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."



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.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

So many Jesus movies, so little time

An assignment this week for my Passion Narratives is to watch a movie that includes the passion of Jesus, and to critically analyze it.

This is how that would look on the SATs:
Child : candy store :: Emmy : Jesus movies

I have been a lover of Jesus movies, and musicals, and theatrical productions for so many years.  A theater troupe came through my Episcopal congregation when I was, perhaps, eight? -- and they did a reenactment of the Passion, including the whipping and the crucifixion, in the middle of our sanctuary, and I was so enraptured by it that I crawled forward, down the center aisle, clinging to each pew in turn and unable to take my eyes off it.

This is probably one of those "don't do this to your child, it scars them for life" kinds of issues, but it was the start of a long love affair for me -- of signing up for Garden Shifts on the night of Maundy Thursday, driving with my parents to church to stay and pray for a midnight hour in the flower-filled narthex as a remembrance of the disciples' inability to stay awake; of my teenage solemnity each Holy Saturday, dwelling in the heartbroken quiet of the women's mourning after Jesus' death, waiting for the joy of Easter; my high school devotion to watching Jesus and the Shroud of Turin every Good Friday, and listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, till I went to college and began to realize all the theological and scriptural issues that particular musical raises.

I love these movies and musicals.  Because they're a perfect encapsulation of the difficulty of telling the passion story; because they're done with care, knowing their sensitive content; because public response to them is so telling; because, in the end, I do what I do because I believe there is something to this story of a dead Jewish teacher that is more than a moment in history.  

So the question now is only... which one will I watch?

For obvious reasons.  ALAS ALAS FOR YOU LAWYERS AND PHAAARISEES.  Godspell (if I remember correctly) bases itself most heavily on Matthew's version of the story, which is one of those inherent choices in turning "the Jesus story" into film -- do you stay close to one gospel, try to harmonize them, pick the most dramatic scenes from all four?  This one is great.  But, drawback:  clowns.  I do not like clowns. 

Jesus Christ Superstar 
For other obvious reasons.  Could Mohammed move a mountain or WAS that just P.R.?  I used to have a lot of scriptural issues with this movie/musical, especially with the hyper-sexualization/romanticization of Mary Magdalene (NOT AN ACTUAL PROSTITUTE, GUYS), but as I've gotten older *adjusts reading glasses* it's become less important.  I really value what Superstar did in re: Judas Iscariot, who in Matthew's gospel is actually very repentant of his actions and usually gets left as a bad guy.

Jesus: The Miniseries 
Not to be confused with the Bible Miniseries that came out last year.  This one's from 1999.  I will probably watch this because it is my favorite.  It stars Jeremy Sisto as Jesus and Gary Oldman as Pilate and Debra Messing as Mary Magdalene (still a prostitute), and it takes massive liberties with the source material, and John the Baptist speaks like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, and it's not very well known and I can't explain why but I just really love it.

Speaking of:  Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ 
Nope.  Saw it in college.  Wrote a paper on it in college.  Not doing it again. 

Jesus of Montreal 
Also saw this in college.  Geeked out then.  Would probably geek out more now.  It's a Canadian film from the late 80s about a theater troupe putting on the story of the Passion, and they reinterpret it with historical accuracy which gets them in trouble with the church, but the extra neat part is that the members of the troupe are actually modern metaphors for Jesus, Peter, Mary Mags (a prostitute) and Mary the Mother, and it is just so really neat.  I would probably watch this one for this paper except I shockingly don't own it.  And the seminary library and the local library copies are both out.  I just ordered it from Amazon but it won't arrive till after the paper's due.  Still.  So great.

The Last Temptation of Christ 
I have never seen this.  I want to.  So it's in contention with the Miniseries version.  I will slog through tomorrow's snowstorm over to the seminary library and grab it.

Sermon for February 16, 2014: On chocolate, anger, and Jesus (Matthew 5:17-37)

Children’s Message

I set a Valentine’s bag (patterned with many glittery hearts) in front of my crossed legs and asked if anyone had a guess what was inside.  “Candy,” guessed Ayla.  Right on, Ayla -- chocolate, to be exact.  

“Today we’re going to talk about rules for eating chocolate," I told them.

Such a statement was met with great surprise, especially from Natalie, who dramatically wrinkled up her nose and said “What?!” quite audibly.

Rules about chocolate! I said.  We do have rules for eating chocolate.  Like you have to take the foil off.  And you have to use your mouth.  And if you put a bag full of chocolate in the midst of a bunch of kids, you’d better have brought enough to share.

There was a round of approval from the kids at these rules, especially the last one.

But we could make other rules about chocolate.  What if I said you could only eat it if you ate it verrrrrrry slowly -- like you had to hold it in your hand for a whole minute before you could?  That seems hard.  What if I said you could only eat the corners?  What if I said we couldn’t eat this chocolate at all because Valentine’s Day was over?

This last one was met with great dismay by Annie, who said, “Does that mean I couldn’t have chocolate chip cookies?”  Great question, Annie.  How far do the rules go?

Well, that’s not a rule we’re following today.  Today we’re just going to stick to the first three -- that we take off the foil, that we use our mouths, and that we share with everyone here.  Once all the kids had gotten a piece, I passed the bag to Talaya who kindly distributed the remaining chocolates to the rest of the congregation during the scripture reading.


