Sunday, February 20, 2011

Homily: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany [February 20, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Nobody who lived through the 1970s and ‘80s can forget the spate of popular novels published in those days that specialized in revenge. I’m not sure what it was about that era that made us all so fascinated with getting even, but revenge was certainly the central theme of a lot of bestsellers from that period. I’m thinking about novels like Sidney Sheldon’s, The Other Side of Midnight—a breathless erotic page-turner centered on the lives of two women (one a Frenchwoman, the other an American) who are both loved by and betrayed by and whose fates are ultimately entwined with a sleazy British guy. Though I won’t admit to having read the novel, I do remember the miniseries as a six-hour orgy of passion, jealousy, envy, and deeply satisfying revenge.

The literature of getting even has long been a staple of Western culture—Shakespeare’s Hamlet providing perhaps the most famous high class example. When Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” he is quoting the law handed to Moses in the Book of Exodus [21.24]. We should remember, though, that at the time of the giving of the law to the Israelites, “an eye for an eye” was a big step forward. Previously, the retributive practice had been, “You take my eye or my tooth and I wipe out your family.” So Exodus 21 at least has the virtue of establishing moral parity: in revenge for an offense, you are entitled to take exactly as much as you lost, but no more.

Today’s Gospel, though, turns Moses’s law on its head. I’m not sure what Sidney Sheldon would have done with this:

Jesus said, "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. . . . [Matthew 5.38-41]

Turn the other cheek. Give them your cloak as well. Go an extra mile. Here we have Jesus telling us not only not to resist evil but to give the evildoer even more than was asked for. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have been the first to have said, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” meaning that communities need to balance both liberties and safety. Is the Gospel a suicide pact? Are we supposed to lie down and let people walk all over us? Or is there something else going on here?

We have all seen so many pictures of Jesus surrounded by lambs and little children that we have forgotten that just as there is another side to midnight so is there another side to Jesus. Jesus is usually polite, but he is deeply disrespectful of bullies and aggressors. But he doesn’t attack them directly. He goes at them, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “slant”. The other side of Jesus we hear from this morning is his subversive side.

Many commentators have noted how the remedies Jesus suggests to the three offenses we just heard about—slapping on the cheek, suing for a coat, forcing someone to carry a burden for a mile—these remedies are actually more subversive and less submissive than they might otherwise appear. First, there is the slap: a superior could slap an inferior with the back of the hand. By turning the cheek, you force the slapper to hit you again with the open hand, thus unwittingly making him treat you as his equal.

Then there is the coat. If I take all your garments--your coat and your cloak--from you, you will be naked, and in this culture nakedness is a humiliation for you but even more for me as the one who caused it. Because Near Eastern hospitality demands that I not make anyone shame himself, taking all of somebody’s clothing from them makes me the cause of their nakedness and therefore primarily responsible for their shame. The final shame attaches to me and not to you.

And then there’s the extra mile. Roman soldiers could force anyone to go one mile—no more—with them in order to carry their equipment. By going a second mile of my own volition, I am again making the hated Roman occupier treat me as his equal. You can compel my obedience but not my gift. So “going the extra mile” is one of the ways Jesus says, in John Dominic Crossan’s words, “In your face, Caesar!”

Thus these three seemingly “gentle” teachings of Jesus are, in fact, extremely subversive. They undercut the express power relationships of social status and political/military force. They turn the recipient of the offense from victim not only to equal but to victor. And the best part of it is, you’ve gotten your so-called “revenge” without the offender even realizing or understanding it.

What Jesus offers us this morning is what we might call moral Judo: taking the aggressive impulses of one’s adversary and deflecting them from oneself by turning them back on the offender. He gives us a way to hold our heads up without inflicting either additional carnage or self-destruction. There is a similar moment in Paul’s writings: speaking to natural the desire of persecuted Christians to wreak vengeance on those who oppress them, Paul says: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12.19) A New Testament professor of mine used to paraphrase it this way: “Don’t waste your time using the popgun of your own small time revenge. God will get them big time with the nuclear blast of divine retribution.” Not, when we think of it the most charitable sentiment in the Bible, but one that easily aligns with the subversive nature of what Jesus is up to in today’s Gospel. The bullies will not prevail. And when they do finally see the futility of their enterprise, it will be much too late.

