Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Waging Peace with the Creative Weapon of Love

Rev. Kathy Donley

02/19/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

 

You have heard it said “The God of the Old Testament is angry and punishing, while the God of the New Testament is loving and kind” but I say unto you that that is a gross oversimplification and not true enough to be helpful.

Take this one verse in Leviticus for example.  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. . . I am the Lord your God.”  If this is a summary statement of the God of the Old Testament, where is the wrath, where is the vengeance?  And today’s reading from Leviticus concludes with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” which is pretty darn consistent with that thing that Jesus said . . . what was it again?  Oh yeah, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

 

“When you reap, you shall not reap to the very edges”. . . .What an amazing statement about who God is and who God’s people are to be.

 

A contemporary American might read that and bristle “Why shouldn’t I reap right up to the edges of my field.   It’s my field, isn’t it?  What shouldn’t I strip the vineyard bare of grapes?  Can’t I do whatever I want with what is mine?  And if the laborers to whom I am paying good money do a sloppy job and leave piles of gleanings all around, of course I am going to demand that they do the job again, the right way.  They are my fields and my vineyards.   Why should my crops be left for – of all people – the poor and the immigrants.  I mean, what have they ever done for me?”[1]  

 

And the answer is right there in the text, “Because I am God and I say so.”   

 

It is not enough to share if and when someone asks.  If you have land, you need to plan ahead and provide a way in which the poor, the landless, the immigrants can feed themselves with dignity, without having to come and beg. 

 

The book of Leviticus is a collection of laws intended to prepare the people for life in the Promised Land.   Yes, there were already people living there before the children of Israel and yes, this notion of conquest is a problem.  But for today, can we bracket off that concern?  

 

What is interesting to me is that these rules are intended to tell them how to organize their new country, how to govern themselves, and how to wage peace. Even though the land is described as “flowing with milk and honey”, there is apparently no expectation that this is going to be a utopia.  There are going to be poor people and foreigners.  When God’s people are in charge, they are expected to maintain a system of care for people who need it. They are also expected to be honest and pay wages as soon as the work is done.  The law is to apply equally to all; judges are neither to defer to the rich or to prefer the poor.   These rules, this system, are how God’s shalom will be lived out in the land, as long as the children of Israel are in charge. 

 

In contrast, we have the words of Jesus in Matthew.  Now, God has not changed from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus.  God is the same, but the situation in the land is different.  In Leviticus, the people were going to possess the land, to govern it.  In Matthew, they are under occupation, living under the mercy of another power.  That power, Rome, is not interested in waging peace for the masses, but in maintaining and expanding its own power. 

The Israelites are no longer in control of their own country.  How are they to deal with this enemy?  One choice is to cooperate.  Go along to get along.  Accept some things you don’t like, some things which hurt the people around you, in order to protect your own way of life. 

 

Another choice is to fight, to resist the enemy by all means necessary, which means guerrilla warfare and sabotage and a lot of bloodshed, and the continuing cycle of violence.

 

But there is a third way, the way that Jesus describes.

These are some of Jesus’ most counter-cultural, revolutionary teachings.  They are also some of his most misunderstood.  It has only been a few decades since the brilliant Walter Wink explained this passage so well. Let me review his explanation. [2]

 

Turning the other cheek does not mean being a doormat.  It does not mean accepting oppression or allowing yourself to be victimized.  

 

If you were struck on the right cheek, you were being back-handed.  People used only their left hands for personal hygiene and only their right hands for public business.  So a strike on the right cheek was a back-hand blow, and it was the way your boss or the person above you in the social pecking order reminded you who was boss.  It was intended to humiliate you, to tell you to get back in line, more than to hurt you.  But what if you don’t get back in line?  What if you don’t just do what you’re told?  What if, instead, you offer your assailant your left cheek?  Then you have just signaled that you regard yourself as an equal.  You are asserting your own humanity into this conflict.  And it changes the dynamic.  Now your opponent has to make a choice. To hit you on your left cheek, that is the kind of blow dealt to an equal.   They may still hit you, but it may change the way they think about you in the future.  And over time, enough of these kinds of actions may change the relationships between your people and your enemy.

 

Jesus gives two more examples.  One is about poor people who are taken to court to pay their debts.  It was common to put up your outer garment as collateral on a loan.  Then when you couldn’t pay, they would take you to court and keep your outer garment, which was also your blanket at night.  So now you are poor and cold.  Jesus says when that happens, give them your undergarment too. Strip naked in the courtroom.  Because nakedness was shameful, not to the naked person, but to the one who caused or viewed the nakedness.  It was a way of making the creditors ashamed of themselves.