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”


“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


The scribes and Pharisees were the religious elite of first-century Jewish life.  They were the priests, the readers, the theological scholars.  They interpreted the Jewish scriptures (what we know as the Old Testament) and taught people how to apply them to their lives.  For example:  work on the Sabbath, the seventh day, was forbidden, as a remembrance of the seventh day of creation when God rested.  But how much work was forbidden?  Could you cook food for dinner?  Could you light a fire?  How far could you walk before that walk had become work?  This is the kind of thing they would debate -- and often, they would come down with a ruling that made things really hard for everyday people.  They were so caught up in the minutia of making sure the rules were never, ever broken that they put impossible burdens on their people -- all the people of the Jewish faith.

And with Jess, the scribes and the Pharisees are always asking questions with an edge to them, trying to trick him, trying to catch him teaching others to break the laws.  They see Jesus standing by a man with a crippled hand and say, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?”  (The implied answer being no, because one of the Jewish laws was that no work could be done on the Sabbath.)  They say, “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Rome, or not?” -- a trick question, because saying Yes would make the crowd hate him and saying No would make the Romans jail him.  They hear of Jesus’ miracles, of the exorcisms and healings, and they say “Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the ruler of the demons -- he’s not sent from God but enslaved to the devil.”

Jesus gets really worked up about the Pharisees and the scribes.  After he’s entered Jerusalem, just before his arrest and trial, he goes into a long speech against them -- like a reverse Blessed are the meek:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  You are blind guides, you debate the law of God day and night, you demand that everyone follow the rules perfectly and then you forget justice and mercy and faith.”

And Jesus says “Those guys?  The enemy?  The ones who study the law so closely, who spend day and night researching how to follow it perfectly?  Your righteousness, your rule-following, has to exceed theirs.”


But then Jesus keeps going -- and when Jesus keeps going, the rules start to taste a little different.

“You have heard it said,” he says, “‘You shall not murder’.”  But then he says:  just as wrong is anger, and hatred, and bearing a grudge.  It’s not just your outward actions that make a difference.  If you’re walking around with resentment and unfinished business, it doesn’t matter if you’re making the right sacrifices.  What’s in your heart is what matters.

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “‘you shall not commit adultery.’’  But then he says:  just as wrong is objectification, and disrespect, and valuing people only for what they do for you.  If you’re walking around treating everyone like they’re just there for your enjoyment, it’d be better if you were blind and not able to see them.  What’s in your heart is what matters.

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “‘divorce is acceptable if there is a certificate’ -- a proper legal procedure.”  But then he says:  just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.  You’re the only thing she has to live on -- the only way for a woman to survive, in first-century Jewish life, is to be married.  She can’t work.  She can’t own property.  She has no legal representation, no alimony, no child support, absolutely nothing to live on if her husband chooses to put her aside -- which he could do for absolutely any reason.  So Jesus says to the husbands:  if you treat her like she’s something you can idly put aside, you’re destroying her chances at a good life.  The legal issue’s not important -- it’s what in your heart, and what your intentions are, that matters.

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “‘carry out the vows you made to God.”  But then he says:  don’t make vows.  Don’t swear by anything.  Just tell the truth, straight from your heart -- that’s where things matter.

Jesus takes these rules, the burdens of the scribes and Pharisees, and moves the concern from our actions to our intentions.  “Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, because it’s no longer just about what your body is doing but your heart.”

He’s going to end up telling everyone this again, towards the end of his life.  The scribes and the Pharisees will come to him with another trick question:  “Teaching, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  There must have been some snickering -- remember, these are the guys who spend their entire lives discussing and debating the law.  If it could be all summed up in one commandment, they’d have to find something else to do.

And Jesus says Love.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind.  And the second is like it:  you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The trick question turns into this great big challenge to love.  Not just the kind of love you can box up with candy hearts and milk chocolate kisses.  Not just the kind of love that writes grand poetry and brings home flowers on special days.  It’s a much more challenging kind of love -- the kind that forces us to let go of ourselves and open our hands to others.

The kind of love that leads to reconciliation.  That lets go of anger.  The kind of love where you start to love your brother, your sister, your mother, your father, your family, your neighbor, even -- spoiler alert for next week’s sermon -- your enemy.

The kind of love that creates connection.  That lets go of of objectification.  The kind of love that’s not just not lusting after someone but of recognizing the humanity of everyone.

The kind of love that leads to mercy and compassion.  Love that recognizes when you are in power and you have the chance to ruin someone’s life or to save it -- to take the easy advantage or to remember that you are dealing with someone who is, just as much as you are, a beloved child of God.

The kind of love that creates honesty and vulnerability.  That lets you tell the truth.  That doesn’t protect itself behind laws and vows but daring to say what you mean and mean what you say.

This is life.  This is what God begs us to choose, in Deuteronomy chapter 30:  Keep my commandments.  Live.  Really live.  The people of Israel have wandered in the desert for forty years and now stand on the banks of the Jordan about to pass into the promised land, and God says:  I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.  Choose love.  Choose to love me with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and choose to love your neighbor as yourself.

This is life.  And it’s hard.  It is so hard in the midst of power struggles and worries about money and bullies at school and sick kids at home and broken relationships and awful bosses and too much homework and too much to do to remember that we have to, like, live in love or whatever.

It’s harder than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  It’s harder than a life of law, where we know who’s in and who’s out.  And it’s worth it.  It’s so, so worth it.  And that is why God gives us a chance new, every morning.  That is why we bring our babies and our children and our selves to baptism, to the promises of God that every single morning we are washed clean and get a fresh start to choose what is good -- to choose life.  Not darkness.  Not pain.  Not distrust and manipulation and objectification and heartbreak, but life.  Honesty and vulnerability and intention and compassion.  To live in love, right from the heart.

Today’s a new chance.  Let’s take it.