion he turned the other cheek,
and the world has never been the same.
With his Passion and suffering death by Crucifixion, Jesus did something holy.
His allowing himself to be subject to the mob stops us cold.
His prayer that they be forgiven stops the world…if the world listens.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” (John 3:16)
“Jesus came to transform us,” the wise old deacon said.
“turn the other cheek”?
“walk the extra mile”?
“love our enemies”?
We can do this sometimes. But sometimes we do it with resentment.
When we can “turn the other cheek” as a response without resentment, we are on home base…
We are within the personal transformation for which Jesus came.
Let’s look more closely at what Jesus meant by “turning the other cheek”.
Imagine two people face to face, as you and I are.
One of us is the assailant, the person with power over the other one.
That’s the “bad guy”, I’ll play that part.
I am reprimanding or bullying you, the “underling”, and I am allowed to strike your right cheek with my right hand.
(In Jesus’s time the left hand was used mainly for “unseemly” purposes such as cleaning oneself after voiding.)
Furthermore, I have to strike with the back of my right hand, because a superior was not allowed to hit an inferior person with the palm, of his hand.
But, if you turn your other cheek after that, inviting me to humiliate you further, I’m in trouble.
If I back down, you win.
If I try to strike you, and play by the rules, using the back of my right hand, it’s a pretty weak slap at that angle, and you win.
You, the victim have effectively and peacefully thwarted my abuse.
And if I give-in to the temptation to punch you with my fist, I will have humiliated myself by breaking a social more`…
…because only social equals were allowed to fist-fight!
If I hit you with my fist, I am, in effect, treating you, the peasant, as my equal.
My social power over you is broken. We are now equal, as God intended!
Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek” was addressed to people who were suffering from oppression. And it was a practical teaching about how to resist effectively and peacefully.
Similarly, Jesus’s saying to ‘go the second mile” is another “ creative non-violent …way…of protesting oppression.”
Under Roman law a soldier could force a civilian to carry his gear for one mile, but only one mile.
If, however, the civilian voluntarily continues with the burden for a second mile, either the soldier risks “getting in trouble, or ,,,(he)…will have to wrestle…(his)… gear back from” the civilian. (ibid)
Another law of Jesus’ day allowed impoverished people to pay a debt by giving-up their coat.
Their coat, by the way, was most likely their only covering at night, their only blanket.
Jesus said “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well”.
The cloak or tunic was likely the only other article of clothing the poor person owned.
To give that to the oppressor would leave the peasant naked.
Walter Wink explains that if you, the poor person, do this, you are not only exposing the oppressive social system.
You have also, because of the customs of the time, …shamed the oppressor …
…because in that culture “nakedness shamed the person who observed (nakedness)”!
These sayings of Jesus may seem quaint to our 21st century ears.
In reality, they are powerful literal directions as to how to peacefully expose injustice.
Walter Wink describes that Jesus’s words were “a radical new way of empowering the underclass”. (ibid)
…a non-violent but active form of effective protest…then and now.
Mahatma Gandhi was transformed to lead in this way.
So was Nelson Mandela.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was too.
They all used what Marcus Borg called “creative non-violent strategies of protesting oppression”.
(Marcus Borg, Dharma Gates, “The True Meaning of Turning the Other Cheek”.
They followed Jesus’s charisma and the power of his admonition to “turn the other cheek”.
Here is one example from each of these men:
Gandhi led 60,000 people on the 240 mile long Salt March to the sea. They gathered untaxed sea salt in order to have access to salt in their diet. Gandhi and all 60,000 were arrested. All this eventually led to the 1947 independence of India from oppressive British Colonial rule.
Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for having led resistance to apartheid in South Africa. From prison, his peaceful presence and noble voice for justice led international pressure for the S. African government to release him almost 30 years later, in 1990, and eventually to end apartheid, and grant equal rights for all in the nation. In 1994 he was elected President of South Africa.
Dr. King led three marches to Selma. The first two were violently cut-off by Alabama state and local authorities. He won court-protection for the third march, which involved 25,000 people and successfully turned the political tide to grant our Black sisters and brothers their belated but rightful vote in 1965.
Oppression continues today, and the need for non-violent protest continues today.
This is Black History month in our nation.
Our adult class is showing the Discovery Channel film “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement”… in the Common Room at 9:15 and 10:15 this morning.
The need for Dr. King’s work continues today. Tragically, racism continues.
St. Patrick’s is holding a one-day training to help us be more aware of racism and how to work to eliminate it. There are only 8 openings left in the class, which is Saturday, March 11. Registration closes a week from tomorrow, so if you’d like to get in on it, call the church office before next Monday, Feb. 27.
Remember the peaceful marches held all over the world recently on January 21st?
There were several reasons why we marched.
But all the reasons had to do with oppression and social justice…about inequality.
The march protest was against exclusion, against greed, against violence, against racism and sexism…against bullying or coercing others with fear. The millions of marchers were peacefully giving voice to people who are treated unfairly…. to outcasts, to minorities, to people hatefully maligned, to the disadvantaged.
We were not acting-out in anger or negativity.
We were acting peacefully to subvert and transform negative systems.
We were, in effect, turning the other cheek.
The respected Christian social-justice group Sojourners advocates for this kind of social action because this action
“…reject(s) oppression by asserting our own dignity with … compassion”. Actions like this are a refusal “to participate in or perpetuate the cycle of violence”.
Acting in this way “you …(are not)…a helpless victim, (and you are not)...a heartless monster”.
You reaffirm “not only your own humanity, but also that of the one who would dehumanize you.”(sojo.net/articles/sermon-on-the-mount-theology-resistance)
Are we really so advanced from the first century, when Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount?
Yes, in the big picture, we are. Our legal system is built and has been evolving, so far, to work toward that…
to encourage that we treat one-another as would “transformed” people, as equals, honoring one-another, equally loved by God.
But the impulse otherwise is always there…as we are seeing.
For example, please consider, finally, the matter of the death penalty.
19 of our 50 states have abolished it.
31 of our states retain it.
The bill to repeal it in California was on our recent November ballot.
The repeal was defeated.
We favored the option of “an eye for an eye”.
Our voters voted to retain the power of retaliation to kill the killer, rather than issue a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.
Contrast this with something that happened in Charleston, SC, after the 2015 massacre in “Mother Emmanuel” AME Church.
A USA Today article describes what the families of the victims did shortly after the killings, and I quote:
“Did you see the families of the shooting’s victims …(as they)..confront(ed) the accused killer at his bond hearing …?
Did you see the video---them pleading with…(the killer)…through (their) tears?
They said they forgave him….
One after another, the relatives of the slain …(begged the killer)…to turn to God.
One after another, they prayed for his soul.
One after another, they forgave him.
…That forgiveness…(it) was neither expected nor explicable.
Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world, is illogical in the rational world, is nonsensical to common human nature. “
Such forgiveness is humanity at its most human, or perhaps its most divine.” (unquote)
The wise old deacon friend back in Wisconsin would say the families of the victims were “transformed” as Jesus urged and hoped we would be.
But last month, the state of S. Carolina sentenced the killer to the death penalty.
…an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…
…I say Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” (John 3:16)
Christ did not come to form a church.
Christ came to transform us. Amen.