Sunday, February 23, 2014

The best way to deal with your enemies

This will make a lot more sense if you read Matthew 5:38-48 first. 

A 14-year-old boy named Jason was on a retreat with the youth group at my church years ago. I was so delighted that he had decided join us. He was a nice kid, but always in trouble. He happened to be on suspension for getting into a fight at school. And this wasn’t the first time. He had a tough exterior that said, “Don’t mess with me.” He wasn’t really a church person and didn’t have a clue about what the Bible said.

So, we’re sitting under a tree in a little circle and we’re studying a passage from Matthew. One of the kids has a Bible and reads it for us. It’s the part about how when somebody strikes you on the cheek, you then let them strike you on the other cheek. Suddenly, Jason interrupts the reader when he bursts out laughing like this was the funniest thing he’s ever heard. “You’re kidding, right?” And he grabs the Bible to see it for himself.

That was the first time I realized just how absurd these words in Matthew are. And Jason’s question might be a good one for all of us to ask Jesus, “You’re kidding, right?” If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” You’re kidding, right?

Last week my sermon was about how, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is explaining to his followers what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God. Basically, it means that we are not like everybody else. As we continue with the Sermon on the Mount this week, the difference between the reign of God and the way of the world is obvious.

Unfortunately, these words of Jesus may be so familiar to us that we might just blow them off as something that’s impossible to live out in the real world. Or, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, we may use them as an excuse to become a doormat and let people walk all over us. And neither is the case.

So, what’s Jesus really talking about here? Well, he’s talking about something that is such a radical departure from the way people operate in the world that we can scarcely get our heads around it… nonviolence. For Jesus, it’s the only way to live in this world. Because it’s more than a tactic for coping with violence. It grows out of his understanding of the very nature of God.

Jesus takes a radical departure from the way many of the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures saw God. You know those passages where people are evil and God wipes them out? The ones that are so troubling to our modern ears? Well, remember that the Bible comes to us from the perspective of limited human beings speaking from their own experience and context. And the way the earliest writers of the Scriptures saw it, God rewarded good and punished evil. If you messed with God, you were gonna pay. God was retaliatory.
That primitive understanding of God carried over to the way people treated one another. If somebody messed with you, it was your God-given responsibility to make them pay. Justice meant that if someone took your eye out, you took their eye out. You were civilized about it. You didn’t kill them for it, you responded in like manner. It was a fair way of looking at the world that really came from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. But Jesus refuted it on the basis of the fact that this is not actually the way God operates. God is not, in fact, retaliatory. God’s justice is always tempered with God’s mercy.

[As an aside, let me insert an observation here. Notice how Jesus isn’t afraid to say, I don’t agree with everything I read in the Scriptures. He was never one to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” I hope you take that as permission to read the Bible yourself and observe from time to time, “Yeah, the Bible says that, but I don’t agree with it.” Jesus taught us that we don’t have to agree with everything we read in the Bible. To disagree with something in the Bible is not blasphemy because the Bible is not God. A faithful way to read the Scriptures includes sometimes disagreeing.]

So, back to the Sermon on the Mount… Jesus challenged the way people had come to think of God as an eye-for-an-eye kind of God. That’s not the way God works, he says. When we do think of God like that, we’re just projecting out own stuff onto God. As my favorite Anne Lamott quote goes, “You’ll know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” And we certainly have a tendency to do that. But, Jesus says, God doesn’t behave like us. He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God doesn’t dole out rewards and punishments according to our deserving. God loves everyone unconditionally, good and bad alike. And instead of making God in our image, as God’s children, God has created you in God’s image, you were made to be like God. Like God in the way you love, even your enemies. When you’re living in the kingdom of God, that’s the way it is. And you’re clearly not living like everybody else.

To live like that, Jesus says, is to be perfect as God is perfect. The word perfect there doesn’t mean you never make a mistake. The word in Greek, telos, means to be complete, mature. I like the way Peterson translates verse 48 in The Message, which is truer to the original meaning: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-given identity. Live generously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

These verses are a handbook for nonviolence. Gandhi took them seriously, and often wondered why Christians didn’t do the same. Martin Luther King, Jr. took them seriously as well. In one of his sermons he said: “To those who hate us we shall say, ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at midnight and beat us and leave us for half-dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.’”