 

Jesus’ final example is about the Roman soldier.  The Roman soldier could legally force anyone to carry his pack for one mile, but just for one mile.  Serious punishments could be imposed on a soldier if they were caught pressing someone into service for more than one mile.  Jesus is saying “when you come to that mile marker, you keep going.”  That turns the tables on the soldier. He is no longer in charge because you are willing carrying the pack, but he is violating military law.  What if his centurion finds out?  Now the situation is changed, and there is the possibility of an unexpected outcome.  

 

Jesus was asking something very difficult of his first listeners and of those hearing his words today.  He was asking us to do the work of loving those who mistreat us.   He said, “You have heard it said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’, but I say to you ‘love your enemy.’”  When you are in charge, you act for the good of everyone, because you are God’s people.  And when you are not in charge, when your enemy is in charge, you still act for the good of everyone, because you are God’s people.

 

“The idea here is not to be a victim . . . but to be a human being created in God’s image, and ultimately to be a blessing, even to those who would do violence.”[3]

 

Even to those who would do violence . . . that is what is so very hard.

 

Listen to what Walter Wink wrote in 1992:

 

Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world . . . . Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace ... It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America.” [4] 

 

Violence begets violence.  This war sows the seeds of enmity for the next war.  But Jesus’ non-violent resistance opens up a way for enemies to become non-combatants and the possibility that the next generation will become neighbors and friends. 

In his memoir about the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King said, From the beginning, a basic philosophy guided the civil rights movement.  This guiding principle has since been referred to variously as nonviolent resistance, non-cooperation, and passive resistance.  But in the first days of the protest, none of these expressions was mentioned.  The phrase most often heard was Christian love.  It was the Sermon on the Mount that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action.  It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.”[5]   

 

“The creative weapon of love.”  What a provocative phrase.  We wage peace creatively, by wielding love.  It is not passivity, not cowardice or weakness, but strength, the kind of strength described in 2 Timothy where it says, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

There are so many illustrations of this in history.   We need to tell these stories over and over again, to foster our own creative responses.  One of them is about Jackie Robinson, the first African American major league baseball player. Branch Rickey was the general manager for the Dodgers.  He wanted to break the color barrier, but he also knew that the first person to do so would have to have a lot of spiritual strength as well as athletic talent.    

 

Branch Rickey brought Robinson to New York for an interview.  For three hours, Rickey grilled him with racist scenarios that he might have to confront on and off the baseball field. “What will you do if a restaurant won’t serve you, if you can’t stay in the same hotel with the rest of the team, if opposing players throw pitches at your head?”  he asked Robinson.  Robinson answered everything that Rickey asked and as the scenarios escalated, he said, “Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who is afraid to fight back?” 

Rickey famously said, “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” 

 

The final scene went like this:    Rickey said, “Now I’m playing against you in the World Series. . . I’m a hotheaded player.  I want to win that game, so I go into you spikes first, but you don’t give ground.  You stand there and you jab the ball into my ribs and the umpire yells “OUT!”  I flare up – all I see is your face, right on top of me. . . . So I haul off and punch you right in the cheek!”  Ricky swung his fist and barely missed Robinson’s face.

 

“What do you do?”  Rickey roared.

 

“Mr Rickey,” Robinson whispered, “”I have two cheeks.”[6]

 

And of course, we know that Jackie Robinson did become the first African American major league player, and it required much wielding of creative love.

 

Walter Wink said that violence is the spirituality of our time. Perhaps it is the spirituality of every time of human existence.  We live in a world that says “Choose your weapons.”   But Jesus says “Love your enemy and yourself.”   May we choose the weapon of creative love and strong discipline, waging peace for everyone because the “I am the Lord your God.”  Amen.




[1] This contemporary language is from John Holbert, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Love-Self-Neighbor-John-Holbert-02-17-2014

[2] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, Augsburg/Fortress Press, 1992) pp. 175ff

[3] Thomas G. Long, Matthew:  The Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 63.

[4] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, Augsburg/Fortress Press, 1992), p. 13

[5] Martin Luther King Jr, Stride Toward Freedom, (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1958), p. 71.

[6] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/robinson.htm

 

 

 

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