Sunday, February 20, 2011

Epiphany 7A

Those of us who’ve been around the church long enough have probably forgotten the punch that this passage from the gospel packs. Some of these phrases have made their way into peoples’ everyday language.

“Turn the other cheek.”

“Go the extra mile.”

“Love your enemy.”

But if we take Jesus’ commands seriously, we might worry that we’d become a first class doormat.

If someone punches me in the face, I’d probably hit them right back. I wouldn’t point to the other side of my face and say, “missed a spot.”

If someone hijacked my car, I wouldn’t drive them to the border. I

f someone sues me, they better have a good lawyer because I’m going to protect what is mine.

And I have enemies for a reason. Loving them is not one of them. Especially since they don’t have my best interest in mind.

And then comes the command that puts all the others in their place:

“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That’s were we REALLY run into trouble. Perfection, especially for us Lutherans, is not a spiritual value. Perfection is a burden. Grace is a gift.

But I think a better way of saying it is “Be HOLY, as your heavenly Father is holy.”

While that may not sound much better than “be perfect.” When we think of “holy people” we think of super spiritual people who walk just a couple inches off of the ground, people who live a life of prayer, who exude serenity and peace. And most of us know we are not that person.

But, “holiness” according to the bible means being set apart. It means being different, unique, distinct.

So, you could translate this passage as “Be unique, just as your heavenly Father is unique.” Or be set apart, separate, just as your heavenly Father is set apart and separate.”

One of the charges some of our evangelical friends have laid on us mainline churches is that we are “too close” to the culture, that there’s nothing unique about us as Christians to distinguish us from the rest of society, that we’re no different than the Rotary Club, except that we meet at an inconvenient time.

I hear this all the time. That Lutherans and other mainline Christians, such as Anglicans, Presbyterians, and United Churches, have compromised their moral standards to ingratiate themselves to a secular world, and have watered down their theology to make it palatable for mass consumption.

Those charges are usually laid by Christians who seem to delight in stirring up trouble, often operating out of a robust persecution complex. If they’re not being passing moral judgment on others to the point of being hated, then they’re not doing their jobs as Christians. And since we’re not hated like they are (or perceived that they are), then we’re clearly not as Christian as they are.

They’re not completely wrong. But it’s not that we’ve sold out to culture, we’ve just been part of it for so long that we’ve forgotten how to be a minority. And we take from the culture and use it for gospel purposes.

Lutherans, and other historic state churches, had become cozy with the culture. By definition, that’s what a state church is and does. A state church blesses national ambitions.

And we’ve carried that tradition across the pond to Canada. While this is changing, clergy still are called upon to bless whatever the culture deems “good.”

And, Lutheran and mainline clergy, including myself, are schooled in secular counseling theory, which carries with it, certain moral assumptions about human behaviour.

Even the language we use about being an “inclusive” church comes from the social sciences and not from the bible (which is one of the reasons I don’t use that word).

Our organizational structure is borrowed from a model frequently used in the 1970’s and 80’s by non-profit organizations. We’re deeply invested in the surrounding culture.

But Evangelicals and other Christians who criticize us for being too close to the culture need to relieve themselves of the logs in their own eyes before pointing out the speck in ours. Many of these churches are expert marketers, using secular business models to draw a crowd. They preach while waving iPads rather than bibles, and use latest technology to create multi-media worship experiences. They the culture’s tools to get peoples’ attention. The tools then become the message.

At best, these mega-churches that could be mistaken for shopping malls tells the visitor, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing new for you here. Being a Christian is just like every other part of your life.”

At worst, these churches bless peoples’ consumer impulses, turning faith into a consumer choice, pulling them further away from the poor man from Nazareth. These churches may have strong moral stands, but their message gets lost in their medium.

My intent isn’t to trash these churches. That would make me a first rate hypocrite. (but what else is new?) My aim is to point out that ALL churches cozy up to the culture - or at least the part they’re comfortable with. No church is exempt.

I think our inability to disengage from culture shows us how hard it is to be a Christian. It reveals just how difficult it is to be different, just as our heavenly Father is different. It’s tough to be separate, set apart, just as our heavenly Father is separate, and set apart.

But separate and set apart for what? And how can we be separate and set apart?

I think the answer lies hidden in the text.

It’s obvious. Of course, people aren’t going to offer the other side of their face to be smacked. Of course people aren’t going to give more than asked of them. Of course, people aren’t going to go the extra mile for someone who is oppressing them. Of course, people aren’t going to love their enemies.

But Jesus did. And he gave his listeners tools to live set apart from others.

Back then, if someone hit you on the right cheek, they had to use the back of their hand, which was usually a punishment for slaves. But to hit you on your left, they’d have to use an open hand, which was considered low class behaviour. To hit you on your left would lead to public embarrassment.

And people would usually have only two garments. If they gave their enemy both of them, you’d be naked. And your enemy would be shamed for requiring you to go without clothes.

And Roman soldiers were only allowed to require people to carry their packs for one mile. If someone carried the solider’s pack an extra mile, that person would embarrass the soldier and probably get him into trouble.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Jesus was giving his listeners tools for resisting those who were oppressing them. He was providing a different way of dealing with their enemies. He gave peaceful solutions to conflict. He was teaching them how to be set apart.

While Jesus doesn’t provide a solution to every oppressive encounter, he’s pretty clear about what it means to be different.

When the world lashes out in anger, you respond in love. When others demean you, you have creative solutions to maintain your dignity.

You will not let other peoples’ destructive behaviour turn you into your enemies. You will not become who they are.

Your behaviour will be different because you ARE different. You are God’s holy temple, whose foundation is God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

You are a people of mercy and love. You are a people of peace and justice. You are a people of forgiveness and freedom.

You are a people chosen to be set apart to be a light to the world. Your lives bear witness to the love God has for the world and everyone and everything in it.

You are a resurrection people whose eyes are fixed on God’s new horizon, where all sorrow, pain, and suffering is transformed into abundant life for all.

You may not know this about yourself. You may not see this in yourself. But you are tomorrow’s people because that’s who God has made you.

You are God’s holy temple, where the Lord, the giver of Life dwells. You shine with the light of God’s glory, where the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus radiates love in a world so often devoid of hope.

You are all these things because that’s who Christ is. And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home