No, these words of Jesus are not suggesting that we go the way of a doormat. Jesus is not speaking about acquiescing to evil. He is speaking about meeting evil head-on. But without violence, which only breeds more violence. As Gandhi once noted, when we live by an eye for and eye we only end up with a whole lot of blind people. Non-violence does not retaliate against those who have wronged us. But it does stand up to evil.

The examples Jesus gives here may not resonate a whole with us as they don’t apply to our context. But Jesus’ original audience had personal experience with every one of them. Remember Jesus is not speaking to the people in power here. Slapping the right cheek, suing, forcing someone to carry your pack were not things his listeners could do. These were the things being done to them. Take his example about being forced to carry another person’s pack one mile, for example. This was a form of servitude the Roman soldiers were permitted to inflict on any of the Jews they encountered. But only one mile was permitted by the law. So, legally after that, the one carrying the burden put it down. But Jesus says, don’t do that. Instead, carry it a second mile. I suspect he got a big laugh from his audience when he said this because that’s the last thing anyone would want to do. But he was teaching them a powerful way of resisting their oppressors. A non-violent way. It was resistance by humiliation.  

This reminds me of the four African American men who sat at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro 54 years ago this month. They politely asked to be served. And when they were told to leave, they remained in their seats. They were bullied and degraded in every way possible, but they never returned violence for violence. The more their attackers tried to humiliate them, the more those attackers humiliated themselves by their actions. That’s the power of non-violent resistance. It’s taking a stand against evil without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is the only way possible of not becoming what we hate. And it is the only hope for our enemies as well.

Once when the South African government canceled a political rally against apartheid, Desmond Tutu led a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. The walls were lined with soldiers and riot police carrying guns and bayonets, ready to close it down. Bishop Tutu began to speak of the evils of the apartheid system and how rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. As he pointed a finger at the police who were recording his every word, he said, “You may be powerful – but you are not God. God will not be mocked. You have already lost.”

And then, when the tension couldn’t possibly get any higher, Bishop Tutu softened. Coming out from behind the pulpit, he flashed that radiant Tutu smile and began to bounce up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.”

To quote the words of Tutu in our hymnal:
Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death;
Vict’ry is ours, through God who loves us.

It’s the Way of Jesus. A way that he embodied in his life on this earth, and his death on the cross. When we follow this way, his way, we’re acknowledging that love alone transforms, redeems and creates new life. Because this is God’s way.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Not Like Everybody Else

You might want to read Matthew 5:21-37 before you go on.

There’s a common exchange between parents and children that goes like this… The child comes to the parent and asks permission to do something that the parent can’t allow, for example, a child who is just learning how to swim asks, “Can I jump off the diving board?” Of course, the parent says, “No.” And then the child comes back with, “But everybody else is doing it.” To which the parent responds, “We’re not everybody else.”

Ever hear those words? They may sound so familiar to us that they’ve become a joke. But this little dialogue communicates something significant for children to learn about the things they do and don’t do in the world. Their behavior is related to their identity. Because you are a part of this family, you live a certain way in the world that sets you apart from other people. Everybody else may be doing it, but we’re not everybody else.

This is not unlike what Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. You’re not like everybody else, he tells them. You’re part of a counterculture. You’re blessed. You’re salt. You’re light. You’re living within the kingdom of God. And because of that, you have been set apart from other people.

Jesus contrasts his followers with the good religious people of the day, the scribes and the Pharisees. From the Pharisees’ perspective, following the law was what it meant to be Jewish. And by the law, we’re not only talking about the Ten Commandments, but hundreds of laws that were part of Jewish tradition. The problem was that they had added so much of their own interpretation to the law Moses handed down that all their exceptions and loopholes and picky-yuny details obscured its original message.

And so, Jesus says, “You have heard it said…” to describe the popular application of the law in his day. “But I say to you…” His goal was not to introduce something radically new. His goal was to return to something radically old. He’s calling his followers to return to the original intent of the law as God gave it to Moses.

