Sermon; Epiphany 7C; Luke 6:27-38
There are some gospel passages that clearly address an issue of the day which makes writing a sermon relatively easy. My favorite story about this is when the gospel reading for September 11, 2011, came from Matthew where Jesus is asked, “How many times must I forgive my brother?” And then there are ones where I struggle to make sense of them – like today.
On the surface today's gospel all seems pretty basic: Love your enemies . . . do good to those who hate you . . . pray for those who abuse you . . . Give to everyone who begs from you. I'm reminded of stories from the civil rights movement with its civil disobedience and peaceful protests; especially scenes of peaceful, unarmed people marching in Selma only to be met with heavily armed police and attack dogs. Or the story of an Episcopal church that was being picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church where a group of ladies brought out snacks and cold lemonade because it was hot outside. Or any number of early Church martyrs who prayed for those who were killing them – including Jesus.
But then I reread these admonitions: Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. And I begin to think about people who are actually being abused. Maybe that's because lately my timeline has been filled with stories of abusive pastors, husbands, and men in general who take every opportunity to belittle, demean, and invalidate women. And I remember that this is one of those passages that has been used over the years not only against women but oppressed people in general.
I can hear an abusive, controlling person saying, “The Word of God says right here that you are supposed to turn the other cheek after I hit you.”
We need to be very careful with texts like today's gospel so as not to use them as a means of supporting our own abusive or privileged behaviors and positions. Let me be very clear about this: If your reading of scripture causes you to mistreat any other person, for any reason, you're doing it wrong.
So where might we go from here?
If we look at the big picture of this particular passage, I think it might allow us to get out of the perpetual victim or doormat mindset. Yes, we are called to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give our shirt when our coat is stolen. But what does this do for us in the big picture, or how can this change things as they are?
What these sayings of Jesus point to is a change in behavior. In other words, how we are treated should not determine how we respond. Ideally this change allows for the downward spiral of violence to end.
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.
Last week we heard Jesus talk about blessings and woes. I said that these were part of the already and not yet; that in God's time this reversal has already happened, but in our time we were still working on it. I also said that they were essentially statements of fact rather than moral “if-thens.” Woe to you who are laughing now, you will mourn and weep. There is an implicit understanding that things do and will change.
When certain reactionary groups come to power there is always some bogeyman or scare tactic used to drive the other group into submission. The group in power is full of self-glorification, drunk with power, laughing at those under them. They hate those who are different. They abuse the minorities and the weak. They steal in any number of ways.
But at some point there is a reversal. It may or may not be in our lifetime. We may or may not see it come to fruition, but it will come. And when it does, those who have gained power must remember not to abuse that power. Revenge is an addictive drug that must be avoided.
Don't get me wrong – accountability is one thing, but accountability isn't revenge.
Do not return evil for evil. Do not return hate for hate. Do not return abuse for abuse. Do not steal because you were stolen from.
I remember hearing a story about a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp. As I remember this story, he had been placed in a position of some authority over his former captors. During this time he showed compassion toward the Nazi prisoners and refused to take any kind of revenge. When asked why he treated them well after all the abuse he suffered under them, he replied, “If I treat them like they treated me, then I will have become just like them.”
We can actually see this in today's first lesson from Genesis. This is the end of the reunion story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph had risen from house slave to second in command over all Egypt and basically saved his family from the famine. But think back to the beginning of the story.
Joseph was the only son of Rachel, the favored wife. He was the favored younger son. He received special treatment from his father, Jacob. He had visions of grandeur. His older brothers hated him and plotted his murder, selling him into slavery instead. And when the famine drove the family to seek help from Egypt, Joseph himself mistreated them. He made false accusations against them. He threw one of them in jail as collateral. He basically terrorized them until . . . until he recognized that this cycle of violence could not continue. He realized that he could no longer abuse those who had abused him. He could no longer steal from those who stole from him.
We are not called to allow ourselves to be punching bags for abusers. We are not called to silently suffer. We are not called to joyfully allow thieves and scammers to clean out our bank accounts. What we are called to do, though, is to end cycles of violence and revenge. We are called to not mistreat those who have mistreated us. And maybe that measure of good we give will be a measure of good returned to the world around us.