Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
Scriptures: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
I began the week knowing that I would be preaching on love your neighbor, love your enemies, and turn the other cheek. Since Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw our Gospel text as a strategy for nonviolent resistance to injustice, I watched for examples. Last Saturday our Church Vision and Organization meeting moved because the Sugar Shack Alliance, an environmental group, was offering nonviolent resistance training, and nearly 50 people, mostly young women, signed up. We have had space requests for more training, and groups like The Worker’s Center have dozens of millennials who are organizing a safe streets program to protect and be in solidarity with immigrants. Young people are rediscovering nonviolent action.
I had coffee with Rabbi Justin David, who was recently arrested with a group of 100 rabbis, protesting the immigration ban by the current US regime. He spoke of nonviolent action as a spiritual practice, staying calm while the group was arrested, their hands bound at the wrist for nearly three hours. Imagine Jewish rabbis getting arrested to protect Muslim immigrants.
Afterwards I went to get a burrito and the sign at Bueno Y Sano said, “We are closed today to observe the national Day Without Immigrants.” Paul and Elizabeth’s, probably our most famous Noho restaurant was closed for lunch, I’m sure that cut into profits. Maybe you are thinking, well that is Northampton, and we live in a bubble, the tofu curtain. It’s not a real trend. Guess what, 200 legislators cancelled town hall meetings this week, in places like South Carolina, Utah and Tennessee. People with no political experience have downloaded a Google Doc called “Indivisible” and are turning things upside down, or perhaps right side up again.
So, I want to talk about Leviticus. I want to show how Jesus’s teachings are deeply grounded in centuries of Jewish moral teaching. Jesus is interpreting Mosaic law within his contemporary situation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. interpreted Jesus teachings for their time. And I am wondering here in 2017 how this Gospel text is still speaking to us in fresh new ways.
The Old Testament reading this week concludes, “Do not hate, do not take vengeance, love your neighbor as yourself.” Just before the birth of Jesus, one of the most famous Rabbis in history, Rabbi Hillel, taught the Golden Rule. One day a Gentile approached him and said that he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the entire Torah standing on one leg. That is a strange request. Perhaps he thought the Torah was very long, and you can only stand on one leg for a few minutes before losing your balance, so it would be a real test. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is commentary.”
There are so many stories and doctrines of Judaism Hillel could have taught, from creation of the world, to Exodus, to the 613 laws to follow, to the preaching of the prophets, and the wonder of the Psalms. Hillel spent years studying and memorizing scriptures, but it all comes down to this simple, clear moral dictum. Treat your neighbor as yourself. Karen Armstrong notes in her book “The Case for God,” every religion- Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism-also teach the Golden Rule. This unites all religion. Transcend the self, recognize the relationship to others, and have compassion for a neighbor, a stranger, even an enemy.
In our Gospel text, Jesus is not inventing something new. Everyone in his audience would know the Golden Rule. Love your neighbor. Everyone agrees it is a noble thing to do. Of course, we make exceptions when they are being jerks. Love your neighbor, if they agree with you, if they speak your language, look like you, or conform to your politics. If they attack you, attack back with the same force, poke their eye out, knock their tooth out if you must do so. Why is Jesus taking away the exceptions, like an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Every rule needs to be interpreted. Surely Jesus meant love your good and decent neighbors, but don’t worry about “those” people, the ones who don’t know how we do things around here, who might take our jobs, or worse. Loving all your neighbors sounds impractical, except for maybe a few saints, and it might just be dangerous.
This is one of the hardest texts in the Bible, one that I have wrestled with my whole life, because it feels impractical, implausible and even dangerous. My default mindset is pragmatism. Will it work? Is this the best prevailing practice? Where has this been successful? Jesus is not a pragmatist. Pragmatists are rarely crucified. Dreamers get crucified. Jesus is a spiritual entrepreneur, seeking to make the Kingdom of God near. Therefore, we may feel like overlooking the passage entirely. Even some of our best theological minds like Reinhold Niebuhr, thought Jesus’s ethic in the Sermon on the Mount was totally impractical, and while it may have some application in individual situations, it was entirely impractical in social and political reality. Then Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. came along and insisted that Jesus really meant it. This is how we are supposed to live. Why was this so attractive to Gandhi and Martin?
Jesus identifies four situations where he applies to the Golden Rule to some thorny, challenging situations where people are being demeaned and oppressed.
“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Striking on the right cheek is what a master does to a slave. To hit my right cheek, you would need to throw a left hook or more likely, you would be slapping me. The law said you can slap your servants to discipline them, but you could not punch them and beat them. Turning your left cheek forces the aggressor to choose between illegal violence or restraining themselves and seeing the human being across from them.
“40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;” In Jesus’s day, if you owed money, someone held what little you might have, like your coat, as collateral on your debt. This is obviously cruel. The modern version is to destroy your credit rating, then you can’t get a bank account, and you must pay 10 percent to cash your check. The cycle of debt increases to you end up in jail for nonpayment. Jesus says just show up in court naked. You want everything I have, there you go.
“41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. If a Roman soldier conscripts you to carry his equipment for a mile, willingly carry it a second mile on your own. This happened, in fact when Jesus could not carry his cross, a man identified as Simon the Cyrene was conscripted to carry it. What is the point here? If someone treats you like a pack animal, what options do you have? Show them you have your own will, volunteer and demonstrate your own agency. Win over your oppressor. In their mind, they are just doing their jobs, so surprise them.
42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Are you kidding me Jesus? No way am I doing that! I’ll give, but I want my money to be helpful, not wasted. I will give it to the Survival Center or Friends of the Homeless. Perhaps they did not have social service agencies in Jesus day, and he would approve of organizational charity instead of handing out cash to beggars. But Jesus whole tone in this this passage is to provoke. This is your neighbor. Look them in the eye. Know their story. In what way are we directly in community with people of a different class and circumstance than we are?
How do you feel about these four examples right now? Do they blow your mind? Do you feel empowered or totally inadequate? I feel a bit of both. I hear in the text a call to creative love, to have the courage to act in nonviolent ways when injustice prevails. My pragmatic advice it to be careful, Jesus did get crucified. Nonviolent resistors get training to minimize risk. Likewise, this is not to push you towards toxic people or to stay in abusive situations. But it is a call to creative and courageous in the midst of conflict, without fueling the cycle of violence and hatred.
Bishop Douglas Fisher, the Episcopal Bishop of Western Mass recently shared this on Facebook, and it is my closing prayer for us:
“The Church is made for times like these.” In a troubled time, the Church is made to call people to be our best selves, to live from our God-filled souls, to imagine God’s will which is to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
God bless you all with strength and courage to live out the Beloved Community. Amen.