Often when we think of the law, we think of rules. And when we lay a bunch of shoulds and oughts on people, it may feel like we’re just out to ruin everybody’s fun. But in a reasonable society, that’s not the purpose of rules. I was reminded of this on Wednesday as I sat at home watching the TV reporters in snow-covered hats, microphones in hand, standing before treacherous streets with the sound of spinning tires in the background. There was an overzealous reporter who started wandering around the lanes on Independence Boulevard, talking to people in their stopped cars. The CMPD called the station and told the people in the newsroom that she had to get out of the street. It was important to follow the law lest we all watch her getting run over on live TV.

And there were other invaluable rules shared with us TV viewers that snowy day. One reporter made it a point to tell us that if you must drive, make sure to clear your windshield first. And another one pointed out how slippery it was and if you’re walking you need to be careful. Someone else told us not to burn candles in the house. You’ll fall asleep and burn your house down. Use flashlights. And then there’s the one that should go without saying, but unfortunately always has to be said when there is danger of power going out in cold weather  -- don’t start a charcoal fire inside your home. It emits carbon monoxide and it will kill you.

Okay, I’ll admit that I found humor in a lot of this, especially coming from the North, but the fact is, if you don’t have enough sense to follow some simple rules, you may not survive a snow-storm.

Do you remember the story of how God gave the law to Moses? God’s people had been slaves. They had been told what to do all their lives, and now, suddenly, they were free. They needed some laws or they were never going to make it to the Promised Land. So, God gave them the Commandments as a gift. And that gift served them well. They made it. The gift of the law got them there. Now they were about to enter into the new land God had promised them. And they had a choice to make. Would they continue to live in relationship with the God who had delivered them from slavery and kept them safe all along their journey? Or would they not? Would they choose life, or not?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his followers of the law Moses received from God. It is a gift. It’s about living in a relationship with the God who loves you and offers you life. The law wasn’t given so that we would keep the law for the law’s sake. The law was given so that we would keep the law for OUR sake.

It’s a lot like why I taught my kids not to play in the street, to treat other people with kindness, to tell the truth. It wasn’t just because I wanted to keep them in line. It was because I wanted to help them get more out of this life than they would have if they played in traffic, if they were mean and rotten to other to people, if they lied and cheated to get what they wanted. I loved them too much to allow them to do that.

Notice that each of Jesus’ different injunctions in today’s gospel is about how we treat one another. When Jesus interprets the law, he’s not encouraging people to simply follow the law to prove they can do it. He’s encouraging them to follow the law because they are in relationship with God in a way that affects their relationships with everyone else.

So, Jesus starts with a commandment that most people could feel pretty good about keeping: the one about killing other people. You have heard it said that you shouldn’t kill someone and if you haven’t, you may think you’ve followed the law, Jesus tells his listeners. But the original intent of that law goes deeper than that. It’s also about treating one other with kindness and respect, and that means not speaking hateful words. Don’t think that just because you haven’t killed the person who bugs the hell out of you, you have fulfilled the law. There is danger in unreconciled anger. Not only for the one you are angry with, but also for yourself as you carry the anger around inside you. That’s not the kind of life God wants for you.

You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. And you may think that’s about physically avoiding the act of adultery. But the intent of the law goes deeper than that. We also don’t objectify other persons by seeing them as a means to satisfy our desires. People are not to be treated as things. If you don’t get that, you don’t get the law about adultery.

You may be familiar with the current divorce laws, Jesus says. According to those laws, a man could divorce his wife for all kinds of ridiculous reasons, like if she burned the bread. When Jesus spoke against these laws, he stood up for the most vulnerable in his society, women and children. They are people, Jesus says. And people are not disposable.  

Then he goes on to challenge the integrity of God’s people. Why is it so necessary that you have to take an oath to back up your words? Speak and act honestly so that oaths become completely unnecessary.  

Can you hear what Jesus is saying? Don’t get side-tracked by the talk about cutting off body parts and burning in hell. That wasn’t to be taken literally. It’s hyperbole, spoken to magnify just how important our relationships are to God.

Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus is asked to name the greatest of all the Commandments, and he couldn’t answer the question. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart and all your soul and all you mind”, but  before he could take a breath, he had to link it to another one: Love your neighbor as yourself.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes what that looks like. Being in loving relationship with God means being in loving relationship with other people. It’s not something you have to force yourself to do by following the rules. It’s something that just happens when you’re in relationship with the God of love.

