Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sermon: Foolish Faith

I was asked to post this sermon:

Epiphany 7 Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3:18-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Foolish Faith or Foolish World
By Rich Gamble

Using the lectionary is sometimes a challenge for me; it can be hard to find something to preach on in the texts given for that particular Sunday. Then sometimes, like this Sunday, the texts are so full of important insights that there is way more than one sermon’s worth of material. In fact there are at least 4 sermons worth of material here.

But all of this material centers on the idea that we are called to a particular set of behaviors by virtue of our peculiar belief in the God of Moses and Jesus and Paul. In Leviticus the people are called to be Holy. We think that Holy people should glow with divine radiance and spout deep wisdom but in this passage Moses says that holy people leave part of their crops to be picked and used by the poor. Holy people don’t cheat or steal or lie. Holy people don’t take advantage of others. Holy people refrain from hating. Holy people love their neighbors as they love themselves. To be holy then is not something for sages and mystics but something everyone can do. We do it, Moses says, because of the nature of the God we choose to follow.

In other words, to choose to follow this God, to choose this particular path of faith, leads directly to certain values, and those values lead to particular behaviors which have direct implications on how we live our lives, how we use our resources, how we structure our communities.

These implications make little or no sense in the logic of the world that does not believe in this God. Let’s take that command to leave behind crops in the fields for those who are poor. In the logic of the “World” as Jesus and Paul use the word, or the domination system as we often use here, it makes no sense to leave behind your crops, grown on your land, through your effort for someone else to harvest. If you can make a lot more profit by cheating your workers, say by cutting out their benefits, or sending their jobs to more exploited people who will work for less, then it is logical to do so. Indeed the logic of our current systems almost compels employers to squeeze ever possible concession out of their workers. That way you make more profits and have more money and more power and resources. But Moses here says that you are to treat the other guy with the same concern as you give to yourself. Our whole economic system is based on placing our self interest ahead of our neighbors.

Matthew’s Jesus here moves the conversation to violence which like greed is foundational to the World.

In the first part of this statement Jesus teaches his followers how to use non-violence to oppose violent systems and people. Yes don’t be confused by that line “Do not resist an evildoer.” That word translated resist is better translated: violently oppose. Jesus is not telling his followers to be passive in the face of oppression, he is showing them how to actively oppose violent folks like the Roman soldiers who marched down their streets, or those greedy people who took advantage of them economically. The way you oppose these people is to help them to recognize you as an equal. Turn the other cheek is Jesus way of showing people how to stand up to those who tried to put people “in their place.” It was permissible for a person to strike an underling with the back of their hand. That was how a small amount of violence to show people who was boss. The person struck was supposed to shrink off and submit to their betters. But Jesus tells his followers to stand their ground and turn their cheek.

Now in that world at that time you didn’t use your left hand to strike people, the left hand was not even used to gesture. So you used your right. Ok lets get a couple of volunteers up here. Lets say you are a master and this person is your inferior. Using your right hand how can you strike them on their right cheek? That is what Jesus says, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. It is a backhand blow right? Not a blow meant to cause great injury but one meant to humiliate and demean. Ok so now turn your other cheek. What options does the violent person have? They can give up or then can punch you using their fist but to strike someone in that time that way was to treat them as an equal. Jesus isn’t teaching us to be passive but to actively oppose violence with non violent tactics.

The same is true for that thing about the law suit: “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” One way that a person could try to force someone to pay a debt was to sue them for their outer garment. But debts were and are a tool by the powerful to exploit the vulnerable. What do you do? Well Jesus advises people to give up their underwear as well. This paints a laughable picture of a guy handing over his underwear. Nakedness in that society brought shame on the ones who looked so this idea would create havoc in the court and shame the proceedings.

Roman soldiers had the “right” under Roman law to make someone carry their pack, which, given their armor was often quite heavy. But they could only legally make someone carry it for one mile. Jesus here says take the pack a second mile. Imagine a soldier running after a peasant to try to retrieve his pack before his superior realizes that he has broken the law by having the peasant carry the pack more than a mile.

In all these forms of resistance there is no violence. In all these forms of resistance the person resisting pays a price, a punch received, losing their underwear, carrying a heavy pack farther than necessary. But in all these forms of resistance the peasant teaches the dominator to see them as an equal.

The logic of the world says that when it comes to conflict there is either fight or flight, violent opposition or surrender to evil but Jesus offers us a third way of resisting the evils of oppression by non-violent opposition.

And to top it all off Jesus calls on his followers to love their enemies. Love their enemies. This command, along with the command to give our wealth to the poor are the most direct challenges to logic of the World. How could we love our enemies? Imagine a world where we took this command seriously. We would have no military. We would have no armed security forces. We would not seek to strike back, as was the response to 911. We would not be spending trillions on weapons systems and soldiers.

To take this command seriously would be to set ourselves up for the derision of those around us. Most Christians do not see this as an idea to take seriously.

But Jesus did. And Jesus called on his followers… calls on us… to live this.

It doesn’t make any sense in the world in which we live. It seems foolish. But it was just as foolish in Jesus’ day.

Paul tells the Corinthian church: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

Our faith leads us to proclaim a counter intuitive, ridiculous reality called the realm of God. To do so we need to understand the principles and tactics of non-violence, we need to understand the hold that fear has on us and the ways in which this fear leads us to the path of greed and violence. We need to understand how our brains work and how the messages of domination get so ingrained in us that it becomes “common sense.” We need to figure out how to embody this radical, ridiculous, world changing way of seeing and experiencing reality so that others may see it and choose it and live it.

Why? Because God is God. And if this God is God then it is the World that is foolish. It is the economics and politics of self interest that is unrealistic.

Look at the world: starvation, global warming, pollution, sickness, violence, hate, fear. These things are not aberrations of our systems of domination based thought and practice, they are the logical outcomes of policies based on the utilization of greed and fear as motivators. The logic of the world is ruinous for humanity and the planet.

We are possessors of the alternative reality that can save the world. But it only works if we believe it enough to live it. It only works if we believe it enough to speak up, stand up, act up in the name of the ultimate reality (God) of love. Love in the form of justice for the poor and oppressed, love in the name of non-violence, love in the name of peace.

It isn’t that the dream of the God of Moses and Jesus has been tried and has failed. The dream has largely been co-opted to serve the logic of the gods of fear and greed.

Like Jesus we are called to choose this path for ourselves, to challenge our fellow believers to abandon the co-opted version of the faith and embrace the foolishness of God’s alternative logic.

We are not called to run away to a “spiritual” interpretation of these commands. We are not called to subordinate our truth to the logic of fear. We are called to stand up to those who would turn our God into a tool for greed or fear or domination. We are called to stand up to those who would turn God’s creation into a source of wealth for some and deprivation for others. We are called to be creative, non-violent resisters to all that is not love. This is the hope the world needs. This is living presence of God’s love. This is good news.

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