Sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland February 19, 2017
Epiphany 7A: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23;Matthew 5:38-48
Today we continue a several week walk through the Sermon on the Mount. These are familiar scriptures. Even those who never read the Bible have heard the phrase “turn the other cheek.”
The problem is that people interpret these words as encouraging passive acceptance of abuse, while the truth is the other way around. Theologian Walter Wink shows that when put in context, Jesus’ instructions are actually teaching a non-violent and powerful way of protest.Start with the person striking you on the right cheek.
To do this, the person would have to backhand you with his right hand. (Left hands were considered unclean and could not be used) In Jesus’ day, that was how a superior hit an inferior. Social equals fought with fists. By turning the other cheek, you were inviting the other person to recognize you as an equal… and thus heaping shame upon them. The same has to do with going the second mile or giving the cloak.
Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than that. To keep carrying their pack was to get them in trouble… or to force them to take the pack from you. Giving people your undergarment when they took your coat would force them to see you naked, heaping shame on them. Turning the other cheek was not about being a doormat but was a sort of judo that turned the insult back on the person who gave it. Jesus wants his followers not to be victims but to non-violent victors – victors who know the system and use it against their oppressors, victors who have the courage to speak the truth and point out problems that exist, and victors who create change by being as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Jesus didn’t stop there. He asked his followers to fight injustice by living lives of expansive justice, to respond to a lack of integrity by living lives of extreme integrity, and to replace hatred by having an extravagant love not only for their brothers or sisters but for their enemies as well. Saying no to hate and ignorance does not give permission to hate or be ignorant.
To quote Romans 12:17-21 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge… On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In today’s reading from Corinthians, we are told to remember that we are God’s temple, that the spirit dwells in us, and that we belong to God. In today’s Gospel, we are reminded that if those things are true for us, they are true for others, even our enemies. I would push this and say that they are true for our planet as well.
Jesus’ words are just as counter-cultural today as they were 2000 years ago. Our world seems to be caught in a Jr. High level cycle of bullying and belligerence, revenge and retaliation, and fighting fire with fire, all leading to an increase of fear and suspicion and endless arms races both at home and abroad. We seem to have forgotten the more mature wisdom of Gandhi who said that “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” It is also Gandhi who said, “be the change you want to see.”
Last week I used our mission statement as a lens for looking at the scriptures. Today, I want to use the baptismal covenant to do the same thing. Every time we have a baptism, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” and “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being“ The challenge – like the challenge in our gospel reading – is that “all” means “all.”
Our baptismal vows call us to find Christ in all people, strive for justice of all people, respect the dignity of all people, and love all people – even those we don’t like, don’t understand, or don’t think deserve any love or respect at all.
Our Sunday morning Explorer’s class is wrapping up its study of Harvard professor Dr. Donna Hick’s book Dignity: its essential role in solving conflict. Using Nelson Mandela as an example, Hicks teaches that dignity is something given at birth, a God-given worth, that no one can take away.
Dignity, however, can be attacked and dignity violations are often at the core of seemingly intractable international and interpersonal conflicts. Hicks describes how dignity is nurtured in by connection: connection to self, connection to others, and connection to something greater than ourselves. She described essential elements that we can offer to others to build up their dignity and gives warnings about behaviors that will take that dignity away. Don’t give into temptation. Don’t take the bait. Don’t get caught in the temptation to save face. Don’t shirk responsibility when you have violated the dignity of others. Don’t be lured by false dignity, which depends on validation from others. Don’t be lured by false security or let your need for connection compromise your dignity. Don’t allow someone to violate your dignity without saying something. Don’t assume you are an innocent victim: open yourself to the idea that you might be contributing to the problem. Don’t resist feedback from others. Don’t blame or shame others to deflect your guilt. Don’t be lured by false intimacy or trying to connect with others by gossiping about someone else. Hicks warns that these dignity-killing behaviors are survival instincts that are hard-wired into the most primitive parts of our brains.
We are in a fear-filled time. When fear puts us in flight or fight mode, those behaviors will become our default… unless we are aware of them, acknowledge them, and then choose to act differently, honoring the dignity – and the divine — in others and in ourselves. Though Hick’s book was written for a secular audience, its themes are profoundly spiritual and fit well with our scriptures today. She is following the lead of the Sermon on the Mount – calling for expansive justice, extreme integrity and extravagant love.
Can you do that? Remembering Matthew 19:26, that “with God all things are possible,” the answer is yes you can. Will you? My prayer is that remembering your response to the questions of the baptismal covenant, your answer will be, “I will with God’s help.” Amen.