Ironically, or maybe I should say sadly, many Christians have interpreted the Sermon on the Mount very legalistically through the years. They have taken these sayings of Jesus and used them to demand that people follow the law much like the Pharisees did. Which, of course, is precisely the approach to the law that Jesus is speaking against.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t making it even more difficult for his followers to live by the law. His teachings were not meant to create more laws we can never keep that lead us to more self-loathing and guilt. He’s showing us the way to transcend that kind of legalism.

A little later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me...” (A rabbi’s teachings were known as his yoke. A disciple would take the rabbi’s yoke upon himself.) Jesus told them, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” No, the followers of Jesus are not like the Pharisees, who bear the heavy weight of the law. That’s not who they are.

For life in God’s kingdom is not about following rules.  Life in God’s kingdom is about relationship. It’s not something we can work to achieve. It is pure gift. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters with whom he is well pleased.

To live within that relationship is to choose life. It’s to allow the unconditional acceptance of God to transform us. And then, we are capable of doing good, true, beautiful acts. That’s something fearful rule-makers and law-keepers will never understand. It’s what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom. Because we are God’s beloved, we live a certain way in the world that sets us apart from other people. It doesn’t matter what everybody else is doing. We’re not everybody else.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Too much tension in your life? Maladjusted to the world? Blame it on the Bible.

Last week the Barna Group, well-known for their research into the religious life of Americans, released their latest findings. Perhaps you read about it. This time, they were ranking the most to the least bible-minded cities in America. The most bible-minded city, they said, was Chattanooga, Tennessee. The least, Providence, Rhode Island. My city, Charlotte, ranked right up there among the most bible-minded in 6th place.

You may wonder how they decided this. Well, they called people on the phone and asked them two questions: 1) Have you read the Bible in the past week? and, 2) Do you strongly believe that the Bible is accurate?

I could say a lot about the problems of such a study, but in the interest of brevity, let me point out a couple of the big ones. First of all, as is the case with most of the Barna surveys, it has a bias toward Evangelical Christians. This is the way Evangelicals think. Bible-mindedness is about reading the Bible and strongly believing it’s accurate. In Providence, Rhode Island, where most Christians are Catholics, they don’t think like this.

But, my primary problem with the survey is the criteria they use for bible-mindedness. I know people who read the Bible every day, and there’s not much evidence in their lives that would indicate their behavior is in any way affected by it. And, from my experience, many of the people who have serious reservations about the accuracy of the Biblical text are often the ones who most faithfully live its truths.

If the Barna research wanted to find the most bible-minded cities in the U.S., they might start by looking for cities where people are feeding the poor, providing shelter for refugees; where city codes show a commitment to justice; where the sick are cared for; where people make it a practice to forgive those who have wronged them. For despite the fact that we like to use the Bible to defend our own actions in a world where we live to achieve, accomplish and possess, the Bible offers us a radically different worldview that calls us to a radically different way of life.

Interestingly, it's religious types, not unlike myself , who are most likely to use the Bible to justify their own lives -- those who are part of a religious tradition that has developed controlling people through fear into an art-form by insisting that the saved are the ones who keep all the rules and believe all the right things. People who read the Bible like this, William Sloane Coffin said, use the Bible much like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination. And yet, to self-serving religious institutions and leaders, the message of the Bible digs in its heals and says, “No!” The life of faith is not about proving how we’re in with God and others are out.
To live Biblically is to live counter-culturally. The underlying truth of the Biblical text has always challenged people of faith to resist the ways of the world, especially when those ways creep into religion itself.  
In Jesus' introduction to his Sermon on the Mount, he lays out his counter-cultural way of looking at the world, which he calls the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. Look around you, he says. It may appear to the world that the ones who are blessed are the ones who have it all together: the ones with important jobs that pull in seven figures a year, the ones who never lose, the achievers, the ones everyone admires. You might look at them and conclude that they’re blessed. They might even say that about themselves. But don’t believe what the world would have you see, Jesus says. That’s not how it is within God’s reign. Nope. It’s the people who struggle, the ones who lose, the ones who don’t fight back but give themselves in love. It’s the ones who are faithful to God and pay dearly for it. These are the people who are blessed.

