Rev. Ellen Jennings
1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23
My son, Teddy, has reread and re-watched Tolkien’s Ring trilogy so many times it’s become a family joke. Then again, our dog is named after Frodo the Ring-Bearer’s faithful companion, Samwise, so I guess we’ve all been influenced by this famous fantasy. Which explains why, this Winter of 2017, I’m inspired to quote Frodo as he talks to the wise wizard, Gandalf:
I wish it need not have happened in my time.
So do I, said, Gandalf, and so do we all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
It’s true. We must each decide what to do with the time that’s been given us. This time. So, what do we do…? Love? Retreat? Resist? Hate? These are all options, and I’ve seen each one of them played out already over the past two months. Thus, for today, I decided it might be helpful to take a look at each of them in the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Now, many of us think only of the Beatitudes or “Blessed are those who…” when we think of this Sermon. But in the Gospel of Matthew, it actually goes on for three whole chapters and encompasses much of Jesus’ message and moral teachings.
To be honest, it’s not easy reading. In fact, therein Jesus tells us all sorts of things we’d rather not hear, including the words from today’s scripture reading—this time from The Message translation:
Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
That’s pretty clear! And, really challenging. In fact, it takes the “Hate” option off the table completely. But could we still Retreat? I mean, could we just “not deal” with the powers that be and the injustices we face? It would be such a relief to act like an ostrich and hide our heads in the sand! Or, if that doesn’t sound appealing, to dive under the blankets and not come out for a good long time. But I don’t think “live generously” or “live out your God-created identity” leaves much room for this option. Jesus did not suggest we hide out and avoid life. For, while it might be easier, it would never create the Kingdom or Realm of God—which as we’ve noted over the past few Sundays, is not someplace far away or yet to come but is, rather, generated by us and our actions in the here and now.
So, no Hate or Retreat. Which leaves us with Love and Resistance. Jesus makes the first crystal clear— we’re called to love: everyone. Even our enemies. But the second may not be. Because, Jesus may have been telling us to comply. Right? I mean, “if they ask for your shirt, give them your coat.” “If they hit you, let them.” Which all sounds pretty passive! Where’s the Resistance?
This is the question Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other non-violent resisters all asked themselves: Is Jesus asking us to resist? I mean, are we called to resist the “powers that be” and work to transform the way things are—or are we just called to bear with them and wait for our reward in the “sweet bye and bye?”
Of course, the “powers that be” would be quite happy for all dissenters just to shut our mouths and love our enemy: passively, and quietly. In fact, they’ve long both preferred and encouraged a “pie in the sky” theology that pacifies the masses and encourages us to await our heavenly reward.
But many theologians, including Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. believed this was not the theology of Jesus. In fact, though they may have agreed with the Apostle Paul that we should become foolish in the ways of God, rather than wise in the ways of the world, they also viewed Paul as something of a wimp when it came to opposing Empire. Or, more charitably, they believed that his deference to Roman authority was the understandable blind spot of a man born into privilege.
Jesus, on the other hand, was not born to privilege! And Thurman and King, along with their teachers, Gandhi and the Quaker Mystic/Pacifist, Rufus Jones, believe that he preached a powerful message of resistant Love or, as Gandhi would call it, ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (resistance or civil disobedience).
Gandhi would later say he regretted the “non” in non-violence, since it began the phrase with a negative, which was not reflective of its meaning. For, what he (and, later, Thurman and King) actually meant by this term was powerfully positive! As Thurman would write in his 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, the gospels spoke of “helping the disinherited [or marginalized] of this world change from within so they would be empowered to survive in the face of oppression.” Thurman believed that a love rooted in “the deep river of faith,” would help oppressed peoples overcome persecution: “It may twist and turn, fall back on itself and start again, stumble over an infinite series of hindering rocks, but at last the river must answer the call to the sea.”
In other words, this movement toward love, freedom and justice is organic, it is natural, it is how we are meant to live our “God-created identities.” In fact, we are called to live a Love so powerful it’s able to “turn the other cheek,” so transformative it can forgive, and so invincible it does not back down in the face of hate. This is a Love capable of loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, and bringing the powers that be to their knees. It’s a Love that is far from passive, passionately resistant, and fiercely non-compliant. It’s not a Valentine’s Day chocolate and roses kind of love (though I’m not suggesting you get rid of those!). It’s a transformatively generative, “God created the world and saw that it was good” kind of Love. It’s an Energy, a Power, a Path. And though it wants us, it can’t choose us. We have to choose it.
So, as always, I have some suggestions—some suggestions for where to begin. And how to proceed. And how to keep ourselves and one another going as we do.
Step One: Pray for those who persecute you. Or, as The Message puts it: When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. It doesn’t matter what kind of prayer you use. It could be the metta or loving-kindness meditation we did during the Children’s Talk or it could simply be that you pray for the “highest good” of the one you oppose. Or, if you’re a visual person, you could picture that individual surrounded by the Light and Love of God—which, by the way, is also a way of protecting yourself from them! This is a truly powerful practice and has the potential to transform both you and the one for whom you pray.
Step Two: Turn the other cheek. Or: No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. In other words, if one of your conservative family members or high school friends lashes out via Facebook, don’t engage! Do not return fire with fire. Respond with ahimsa and satyagraha—love and resistance. Sometimes this may look like silence. Sometimes it may look like a calm, peaceful, measured reply. Sometimes it may look like blocking their posts. Whatever you do, counter their negative energy with positive Love. I promise the latter is infinitely more powerful.
Step Three: Love Your Enemies. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. True. It doesn’t take much energy to love the lovable. But loving our enemies requires that we intentionally tap into the Source and harness Love’s Power, that we decide to connect with God’s radically extravagant, unconditional Love. And Jesus knew that if we can connect with the Power of God, aka the Power of Love, then we can do all the other things he asked, no problem. For, when we are so plugged in to the Power of Love that we can love our enemies, we are surely capable of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, freeing the captives and giving sight to the blind.
And this is why the various movements of non-violent resistance have been so powerful. And successful. And why I’m going to spend some sermon time in the upcoming months looking at how they work and who started them and what they’ve accomplished and how we can emulate them. They’re Kingdom Creators, here and now, in the midst of it all.
So on this Valentine’s week, let’s start with Love. And see where it leads. I believe we’re called both to Love and to Resist, which means Resist with Love— to overwhelm the powers that be with a Love so strong they have no choice but to respond in kind or melt like the wicked witch under the splash of Dorothy’s water.
We can do it. We are the ones. Like Frodo and his faithful Samwise, we move forward on the great journey, armed only with our commitment and Love, knowing, as Tolkien wrote:
It is useless to meet revenge with revenge; it will heal nothing.
Courage is found in the most unlikely places.
And… Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.