Sunday, February 19, 2017

One day... when glory comes

Matthew 5:38-48 

Here’s where this season began—with a birth, a star, and a baptism. It began with Jesus calling disciples to follow, one by one. And then the followers listening to Jesus grew and became crowds. Now, for a whole month of weeks, we’ve been sitting with Jesus on a mountain, listening, as Jesus teaches us about identity. Identity that begins this way—you are blessed, you who least think you are. Yes, that’s right. You who are poor. You who mourn. You who are wrongfully accused. Yes, that’s right. You.

Next Jesus says, “You are salt. You can’t be anything else. You are light. Shine brightly. Don’t fear, even when everything around you looks fearful… love boldly.”

And then, Jesus’ teaching goes even deeper. Don’t just obey the law. “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, honor God’s name.” Go further, get deeper… there is not one of us who hasn’t somehow adapted to the empire culture we live in, and it’s time to be transformed to the core… realizing that not one person is beyond the reaches of God’s love and grace.

That’s where we’ve been… and now, this week, we hear the “closer” to this deep and life-changing message about the way of Jesus. If you would be perfect (teleos: complete, whole, finished), if you want to begin to glimpse God’s love that has no end, here’s the route:

Turn the other cheek. Give those who demand something from you more than they ask for. Go two miles. Don’t just be a benefactor to one or two people, give to everyone in need. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

My first instinct is to take these words of Jesus too literally, misunderstanding them. For a long time in churches, these words were preached in a way that encouraged passivity. I feel horrified when I imagine too many abused women going home with these words in their heads to face more abuse. For too long, these words were preached to vulnerable people pushed to give in ways that don’t seem right long-term… and we don’t want to preach these words anymore in ways that make us incapable of practicing powerful love because we’re so demoralized.

What we forgot is that Jesus stood with the vulnerable, over and over again… and so we have to find a different way to understand these words. Yes, they are asking for a total change in the way we do things… but how?

Walter Wink, who has written extensively about non-violent resistance, has something to say in response to this. He looks carefully at the culture that surrounded these examples and dives in, unpacking each scene. Each one of these commands of Jesus is actually not a refusal to set boundaries but the opposite. In quick summary, each of these actions would have drawn attention to the fact that what the aggressor was doing was unjust. Turning a cheek, giving more than was customary, going beyond a mile… all of these would have been a powerful act in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ day (and in some cases, cultures like that today). It’s just the opposite of giving in to oppression; it’s a powerful stance of resistance.

It reminds me of what I’ve heard about the women’s movement in Liberia, a time when the women came together in their desperation to find an end to violence and used sustained non-violent action to call the men running the government to account, to end the second civil war, and bring about the election of the first woman president in Liberia. Day after day, Liberian women actively loved their enemies enough to believe that they could change. Leymah Gbowee, describes it this way, “Charles Taylor had said no one would embarrass him, so we would do just that–in an action so dramatic and public it would make the demands of Liberia’s women impossible to ignore.” Day after day, they sat out along the road in the blazing sun or the pouring rain… until finally, their demands were heard and met.

In 1961, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with the national gathering of Luther League (the National Youth Gathering of its day), and this is what he told those Lutheran youth, “Now is the time to practice “agape” (God-like love in the face of rejection) and to become “proudly maladjusted” toward a society that permits injustice.

Maybe there is no time when this invitation is not needed—to practice God-like love in the face of rejection and to become more aware of and uncomfortable with injustice. And as we become aware, then the next challenge is to talk with others about it.

Late in his short life, King wrote these challenging words, “And some of us who have already begun to break the silence… have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see the show Nina Simone: Four Women. It’s the story how in 1963, Nina Simone went from being an artist to being an artist-activist. After the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers, she began to write music with lyrics. Her people were dying, fighting in the streets for their rights, and her old music didn’t reflect that struggle. In the play, we listen deeply to her struggle to put her anger, suffering, and need for change now into words, in dialog with three other Black women.

It was powerful to listen deeply to four Black women for two hours. One brilliant way the playwright drew attention to this was through a 5th character, a male pianist who accompanied much of the singing. He never spoke a word. Several times, the characters asked, “Does he speak?” And each time, the answer was “no.” And it only occurred to me afterward how powerful this was… to listen, uninterrupted, to some of the least listened to voices, those who often bear the most discomfort in the room, all kinds of rooms (both in 1963 and now).

As people who listen and speak and teach, as people called to follow in the way of Jesus, it seems especially important to say the words, “You’re already in.” There’s no one past the reaches of God’s love and grace. There’s no one who is not needed in this work. If we believe we’re held in God, can we speak honestly about our uncertainties about how to live faithfully in this time? And then, can we acknowledge how our choices and actions lead to life and death? People who are not even in the room get hurt by our action and inaction. People who are not even in the room are healed and blessed by the transformation that God is bringing about in this place.

Here is what one of my colleagues noticed this week. “The radical things about Jesus is not saying that he’s God, but saying that you are children of God. Over and over, Jesus is handing this work to you.”

Loving enemies? It’s another practice in a long list of invitations from Jesus that seems as first glance, impossible… but maybe it is possible to try, to fail, to try again… to practice.

The beginning of God’s story is a good creation, and the end of God’s story will be good. We can rely on those visions, that long arc. But in between, we struggle. Because we’re in the middle of the story, the struggle part of the story, the work’s not going to be easy—to love not only our diverse and beautiful neighbors but… enemies? God help us!—but we can try to be bold in practicing, to find ways to love (and yet still challenge) those whose actions we deplore.

We’ve been with Jesus for weeks in the Sermon on the Mount, and next week, we’ll end the season of Epiphany on another high mountain. There, we’ll glimpse Jesus in glory. In anticipation I’ll share this blessing from Jan Richardson:

When Glory
That when glory comes, we will open our eyes to see it.
That when glory shows up, we will let ourselves be overcome not by fear but by the love it bears.
That when glory shines, we will bring it back with us all the way, all the way, all the way down.

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