Now, how could Jesus say something so preposterous? I like to think that the Beatitudes reflect the existential reality of our lives, that when we experience poverty of spirit, grief, when we’re knocked off our high horses, we’ll finally turn to God and know what it means to be blessed. But before any of that, I have to acknowledge that the truth Jesus expresses in the Beatitudes is in line with the truth he learned as a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. (He was, after all, a Jew. And he was a student before he became a teacher.)

In Jewish ethics, the whole idea of humility is at the heart of what it means to lead a life that is pleasing to God. Pride and arrogance pose the gravest threats to a moral life. In the Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Scriptures, we read repeatedly that at God’s bidding, the proud will be made low and the meek will be raised up. (If that has a familiar ring to it, it should. That reversal of fortune theme is a biggie in the gospels.)

For the Jews, humility comes from the understanding that we all stand on equal ground. Even those who have become successful in the eyes of the world remember that their ancestors were slaves. Once they were poor, and it could happen to them again. They are constantly reminded that their advantages are not their own doing and are easily reversed by God. And God himself chooses the way of humility by dwelling especially with the weak, the disadvantaged and the oppressed.

Apply this Jewish understanding of humility to Micah 6, and it makes sense.  Pride and arrogance were the ways of the world then, just as they are now. And loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God was a countercultural way of being. Just as acknowledging the blessedness of the poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, those who mourn, the meek. God’s people are called to a counter-cultural way of life that is characterized by humility as the path to mercy and justice.  

Did you hear the statistic last week about the 85 richest people in the world? The way it goes is that if you take all the wealth of the 85 richest people in the world, it is equal to all the wealth of everybody else in the world put together. One person pointed out how you could easily fit 85 people into a double-decker bus. So, you have a double-decker bus of people versus over 7 billion people. And their net worth is equal. How do you react when you hear something like that? Are you angry because of the injustice in our world? Or are you mostly angry because you’re not one of the people on the bus? Here’s a way to test that… If you were invited to be one of the 85, would you jump on the bus? I know it may be a ridiculous analogy because, if you’re one of the 85, you wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus. You’d have your own private jet!

This past week, Pete Seeger died. He was counter-cultural his whole life. He spoke truth to power in the way he lived, and most certainly in the songs he sang. Reminding us of the real values of our nation in “If I Had a Hammer.” Lamenting the futility of war in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” We remember him for hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “We Shall Overcome.” He believed that through powerful music people could change the world, and through his music, he did.

That’s the end result of a counter-cultural life, isn’t it? When you live a counter-cultural life, you change the world. It may just be a small portion of the world. It may only be the part of the world that is you. But something changes.

When I think of an example of a person of faith living a counter-cultural life, Mayim Bialik comes to mind. If you watch The Big Bang Theory on T.V., she’s the actress who plays Amy Farrah Fowler. She also is an observant Jew who keeps Shabbat and keeps kosher. She fixes vegan food for her family to teach her kids to care for the earth. And one of the big challenges for her, as a Hollywood actress, is adhering to Jewish modesty laws in the way she dresses. This issue came to a head for her several years ago when she was preparing to attend her first Emmy awards show. She needed to find a dress that covered her elbows, knees and collarbone, and wasn’t too tight, but was also appropriate for the red carpet. She blogged about her quest for the perfect dress naming it “Operation Hot and Holy.” Now, whether or not you agree with a tradition that requires that kind of modesty, you have to admire someone who takes her religious values so seriously.

Do you ever experience a tension like that between your values as a person of faith and the values of the dominant culture? It’s a tension you can feel with every decision you make: in how you spend your money, in how you interact with co-workers, how you speak to a child, how you spend your free time, the ideas you share on social media.

If we don’t feel some tension over how we participate in the dominant culture as people of faith, we’re not taking our faith seriously. Until we live in a world of boundless compassion where no one is excluded from the table of God’s abundance, until we lovingly care for all creatures of this earth, until violence and hunger are relics of the past, how can we not feel the tension? Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” Maybe being bible-minded could be defined as being maladjusted to the world.

It bugs me to no end when people of faith equate being bible-minded with someone who reads the Bible and strongly believes in the accuracy of the Bible.  To be bible-minded is to take this collection of writings we call the Bible seriously enough to allow those writings not only to inform us, but more importantly to transform us. Where do you experience that transformative tension in your life? How are you maladjusted to the world? What is it about the way you’re living as a person of faith that is counter-cultural?