sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 24, 2019
(from Wikimedia Commons)
First, may I have a volunteer from the congregation? Specifically, I’m looking for someone who wouldn’t mind getting into a pretend fight with me.
Let’s pretend that we live in the Ancient Middle East. I am a Roman, and you are a Jew. Who has more power? Why? [clearly the Roman]
Now, let’s say that I’m having a bad day, and I pass you on the street. I decide that I don’t like the way you looked at me. How am I going to reprimand you? [A backhand slap]
Is this illegal? No. Because I’m a Roman, and you are a Jew. I’m within my rights as a Roman citizen. Also, note that I used my right hand. This is because we assume, in our society, that everybody is right-handed, and that we only use our left hands for tasks that are seen as “unclean.” I’ll let you imagine what such tasks might be—but suffice it to say that I would never consider using my left hand to strike you.
Now, if you were a Roman like me, and if we were of equal social status, I wouldn’t hit you like that. I’d punch you in the face, like in a bar fight. That’s not humiliating—that’s a fight between equals. It’s just boys being boys, right? Notice the difference. If I slap you with the back of my hand, which cheek am I striking? If I punch you with my fist, which cheek now?
OK, so let’s play this again. You are a Jew who is just coming home from hearing Jesus speak the words we just heard from the gospel. I see you and decide to mess with you: I smack you on the right cheek with the back of my hand. Now … “turn the other cheek.” What’s happening here?
Theologian Walter Wink analyzes this situation in great detail in his book Engaging the Powers. When you do not cringe and cower, but remain standing and turn the other cheek, you are saying, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
OK, one more. I’m a Roman soldier and you’re a Jew. I’m carrying my pack in the hot sun, and I’m tired. I see you and say, “Hey! Carry my pack!” The law says I’m allowed to do this, provided I don’t make you walk more than one mile. Some Romans, especially soldiers, had abused their right to conscript inferiors to carry their stuff, so this law was meant to curb the practice, as sort of a mercy rule. I have the right to treat you like my personal slave without notice. But if I make you carry my pack for more than one mile, I could be in serious trouble. I might only receive a reprimand, but I could be beaten or demoted—as a soldier, the punishment is up to the discretion of my commanding officer.
Now, you could be all grumpy and carry the pack for exactly one mile, then drop it and walk away. But instead, let’s say you cheerfully shoulder the burden and do your best to chat me up about my day and my family. One mile goes by, and I try to take back my pack. But you say, “Oh, no, it’s OK. I wasn’t doing anything else today anyway, and I’m enjoying our conversation.” And you keep walking. What has just happened? What should I do now? Furthermore, what if all the Jews started doing this?
We start to see what Jesus is up to here, and I’m grateful to Walter Wink for his book. The Jews couldn’t succeed at throwing out the Romans with an armed rebellion. But they could start a social revolution. By knowing the limits of the laws of the land, and by refusing to sacrifice their dignity, the long-oppressed Jews could rise above their station and begin living in the Kingdom of God.
Nothing speaks to this possibility more clearly than Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies.” There are four words for love in Greek, and Jesus chooses the most extreme one, agape. That’s not just general regard, or doing nice things. It means loving our enemies unconditionally and with abandon, the way God does.
In 2006, then-Senator Obama commented that Jesus’ teaching here is “so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.” True enough. As individuals and as a country, we must continue to be in relationship and conversation about how we live out our faith, and how our faith applies when engaging our enemies.
On one of the anniversaries of 9/11 a few years ago, I read something on Facebook that made my blood boil. A college acquaintance of mine, a man who spoke frequently of both his patriotism and his love for Jesus, suggested that every year on 9/11, we should use fighter jets to drop raw pork on all the mosques in the U.S. His ignorance and stupidity overwhelmed me, but I did my best to remain dignified. I wrote in response: “Love your enemies. – Jesus.” The conversation didn’t go smoothly after that. And while I don’t remember exactly what my old acquaintance said, I do remember feeling relieved to discover that he had un-friended me. I was relieved, but I was also a little sad. I had not sought to end that relationship. But letting his words stand would not have been “turning the other cheek.” It would have been failing to stand up for the dignity of the vulnerable.
Dignity is power. Walter Wink tells the story of a time when Archbishop Desmond Tutu “was walking by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk the width of one person. A white man appeared at the other end, recognized Tutu, and said, ‘I don’t give way to gorillas.’ At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, ‘Ah yes, but I do.’” Dignity!
Gandhi once said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Dignity does everything it can to equalize the relationship. Violence has power, but dignity brings with it a fundamentally better kind of power.
Jesus showed the powerless what power they had. No matter our economic or social status, the power of love is available to everyone. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But when the tables were turned and Joseph had his brothers in his power, he did not seek revenge, but reconciliation. Joseph saw that God had not brought hardship on anyone, but that God was working toward the graceful solution and enabling a broken family to begin to repair itself.
When Jesus returned from the grave, he didn’t seek revenge against the Romans who killed him, or the authorities who colluded with them. He appeared to his friends, and more—Paul tells us he appeared to hundreds of people all at once! These people became the Body of Christ in the world. Who could have guessed it would work out that way?
This is what resurrection is. A seed disappears into the ground, and we don’t know yet what it will look like when it sprouts. But we know for sure that it won’t look anything like the seed. The death of the seed makes possible the new life of the sprouting plant. “Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green”—that just might be my favorite hymn of all. Paul applies this plant metaphor to humanity, casting Adam as the dead seed and Christ as the sprouting plant, the new, reborn Adam. And like Christ, says Paul, we, too, will be raised to new life.
We undergo many deaths in our lives, but few are as difficult as the death of our ego, especially when we find ourselves in a position of power. True dignity is built on humility. If I see myself as powerful, and then someone comes along to challenge that power, I have the opportunity to become an abuser. But if I recognize myself as both powerless and dignified, especially relative to God’s eternal wisdom and power, I take the perspective of a student eager to learn, even if it means learning from my mistakes. Because I am God’s beloved child, loss of power does not mean I must lose my dignity. The same goes for every one of us.
And this is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies: because we are all in the same boat. Jesus wants us to want only the best for our enemies—life to the fullest, lived in joy and wonder. And that’s because every one of us, no matter what evil we may have done, is eternally a beloved child of God.
To love our enemies is the heart of dignity. And to be direct with those who would abuse us, rather than giving in to them, is a crucial component. It is virtuous to stay in relationship with those who despise us, rather than writing them off. But this can only happen with the understanding that it is our dignified choice to do so. Reconciliation cannot be forced. It does not happen under duress.
If we believe the soul is eternal, then we are never done with anyone; we may not be able to stay in relationship, but we can pray for justice to be done as God goes to work in the souls of sinners. We might not be able to imagine a good outcome for the evil ones of the world. But Jesus instructs us to live into what we will ultimately become—a sprout from a dead seed—and, as we pray, to wish the same surprising rebirth for everybody else on earth. Amen.
 Walter Wink, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 175–182. These pages are referenced throughout this sermon.