Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chairs, Backhands, and Perfection: a stumbling through Matthew 5:38-48

Scripture:  Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But 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 have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

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Message

Set a chair out.

I have an assignment for you this morning, which most likely none of you will like.  I was forced to do this  a few weeks ago with my confirmation students and I didn’t like it and they didn’t like it so for those of you in my class who remember that lesson I apologize for the repeat.

But in this chair this morning I want you to imagine your enemy.

I want you to imagine that person that you think of and grit your teeth when the scripture says “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you.”  If you need to close your eyes you can do it, if you need to grit your teeth you can do it, if you need to take your blood pressure medication because all of a sudden your enemy is in church with you, you can do it.

And I need you -- I want to invite you -- to imagine you are sitting across from your enemy, at a table.  And this could be a person who has hurt you, a person you have hurt, your boss who drives you crazy, your employees who make your work harder -- it can be, if you’ve been following the news this week, the people that you fear when you think about the Michael Dunn and Jordan Davis case, of the young black teen who was gunned down and whose shooter has been acquitted.  Whoever makes you grit your teeth in fear, in anger, in hate -- you are now sitting across from them.

And I’ll invite you to imagine that you are sitting across from them at that great table, at the end of days, the last of days, the end of the ages, in heaven at the great feast.  Because this is the frustrating and almost ugly part of grace that it’s not only for us but that it’s for the people who drive us crazy.  For the people who hit us, metaphorically or literally, for the people who make us work harder and carry heavy burdens further than we want to go, for the people who take more from us than they deserve.  That that is who is in this chair.

This is the frustrating part of grace and mercy when scripture says that rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.  That God’s mercy is that wide.  This is hard.

And this is especially hard [sit in chair] when you put yourself in that chair.  When you are your own worst enemy.  When you are the one who puts burdens on yourself and makes demands and looks in the mirror every morning and hears words in your head, those tapes that play over and over in our minds about how we might not be worthy.

That is the moment when Jesus says, “You need to turn your other cheek.”

...Let me explain what I mean.  Natalie and Macie, this is when I need you two up here, and you in the assembled congregation may want to find a partner because this is the interactive portion -- [to Natalie and Macie] would you two come stand right here?  And you can face each other.  Thank you.

Now the scripture says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek”-- which one’s your right cheek?  Natalie -- yep.  Macie [she’s mirroring Natalie, pointing to her left] it’s your other one.  There you go.  “If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also -- on your left.”  Now this is the tricky part that we miss in scripture stories -- this can often be read as a sort of “take whatever comes at you, bow your head to whatever comes.”  “Let the person who strikes you strike you again” but the thing that we miss is that there’s only one way to hit someone on the right cheek.  And that would be -- Macie, I’m going to ask you to act this out but not hit your sister.  [Giggles and laughter]  So if you put your hand out, how would you, if you were using your right hand -- [to the assembly] because you don’t use your left hand, this is culturally a thing, that your left hand is for unclean tasks and your right hand is for everything else -- [to Macie] if you were going to hit your sister with your right hand on her right cheek, how would you hit her?  Would you have to hit her with the back of your hand or the front of your hand?  The back of your hand.

[to the congregation] You can turn to each other and try this out, but please don’t hit, we are in church.  You’d have to backhand.

The scripture says “Turn the other cheek also.”  Natalie, turn out your left cheek.  Now [to Macie] if you were gonna hit her with that right hand again, can you hit her with the back of your hand?  [She nods.  I think “Aw shoot.  She’s supposed to say she can’t.  Punt!]  Yeah?  How would you hit that cheek with that hand?  What would be the most powerful way to hit her -- what about a punch, would that be stronger?

[to the congregation]  If you turn the left cheek, the only way to hit somebody would be with a fist.  [to Natalie and Macie]  Thank you, you both were fantastic.  [They return to their seats.]

Now of course the importance of this is tied up in cultural and historical secrets that we don’t have easy access to, that a backhand would be what a superior did to an inferior.  Almost as if to say “You are beneath me.”  To turn the left cheek, then, would force the person who has hit you to hit you with a fist or an open palm, which was a gesture reserved for equals.  So to turn the left cheek becomes this nonviolent way of stating “Go ahead and hit me again but don’t forget that we are equals in the eyes of God.”

And it comes again when Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  Which our, ah, English words don’t quite correspond to what people were wearing in first-century Judea.  Essentially what it says is “If someone takes your shirt, give them your underwear.”  So you’d be standing there in court naked.  Which is a nonviolent way of saying “You’ve taken everything I have.  Was that really worth it?”  Especially in a culture like Jewish culture where it is more shameful to see someone naked than to be naked.  “You have stripped me this bare.  Was it worth it, in front of everyone, in front of God, to take this much from me?”

And Jesus does it again with this first mile and second mile thing which we, y’know, can sort of think of as “Give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile.”  There were mile markers all over the roads in Judea, since it was taken over by Roman oppressors who were really into measuring distances, building aqueducts.  And the Roman soldiers decided that since they were the oppressors they could take any Jewish person that they wanted and force them to carry their packs -- what were they gonna do, right?  But after a while the Roman governing authorities said “Listen if we force them to carry packs however far we want, they’re gonna eventually rise up and revolt -- they’re gonna get angry that we forced them into this much labor -- so let’s put a limit on it, and only force them to carry it one mile.”  So the second that a Jewish person wearing a Roman soldier’s pack takes a step into that second mile, that Roman soldier is in danger of being hauled before his superior, flogged, taunted, laughed at, knocked down a rank.  So all of a sudden you’ve got a Jewish oppressed person who is being chased down by his oppressor yelling “Giveitback giveitback!”

So to all the times when we try to put ourselves in the enemy chair, Jesus says “You’re worth more than that.  You’re an equal.  You are just as worthy in the eyes of God.  Rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous and there is enough grace and mercy for every single one of God’s children.”

That’s what Jesus means when he says “Be perfect.

Because he doesn’t mean “be perfect” in the way that we think about perfection in our society, where it means: climb to the top of the highest ladder, be the CEO, be the prettiest, be the richest, be whatever, look like you have it all together -- because Jesus knows none of us do.

The word “perfect” that Jesus says, in Greek, is telos [tay-lohs].  This shows up a couple other places in the New Testament and the most important place I think is when Jesus is dying on the cross, in John’s gospel, and just before he dies he says “It is finished.”  It’s the same word.  Telos.

So when Jesus says to conclude the Sermon on the Mount “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” he says “Be finished.  Be fulfilled.  Do to what you were sent and made to do.”

Not “be shiny”, “be polished,” “be whitewashed.”  The word that Jesus uses to say “it is finished” he speaks while he is dying.  As he is at his most vulnerable, in the most pain he could imagine.  He says, “It is finished.  It is perfect.  Because I have done what I came to do.”

To love your enemy.  To love yourself.  To know and do what you are called to do.  These are hard asks, I will not lie.  But they are great.  They are wondrous.  And you are worthy.  Every single one of us is worthy of them.  Of letting go of anger and resentment, and leaning into love and forgiveness.  Of accepting that grace and mercy pours out so radically that it falls even on your enemy and maybe even on yourself.  That you are worthy of doing what you were made to do.

These are hard asks that Jesus lays before us this morning.  So we will open now a time of prayer.  Pastor Jenny and I will be at two prayer stations.  Come forward.  Come forward and ask for a way to forgive those who seem unforgivable.  Come forward and ask for a way to forgive yourself when you are the one who puts too many burdens on you.  Come forward and ask for a vision of where your next step lies.  Come forward and ask for whatever you need, for whatever you hunger, for we gather together at the table of God, and there is food enough for all.

Amen.

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