Tough Love

February 20, 2011; Matt 5: 38-48; Lev 19: 1-2, 9-18

A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

A childhood friend of mine regularly issued a teasing challenge to my pastor father. “I dare you to preach a one-word sermon,” she would say. “Just get up and say “Looovve”; then sit down. I remembered this exchange as I considered Jesus’ words in today’s lesson: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Jesus, in his teaching about love, challenges the conventional, common-sense wisdom. We are to love those near to us, those like us. But we are also to love the adversaries who hurt us. In effect, enemies become neighbors. And what is Jesus saying about the space between “neighbor” and “enemy”? Are to love those we don’t like? Love those whose politics we find offensive? Love those with whom we wouldn’t normally mix or socialize?

For the last two weeks, I have been listening, Abby has been listening, the visioning team and facilitators have been listening. In living rooms, small groups are gathering to build community, to share bible study and food and silence to offer diverse perspectives on who we are, why we are here, what we are called to do. The biblical text we are studying in these sessions raises the question “who is my neighbor?”

We are hearing great stories… One member told of lugging heavy furniture from the annual rummage down the street on a dolly to the home of a family in the neighborhood. As he turned to leave, the men thanked him and said: “may Allah bless your family.” “Imagine the picture!” another participant mused, smiling, as she told of how a group of homeless men from St. Stephen’s shelter held a picnic bridal shower in a park for a young woman who had worked with them at the shelter. Yet another person named a generous handful of adults in this congregation who are intentional about connecting with and supporting his teenage children.

Just as these stories do, Jesus expands the concept of neighbor and the scope of love so that there is literally no wiggle room, no out. But loving everyone in general can mean loving no one in particular. So Jesus (and the Hebrew prophets and law which ground him) point us toward love that is also concrete and specific, love that is not primarily about feeling, but about doing and living.

Leviticus, yes Leviticus, has great stuff this week. In verses 9-10, the text instructs: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.” In other words, love has to do with our money and possessions. Love is about setting aside some portion of the richest of the earth to ensure the safety and the basic rights of all. This passage is one support for the tradition of the “tithe”, that is, the idea of sharing of 1/10th of all that we have with others. A loving question is: “what is my ‘more than enough’ that I can share?”

At this week’s Day on the Hill for the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, the 850 gathered heard about the Governor’s budget proposal. This proposal addresses a large deficit by increasing taxes. (These taxes would raise $4.1 billion of the $6.2 billion needed.) To tackle the rest of the deficit, the Governor still makes cuts to the health and human services budget. And these cuts will hurt: more disabled and ill adults will face homelessness struggling families will receive less childcare assistance (already there is a list of 4,000 families waiting for this help) even less money will be available to address abuse and neglect of children 7,200 will lose healthcare coverage. (Statistics from JRLC materials, prepared by their staff) Imagine what more cuts could be like of for our common good. Showing love in our public life means ensuring that some of the bounty is set aside to create a safety net. and to offer support for people seeking liberation from the cycles and barriers of poverty.

Jesus’ teaching in this morning’s Gospel lesson also provides a picture of what it looks like “on the ground” to claim a love that acknowledges the need for justice and then acts to create the conditions for justice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” About this translation, Walter Wink writes: “when the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate antistenai as ‘resist not evil,’ they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating non-violent resistance into docility… A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, ‘Don’t’ strike back at evil (or one who has done you evil) in kind.’ ‘Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” (Jesus and Non-violence, 10-11)

Wink also explains the three examples that Jesus gives.  The first example – “turn the other cheek” refers to an insult rather than a fist fight. In order to strike a person on the right cheek, the assailant would have had to use the back of the right hand (since the left hand was reserved only for “unclean” tasks.) By offering the other cheek, the victim is essentially saying, “hit me again, but this time with your fist. Treat me as an equal.” As for example two, only the person who has lost everything else— land, house, even family to debt slavery— would have just clothes left for a creditor to take as collatoral. What Jesus suggests is: if someone is callous enough to take your outer garment, strip naked and give the person your underwear too. Rub it in their faces how they have humiliated you and shame them into changing their ways. Finally, “if anyone forces you to go a mile” refers to the practice of Roman soldiers conscripting civilians in the occupied lands to carry their heavy loads. A soldier (according to Roman law) could only ask for one mile. A conscript who offered to take the pack a second mile would seize the initiative, both confusing the soldier and threatening to get him in trouble. (Jesus and Non-violence, p. 14-25).

In these examples Jesus speaks to people who are exploited by those who hold power over them. Jesus teaches that the most loving act in a context of oppression is to resist, without violence, the evil that enemies do. The most loving act amid exploitation is to take power away from the one who is using it to hurt you. The specific acts of loving resistance that Jesus describes allow the less powerful party to recover the initiative and take the opportunity to expose the truth about the other person’s wrongdoing.

James Cone expresses this concept in relation to racial oppression: “White people,” he writes, “must be made to realize that reconciliation is a costly experience. It is not holding hands and singing “Black and white together” and “We shall overcome.” Reconciliation means death, and only those who are prepared to die in the struggle for freedom will experience new life with God…” (God of the Oppressed, 219) For some of us, honestly hearing Jesus’ teaching means asking ourselves “am I the enemy being loved?” How, in this love, might I be held accountable to the ways I benefit from systems and structures that advantage some and disadvantage others? The cost of reconciliation is the death of my sense of entitlement to unearned privilege.

It’s true. Love is a one-word sermon. And yet it can take many words, and many acts of resistance, to get past the dilute, sentimental, commercialized, easy version of love that is in the air all around us. If we are to consider love as Jesus preached it and practiced it, then we are going to have to be tough… Love your enemies tough. Tough as in: turn your cheek, give up your cloak, go the second mile. Give and lend and give and lend and give and lend. Oh, and by the way, be perfect in this love. Now that’s not even tough. That’s impossible!

In calling us to this impossible love, Jesus is not seeking to condemn us. He’s not trying to drive us into cyncism or despair. Jesus is showing us what God’s love looks like. This love is holy other. This love is not like our love at all. And yet, by sheer grace and free gift, this love made flesh in Jesus can be made flesh in us. May it be so! Amen.

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