So far we can understand Jesus’ teaching today as advice to keep our cool and make the aggressor humiliate and defeat himself. That at least is common sense. But there is no common sense that will explain what comes next:

"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." [Matthew 5.43-48]

O.K. I get the first part: I can turn aggression back on itself and get even without the other guy even knowing it. But love my enemies? Pray for those who persecute me? Be perfect as God is perfect? I know that Jesus prayed for those who crucified him, but he was Jesus. I’m just an average person making my way through life, trying to do the right thing and failing as often as I succeed. How can I love those who hate me? How can I presume to be perfect?

I have been a Christian all my adult life, and I’m not sure I know how to answer these questions. It’s one thing to get subtle payback from an unwitting dupe. It’s another thing actually to think about loving someone who wishes you ill. I don’t know that I’ve ever, really, been able to achieve that. But I do know the people I admire—Jesus, yes, but also Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela—these people were ones who strove actually to live these teachings out. I know that the Constitution and the Gospel are not a suicide pacts and that we live in a world with real evil in it, where every so often you have to take on the forces that would dehumanize and degrade human beings. But I also know that Jesus calls us to a higher righteousness, and that even when we’ve had our subversive fun with an oppressor there comes a time when we have to treat that person as a human being made in God’s image and beloved of God just as much as we are.

If we love those who love us, what is so great about that? Even the tax collectors, the Gentiles, even mob bosses and drug lords and terrorists love their families and friends. What really tells the tale about our character is the depth and breadth and generosity of spirit we show to those who are not part of our immediate circle or household. And I don’t mean mere difference here—I mean, and I think Jesus does, those whose worldview and values and priorities are absolutely opposite from yours and mine. I know, as I hear Jesus talking in this morning’s Gospel, that he wants you and me to strive for something deeper and more generous than our day-to-day self-justifying morality. God is perfect and loves everybody; God makes the sun and rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. Jesus knows that we may not be capable of divine love and forgiveness and compassion yet, but he wants us to try.

There are two pieces of Good News in today’s Gospel. The first, the subversive part, is a validation of you and your dignity. You are unique, precious, and loved. Insist on your own dignity. Do not let yourself be diminished by anyone. You stand for your dignity most strongly when you make your adversary treat you as an equal. You do not need to submit to anyone’s subjugation. You are worthy and dignified in your own right. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak away in order to assert your own seriousness and agency as a person made in God’s image and loved by God not only as you might be but as you actually are.

And then there is a second, more surprising piece of Good News in today’s Gospel. Because you take yourself seriously, because you have agency and dignity and worth, you no longer need to define your value relative to somebody else’s. When I am really secure in who I am, when I am really alive to the grace and love and forgiveness and blessing offered me by God in Christ, I can afford to be generous even with those who think they wish me ill. That does not mean excusing evil or making peace with oppression. But it does mean that we now can afford to be morally generous. And what the witness of Jesus and Gandhi and King and Mandela teaches us is that it is the morally generous who ultimately prevail. That’s not a truth you’ll learn from a revenge novel. But it is a truth we learn from the life and witness of Jesus and those in every generation who have internalized his example.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are all a long way from perfection. But we are a people who have permission to try for it. And what finally empowers us to try for perfection is that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, a community of faith gathered around the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, a people who know themselves ultimately to be loved and accepted and blessed. No one of us on our own is perfect, but taken together we just might be. (That’s what I think Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians [3.10-23] this morning.) For that possibility, and the ways it enlivens our lives and makes them not only livable but beautiful, let us gather around God’s table to give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Homily: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 13, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

There may be some people who came to church this morning under the misapprehension that George Clooney would be here. Though he is directing a movie that will use Christ Church as a location next month, there is no truth to any of the rumors about his presence in church on Sundays. I say this with some trepidation. I saw what happened when the crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square expected Hosni Mubarak to step down Thursday night and he didn’t. If I could give each of you a stop and chat with Mr. Clooney I would. But some things are beyond my authority. Now to the sermon!

