Sermon Archives

A 'Basement Level' Spirituality of Resistance

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Feb 19

Text: Matthew 5: 38-48

5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 5:40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 5:41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 5:43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 5:45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 5:47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In a just a few days, Karin, Jen and I will be traveling across the Deep South with nine teens from our First Church youth group. Between the public landmarks, museums and BBQ joints that are requisite stops on any civil rights tour, I for one am excited to check out the church basements, especially the ones in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. I’m eager to sit and pray in those spaces where ordinary people of all ages would show up on work nights and school nights, not only for prayer and study, but for planning sessions and trainings in some of the most effective strategies for social change and (imperial) disruption the world has known. I’m speaking about the spirituality and the methods of non-violent resistance. In his 1967 essay, An Experiment in Love, Martin Luther King Jr. writes: “It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, 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.” Jesus of Nazareth, and also Gandhi of Gujarat, western India. “By the summer of ‘57,” King later wrote, “people who had never heard of the little brown saint of India were saying his name with an air of familiarity…Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.” Christ furnished the spirit, and Gandhi the method. Friends, we’ve been working hard these last weeks. I know many of you have remained vigilant, many of you are showing up to meetings and trainings in church and synagogue and mosque basements. I wouldn’t presume to draw further parallels between now and 1957, nor between us and those black churches in Alabama. I do wonder though— What would it look like for Christ to so furnish us with a sustaining spirit and underlying motivation as we engage and discern a new path of resistance for this moment?

I invite you to grab a pew bible or look on with your neighbor and turn to page 5 to consider our scripture for this morning. This is hard-hitting stuff to read, and even harder to make sense of, especially in these early days of 2017. Maybe it’s because I had an eye exam this week and have new glasses that I’ve struggled to find a central focus in my reading of this text. There is so much here, so much that feels so plain-spoken and near to our daily lived experience, and yet at the same time, seems far out of reach, so impossible to comprehend that Jesus might as well be speaking in some otherworldly language. The demands he makes are profoundly unsettling and perhaps even disorienting. Before we even start to take a closer look, I’ll say right now that I need your help in finishing this reflection. Given the times and given these words, there is something here that begs further conversation and sharing, and perhaps even some of those basement level meetings in order to make the abstract real.

Having said all that, let’s start with that last line of our passage. In some ways, it’s the most problematic for our modern ears to hear and yet it may hold a key for understanding what Jesus is asking of us in the rest of the reading. If you were listening, you’ll know the line I mean already. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” If I could put a little ‘caution’ symbol in the margin of all of our bibles here, I would. To our modern ears, the statement has an almost psychically unhealthy if not traumatic feel to it. Perhaps we heard similar things from a harsh teacher or an overbearing parent. As if we aren’t struggling to keep up already, Jesus, especially with all that turn the other cheek and love your enemies stuff that precedes it. This is where he leaves us? Really? Because this language is so potent, I need to take some extra time to unpack it.

Many living in this culture have inherited an almost unshakable tendency towards perfectionism. It comes in all different shapes and guises. If you disagree with me, check out this definition [from Wikipedia!]: “Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations.” Show of hands, who’s with me in carrying some of this? Ok, maybe not striving for flawlessness, but that basic striving, that holding ourselves or others to high standards, intellectually, artistically, relationally, morally, those God-awful critical self-evaluations and the sometimes paralyzing concerns about being criticized? If nothing else, we all fall prey to occasional day dreams about the perfect body, perfect job, perfect house, perfect family. In our culture almost all of these ideals have racial, gender and heteronormative connotations which can make that striving all the more complex and even toxic! Or consider a more mundane example. The hospitality industry knows the ever-tempting power of our perfectionist tendency, I’m sure of it. Fancy waiters and hotel staff? I swear some are trained to use the word “perfect” as if to project and push the experience of a perfect meal or perfect getaway. Would you like tap or bottled water? “Tap, please.” “Perfect!” Can I get you a cocktail to start? No matter what you choose, it’s “Perfect.” More broadly, how many things these days are sold or pushed our way with a promise of making our lives complete. Yet, therein – in that notion of completeness – lies a key to understanding of how this word was originally used, albeit in a much deeper context.

Ernst Kurst and Katherine Ketchum, in their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, help set the record straight. They say: “The ancients knew something that many moderns, in their pursuit of “a perfect life” have forgotten. A critical error in the history of Western spirituality arises from the out-of-context quotation of words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 48” [That’s our line!] Did you hear that – a critical error? Apparently, there’s been a misreading of this line so profound that it’s warped the spiritual formation of an entire hemisphere of people! Thankfully, Kurst and Ketchum, as well as most contemporary biblical scholars, offer us a corrective lens. The term for perfect is from the Greek teleios, which is better translated as “complete” or “finished” or “whole” or “as one who has integrity”. This is not perfect as in flawless or sinless or failure-free! Sweet relief, right? Taken in the context of the preceding verses, this is about the perfectly complete, perfectly inclusive, perfectly all-embracing love of a heavenly parent God, whose sun we are told rises on the just and unjust alike. It’s “be complete” as in share God’s love fully, with everyone, no exceptions. It’s a call to share God’s love with neighbors and strangers alike, with the just and the unjust alike, with our allies, and yes, amazingly, equally with our enemies, too! What’s more, be complete, as in, be as God made you— a finite creature, yes, with limits, flaws and sins, yes, and as completely worthy of God’s love as everyone and everything else in God’s creation! This is an invitation to see clearly and love fully those imperfect parts of ourselves that we would just as soon want to hate and exile. Similarly, it calls us to love all of those with whom we struggle in the wider world.

