Saturday, February 22, 2014

I must decrease so that Christ may increase...

Matthew 5.38-48

            The confirmation class asked me just this past Wednesday "So what are you supposed to do if someone comes up to you in school and punches you in the face?"  I answered,  "Come to church this Sunday.  You just might hear what Jesus has to say about that very question."  At least, that's how I remember it.  I apologize to our students if I misquoted them.  You see, we got into a discussion about the "Golden Rule."  You all have probably heard it before.  It's the "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" rule.  That's a great rule, don't you think?  Those of us who have children have probably taught it to them in one form or another as they grow up.  It makes a lot of sense too.  It helps to teach our children to be nice to other people and respect those who are in authority over them, but it probably does one thing above all else.  It helps develop empathy as they grow and become people in their own rights with their own personalities.  When I say empathy, I mean that they are gaining the ability to consider what it's like to be another person.  This is an essential skill to develop in our children as they grow.

            Now let's face it.  Our children when they are first born are little monsters.  I love kids, but it's true.  Our children, from when they are first born to the time they begin to be able to consider the "other" around him or her, have a worldview so small that in many ways they believe that they are the only thing in the universe that matters, and that if they cry long enough and loud enough, they will get what they want or need.  This really isn't an opinion that I have.  Kids brains truly haven't developed to the point of being able to consider the world beyond themselves.  You can see it in the way that babies even learn to count.  They don't begin life being able to count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.  They literally begin counting by observing what's around them.  And what do they see?  They see one hand, then another hand, and then everything else.  So they count one, two, everything else.  Again, they see the world as revolving around themselves.  But that's where teaching the Golden Rule to our children helps them to develop an understanding of the world around themselves.

            When you begin to think about the statement, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." not only do you have to consider what you would like to happen to yourself, but also have to take the crucial step of considering how words or an action might be received by another person - a person whose mind you cannot access.  You have to begin to imagine what it's like to be that person, and that right there is where we begin to see what exactly empathy is: considering what it's like to be another person.  And this is where the words that Jesus is speaking to the disciples and to us come into play for us this morning.  He is asking  to not only consider the other person, but he is also asking us to confront the humanity of the person before us AND take action to make them consider our humanity as well.  So, for the confirmation students, this just might be where you might hear an answer to the question you asked on Wednesday.  The only problem is that it might not be the answer that you or any of us would really want to hear come from the one that we call "Lord and Savior."

            "You have heard that it was said. 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth..."  For the past few weeks, Jesus has been confronting the disciples and others gathered around him about their preconceived notions of what it means to live a righteous life by the laws that seem to help make the world make sense and protect what we have and what we have gathered.  In every instance, Jesus took those laws, those sayings and made them cut even deeper into to show us exactly how unrighteous we can be.  This week, is no different.  Jesus brings up a saying that gives people a sense of comfort that justice can be had in their lives.  He brings up the notion of retribution as justice, and Jesus will not let this one be.  He states clearly that retribution like "an eye for an eye" is not and will not be his way in the world. O, how we act as if this would not be true.  We want desperately to be able to hurt the ones that have hurt us.  We don't want Jesus' command here to be true, because that it completely unfair when we hurt and the other doesn't.  We want them to feel what we are feeling.  We want to pervert the Golden Rule to mean that actions that have already happened to us can and should happen to others.  But that is not what that rule states.  Even when we've been hurt, it still calls to treat others as we want to be treated.  But Jesus' reason for subverting "eye for an eye" is for no less reason than to create a new reality within the world where we confront our attacker with our humanity as we confront his or her humanity.

            That's what the whole business of turn the other cheek, give your cloak, and go the extra mile are all about in our reading for today.  Their about taking an action that confronts the person who would subjugate us and removes the power that they would try to wield over us.  We turn the other cheek not as a way to passively accept and not escalate the situation, but instead as a way to make our attacker see that we are human beings with the same rights as anyone else, that if they want to keep on attacking they'll have to confront their actions.  We go the extra mile, not as a weird way to pay attention to every little detail like we so often think it must mean, but instead it's original concept was to embarrass the Roman soldier who could conscript anyone they pass by to carry all his gear by making him confront the humanity of the person he has conscripted.

            Perhaps more than anything, Jesus calls us to love not just those that are easy to love, but also those that we hate and pray for those who persecute us.  We can hold onto hate so intensely in our lives.  We can make it something controls our every actions and dominate how we live our lives.  And how does Jesus end all of this?  By calling us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.  Oh!  Is that all I have to do Jesus?  I guess I'll just pack my bags and go home...

            But I don't think that this is Jesus' only point.  I do think that a part of what Jesus is doing is confronting us with the delusion that we can make it on our own, but I think we would be remiss to not notice how these commands become apart of how Jesus lives his life - a life that ultimately leads to his death.  Jesus confronts evil in the world by exposing it for what it is.  Jesus confronts violence in the world by showing us that it cannot and will not have power over him.  Jesus confronts hate in the world by showing us that his love for us and the whole of creation extends beyond our ability to fathom as he comes bringing a love that seeks to bring and give life even to those who would be called enemies.

            In Jesus' life, teachings, and death, he shows us a way of living where the self decreases and the other increases.  He leads a life where he is deeply concerned for how others want to be treated, and he also shows us a beloved beautiful thing.  Jesus' life becomes the perfection that is finally, ultimately demanded.  Simply put, God will not abandon us to the dump heap of history.  Our part, then, becomes not about how we can live out our life perfectly enough for God, but in finding our own ways that we can decrease our demands for ourselves and increase the life for those all around us.  So what are we to do if someone comes up to us in school and punches us in the face?  Maybe just maybe, we don't give violence for violence, but rather confront the situation that life can not only increase for us who have been hit, but even for the one who has attacked us so that he or she might also live a life free from violence and hatred.  Maybe.  What do you think?