Not too long after our wedding in 1978, my wife Kathy and I moved from here from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since Kathy is originally from Toledo and I from Los Angeles, the Detroit metropolitan area was a friendly place for us to move to. Kathy’s family was close by, and the suburbs here were very much like suburban L.A. After all those years in Berkeley and Cambridge, I felt very much at home.

There was, however, one anomaly. As you know, we are across the river from Windsor, Ontario, so one of the fringe benefits of living here is Canadian television—specifically Channel 9. Canadian television is very good television, and in those pre-cable days usually it was the best thing on when I would come home after a Saturday afternoon wedding, plop down on the sofa, and turn on the tube. There were Canadian arts programs, Canadian politics, Canadian humor shows, Canadian hockey. And then there was curling. More Saturday afternoons than I can count, the only thing there was to watch on TV in metropolitan Detroit was hours and hours of Canadian curling.

Now for those of you who have never experienced the sport of curling, it is kind of like shuffleboard played on ice. A bunch of people stand around aimlessly and then slide these things called "rocks" in the direction of a painted bulls-eye. When the rock gets near the bulls-eye some of the people begin sweeping furiously with brooms, trying apparently, to influence the course of the rock. When the rock stops, there is a lot of shouting and cheering and the announcer says to his companion, "That looks like an 8, Gordo,", and one of the two teams is, mysteriously, declared the winner.

I lived here for three years and watched curling almost every Winter Saturday afternoon, and to tell you the truth, I never really understood what it was I was watching. I suppose it's like a visitor seeing baseball on American television: why did that guy get to walk to first base when the pitcher's leg moved a certain way? Not even Vin Scully or the late Ernie Harwell stops to explain the rules. Well, in Canada they think that everyone in North America understands the rules of curling. But if you don't get it, you’re in for some pretty surrealistic television.

My fascination with watching curling on television increased as I began to see it as a metaphor for something else. Watching a game for which you don’t understand the rules (in this case curling, and don’t get me started on cricket) is kind of like life itself. We're all playing a game at which the rules are lost or concealed or forgotten or in the process of being made up.

Specifically when it comes to morality, we human beings are often at a loss about how we can “do the right thing”. What is the right thing? How do we know it? How do we do it? Today’s readings outline this problem for us. The writer of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus ben Sirach, puts it this way: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. Sirach is a Wisdom writer, and Israel’s Wisdom tradition stressed morality as a common sense enterprise. But then we have Jesus of Nazareth in the famously difficult Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not only not to murder but not even to be angry with anybody. We’re supposed to reconcile ourselves with our enemies. And don’t think you’ll get off easily by not committing the physical act of adultery: if you even think about it you’re guilty. And you can forget about divorce, too. And whatever you do, don’t swear an oath on the Bible; simply say “yes” or “no”.

Thanks so much for the help, Jesus. You really cleared things up. Astute listeners may have noticed that the two Jesuses—Jesus ben Sirach and Jesus of Nazareth—contradict each other. For one the law is obvious and easily followed. To the other the law is a tricky business, and following it is no guarantee of sanctity.

Anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, has struggled with the stark kind of morality pictured there. All the most perplexing sayings of Jesus seem to be lumped into one convenient place: turn the other cheek, love your enemy, judge not lest you be judged. How do we make our way through this moral and ethical thicket?

Now when I face into the Sermon on the Mount, I begin with a radical presumption: Jesus actually means what he says. For centuries, Christian scholars have tried to domesticate these teachings with various explanations, most of which amount simply to watering them down. They say that either Jesus proposed these radical ideas as an “interim ethic” for a close-knit group of followers to obey until the Second Coming, or that Jesus proposed these strict precepts simply to show you how hard it is follow God’s absolute justice and so throw you back on your need for grace.

