Sermon for Feb. 24, 2019, Epiphany 7C. The Audio can be found here for several weeks.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
We were in Monday Morning Seekers class, where the discussions are often profound. Somehow we got onto the topic of how we understand God. I will come back to that discussion, but first I want to say that this has been a vexed topic for as long as people have tried to imagine the Divine.
In the Christian tradition, there developed two streams of thought. One was that you start with what you think you know about God, for example, that God is all powerful and all knowing, and from there you deduce all of God’s traditional attributes. That is called the cataphatic way of doing theology – according to what is known.
The other way is called the apophatic method, which says that you cannot adequately conceive of the Divine, due to the limitations of our human finite capacities, so therefore any thought would be inadequate, and therefore, a distortion. So, you do not try to imagine God at all. Rather you approach God mystically, not theologically.
The 14th Century English book of spiritual guidance is a good example of the apophatic way: it is called “The Cloud of Unknowing.” You connect with God by entering a cloud of unknowing, where all specific ideas of the Divine are refused.
So, back to Monday Morning Seekers. One of the people in the group said,
“Well, all I know is that God is good, and that’s enough for me.”
I think that’s brilliant. I also believe that it matters deeply what you think God is like. Someone has said that you will become like what you worship. If your God is harsh, judgmental, vengeful and cruel, you probably will be too.
Unfortunately, the God described in the stories of the Hebrew Bible is often (not exclusively, but often) all of those things, and, no surprise, so were the Israelites in those stories.
As I said, not exclusively. We just read the story of Joseph meeting his brothers in Egypt where they had, so many years before, sold him into slavery. But after all that time, he had risen to a position of power and influence. His status enabled him to invite his whole clan to immigrate to Egypt and therefore to survive the famine. He was able to conclude that though his brother’s intended to harm him, God meant it for their good. So he forgave them. God could go both ways – from cruel to magnanimous.
What did Jesus think God was like? If you study Jesus at all you know that he was selective in his use of the Hebrew Bible. He knew that there were different ways of thinking, different voices in the Old Testament, in conversation with each other, expressing opposing positions.
Jesus came down on the side of one stream and against another stream many times. When there was a choice to side with the purity agenda or the justice agenda, Jesus chose justice over purity (that’s what the Good Samaritan parable is all about; and the Prodigal Son).
When there was a choice to make about which way of thinking about God, Jesus chose one and rejected the other. He chose to side with the stream in the Hebrew Bible that depicted God as good, as loving, as compassionate, and as forgiving. He rejected the stream of thinking of God as harsh, judgmental, vengeful and cruel.
How far did he take this? All the way. One of the huge themes of the Hebrew Bible, which we mentioned last week, is the doctrine of Retribution: you get what’s coming to you. You are blessed for being good and punished for being bad. Jesus rejected that view. Today we read:
“[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”
The ungrateful are those who do not thank God, as if God were not the source of all good things. The wicked actively oppose God’s will. So, if God is kind to them, well, that is the opposite of retribution. In Matthew’s more familiar version Jesus says,
“[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
The evil and the unjust get the same rain and sun as the good and the just. No retribution, in spite of all the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28.
The way Jesus understood God, retribution was off the table as an option because of God’s very nature. Listen to how Jesus summed it up — it almost sounds like something someone would say at Monday Morning Seekers:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Jesus pictured God in intimate, family terms: as his Abba, or Father (almost Daddy). And as such, he called God “merciful.”
Scholars have pointed out that the word “merciful” in Jesus’ language came from the word for womb — which is ironic because Father’s do not have wombs — mothers do. But anyway, God is called, as Marcus Borg says, “Wombish”. So maybe a better translation than “merciful”, Borg suggests, would be “compassionate.”
Our calling is to be like what we worship: be compassionate because God is compassionate.
So this understanding of God has all kinds of specific implications for how we live our lives. But as NT Wright was correct to say, let us not see these implications as a duty list. They are not meant to be the new 10 commandments. Rather, they are meant to illustrate a way of being. We are called to live a compassionate lifestyle in every respect.
But it does help to have some specific examples. So, Jesus says we are called to
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The Golden Rule
All of us here probably already know two things about that last line, which we call the Golden Rule. One is that already in the Hebrew Bible was the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus did not claim originality; he was affirming what had already been said.
The other fact we know is that the Golden Rule can be found in every religious tradition from Confucianism to Hinduism and even Islam. And none of the adherents of those faiths has been any more successful at always living that way than we Christians have. None of us measures up to our highest ideals. But we affirm them as valid and true anyway.
I am so thankful to be a Christian and to be a follower of Jesus who was so passionate about this way of being. It is not just a side issue or an implication of his teaching buried down in chapter 10. This compassionate way of being was central to Jesus. His elaborations of it are extensive. This is our vision of the life we feel called to live because it was Jesus’ vision.
A History of Missing the Point
It is bizarre that after he walked the earth, his followers so quickly abandoned this as the main point. In their effort to understand how Jesus and God were related — whether Jesus was God in the flesh, or was a man adopted by God as his Son, or only appeared to be mortal, or was equally God and human, or any of the other options that they debated, that debate became the main point.
So they debated and divided into opposing parties, each with their own spokespersons, and started fighting about it. Their fights sometimes actually became street riots. People got killed. It is no wonder that by the time you get to the early 300’s,
Roman emperor Constantine wanted to bring it to an end. So he called all the bishops to Nicea, and, under pain of excommunication, and under the sword of the emperor, got them to sign off on the Nicene Creed. Ever after that, church councils and creeds became the main point of Christianity. What you believed about God and Jesus mattered. Living compassionately did not.
I hope we can all see the utter folly, even absurdity of that turn of events. From turning the other cheek, to street riots. Christianity became something Jesus would not have recognized in the least.
Living the Jesus Ethic
It is high time we recovered the meaning of our faith. It is time we re-connected with Jesus, and let go of a long history of missing the point. That is what we are here to do. This community has listened to Jesus.
So we try to live out that vision of compassion. That is why we are so open and inclusive. That is why we feed the hungry. That is why we provide shelter for DHS children. That is why so many of us volunteer our time and energy in a wide variety of ministries of compassion.
And so that we can become people who are able to turn the other cheek and forgive when we have been offended or wronged, we practice the spiritual disciplines that, just like daily exercise, help us to become fit spiritually. This is why we teach and practice meditation, which, in my opinion, is indispensable as a regular spiritual practice.
Compassion is also why we become advocates for people whose voices are suppressed in our culture. Compassion is why advocate for the humane and just treatment of asylum seekers and all immigrants. Compassion is why we advocate for the poor, and have joined the Poor People’s Campaign. Compassion is why we advocate for those unjustly incarcerated.
For example: some of us just heard a video lecture on his book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He told us things that shocked us. Like that in 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today, there are 2.3 million.
That the United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. That we have seven million people on probation and parole. That one out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. That being in prison or on parole in most states means you cannot vote.
Being people of compassion we are horrified by a system that produces these outcomes. This is just one specific example. What we are called to is a whole way of being that can be summed up as the imitation of God. We are called to be compassionate just as God is compassionate.
We are not called to be able to define the Divine. We are not called by Jesus to sign off on a creed. We are not called to orthodoxy — meaning correct belief. We are called to orthopraxy — right action. And the right action, is always God’s way of action: the right action is always compassion.