On February 19th, 2017, I had the privilege of preaching at my church. I framed my sermon around the Revised Common Lectionary texts for that week, which included Matthew 5:38-48; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; and Psalm 119:1-8. The following is the text of the sermon.
So, I read an article a couple months ago about a lesbian that was out having dinner who overheard the people at the table next to her disparage and bemoan a nephew who had recently come out of the closet. They expelled the usual rhetoric–they were “disgusted” and vowed to “pray to Jesus for a cure.”
I have heard similar sentiments throughout my life. Many of them were not directed at me specifically, but some of them were. So I wonder how this woman at the restaurant felt–angry? Frustrated? Exhausted? Sad? Maybe all of those at once? Here again Jesus was being invoked as a tool to change a fearfully and wonderfully made nephew into something that jived with his family’s sensibilities. Yet this woman did not get into a fight with the family, nor did she merely post a rant about the experience on Facebook. Instead, she said she decided to actually act like the Jesus she grew up learning about. She paid for this family’s meal and wrote them a note that said, “Happy holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. Jesus made me this way. P.S. Be accepting of your family.”
In our Gospel lesson today from Matthew, Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. These verses are often candy-coated, made safe for people to say in response to the marginalized standing up for their rights or responding to injustice in any way. They’re easy catch phrases and platitudes to pull out when someone makes us uncomfortable by calling us out. But in fact, these concepts of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy are very radical ideas. Marcus Borg wrote that, in Jesus’ society, any beating or striking was done with the right hand, so if a peasant was being beaten by a superior and then turned the other cheek, that superior was then challenged to hit the peasant as an equal. Likewise, Roman law gave soldiers permission to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but anything longer than one mile was considered abuse. Yet Jesus says to go the extra mile–to force the soldier, the agent of the State, to see the injustice in their request. Because to perform these offerings–these niceties–in an exaggerated way exposes oppressive hierarchies for what they are and calls the oppressors to reflect on their humanity and the humanity of the person they are oppressing.
Now, judgmental words over the dinner table are not quite as extreme as hitting someone or forcing them to carry your things, but the nature of the woman’s response is very much in keeping with the spirit in which Jesus speaks when he talks about turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Loving the enemy does not mean that what the enemy does is acceptable. Turning the other cheek does not mean choosing to stay silent. What it does mean is exaggerating kindness and humility to expose evil for what it is.
This understanding of Jesus’ words in the gospel laid a foundation for the non-violent resistance of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists. Last month, Congressman John Lewis appeared on Christa Tippet’s On Being podcast titled “Love in Action.” He spoke about how a strong, faith-based foundation prepared him and other activists for arrests, police dogs, hoses, and other tools of state persecution. They trained in church halls, roleplaying every possible scenario. They practiced subtle tactics like always looking the other person in the eye no matter what they did to you and purposefully took to the streets in their nicest clothes. All of it was to compel the police officers, the politicians, the system at hand to come face to face with their own evil as they were forced to recognize the humanity in black people.
It is this foundation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” Though Paul says he has laid a foundation, in another sense he is the one building upon Jesus’ foundation. Paul recognizes that he only built his foundation because of God and he also recognizes that the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians–all these new groups of Christians he writes to–are building on his own foundation.
This pattern repeats throughout history–Paul founds on the foundation of Christ, the Church founds on the foundations of Paul and Christ, ordinary people yearning for justice found on the foundations of Christ, Paul, and the Church. And what sort of building are we moving to build?
mewithoutYou is one of my favorite bands. They have a song called “Paper Hanger,” which is where I got the title for this sermon.
The last part of the song goes,
“Our lives are not our own.
Even the wind lay still.
Our essence was fire, and cold, and
Movement, movement oh,
If they ask you for the sign of the Father in you
Tell ‘em it’s movement, movement, movement, oh!
It’s a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the biblical cannon. However, I think the sentiment holds true of the Church and what Jesus asks of us in turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Movement and repose. Movement is walking that second mile with the soldier and making them uncomfortable. Repose is turning the other cheek, daring to be struck as an equal. Movement is marching from Selma to Montgomery to the ire and confusion of white America. Repose is paying for a meal in the face of homophobic rhetoric. And all of this is done with the hope that grace and liberation will replace fear and oppression.
Yet it’s hard to understand these concepts as a single unit. Movement and repose seem like opposites–one telling us to act and another telling us to keep it classy. Somehow, we should do both at once.
Our faith is full of such seemingly illogical ideas that we’re asked to hold as true–a person being dead and then alive, Jesus being both fully God and fully human, the kingdom of God being already here but not yet here, God being one and three, the least of these here on Earth being first in the kingdom of God, God the all-powerful creator and God the infant, God the servant.
So Jesus asks us to resist in a similarly illogical manner. Dare the oppressor to continue their persecution beyond what is permissible by law. Dare to love the enemy to present evil in stark relief, including our own evil. Because we go beyond the ways of this world when we refuse to play their divisive games, and we go beyond their ways when we refuse to accept the status quo as the perfection and abundance that God desires for our lives. When we hold illogical God things close to our hearts and let them compel us to movement, we transcend into an experience and an existence that the best metaphors fail to fully capture.
And no one said any of this was easy. I certainly don’t claim to perfectly wrap my head around it or act on it all the time. Perhaps this is why our Psalm reading comes from one of the longest Psalms, where the speaker constantly repeats the promise to keep God’s statutes and by the end is begging for deliverance in order to continue keeping those statutes. To me, it sounds like desperate bargaining–your statutes are great, God! They’re the best statutes! I totally keep them all the time, but I need your help because I also suck at keeping them! So deliver me, please! And I’ll keep keeping them! By the way, did I mention that these are great statutes?
None of what God asks of us is easy. Many times, it goes against our basic instincts. Secular progressive morality might have told that woman in the diner to interrupt the family’s meal, make a public embarrassment out of them. Pick that fight. Don’t let them stay comfortable. Paying for their meal isn’t the punishment they deserve.
Well, no, it’s not the punishment they deserve. It’s the grace they don’t deserve. That is the transformative power of the gospel. And sometimes when we extend that undeserved grace no matter how difficult it is and no matter how much we think we hate the other person, we too experience grace.
To reach that place spiritually, emotionally, and mentally requires an openness and humility to God to utterly transform us. So, I’ll end with another quote from another mewithoutYou song called “C-Minor.”
“Open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
To whatever makes me love you more
(0pen wide my door)
While there’s still light to run towards
(open wide my door)”
May it be so among us. Amen.