Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lent 3B: Series: #MakingFaithMatter

NB: You can listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Familiar words from Jesus, eh? Those of us who’ve been around the church long enough have probably forgotten the punch that this passage packs. It’s become for many of us, perhaps, too familiar. They’ve lost their edge. We’ve house-trained these bible verses spoken by a house-trained Jesus. At least that’s what we’ve tried to do with him because what he asks us to do makes no sense when we stop and think about it.

Some of these phrases have become so commonplace that they’ve made their way into our everyday language and they threaten to morph into cliche.

“Turn the other cheek.”

“Go the extra mile.”

Or even...“Love your enemy.”

Easily recognizable words spoken by a Jesus with whom we’ve become far too comfortable. 

But if we step back and see Jesus from a distance once again, and take Jesus’ commands seriously, we might see things a little differently. But then again, when we re-hear Jesus’ words as if they were first spoken, I’d worry that we might become a first class doormat.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...”

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

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well

Not entirely sure I know what he’s talking about here. If someone sues me, they better have a good lawyer because I’m going to protect what is mine. 

“ ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”

Really? 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.

This doesn’t sound like good news to me. It actually sounds kind of dangerous. We know we aren’t perfect. We know we have flaws. We know that we struggle along trying to do our best with what we have where we are. After all, isn’t that why Jesus came to earth, so that God could share our limiting imperfections?

So what’s happening here?

Well, if we dig a little deeper into the language, we see that the word  for “perfection” would be better translated as “holy.”  “Be HOLY, as your heavenly Father is holy.”

Does that help us any? “Be holy” may not sound much better than “be perfect.” When we think of “holy people” what do we think of? I don’t know about you but I often 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 luminate with peace. And most of us know we are not that person.

But, “holiness” in scripture wasn’t reserved for those super spiritual Godly men and women who appear translucently semi-divine. In fact, in the bible no such person exists.

Holiness” according to the bible is simpler than that. Holiness 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.”

As Christians, we are called to be different than others, we are made and re-made in God’s image, not the world’s. We are re-created to be alternate visions to the world God loves, but needs repair and restoration. We are called to be different.

And that’s not always easy.

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 to distinguish us from the rest of society, that we’re no different than the Rotary Club, except that we meet at a more 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 our 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 other 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 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 people further away from the poor man from Nazareth. These churches may take 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, it might be impossible to be set apart as our heavenly Father is set apart.

But that’s what we’re called to be. But what does that look like? And how do we get there?

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. He was showing them how to make their faith matter.

Jesus wasn’t asking people to become doormats. Just the opposite. Jesus was giving people back their power. He was providing non-violent forms of resistance against oppressive authority. He was equipping a beaten down people with the tools to defy the forces that made them feel less than human.

He was giving them back their dignity, helping them regain their sense of personhood, lifting them up, empowering them, so they could live out their lives with a renewed feeling of self-worth, after so many defeats. He was given them back their self-respect after so many years of finding their noses in the dirt. He was endowing them with nobility, reminding them that they were God’s people, servants of the Most Hight God, created in the image of the one through whom everything came into being, in the face of an empire that stripped them of everything they had.

He was making their faith matter.

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

This is how Jesus calls us to make faith matter:

When the someone 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. Your enemies will not dictate your actions or let them define you. You will not become who they are.

You will not let setbacks, shattered dreams, injustice, or abuse define you. You are more than that. You will not let circumstances tell you who you are. You will not let those who hurt you rob you of your dignity. You will not let those who do not have your best interest in mind tell you who are. You will not let your past decide your future. You will not let the principalities and powers destroy the love that is within you. You will not let the power of death steal your joy.

You are more than what people have done to you. You are more than the sadness and pain that has been thrown at you. You are more than your broken past. You are more than your stolen dreams. 

When life treats you as little more than a chew toy, you have the power to stand up and say, “Enough!” 

When life punches you in the face, you turn your head sideways and say, “I dare you.”You won’t be like everyone else. You will be different.

You will be different because you ARE different. You are God’s holy house, you are a living sanctuary, you are a dwelling place of the Lord. 

You are God’s people. You are a light to the nations. 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 chosen people, set apart to be a beacon of the divine. Your life bears 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 an abundant future for all.

You have welcomed with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

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. That is who you are becoming.

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.

That is who you are. That is how you are making faith matter.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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