While I’m attracted to both ideas, I’m not so sure. When I’m honest with myself—that is when I’m most open to Jesus and the God he reveals in his teachings—I think that, yes, God really does want me to turn the other cheek, to forgive my enemies, to give all I have to the poor and follow Jesus. As a worldly person trying to follow Jesus, I have made all kinds of accommodations so as to say that I’m living a Christ-like life. “Sure, I’ll follow you, Jesus. I’ve given up everything and followed Jesus--to Malibu, Pasadena, Bryn Mawr, and Bloomfield Hills. Those were tough places to serve, but somebody had to go there! And I may love my enemies, but I certainly don’t like them. And if I turn the other cheek it is only, as my father used to say, in order to avoid getting hit a second time. Here I am, a professional follower of Jesus, and I discover a rather large distance between God’s will and my behavior. Who am I kidding? Certainly not God. Probably only myself.

So I start from the presumption that God really does want us to be loving, compassionate, peaceful forgiving people. And I add to that the corollary that we are usually not. Here we have the starkest of contrasts: God’s pure love and justice over against our self-justifying self-serving behavior. Why on earth would Jesus teach like this and put us in this place?

In answer to that question, I remember a terrible argument I had with a colleague when I was Upper School Principal at Oakwood School in North Hollywood, California. The upper school dean came back from a workshop at another school where they had baskets of condoms available in the dean’s office. In the school’s attempt to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, students were encouraged to take as many condoms as they wished, no questions asked. The dean told me she wanted to do the same in her office, and she was flabbergasted when I said “no”.

I said “no” for two reasons: first, our students could afford to buy their own condoms, now easily obtainable at any drug store. Second, I felt that turning the school into the Johnny Appleseed of condoms would send the wrong message. It would say that we were giving kids permission to have genital sex at an age when they were not emotionally or psychologically ready for it. As much as I wanted the kids not to become pregnant or infected, I also did not want them thinking that adults they trusted and looked to for guidance were telling them to have teenage sex.

My friend the dean was horrified by my attitude, and we argued about it for weeks on end. I never gave in, and neither did she. But I was the boss, so I ultimately won. And the discussion helped me sharpen my ethical reasoning. What I finally said to her was this: “Look, I know that kids are going to experiment, that they are going to explore sex, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. I do not want to give them permission to do that, but I want them to know that I will love them when they do.” It may sound counterintuitive, but I felt that the strongest message we could send to teenagers was this: on the one hand, here is the absolute standard (no sex, drugs, alcohol), and on the other hand, here is the reality of relationship: if you mess up, we will love and accept and forgive you when you do. To weaken the standard would be to throw the kids into a moral funhouse; to withhold love and forgiveness would dishonor the relationship.

That is where I came out, and that is where I still am about all kinds of moral issues. And that is where I think Jesus is, too. There are high standards—what Jesus would call “higher righteousness”. And then there is God’s love for and commitment to us. God does not have a basket of condoms on his desk. God does hold out the Ten Commandments to us as the best way we have of discerning right from wrong. And God is committed to us even when we break those rules. God will hold us up when we fall. So the moral truth of the matter is this: God offers us both an absolute standard and total forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that we have license to do anything we want to do because we know we can get away with it. It does mean that, as we strive to attain the “higher righteousness” that Jesus calls us to, we will be in the embrace of some One who will continue to hold us when we fail.

This kind of paradoxical creative tension--between love and justice, purity and mercy, is at the center of God’s relationship with you and me finite, fragile creatures. It’s harder to take in than the rules of cricket or curling. But that’s why we have this meal we share together this morning. We bring all that we are—our hopes, our needs, our fears, our failings, our glories-- to the table, and God reaches out to feed us. In doing that God blesses what we offer and heals what is broken. That complex relationship is a gift, and it’s more precious than any set of rules you can imagine or devise. And it is for the depth and beauty of that gift that we now proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.