Monday, February 24, 2014

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 and defend myself. 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.

If 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. Perfection is deadly. Faith brings life. Perfection is law. Forgiveness is gospel.

Another way of saying it is “Be HOLY, as your heavenly Father is holy.”

But that doesn’t really help us, does it? That doesn’t sound much better than “be perfect.” When we think of “holy people” we think of those who are super spiritual, who walk just a couple inches off of the ground, people who live a life of prayer, who exude serenity and peace, and who talk about God as easily as we talk about the hockey game. And most of us know we are not that person.

But, “holiness” in the bible doesn’t mean having spiritual super powers. It means being set apart. It means being different, unique, distinct. Special.

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.”

But that’s easier said than done. Being separate forces us to make some hard decisions.

I think this passage shows 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. And the way Jesus encourages his followers to respond to evil.

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 that’s what he expected from his followers. He saw something in them that they didn’t see in themselves. 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, and some say, it was an act of claiming equality with the slave-master. To hit you on your left cheek with an open palm 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 since it was considered shameful to look at someone without clothes, and the person who made you go around that way would be tagged with the transgression, not the naked one.

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.

This was a sermon of resistance against abusive powers. Jesus wasn’t stripping people of their dignity by telling them to roll over against their oppressors. He was giving them BACK their dignity, by handing them the implements of freedom.

We’ve been seeing this passage lived out in Ukraine over the past month, how everyday Christians and Church leaders stood up to the government by opposing violent behaviour by shaming the military’s actions through peaceful means. 

And it looks like the protests have worked. The president has resigned and fled the country. The former prime minister has been let out of jail. And an election date has been set.

So this isn’t just some hippy-dippy, airy-fairy, idea that sounds good on paper, and preaches well in a sermon. 

But these tools have been used in real-world, flesh-and-blood, life-and death situations, and have brought freedom to oppressed people.

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 everyone and everything.

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 are perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Or to perhaps the best translation is, you are COMPLETE, as your heavenly Father is COMPLETE. It’s because of what Jesus has done for you that you are complete, whole, special, perfect.

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. God sees you as you are, and God sees you as you will become.

And in these baptismal waters, Heidi is being made perfect and complete. As she is joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, received into the life of the church, blessed with the Holy and Life-giving Spirit, God has declared her whole, unique, special, perfect, and complete. A lamp through which God shines. Water in a thirsty land. A temple where God dwells.

And like Heidi, YOU are God’s holy temple, where the Lord, the giver of Life lives. 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 perfect, special, holy, and complete. And you will BECOME perfect, special, holy, and complete. God has begun a good work in you. And won’t stop until that work is complete.

You may look at yourself and just see the flaws. The body you don’t like. Trapped in an uninspiring life. The anger that won’t go away. The failures that keeps following you. The time you feel you wasted. The obligations that are overwhelming.

But when God looks at you, God sees beauty, light, peace, and love. 

When God looks at you God sees joy, forgiveness, and life-overflowing.

When God looks at you God sees someone who is cherished, forgiven, and set free from the past.

When God looks at you God sees a glorious future. 

That is who you are. That is who you are becoming. That is who you will be.

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.

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Blogger Gaia's sister said...

Kevin - this is very moving. I don't think a lot of people actually recall, these days, that Christianity arose out of oppression.

It is so strange that many of the most deeply oppressed and conquered people in the world have embraced Christianity - to watch it's spread in the last two thousand years is like tracking the spread of a a deeply unequal socio-economic system, controlled by a power elite based on intensive agriculture and concepts of private property.

The idea of resistance through nonviolent methods of shaming those in power is at once adaptive - for it acknowledges the reality of the underlaying violence that sustains that system, and also redemptive, as it indicates the only way a human being can be subject to such power and yet not submissive to it.

But this raises another question. Why then is fundamental Christianity associated with the most conservative political elites?

10:40 AM  

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