Be complete in our love! This is still a tall order, for sure. But it has a built-in antidote of love, God’s big and ever-abiding love, for the shame we may feel whenever we don’t hit the mark. God knows this love takes practice, that it doesn’t just come to us naturally given our sometimes animal-like fight and flight instincts that rise up whenever we encounter threats from our enemies, both from within and all around us. Christ knows this challenge is one of the hardest he’s got, but it’s also the most important.

There’s more from the Sermon on the Mount that I want to revisit briefly, more to equip us and sustain us spiritually as we find our way. Did you catch that puzzling expression in our passage, especially in light of current events? Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil-doer.” Herein lies an invitation to depersonalize our persistent sense of outrage. So often we think of resistance in terms of the good guys vs bad guys, the powerless vs the powerful, the Rebel Alliance vs the Galactic Empire. And, guess what, we just as often think of ourselves as the good guys! Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” You see, a Christ-like spirituality of resistance seeks to depersonalize evil! Those with Jedi and Jesus wisdom know it’s not merely about Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader, that it’s not just about, Jesus vs Caesar nor even about the Jews vs. the Romans. For, as our scripture today somewhat annoyingly reminds us: God’s sun rises on the evil and good alike; God sends rains on the just and the unjust alike. Jesus is here asking us to train our hearts and minds and eyes to see a deeper, cosmic tension between the “Force” and the so called “Dark Side,” between God’s justice and love and human injustice and hatred. Left to our own devices, we will all too easily project images of ourselves as good and others as evil when God knows we are all a mix of both! We need to train our souls to derive hope and power from a conviction that God’s love is infinitely larger than our human categories, infinitely more complete than our endlessly sub-dividing ways. God’s love is always stronger than violence, always more powerful than death and evil’s death-dealing ways!

Jesus also says: Turn the other cheek! How often have we seen the resistance using the same decidedly uncreative weapons of violence to assert a new form of power? Turning the other cheek is not about a victim passively acquiescing to a perpetrator! It’s about stopping the cycle of violence, and choosing instead that “creative weapon of love” as the primary tool of a deeper, decidedly non-violent resistance! There is far more to say about all of these teachings about Jesus, which is why I need your help in finishing this one!

Indeed, can we begin to imagine how and why those early freedom fighters needed all those meetings in church basements and halls? They knew they needed to wrestle with these seemingly impossible ideas for themselves. They knew they needed practice and role plays and dress rehearsals! Can we imagine how much practice it would take for us to engage with evil in ways that disarm it! It’s practically a martial art, an exercise in “moral jujitsu,” as a friend of mine calls it. The alternative, though, is that we get sucked into reactive modes, and without knowing, evil and violence we see in the world starts pulling us into evil and violent thoughts, words and deeds ourselves. We are in desperate need of practice— practice in being complete in our love for ourselves and others. Practice in remaining centered and calm in the face of uncertainty! Practice and patience in going the extra mile, or 53 extra miles, as we will see was the distance between Selma and Montgomery! Practice in being generous of spirit even to those who despise us! We need practice in praying for those who persecute us! If we are to build any real resistance against the evils that are befalling us in the wider world, we must first cultivate and multiply an inner resistance, with strength to fend off our natural tendencies to fight fire with fire, hatred with hatred, violence with violence. Our scripture, our tradition, our prophet teaches us instead to ‘fight fire with water, hatred with love, violence with non-violence.’ Together, we need to learn what it feels like to wield the ‘creative weapon of love,’ to wear that spiritual armor of assurance that God’s with us and God’s got us in all our human fear and frailty.

First Church, I believe that we too need a church-basement level of spiritual grounding for the facing of this hour in our nation’s history. Not just the Sunday morning sanctuary level worship. I’m talking about a more existential kind of sanctuary that is ours to receive and share, and a not just preached but lived “love of enemies” that is ours to wrestle with and practice - through weekday evening meetings, through daily readings of scripture, through shared trainings of our souls and our wills as together we develop a spirituality and a way of being that is grounded in God’s all-embracing love. In fact, for a moment, if you feel the need, why not give yourself a break from worrying about the enemies all around us and start with those who are even closer, start by loving those enemies inside of us – maybe it’s that enemy of our perfectionist tendency that leaves us squirming every time we are called out on our privilege or told that our point of view is not what is needed in a given moment. Let it squirm! Let it squirm in God’s all-embracing love! Let that love bring us into a more whole, more complete version of ourselves. Perhaps then we can imagine our enemies in the world so squirming when faced with a resistance not of our might, or our right but with a resistance of our love and God’s love! I promise there is nothing more powerful, on earth or in heaven!

Friends, maybe you are seeing it all around you already or maybe it will sound surprising to your ears, but God is already at work within us and in the world around us. That’s the good news and the best part that we can all too easily forget. Somewhere within us, God is already praying without ceasing, often in those sighs too deep for words, about which Paul spoke. Somewhere in us, God is already loving us and others completely. This means that God is already leading and guiding us to a new reality, to a next level of resistance! Our enemies are already squirming – can’t you feel it? They are already feeling unsettled, dislodged, disoriented, perhaps even disarmed! The deep resistance of God’s love vs human power is real. God’s love is working! And its on us to bring our perfectly complete, perfectly capable, perfectly loved-by-God hearts to the task, and to start building such a spirituality and strategy of resistance from the basement level on up! Amen.